"Graceland" is the name of my favorite song and album. It's by Paul Simon, but more importantly, it's what "home" sounds and feels like to me. We always listened to this album as we traveled from my home in Tennessee to my parents' childhood homes in Florida. But today, it's also a pretty good snapshot of my theology. Somewhere I really believe that the Christian journey is all about a wild trip to Grace-land. As I see it, Grace-land is the place where God is waiting to meet even us–with all the baggage and brokeness that we tote with us. Grace-land is the place where we will be received with open arms, even though our attempts at “getting it right” have been miserable failures at best. But, I think, every step we take is a step on the journey to Graceland.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Go out in life...

I know what I was supposed to say.  Because when the church calendar announces that it's Ash Wednesday, we all hop to.  We talk about sin and mortality and being made clean.  We say that we're going to sit in somber sobriety for the next six weeks, and that nary an "alleluia!" will cross our lips.  I mean, it's the least we can do... you know, since Jesus died for us.  The least we can do is do a little dying ourselves.

I have to admit I've struggled with Lent the last few years.  Last year, I said the right words.  I purely wept as I marked my congregation with ashes.  And then I wrote this manifesto.  This year, my brain and heart had a mutiny. The more I sat down and tried to write the words, the less I found that anything at all would come out.  I had a pretty little temper tantrum in my office.  Because no matter what the church calendar said, the words from Ecclesiastes rattled around in my head "To everything there is a season."  And while we might be out of sync with the rest of the church, I realized that we are not in a season where it is right our good for us to mourn or weep or ponder our brokenness too deeply.  We've had a tough year, and we're not out of the desert yet.  We're in a season where our words will be "Behold, I'm doing a new thing.  The former things will not be remembered." And our words will be "Do not be afraid."

So I forewent the usual Psalm 51, and anything else that smacked of what I was "supposed" to say.  And instead I lifted up for them Isaiah 61.  Before they came for ashes, I told them that I was marking them as a sign of life, not as a sign of death. As a sign of love, not one of condemnation.  And then as each lifted their forhead to me, I said the ancient words, but with something else.  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  But go out in life."  Our eyes met, and every single one had the same response.  A weight lifted-- visibly.  And then a smile, mine then theirs.  Theirs then mine.  And before it was all over, we all smiled.

As the service came to a close, I said this. "Your bulletin says you should go out in silence, but for the  LOVE of God, please don't do that.  Please go out telling the good news, dancing for joy, and singing the loudest song of thanksgiving you know."

I realized what I should've added was "After all, what good is a Christian who has no alleluia to offer the world?"

It was a holy night.  A night when we traded our ashes of mourning and grief and anxiety and questions for a garland of beauty. A night when we together remembered what it is to be loved, and reclaimed our calling as people meant to shine.

Here's my Ash Wednesday meditation for those that have asked.
It’s not like Lent exactly snuck up on me.  I’ve had a year-ish, for pete’s sake.  But my brain isn’t ready for Lent-- and I think it’s having a mutiny.  Not in a forgetful way, but in a refusal to write the words way. Because what I’m supposed to say tonight is “Remember that you are mortal.  That you are broken and sinful.  That your body will die and it will be returned to the ground, Ashes to Ashes dust to dust.  That you should spent the next six weeks in somber reflection of that fact. That you should not say Alleluia, that we should not have flowers in the sanctuary.”  That’s what I’m supposed to say.

But every time I start to write it, I find that I am unable. And the more I pray about making those words come out of my mouth, and the less they still come out, I’m wondering if those are really the words I’m really supposed to say, or if they’re just words tradition says I’m supposed to say. Because every time I start to pray the Ash Wednesday words, the words that spring to my head are “Behold, I am doing a new thing.”  Maybe that’s the ashes part.  Because ashes are the most fertile thing for life.  A few years ago, when I worked at the children’s home, one of our children (out of anger) burned down one of the cottages.  But before we had gotten the building razed, there were flowers that started springing up. Beautiful, bold, alive flowers... right there in the place of burned decay.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

And as I look out (and as I thought about each of you tonight), I know that you’ve stood in Ashes more than you should.  I know that you’re worried and anxious and grieving and remembering simpler times. 

We’re like this teapot.  Everytime I walk by it, I remind myself to polish it.  And I tell myself that who ever made that teapot wouldn’t be so thrilled to see it that way.  Heartbroken maybe. Because I’d guess that teapot was meant to be a lovely piece, that was tea between friends, that was a cup of warmth at a holiday gathering, that was the mark of true and genuine hospitality.  But since that tea pot came to my house, that’s not been it’s life.  It sits there on a lonely shelf, neglected in a room that I rarely enter anymore.  It’s badly tarnished.  It’s a tragic thing I think when something of beauty isn’t beautiful anymore.  This teapot was meant to shine.

I think maybe we get tarnished too-- though it isn’t so obvious as my poor teapot.  But don’t we get tarnished when we’re weighed down by worry and concern? Don’t we get tarnished when we’ve lost the notion that the gospel is the Good News promise of amazing love? Don’t we get tarnished when we keep it to ourselves? 

So, the more I think about it, the less I’m willing to tell you to spend the next six weeks thinking about your sin, and focusing on what you’ve done wrong. I’m unwilling to tell you that it’s proper to give up things in the name of Jesus.  Because the truth is that Jesus died for you, but he died so that you might have life and have it more abundantly than you’ve ever known.  Jesus did not die so that you or the church could sit in the ashes.  Jesus died so that you might know grace, because the problem of being a human being is that we’re all broken and incapable of getting it right.  So why would we talk about sin, except so that we can talk about grace?

Here’s my proposition for you for Lent.  If you’re really feeling called to give up something, do.  If you’re really called to take on acts of service, do. That’s fine and good. But I’d like to invite you into a very different spiritual discipline for the next six weeks.  Warning: it may not be any easier than giving things up. It will require discipline.  My invitation to you is to spend the next six weeks shining.

Whatever it is that is tarnishing you, let it go.  Let it go, let it go, let it go. And instead, shine. We shine when we are joyful from the inside out, shine when our trust is unshakable because of the one it is in whom we trust. We shine when we love, even when it is hard or inconvenient.  We shine when we tell the story.  We shine when we invite people in-- meeting them where they are, not where we want them to be. 

So.  Shine.  This (hold up cup) is who you are meant to be.

These are the words I leave you with: 
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,    and the day of vengeance of our God;    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.