Lent

A Lenten Reflection on 'The Least of These'

Mental health illustration, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

Mental health illustration, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

As a seminary graduate and a Masters of Social Work student, I have a passion for social justice and working to improve the wellbeing and health of vulnerable populations. After seminary, during my time as a youth leader, we often turned to Matthew 25:31-46, the familiar passage about “the least of these,” and discussed God’s emphasis on justice and serving the marginalized in our societies.

My time as a social work student, particularly through my current class on international social work, has expanded my concept of the “least of these.” We have learned about some of the most vulnerable populations around the world – child soldiers in Uganda and Colombia, young girls trafficked into the sex trade in Cambodia, HIV/AIDS patients from Haiti, migrants left to die in the desert while trying to cross the Mexican-U.S. border, and the list continues. These concepts were not completely unknown to me and would likely not be new to you either. This past week, however, we studied a different topic, one that has not drawn as much media attention – global mental health.

After Giving Up Religion, Atheists Try Giving Up Something Else for Lent

What would an “atheist Lent” look like? A group of young nonbelievers are finding out, observing the Christian practice minus its religious context.

They have given up alcohol, animal products, and various Internet and cellphone interactions. One has vowed to make a daily Lenten practice of telling those he encounters how important they are to him.

But their observance of the 40-day period in which many Christians abstain from worldly desires in a bid to come closer to God has upset some atheists who say borrowing religious traditions is antithetical to nontheism.

The exercise has also illustrated a divide in the nontheist community –  between older atheists who see religion as inherently evil and younger atheists who are more open to interactions with religious belief.

... And Every Tongue Confess

Scripture passage, Anastazzo / Shutterstock.com

Scripture passage, Anastazzo / Shutterstock.com

I am part of a liturgically worshiping tradition. There are days I wish I wasn’t; days when our Kyrie is lacking splendor and our Eleison feels redundant; moments that I wish we could get to the important stuff — my inspired and infallible message (I kid) — and toss the unending Psalm or Prayers of the Church.

And then there are the other times, when I am guiltily reminded that cutting the creed means missing out on the same words spoken by millions of believers before me. Or when the music just all works and my heart is stirred by the Hallelu– (shhh, its Lent) Chorus. 

So I like to remind my community of believers from time to time why we do what we do. I have long felt the risk of liturgy is that it becomes rote narration, a thoughtless speechifying of sorts. So that this might be avoided, here are my thoughts on the creeds and why a corporate confession of faith is still valuable today. 

The Juxtaposition of Death and Life, or Church on a Bike

Girl riding a bike, Michal Durinik / Shutterstock.com

Girl riding a bike, Michal Durinik / Shutterstock.com

“What? What happened?” My co-worker asked, sensing the solemn look on my face.
“Another patient died,” I reported. Grief and thick silence hang in the air as I thought back to the last time I saw this person, hospitalized, unable to speak, but for a brief moment our hands met in an embrace, and although he couldn’t speak, his demeanor and soft touch of the hand said it all.

I brought myself back to the present moment. It was the end of the work day and I strapped on my helmet to bike home, a Lenten commitment I’ve found to be incredibly rejuvenating.

I pedal past the housing projects and turn the corner around the city jail. Activists holding bright colored placards protest peacefully against the death penalty. I smile at them. “Keep up the good work!” I enthuse, giving them a thumbs up from my navy blue mitten and pedal on my way.
A second later, it hits me. Tears rush to my eyes but refuse to come out. The taut muscles in my throat contract; that familiar lump in which no words can come out, just expressions of the heart. Yes, it hit me.The juxtaposition and irony of it all. Life and death. One man died today from four letters that no one should ever have to die from, but globally, some 1.8 million do every year. Another man protested for the life of another to not be cut short before the redemption and healing and forgiveness began.

From Lent To Love: From Your Friendly Neighborhood Troubadour

Guitar player, Markku Vitikainen / Shutterstock.com

Guitar player, Markku Vitikainen / Shutterstock.com

More than once I’ve been referred to as a modern-day Troubadour. I’ve always liked this designation because it has a romantic, archaic ring to it that sounds just a little bit more flattering than mere singer/songwriter, naturally appealing to my vanity. But it once occurred to me that I wasn’t entirely sure of its meaning and thought I should look it up.

Not surprisingly,  I discovered the word to have various historical uses and nuances. But the definition that intrigued me most, and which I recognize as fairly accurate of my own sense of calling and vocation is this:

Troubadour:
a lyric poet sent by one (usually of the King’s court)
with a message of chaste love to another.

Well … there you go. Just two weeks ago (on Valentines Day) I posted a song and message of chaste love in a blog. In it, I celebrated 30 years of marriage to my wife Nanci; a union that has resulted in three beloved (now adult) children, their own unions to beloved others, two grandchildren, and a deeply meaningful, long-term foster relationship with a young woman and her beautiful children who, in fact, are coming over for dinner tonight. I can’t wait.

Although not every chaste union strives to produce offspring, Fr. Gabrielle of St. Magdalen, in his meditative devotional Divine Intimacy, teaches that the highest glory of the chaste union is in it’s potential to become a willing “collaborator with God in the transmission of life.” That is: a relationship that is materially fecund; suggesting a dark, loamy richness capable of concealing and safeguarding a vulnerable seed, and providing a nutrient-rich soil from which it can spring to it’s own leafy uniqueness. It’s a lovely image.

Ironically, what struck me this morning is that Valentines Day is celebrated at the very onset of the season of Lent. And Lent, in contradistinction to Valentines, is essentially a season where the Christian “faithful” penitently consider the devastating disaster that is  infidelity — particularly, infidelity to God, and by extension, to all that God is in faithful relationship to.

Waiting for God in the Dark Night of the Soul: On Peter Rollins' Atheism for Lent

Peter Rollins, via theexileinny / Flickr.

Peter Rollins, via theexileinny / Flickr.

I love Peter Rollins' honesty about his dark night of the soul.

He's popularized a term for the intellectual position accompanying the dark night of the soul: a/theism. I interpret Peter's thought as being in relation to an experience of God's absence. [Note: corrected this paragraph's content from "even coined" to "popularized. Turns out another author coined a/theism."]

I thought it was hilarious that Tony Jones challenged Peter to give up atheism for Lent on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast.

But I took it seriously when Micah Bales, one of my best friends, wrote a post challenging Peter Rollins' Atheism for Lent. You can't give up God because God is a felt presence. (Peter later responded to Micah. And Brian Merritt a piece about who Micah is.) Our conversations got me thinking about what I value about Peter Rollin's voice and what I might challenge about a/theism as I understand it. In order to talk about why a person believes or disbelieves in God, you have to talk about a personal spiritual journey.

A Lenten Commitment to Give Up the Fear of Failure

Desolate landscape, Phil MacD Photography / Shutterstock.com

Desolate landscape, Phil MacD Photography / Shutterstock.com

If one were to conduct a nationwide survey to learn the most common human fears, it is safe to conclude thatfailure would be near the top of the list. Due in part to the high value that North American society places upon success and achievement, we recognize through the twists and turns of daily life that everyone has – in some shape or form – firsthand experience of the fear of failure. We fret over falling short, we agonize about disappointment, and we even lose sleep from the potential shame of letting others down.

What if we, as a Lenten discipline, make a commitment to give up the fear of failure — for such fears are too often personally devastating and publicly debilitating if left ignored or unresolved?

The Art of Slowing Down (And The Wisdom of Louis Armstrong)

Sunset, Beth Van Trees / Shutterstock.com

Sunset, Beth Van Trees / Shutterstock.com

I’ve often heard that Lent is a season of slowing down. Of drawing closer to God, to others, to the wide open world around us. A time for spiritual reflection and inner examination. An opportunity to go a little deeper in trying to figure out Jesus. A time to pause. A time for simplicity.

This Lent, I decided to get back into biking to and from work (in addition to cold showers and placing a penny in the “Suck it Up or Shut Up” jar each time I catch myself complaining). 

When I moved across town in June, I said I’d bike once I found a good route, but I weaseled my way out of it for reasons such as having to bike through some sketchy areas by myself, something I was a bit fearful of.

Now a few days into it, I’ve found a route and a rhythm. I got off to a rough start the first day of Lent, biking home drenched by the down-pouring rain. Two cars didn’t see me, causing me slam on the brakes, skidding in the middle of an intersection. Cars passing by splashed water up against me like a small ocean wave. It was cold. It was dark. And I kept making wrong turns, making my time in the rain even longer. I had a “shake your fist at God” moment, muttering things that warranted pennies in the jar, and then managed to put my sopping wet hand back on the handlebar. I thought about the journey that women in Africa make to and from water wells and firewood piles on a daily basis, often risking the possibility of getting raped just to gather these essentials for their families. Surely, I didn’t have it so bad.

And most of us don’t.

'Memento Mori' and Living Today to the Fullest

Crucifixion image, Heather A. Craig / Shutterstock.com

Crucifixion image, Heather A. Craig / Shutterstock.com

I awoke in the middle of the night last evening and walked the house in the dark. Kenneth and Caitlin were still stirring, as the older children sometimes do on the weekend. As I climbed the stairs back to our room I felt a wave of gratitude.

Here we are all under one roof for who knows how much longer, yet such a privilege to still be together even as four of seven attend college and work hard and make us proud as they figure out what's next.

I got back into bed and Debbie put her arm around me in her sleep. I said "I love you," and she whispered, half-asleep "I love you, too," and for that moment all was well, and I had a sense that all would be well in the future, come what may.

As I lay there in the stillness, an encounter from five years ago came back to me in vivid color. I had just preached the funeral of a man taken unexpectedly following a routine surgery. I was at the wake afterward and sat next to an unassuming man in his mid-50s whose suit was impeccable and whose polite manners suggested a quiet grace and a bearing of humility in his obvious accomplishments, but also a bit of world-weariness.

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