Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Over the past week, much of our attention has been focused on the Olympic games in Vancouver. Feats of strength, grace, speed, agility and engineering have been placed on a stage for all the world to see. And for the most part, we are awed and amazed at the athletes’ abilities; their precision, their nerves, their endurance. But I would like you to consider for a moment the path by which those amazing athletes arrived there.

With very little exception, these athletes have been training for decades for this moment. They might only get one shot at their event, but they have prepared for that moment. A great athlete is not made in the one performance, but in the countless hours over the many years of practice. How many leaps have skaters practiced? How many hills have skiers zoomed down? How many stones have curlers thrown? And of course, how often have they learned their lessons with their very body? Falls, bruises, concussions, all are part of it. But some of their greatest lessons happen when they fail. The great ones turn those failures into a vehicle for later victory.

I would argue that for Christians, as for world-class athletes, there is not much difference. The early church theologian Tertullian was quoted as saying, “Christians are made, not born.” While we rely on the Father’s activity in Christ through the power of the Spirit to mark and identify us as children of God in the waters of baptism, our lives of faith are not complete then and there. We require training and discipline. Thankfully God has given us many ways to be schooled in Christian virtue that we may be formed into Christ’s image to lead lives of holiness and righteousness. In Mark 13:11, Jesus tells his followers, “When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” While we might be worried that our whole witness to God might come down to one spontaneous moment. We need not fear. The Holy Spirit can be working ahead of time to prepare us for that moment. Our lives can be lives that prepare for those moments when the Holy Spirit calls upon us.

In Lent we are given an opportunity for intense discipline, not primarily meant to punish or deprive, but to prepare. Christ’s time in the wilderness fasting was not a weakening but a means of strength and preparation. We too can enter into the ways that God gives us— repentance, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, works of mercy—that we may be formed into the people that we are called to be. And much of our time in Lent is spent contemplating the deep brokenness we make known in our lives, the ways we do not measure up to the people we are called to be, the ways we have chosen less than what God chose for us, the ways we have turned inward to focus on ourselves for our own benefit. In Lent we may turn toward God, away from our self, and enter into this discipline and preparation. The words of exhortation spoken by Christ we hear anew as words of grace and transformation.

Lent is a gift. A gift to see ourselves as God sees us, fallen creatures who might be redeemed to be a people who bring forth his glory. We can begin to grasp the transformation that is beginning to mold us. It begins with God’s words of grace to us, and continues in the repentance and prayer, in the discipline of this season.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stark Reminders...

A few years ago, probably during my second Ash Wednesday service, but it might have been my first, as presider, I was a little shocked when a boy in the congregation came forward to receive ashes. He was probably in second grade or thereabouts. As I smeared those black sooty ashes upon his forehead, reciting the ominous reminder, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return," I found grief welling up in my throat. Death, unnatural death, came close. Here I was telling an eight-year old boy, "Remember son, you will die." It was unexpected and full of emotion.

Telling children that they are going to die has become easier. I even managed to tell my own son, six years old, those very words last night. But yesterday I also had adults who are wrestling with death in a very real way. A spouse of a member came forward to receive ashes. He had just recently receied word of a very serious cancer in his body. I wondered at how useful it was for him to hear, "Remember that you are dust and to dust your shall return." Another member told me of having a biopsy scheduled for today. The reality of death draws near. This news of biopsies and PET scans are stark reminders that in our broken world, even our bodies rebel against us. Perhaps they serve as starker reminders than the ashen smudge on our foreheads. Are they even necessary?

But those ashes serve an even starker reminder. They are not applied as mere smudges. They follow the same pattern as an earlier anointing. Those ashes are imposed on our foreheads in cruciform manner. Even in the midst of death, there is no need for despair. Cancer spreads? Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. And Christ is there, promising new life to those he has chosen. All of the ways that we die and are isolated from neighbor and God are made clear on Ash Wednesday, but they are not stronger than God's intentions for us. These ashes are indeed a stark reminder for us. But mainly they should be a stark reminder of God's love for us, a love that is meant to bring about a new life in the Kingdom.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Science Fiction, Fantasy and Amateur Theologians

First, I looked at my blog and realized that I haven't posted anything since the Wednesday after the second Sunday in Advent. What a schlub! I could blame it on the rush of Christmas, the death of my grandfather, my vacation, the computer travails that continue to plague me... but I won't. (Or DID I do just that?!?! hmmm.... ;) )

Anyway, today thanks to SFSignal, I listened to an interesting podcast interview at The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy over at Tor.com. The hosts,John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley, were talking with Cherie Priest. They were really ranging all over the place. But there was a good deal of discussion, not just of zombies and steam punk, but of religion. Cherie Priest, raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, which she describes, admittedly exaggerated, as an "eschatological cult." What was interesting to listen to was her own journey through the parochial world of Christian schools, and then the Goth sub-culture, and her own coming to peace with religion. Clearly religion has had a profound influence on her, both positively and negatively. Clearly she has wrestled with the institutional aspect of Christianity, and the nature of certainty in the beliefs we each hold to be sacred.

She recounted the conversation she had with both her mother and father on "How do we know that what we believe is true in opposition to all others?" The two responses were very different but typical. Her mother's response was "Because the Bible says so..." Her father's was "Well, we don't." I don't find it a surprise at all then that Cherie Priest (I find the last name highly ironic) ends up writing science fiction and fantasy of a dark morbid type. What better venue to wrestle with the questions of our time by placing them in a foreign context and shining a light on them so that here and now we might find some clarity. It is not all that different from writing apocalyptic literature to criticize a current regime. Dark foreboding images and secret codes and a literal battle between light and darkness... everything set in a strange land so everyone is kept off-guard and thus perhaps open to hear criticism aimed at them.

A fascinating interview whether one agress with her or not... I am however left with the question? How shall one reframe the gospel for such a person? Not change the content, but reframe the discussion to begin to address the questions people such as Cherie, highly educated, deeply skeptical, will raise? And how do we include them in the conversation so that the church might hear what is needed to be heard from voices such as these?

I found this interview incredibly provocative.