e-letter 03/29/19

“This is the time of tension between dying and birth.” T. S. Eliot “Ash Wednesday”

I came across these words from Eliot this week in a Lenten devotional book that I find myself turning to every year during Lent. They struck me this week in part because of the work I’m currently doing on the message for this Sunday’s message which is focused on the words of Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3:1-17. In it, Jesus talks a great deal about the idea of birth and being born both “again” and “from above”. I’ll say more about the two-fold nature of that birth on Sunday.
It also caught my attention because it is the nature of the season of Lent to attend to the question of what must die, what we must let go of, how we need to be emptied, in order to create space in our lives for new life or new birth. That idea brings to mind the words of Jesus in John 12, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)


Wendy M. Wright, in the book, “The Rising” describes Lent this way: “The forty days of Lent celebrate the dismembering, disequilibrium, and dying that are preludes to the creative transformation of Eastertide. It is the season of being changed and emptied so that new life might come to birth in us and resurrection be found in us as well.” (“The Rising” p. 17)


Most of us are drawn to the idea of new birth. It is why I love spring and the tender, fresh green leaves that begin to adorn the few trees here in Florida that lose their leaves in the winter. Even with our mild winters, I still feel my heart lighten at the sights and sounds of spring, few though they may be.


But birth comes at a cost. In the world of nature, the leaves of trees had to first fall away. The flowers had to lay dormant for a time. The pregnant mother must suffer the real and gritty pain and mess of childbirth before she can welcome the precious gift new life. There is no birth without the time of tension, between dying and birth.


This year, as a part of my Lenten journey, I’ve chosen to practice what is called a Wesley fast, once a week. It is basically a fast from sunrise to sundown. I chose this discipline because 1. I stink at fasting and it is always a challenge for me and 2. I don’t often fast, but when I do, I always learn a great deal about God, about my relationship with Christ and about myself. What I learn is usually not pretty. I find that when I am literally, physically empty, I can see things about myself that I don’t otherwise see. Things that I need to confess and repent. Things that I need the Holy Spirit to help me to change. Often those things center on my struggle to live more fully for others, to think more often about others and their needs before my own.


That issue surfaced in a new way for me last week. It was my fast day and by lunchtime, I was hungry; not life and death hungry but hungry. And I realized something. I’m not literally, physically hungry that often. When I am hungry, I simply walk to the refrigerator, or the pantry, or if I’m at work, I open my desk drawer where I stash snacks and eat something. If that isn’t enough, I simply get in my car and go get something to eat. It’s so easy for me to satisfy my hunger.


I then I thought about two things. First, I realized how hard it is for me to endure something as simple as a growling stomach, when Jesus, my Savior and Lord, suffered such hideous torment and pain on the cross as an act of self–giving love for me and for the world. Hmmm. I’m still pondering that.


Second, it hit me that there are people, children in particular, in this community and around the world, who live with the real, physical pain of hunger every day.  And honestly, I don’t think about that very often. And that is a problem. I think it is a problem that I’m so full, I’m so self-satisfied and self-focused that I don’t often think about those who rarely if ever have enough to eat, those who go to bed hungry day after day.


That is why I need Lent. That is why I’m fasting this year. Not because I’m some great, super spiritual person. It’s just the opposite. I need Lent because I’m a mess like everyone else. And I need to get empty sometimes so I can see my mess for what it is so I can again say to God, “Ok, I need you to help me deal with this.” I need to be forgiven, I need to be remade, I need to be transformed so that I can be more aware and care more about the needs of others than about when I can satisfy my next, ridiculous, self-serving taco craving.


We are midway through the Lenten season and I ask you, “How are you being emptied, being changed so that new life might come to birth in you? What are you learning about God, about your relationship with Christ, about yourself during these days? Where are you feeling the tension between dying and birth?


One change I’m making in response to my experience with hunger last week is that I signed up to support a child through an international mission organization called Zoe that is dedicated to breaking the cycle of extreme poverty around the world. This organization does this by empowering orphans and vulnerable children to become entrepreneurs who are socially, economically and spiritually strong who in turn can transform entire communities. I’ve been interested in the work of Zoe for some time. This seemed like a good time to turn that interest into commitment.


We are on a journey towards new life, new birth, new hope, new healing. But the journey towards life always goes through some type of death, some letting go, some self-emptying. For Jesus the journey went through the cross so that we might have life, joyful, abundant, eternal.
This week in worship we will be thinking about the cross of Christ as the doorway to new life. I encourage you to read John 3:1-17 in preparation for worship and come prepared to have Jesus get into the details of the mess in your life so that you may be fully restored.


Grace and Peace,