I usually try to share my words from the pulpit. Here’s what I shared Sunday at Dover-Foxcroft United Methodist Church.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
There is no biblical mandate for the observance of Lent, although we learned a few weeks back the model is in commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert before beginning His public ministry, during which He endured temptation by Satan.
It reminded me of a story – I have many – about this Lenten observance. And coming from a Catholic background, I can relate. Fridays and fish just sort of go together.
John Smith was the only Protestant to move into a large Catholic neighborhood. On the first Friday of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak on his grill. Meanwhile, all of his neighbors were eating cold tuna fish for supper. This went on each Friday of Lent.
On the last Friday of Lent, the neighborhood men got together and decided something had to be done about John. He was tempting them to eat meat each Friday of Lent, and they couldn’t take it anymore. They decided to try and convert John to Catholicism. They went over and talked to him. John decided to join all of his neighbors and become a Catholic, which made them all very happy.
They took him to church, and the priest sprinkled some water over him, and said , “You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist, and now you are a Catholic.”
The men were so relieved. Now their biggest Lenten temptation was resolved.
The next year’s Lenten season rolled around. The first Friday of Lent came, and, just at supper time when the neighborhood was settling down to their cold tuna fish dinner, the smell of steak cooking on a grill came wafting into their homes. The neighborhood men could not believe their noses! WHAT WAS GOING ON?
They called each other up and decided to meet over in John’s yard to see if he had forgotten it was the first Friday of Lent. They arrived just in time to see John standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water. He was sprinkling some water over his steak on the grill, saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, and now you are a fish.”
Seriously, this whole Lenten observance was first established in the church in the 800s as a way to persuade Christians of the day to set aside some time for reflection on the upcoming tridiuum — Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday — reflection, repentance, self denial and prayer. I’m going to try and touch on those four thoughts — reflection, repentance, self denial and prayer.
We all have a purpose. Often, we don’t know what that purpose is or at least, recognize it. But we all have a purpose … something that makes us us, creations of God.
You see, it’s not really our purpose. It’s God’s purpose for us. That’s what we don’t quite understand. He has put us in our circumstances for a reason … perhaps to witness to someone or receive witnessing from someone … perhaps to slow us down or speed us up … perhaps to let us grow or help someone else grow. He has a purpose for us, right here, right now.
I’ll be honest, when I was younger — much younger — I didn’t realize what my purpose — His purpose — was. I generally went through the motions plying my trade and connecting with my little circle of family and friends.
But I’ve learned to recognize there is a greater purpose in play. All the good times, all the bad times, all the laughter, all the tears were designed to hone my spirit into recognizing His purpose for my life.
I still don’t always get it right. I sometimes get the “my” and “His” mixed up, but as I’ve aged, I have come to realize everything I do impacts someone else. Everything I say impacts others. Everything I write touches others — often unknown to me.
It’s our responsibility to use the talents we are given — the talents. There is no job too small done right that doesn’t honor our God.
It’s not just our jobs. It’s our purpose. It’s His purpose. And it isn’t just our work or career. It’s our relationships. It’s how we deal with other people … those we love and those we aren’t quite as fond of.
It’s taken me a while to realize that. We’re all interconnected. Everyone we meet — in person or through the virtual media — is a fellow journeyman (or woman) on this walk through life. We touch each other in ways we can’t imagine. They touch us the same way. We share ideas (or reject ideas) and our personalities shine through. Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s not our personality. It’s the personality forged by the strengths and the weaknesses and the smiles and the tears God has given us.
Be unique. Shine. But also reflect on the thought our mission, our purpose, after all, is to reflect the work of our Creator. It’s not to forge our own path for our glory. It’s to forge a path for His glory.
That, of course, is step one. Step two is change or repentance. As we’re pondering what we do — or don’t do — in our spiritual/communal lives, we must take action. As we become more in tune with God’s plan in us, we have to take the steps to assure we’re marching to the same beat as our Lord.
Let me give you an example. In my wildest imagination, I never would have thought I would be on this side of the pulpit. My faith was a private faith — a one-on-one with the Lord. Sure, I would join in communal events like church, but my solace was knowing I could come to the Lord as a friend any time any where. Faith was incredibly personal.
My wife Karen and I came to “faith” from different paths. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t trust in the Lord with all my heart. I made that commitment formally when I received confirmation way back in grade school. At that time, I pledged my heart and soul to the Lord.
Karen’s journey was a little different. While she, too, was raised in the church as a youngster, it wasn’t until March of 1977 when she fully understood and accepted the Lord as her personal Savior.
I traveled the traditional path. Karen enjoyed a rebirth. I focused on the Old Testament as a foundation for the New Testament. Karen reveled in the New Testament as a fulfillment of the Old Testament. I was more comfortable with orthodoxy and hymns. Karen enjoyed good worship music and energized services. I had an exclusive personal relationship with the Lord. Karen was more inclusive. I wasn’t comfortable sharing my faith. Karen was quite comfortable sharing her faith. I was reluctant to lead prayer. Karen was open and willing to lead prayer.
From these two divergent views, we came together with a common purpose. Karen introduced me to contemporary Christian music. I taught her how to discern matters of faith. Karen opened my world to diversity and evangelism. I drew her into a deeper personal relationship with the Lord. Karen showed me how to share my faith. I showed her how to live her faith.
She was supportive as I embarked in my ministry in the Catholic press and behind me all the way when I was became an elder at Tyre Reformed Church in New York, jokingly referring to me as “Pastor Joe” when I delivered my first sermon. I encouraged her to start Manna, a Christian-based publication in Illinois, and pushed her — without too much resistance — into being active in the church. We were Eucharistic ministers at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Ohio and prayer partners for each other throughout the years.
I do remember a “discussion” we had shortly after Karen was “reborn.” We were at a crossroads … she was attending a more Pentecostal church while I was going to the Catholic chapel at the local hospital. Our finances were unraveling. Our 8% ARM was adjusted up the maximum 2%. We got into a terrible argument about something I don’t even remember. I flew out of the house and peeled out, spending the next few hours at the park in Belvidere, IL, just reflecting.
When I got back home, ready and willing to apologize, I was greeted with “Do you feel like a man, now?” referring to my rubber-burning departure. The apology went out the window as I simple said, “No,” and went to bed.
The next couple of days were strained to say the least. That weekend she went off to her church and I went off to mine. When we got back I said, “We have to talk about this.” She said, “Yes, we do.”
So we set aside the time to just talk. Neither one of us could remember what sparked the original argument. Instead, the conversation quickly turned to our faith journeys.
I told her I was uncomfortable with her church which, to me, was too Pentecostal and had some questionable doctrines. I liked the pastor and the people, but its doctrine seemed too divisive. The church seemed too willing to separate the sheep and to cast non-members as non-believers who should be avoided … even if they were spouses. Karen wanted to be baptized again at that church. I told her I wouldn’t stand in her way, but before she made that decision, she should pray on it and check out its doctrines, especially concerning speaking in tongues as a prerequisite for believers. Just because the pastor says something doesn’t make it true.
She told me she wasn’t comfortable in a Catholic church. “All you do is stand up, sit down, kneel down, stand up,” she noted. “There’s no worship, no songs of praise. Even during the sermons, rarely do you hear a priest talk about Scripture or the plan of salvation. It’s the same thing, over and over. And when was the last time you saw a Catholic with a Bible? They don’t even bring them to church.”
The debate lingered … and it was a debate, not an argument. My defense was simply my faith was in Jesus Christ; I believed Jesus Christ was the promised Savior; He became man and died to free my personal sins; through Jesus Christ I was assured salvation. My religion was an extension of that faith.
But she pressed me further and asked if I was a Christian (remember, she had been “reborn” just a few months back). I answered a resounding “Yes!” but I was actually taken aback. How could this baby in faith question me … who had walked the walk for years? In retrospect, I acted like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.
“I thought so,” she replied. “But I never was sure.”
It was sobering moment for me. I guess I may have walked the walk, but I certainly didn’t share that walk, especially with Karen.
But the discussion became an opportunity for us to get on the same faith page. We both learned — sometimes to our regret — congregations can become so wrapped up in the form of faith, they forget the substance of faith. Going to church becomes an obligation rather than the celebration it was intended to be … a celebration of praise and thanksgiving to our Father for the gift of His Son through the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives … a celebration of repentance for our transgressions against God and our fellow man … a celebration of prayer and fellowship with others and ourselves … a celebration of our faith as told through Scripture … a celebration of our victory in Jesus Christ through the actuality of Eucharist.
Karen taught me those truths.
Next is self-denial. During this time, it’s traditional to “give up” something — like chocolate, candy or ice cream as a kid (or as an adult). As we matured, it may have been “doing” something like extra devotional reading.
But it brings to mind an incident in my freshman year in high school. After the obligatory Ash Wednesday service, we returned to our classes. In Religion, Father Francis asked us what we were giving up for Lent. We went around the room — there were only about 15 of us — and dutifully shared our Lenten sacrifices. “Hmm,” he said as he walked back to the chalkboard. Then, completely unexpected, he flicked his pointer with full force on the chalkboard, the sound reverberating through the old mill turned schoolhouse. He pivoted around and said simply, “Why?”
Well we were moronic freshmen. We didn’t have a clue. We sort of looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders.
“If you don’t know why,” he continued, “why do it at all?”
I supposed there were some in the classroom — I’m not pointing out who (pointing to myself) — who took that as a Lenten ritual pass.
But, seriously, he was right on. Often we do things or don’t do things only because that is what is expected. It becomes rote. It becomes routine. And the intent becomes blurred and eventually disappears.
That’s the danger we face. We don’t look at the whys anymore. We don’t challenge ourselves. Take the time this season to look for those answers. We’re not getting into heaven because we gave up chocolate for Lent. We’re giving up chocolate for Lent to recognize what Jesus gave up just by coming here to save us and allowing a portal back into heaven. Ponder that over the next few weeks.
Of course, our Lord was always in prayer. He was always cognizant of His Father and His Father’s will. And, yes, He didn’t particularly welcome the trials and tribulations He would have to endure during His ministry, but He turned it over to the Father. Thy will be done.
One television program my Karen and I generally tried to watch was Touched By An Angel. It’s nice to think we’re touched by angels and in the span of 47 minutes lives can be turned around. But angels are another topic. What I’m going for here is the transformation process found for our saved soul.
More often than not, at some point in the show that soul she is trying to save tells Monica to tell God to butt out. “Where has God been?” might be the question. Whenever that point in the show arrives, I’m always reminded of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life when he gets popped in the mouth after praying.
You know, I think sometimes God must get bored up there in heaven. I know I would, listening to the same old rhetoric over and over … words spilling from the lips, rote-style. “Heavenly Father this …” or “gracious God that …”
I think prayer is something else. It’s communication. It’s simply talking with God … from the heart, not the mind, from the soul, not the lips. Sometimes it’s just being in His presence without any words.
I’ve always had an open line to God. I’m not a “formal” pray-er. In the middle of a traffic jam or when in the solitude of my distress I might internally or externally scream out at God. “What the heck is going on?” I might cry, perhaps not that sedately. I can talk with God one-on-one like a friend … and I know God speaks to me as a friend. And we all know how caustic and sometimes blunt a true friend can be, cutting through all the garbage in our lives and touching our very souls.
I said it before and I’ll say it again. This week, stop praying.
Well, that got some attention. In fact, after preaching here before, I was speaking with a woman about the sermon. She said she enjoyed it. I asked her what was her take on it. With a big smile on her face and an arm on my shoulder, she said, “You told me to stop praying.”
And I was invited back!
But I was serious. Stop praying … and start talking to God from your heart. The heart is our emotional fountain. Let God know your emotions. He knows them anyway. He knows our heart. He knows our motives. He knows the truth … better than we do. Don’t masquerade your emotions with platitudes. If you’re angry with God, let Him know. But if you’re happy with God, share that joy as well with words of praise, not because that’s what should be done, but because that’s the way you feel.
A contemporary favorite song of mine is Trust in You by Lauren Daigle. The chorus says it all …
When You don’t move the mountains
I’m needing You to move
When You don’t part the waters
I wish I could walk through
When You don’t give the answers
As I cry out to You
I will trust, I will trust, I will trust in You
Let’s be honest. THAT is extremely difficult. Our faith does get shaken. Our focus does get diverted. We retreat into ourselves or we lash out at others. We get hurt. We get disappointed. We get disillusioned. We can’t make sense of the violence or abuse or illness or even the death of someone close.
Truth is we don’t have to. There is a greater Power who has all the answers. My job — your job — isn’t to figure out the answers. My job — your job — is to trust in the God who has been there through the good and bad times. Isn’t it exciting to know we have an anchor in the storms of life?
And finally, we are told in the Gospel how Jesus was tempted after His fasting, reflection and prayer.
So, don’t get discouraged when you become tempted after moving closer in step with Jesus. Satan, the great deceiver, doesn’t care about you or me. It’s his goal to derail any efforts by anyone who tries to have a deeper relationship with the Lord or spread the good news of the gospel.
I have learned through the years, the more obstacles we face when attempting to walk closer to the Lord or presenting issues of faith generally means the devil is working overtime to block the message. That was evident when I had my mini-stroke a week before a three-week date on this side of the pulpit in New York. Something in those words must of had Satan shaking.
I saw Satan’s gnarled hands at work the last time I preached in New York. Despite a short notice, my confirmation to Pastor Steve somehow got lost in the clouds, so I wasn’t even sure it was delivered ot a Sunday service. I got in late Saturday night and left my “church” clothes in the car, meaning I had to trek to the car in single digits to retrieve them. I did some final revisions around 5 in the morning only to have the program stop working not once, not twice, but three times (my bad, didn’t always save as often as I should have). And I forgot my reading glasses! Sometimes, it feels the closer you try to walk with and share Jesus, you feel like you just got punched in the mouth. Remember George Bailey?
But the amazing thing is, we’re not alone. Jesus was tempted too. He was promised the lies of Satan. And we are as well, especially as we come closer to God’s will in our lives. That’s how Satan rolls.
Jesus didn’t need those promises. Neither do we. We have the Light in Jesus. He is the S-O-N shine — that’s S-O-N.
So, whenever you are tempted or discouraged or disillusioned because of delayed prayer or sudden challenges, wear the circumstance as a badge. It means you’re on the right track and caught Satan’s attention.
God’s will. God’s purpose reflected through us. May it be so this Lenten season and throughout our lives.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal. — Henry Ford, Lent