Lent is a time when I used to respond to the call to give something up for 40 days. But as life got harder and loss piled upon loss, I began to resent being told that I had to give up something else for Lent.
So then I entered the phase of doing something positive for 40 days instead. While better than giving something up, I began to resent that certain days on an already busy calendar demanded yet more from me. I struggled to find an approach to Lent that truly prepared me for Easter.
And then came THE Ash Wednesday. I stood in front of a congregation, imposing the ashes as I always did. But this time was different. A woman came forward to receive the ashes, but she struggled. She had dementia and couldn’t find the front. The congregation guided her and she stood before me. My mother. I looked into her eyes–the woman who still knew me but soon would begin to forget–and put ashes on her head saying, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” She had to be guided back to her seat and the bowl of ashes in my hand became mixed with my tears. A gut-wrenching decade later I received the box of dust that had been my mother via the postal service.
That Ash Wednesday made me quit debating whether I should give something up or do something positive. Now Lent is my reminder that, as the Shirelles so wisely sang, “Mama said there’d be days like this.” Well, Mama learned that from God. God said there’d be days like this–harsh days, desert days–and that one hard day often stretches into 40 days and 40 days can stretch into periods of years. When the number 40 crops up in the Bible, it is not meant literally. It is symbolic of a really hard time. Noah had it, Moses had it, the Israelites had it, Jesus had it. And in the harsh fires of those deserts, a new thing was born.
These days I don’t give anything up and I don’t add anything to my habits. Instead, I reflect on the truth that there are stretches of life that no amount of positive thinking will change. There are deep pits where we feel abandoned, alone, and hopeless. All of us. If you haven’t been there yet, you will. And when you’ve lived with that reminder for 40 days, the power of the Easter message at the other end will literally throw you out of bed and into a place of joy like no other.
I’ve found the Lenten practice that actually prepares me for Easter.
As we continue on with our Fruit of the Spirit series, we’ll be looking at three of them together: kindness, goodness, and gentleness. One of those virtues was considered a vice by the Greek Stoics, and that same stoicism is built right into one of the historic funds in our own Crawford bank account. Can you guess which “fruit” they saw as a failure? Answer in Sunday’s sermon.
In the book of Galatians, Paul mentions nine traits that mark the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit in a person’s life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those are not automatic downloads at our baptism; they are seeds that we have to nurture and grow over a lifetime. As we make our way through these, we’re going to start at the back end with self-control or “temperance” as it is sometimes translated.
Self-control is something that appears to be in short supply these days, especially when it comes to controlling our speech. The third chapter of James tells us that if we can keep our tongues in check, we can keep our whole bodies in check, and that seems like a claim worth investigating a little more closely. Is he right? Do other places in the Bible back that up? Do loose lips really sink ships? That’s what we’ll be looking at on Sunday.
The word “liminal” is used to describe a threshold between one thing and another. On my very first Sunday with you we found Jacob in the liminal space of the Jabbok River—unable to go back and afraid to go forward. We are in a liminal time in our church, nation, and world right now. There is no way to go back and we aren’t yet sure what going forward looks like.
As I recover from my second cataract surgery, Rev. Heather Janules of the Winchester Unitarian Society will be filling in for me (virtually) on Sunday to share some thoughts on liminal time and space that she shared with her congregation this past summer.
Between now and Easter we’re going to be focused on a combination of the fruits of the Spirit as Paul details them in Galatians 5 and the spiritual disciplines, a traditional focus during Lent which will start in just a few weeks. To kick that off, I want to talk about the best Sunday of my ministry to date, which happened in Dover, NH on November 2, 2003—the Sunday we were picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church. Join us this Sunday morning to hear what happened!
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord ; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. ~Psalm 46
As yesterday unfolded, many of us were transfixed by the images on our screens, as we watched actions not seen since the British entered and burned the White House and Library of Congress during the War of 1812. Two improvised explosive devices were found on the Capitol grounds, as those carrying the flag of the Confederacy and sporting shirts that said “Camp Auschwitz” and “Civil War, January 6, 2021” roamed the halls of Congress, broke into both the House and Senate chambers, vandalized offices, and enjoyed taking selfies. For hours.
There are all kinds of things that could be and will be said about this over the months and years to come. But we need to go into those difficult discussions prepared. While the analysis of the situation might be technically correct, we won’t come to a place of healing if we enter with rage or fear, even though both of those responses are fully justified. Those emotions produce poor decisions; we experienced the consequences of them yesterday. We need to quiet the waters for the deep wisdom of our hearts to emerge.
Last night, as the events of the day were swarming my mind and heart, I decided to take a shower to settle my thoughts. Almost immediately, Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” was playing in my head. But as I recalled the verses, I became uncomfortable. The day had already been too war-like; I wasn’t up for singing, “Were not the right man on our side” and all the verses about winning battles. As I sang it in my head, I remembered that some of those who stormed the Capitol yesterday carried signs that said “Jesus saves” or carried large Bibles. Would that hymn bring them any pangs of conscience? or would it reinforce their misguided mission? I put the hymn aside.
But then I remembered that Luther based “A Mighty Fortress” on Psalm 46. I have quoted it in full above, and every verse speaks to this moment. God does not boast here of winning battles but of ending wars entirely–breaking the bow, shattering the spear, melting the shields–so that the day envisioned by Isaiah might come to pass when “they will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.” (Is. 11:9)
Throughout the Psalm we are pointed to the turmoil and danger of the world but also God’s presence in it. God is not far off pulling the strings; God is a “very present help.” God is “in the midst of the city.” We are told not to fear, not because our fears are unfounded–the very earth itself might be changing and the mountains shaking in the heart of the sea. We are told not to fear because God is in the midst of the city; because the Lord of hosts is with us as a very present help in trouble.
The way to access that refuge is down in verse 10: “Be still” so that you may know with your mind what you already know in your heart. You may not have the luxury of being still for long. When we’re living through multiple crises at once, the demands are relentless. Everything is harder and more stressful; the waters roar and foam in both our inner and outer lives. But as the storms rage around us; though the “nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter” we are assured of a refuge nearby–a very present help in our trouble.
So as you watch and rage; as you find yourself anxious and afraid; as you wonder with increasing desperation, “But what can we do?” know that I’m right there with you. All of those feelings and more are normal in times like these. But at least once during each day, however briefly, stop. Be still. Take a deep breath and know that God is present, and a refuge is as near as your breathing. God is right there in the midst of the tottering, besieged city. If we are still, even if only for the length of a shower, we can find that refuge and enter.
Hold onto each other; pray for each other; love each other.
To celebrate the last week of Advent this coming Sunday, the sermon and children’s message have been combined into one. I’m still preaching, but there will be guest appearances by some very special Crawfordites—both human and non—to help get the point across. And if you’re watching, don’t just click off after the sermon. The special music toward the end is a carol written by Rev. John Grenfell, performed and turned into a beautiful video by Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee. And don’t click off after that either, so you can see the Crawford Christmas Card and my Christmas message to you all, mixed in with some photos of the church all lit up.
While we’re at it, don’t skip the beginning either. Helena’s preludes are not to be missed, and if you’re with us live on Zoom worship at 10:00 am, you might want to shut off your webcam during the opening video if you don’t want people to see you cry. So, yeah, watch the whole thing! And if you can join us at 10:00 am on Zoom, it would be great to see you. Invite your family from around the country; invite friends; bring the kids. It’s Christmas Sunday—and you can do it all without leaving the house.
Chester, Bananabell, and Laaaaaambert were my three sheep. I’m not sure if having just three qualifies me to be a shepherdess, but across time you’ll hear the things I learned about biblical references to sheep and shepherding from my years with them. This Sunday I am turning my sheepishness toward some shepherds abiding in a field near Jerusalem on a night filled with angelic music and stars. Why did God choose shepherds for an audience? Join us Sunday at 10 am to find out.
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear was written by Unitarian Minister Edmund Sears in 1849 while serving a parish in Wayland, MA. Both angels and people do a lot of bending in that carol. Why? And why did they cut out the third stanza back in 1935? What did it say, and what might we gain if we put it back?
Join us Sunday for the first Sunday of Advent and we’ll talk about the carol and what it might have to say to us today. And if you want to join in lighting the first candle of the Advent Wreath at home, have it ready and we can light it together. It’s the candle of Hope—one of the purple ones. Don’t have a wreath? That’s not a problem. Just grab a candle and lighter or a battery-powered candle and be ready to flip on the switch. The weary world needs the hope your light can bring.
This Sunday brings us the intersection of a secular holiday (Thanksgiving) and a Christian Holy Day (Christ the King or the Reign of Christ). The first celebrates gratitude and the second the day when human power will give way to the rule of Christ in the realm of God.
Viewed separately, each has its pitfalls. Counting our blessings might make us think that they are an indication of God’s favor instead of tools for the work set before us. We might think ourselves more righteous—more deserving—than those who have less. And thinking of Christ’s ultimate reign of glory might leave us daydreaming about streets paved with gold and mansions on a hilltop instead of remembering that we are meant to build a world right now that is ready and willing to let justice reign.
But when we look at the two days together—the holiday and the Holy Day—the key to protecting ourselves from both errors comes into view. Join us Sunday to learn about the humble mind of Christ.