Monthly Archives: March 2014

Speak the Truth, Even If Your Voice Shakes – syncroblog 3 on the “Spirit of the Poor”

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{This post is my contribution to the Spirit of the Poor syncroblog with Newell Hendricks and Esther Emery. It is hosted this month by Caris Adel with the theme: Affirming the Humanity.  Click here to find a summary of last month’s syncroblog.}

A few years ago, my grandmother found out she had breast cancer.  At the age of 87, the idea of having to go through surgery left her incredibly anxious. A few days before her surgery, Char – my sister’s mother-in-law – gave my grandma a shawl that she hand-knit for my grandma through the prayer shawl ministry at her church.  For those who are not familiar with this ministry: the prayer shawl ministry gathers people together regularly to knit or crochet a shawl while praying for a particular person in need.  When the shawl is finished, the knitter gives it to the person being prayed for.  The prayer shawls are intended to remind their receivers every time they wear the shawls that they are wrapped in the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.

One of the founders of the Prayer Shawl Ministry, Janet Bristow, explains that the shawls symbolize the “unconditional loving God.  They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace, mother, hug, shelter, and beautify.  Those who have received these shawls have been uplifted and affirmed, as if given wings to fly about their troubles.”

As my grandmother anticipated her surgery the next few days, she often wrapped her shawl around her shoulders while she sat in her rocking chair and read, and as she did, she felt she was wrapped in the warmth and comfort of the compassion of Christ that Char had shared with her.

 St. Mary's prayer shawl ministry, Sept. 2010 (8)

This ministry that Char participated in and the love she shared with my grandmother reminds me of the kind of compassion and ministry that Tabitha shared with her community of widows in Acts 9.

Tabitha had a special ministry for this community of widows that was extremely necessary.  These widows were in need of a provider and a community… a place to belong and to have a voice.  Because a woman in first century Palestine had no inheritance rights and was defined by the social status of first her father and then her husband, when she lost her husband or her connection with her father or brothers, she also lost her identity, her possessions, her property, and her place of belonging.  Widows were considered outcasts in society and were often taken advantage of and were exposed to abuse and oppression.

Because of this, widows usually had to rely on public charity to provide for them in order to survive.  And, yet, they did not always find such a provider of charity in the early church.  Acts chapter 6 reveals that the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected of the daily distribution of food.  This was such an issue in the early church, that it led to the twelve apostles appointing a committee to make sure all the widows were cared for.

Acts 9 suggests that Tabitha – the only woman in the entire Bible who was called a disciple – was a sort of provider for her community of widows.  In this passage, we see that Tabitha was devoted to good works and charity, and she made tunics and other articles of clothing by hand and had given them to the widows.  These articles of clothing would have been very valuable in the first century, and it would have taken an incredible amount of time for Tabitha to make each item.

And, yet, she sacrificed her time and money to make these pieces of clothing.

She saw the needs of these widows, and out of love and compassion, she made these items for each of the widows in her community.

I can just imagine her as she hand-wove these items.  I can picture her sitting in her chair, weaving or sewing and praying for each of these women who needed so much to be provided for, to find a place of belonging, and to find a sense of worth in their lives.  And I can envision the widows after they received these pieces of clothing from Tabitha.  I imagine that when they felt lonely or anxious or when they were reminded that they had no voice or place in their society, they wrapped their shawls around their shoulders and pulled their tunics over their heads and felt the love and compassion of Jesus wrapped around them.

As we can see, Tabitha was an incredible caregiver and provider for this community as she responded to the needs of these widows.

So it is no wonder that these women mourned so much when she died.

It is no wonder that they called out of desperation for Peter – the man who by the power of the Holy Spirit had been performing great miracles in the name of Jesus Christ – when they heard he was near Joppa.

And it is no wonder that when he arrived, they wept and passed around their tunics and articles of clothing that were made by Tabitha, reminding themselves and one another of the many pieces of clothing she had woven out of love and compassion for them.  These women had lost their dear friend and the one who had clothed them with the love of Jesus Christ, invested in them, and helped them speak their voice, find belonging, and a sense of worth where they had not found such things elsewhere in their society.

These women had lost the one person in their lives who truly affirmed their humanity.

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There are many people around us today – in our schools, in our workplaces, in our churches, and in our communities – who are in need of someone like Tabitha in their lives: someone who will see their needs and respond to them by investing in them and clothing them with the compassion and love of Jesus Christ.  Someone who will take the time to hold them as they grieve the loss of their loved ones, to walk alongside them as they struggle to find a new job, to provide an open home to them when they have no other safe place stay.  Someone who will affirm their humanity and listen to their voices – even when what they have to say might be difficult and uncomfortable to hear.

And many of our neighbors around us – or maybe even some of us – are in some ways like these first century widows: powerless and voiceless.  The outcasts… The last and the least in society, as Jesus put it, and long to find a community in which they find belonging, have a voice, and find some sense of worth in their lives.

I have been the part-time youth and household pastor for three Lutheran churches in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago for the past three years and the part-time youth and children’s pastor for an American Baptist church in the same neighborhood since last summer.  During this time, my youth have shared many stories and feelings they have about the deep issues and struggles they face in Chicago every day.  Several of my youth have shared with me and with our youth group that they often feel they are forgotten about and that they have no voice or place in society.

Many of my kids and youth live in fear every day as they hear about violence that occurs regularly only blocks from their apartments – or even that they, themselves, experience or see on their way to the neighborhood market in the middle of a Sunday afternoon after church.  And they wonder why these acts of violence are not discussed as much as those acts of violence that occur in more white, affluent neighborhoods.

As refugees from Sudan, Zambia, or Burma, immigrants from Mexico or El Salvador, or African American teens, many of my youth face the realities of racism and discrimination.  They feel the pain and shame of being randomly called the “N” word in a coffee shop by a stranger, being called “dirty” by their peers, or told that their parents are “illegal” and should “go back home” by their society.

They lack opportunities for good education and even sometimes have to worry about what they will do if their school is the next one in Chicago to close down because of budget cuts.  And then they wonder why their schools are getting the cut while large for-profit companies and the big banks don’t have to pay their fair share in taxes.

They struggle to find employment or have watched their parents or guardians battle with maintaining jobs that pay fair wages and rarely make enough to support the family.  They even have had to be extra careful to make sure they handle themselves in public so as not to look “suspicious” to police officers and community members – even when that means not wearing a hoodie or taking shortcuts through an alley on their bicycles to the store or to a friend’s house.

A few of my youth with special needs have experienced painful bullying by peers and exclusivism and discrimination in their communities and schools – and sometimes even within the Church.  They hear messages that they are not as worthy as others – that they are too much of a distraction to the other kids in school or even in Sunday school to be part of the class.  That they don’t belong and need to find somewhere else where they can better fit in.

And many of my youth struggle because they feel they are not taken seriously, they are not listened to, and they just don’t feel like they will ever gain respect by others.

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A few summers ago, I took seven of my Lutheran youth to the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans.  There, my youth met with 34,000 teens from all over the country and even across the world, who joined together to worship and learn about God, listen to and learn about one another, and practice discipleship, peacemaking, and justice.  Throughout the week, I saw an incredible change and growth in my youth… Many of them were very quiet before the trip, and yet throughout the week, they opened up and began to share experiences that they never had talked about before.  They began to talk to new youth who looked different from them without fear of not fitting in, they began to speak up in larger group discussions about their ideas, and they began to take on leadership roles in the group.

On our long bus ride home from New Orleans, Malesh, one of my youth, started writing a poem that was inspired by this trip.  The poem is called “My Voice.”

“Where is my voice? Lost somewhere deep inside.  Stuck in a corner, that’s my only choice.  No, no more hiding in the shadows.  I have yet won the battles.  I spoke as my voice shook, like a fish caught up in a hook.  Where is my voice?”

We too often forget that so many around us – even within our own communities, churches, or families – have similar experiences to those widows that Tabitha ministered to back in the first century.  They feel like they don’t have a voice… They long to speak it, even if it shakes – and yet, they don’t know who will listen to and hear it.

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Several years ago, I served as a seminary intern at an after-school program in the area.  One of my job responsibilities was to oversee the middle school lunch hour once a week.  If you’ve ever stepped foot in a middle school cafeteria, you can probably imagine what I saw each week…  The cafeteria was completely segregated and it was very clear what each of the defined clicks and groups were.  The kids from different minority groups mostly sat together and did not really interact with others, the kids who read “The Hunger Games” and other young adult fantasy books during lunch hour sat together, a group of kids who did not seem to wear the most trendy clothes stuck together, and then a group of kids with very trendy clothes on proudly sat in their own corner of the room – and sometimes loudly laughed at or glared at the kids at the other tables. Finally, there were a few stragglers who sometimes sat by themselves and clearly did not belong to any of the other groups.  As I watched these kids, I could sense the pain and loneliness the stragglers must have felt as they were excluded from the other groups, and I could tell that they really longed to find a community where they felt they belonged and fit in.

What is amazing to me as I think about this scenario, though, is that this kind of exclusivism does not just happen in middle school cafeterias.  I see this happen in many capacities among teens and college students and particularly among many adults, even – and especially – within the Church…

It will probably not take many of us too long to think about who the individuals are around us who have been marginalized and considered the “last and least,” or the “others.”

They may be the people at work or church who just don’t fit into the “in crowd.”  They may be people from not readily accepted groups based on age, ethnic background, or race…  Or those who speak a different native language, who grew up in a different neighborhood, or who have a unique family situation.  They may be the people we pass by on the train who are heading to the food pantry or the homeless people we pass as we walk to Starbucks who hold up a cup asking for change in order to pay for a meal that day or a motel room to sleep in that night because they have no other options.  They may even be the new people who enter our congregations on Sunday morning for worship and who stand by themselves during fellowship hour.  Or maybe even some of us can identify with those first century widows, trying to find our voice and a community in which we belong, where we feel our humanity is affirmed and where our voice will be cared for and heard.

We all love to be around our friends and people who look, act, and think like us.  And yet, when we don’t reach out of our comfort zones – to the “others” who may not be just like us: to the newcomer at church, to the homeless woman on the train, to the after-school program youth who uses our church facilities, we muffle their voices and we deny them full access to our community – to God’s community of love and compassion.  

Byzantine mosaic of Tabitha being raised from the dead by Saint Peter. Tabitha is adorned with the garments she had woven for some widows and had given to them as charity. The Palatine Chapel, Norman Palace, Sicily travel photos & pictures available as st

The good news is that Acts chapter 9 shows us that this is not the way God intends the world order to be.  God does not intend for there to be oppression, exclusivism, or inequality in the world.  This passage does not only show us an example of a model disciple in which we are to follow – through the life of Tabitha: one who loves and clothes the hurting and the outcasts. But it also shows us that God has begun to break down the walls of injustice and inequality through the miraculous act of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead.

This miracle was pretty significant because it was not a common practice for the apostles to raise people from the dead.  Actually, this act of bringing Tabitha back to life was the first time an apostle performed such a miracle.  And Peter – by the power of the Holy Spirit – performed this miraculous act – not for a community of men with worldly power – but he did it for a community of women.  Widows, might I add… Those who were the epitome of the poor.  The powerless.  The “others.”

While it may have been a shock for people at this time to hear that Peter did something so amazing for such an outcast group, this reversal was not a new concept for the author of Luke and Acts.

Throughout these two books, we see the recurring theme of reversals.  We see that the Good News that Jesus and many of his earliest followers shared was not limited to the Jews or shared with the most powerful men, as would have been most expected.  Rather, we see that the Good News was also extended to the Gentiles and those who had little or no voice in society.

In Luke chapter 4, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, give sight to the blind, proclaim release to the captives, and let the oppressed go free.  And then he continues to live out what he preached by ministering to the marginalized: the lepers, the women, the children, the widows.

After Jesus’ death, Peter begins his ministry in Acts 2 by addressing the crowd in Judea with a quote from the prophet, Joel, that states that in the last days, God will pour out his spirit onto all flesh – including slaves, young and old, male and female.  Then, throughout the book of Acts, we see that the church was called to continue Jesus’ mission, and the theme of reversals continues.

And this miracle of bringing Tabitha back to life in chapter 9 is also a reversal. 

It’s a message that the Good News of God’s love is extended not just to the powerful and the strong, but it is extended to the weak and the powerless.  To the marginalized.  To those who cannot speak up for and by themselves.  And it is a message that gives a snippet view of God’s intended order for the world: that women would be equal to men, that the captives would be free, that the poor would be rich, and that there would be no “last and least.”

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And this story in Acts chapter 9 speaks to us directly. It reminds us that – like Peter and Tabitha – each of us is called to be a disciple of Jesus Christ: each one of us is called to participate in Jesus’ ministry of bringing good news to the hurting, to those in need of a welcoming community, to the “others.”  

Each one of us is called to affirm the humanity in ALL of God’s children.  

And to those of us who identify with those first century widows – those of us who are longing for our voices to finally be heard – Acts 9 speaks to us, as well.  Tabitha’s story reminds us that we do not walk this journey alone.  That when we wonder where God is in the midst of our dark wilderness periods of life – we are reminded that God is with us as we experience Jesus’ love and compassion wrapped around us through the “Tabithas” in our lives: the people who cry with us in our grief, who open their homes to us when we have no place to go, who invest in us at our congregations, in our workplaces, in our schools… those who listen to our voices and encourage them to be spoken…

Even when they shake.

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After my Lutheran youth and I returned from New Orleans, Malesh reflected more on his experiences during New Orleans and in our youth group: he began to feel like he had a community where he could be listened to and where he could contribute and make a difference in his neighborhood.  During this time, he finished his poem and later read it to our youth group during our Spoken Word night.  He continued:

“Where is my voice?  Hidden inside like a golden treasure.  So great of a treasure that has no measure.  Convinced but not certain, no more do I have such a burden.  Where is my voice?

He sent his Son to be his voice, delivered yet misunderstood.  The voice is in me.  Now it must be delivered with peace, love, and justice.

He is my voice.  I am His words.”

So, let us follow the examples of Peter and Tabitha – as disciples of Jesus Christ –speaking our voices even when they shake, encouraging and listening to the voices that are too often unheard, and wrapping the love and compassion of Jesus Christ around those who need it.

Amen.

 

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Silence: Youth Group Lesson for Lent

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Materials Needed: computer paper, markers, pens, lined paper, notecards, “Noise” Nooma Video, tv or projector to show video

INTRO:

Explain: We are in the middle of the spring semester with projects and midterms coming up, lots of activities, sports, ACT prep, college applications, etc. How many of you feel really busy and overwhelmed?  Do you have a lot of free time in your days?  We are also in the middle of Lent.  As we continue to journey through Lent at this busy time of year, I want us to start thinking about our time, how we use it, and what things we give priorities to in our daily schedules.

Graph A Day (approx. 12 min.)

Give participants paper and markers and ask them to pick one day from the last week. Ask them write out a detailed schedule of what they did that day.  Tell them to include detailed activities and actions at each half hour to hour between the time they woke up and went to bed.  (This would include: showering, breakfast, brushing teeth, travel to/from school, class schedule, spending time on Facebook, tv, video games, extra-curricular activities, texting, etc.)  Explain that you will share these schedules later.

EXPLORE AND REFLECT:

Watch: NOISE Nooma video (11 min.)

Small Groups:  (Take graphs to small groups) (10-15 min.)

Discuss:  

– What kinds of noises are in your life? (audio and visual)

– Why is silence so hard to come by?

– How did you feel when you had to be silent during the video? (Was it uncomfortable?  Relaxing?  Foreign?)  Why?

– Do you make time for silence in your every-day lives?  If so, how, when, what does it look like?  When was the last time?

– Why do you think that making time for silence in your every-day lives is important?

– One of the quotes on the video says: “Does all the noise in your life make it difficult to hear God?”  What are your thoughts on this?

– Think of a time in your life when you did make time for silence in your day and it was positive.  Would anyone share this experience?  How did it make you feel?  Did you see or hear God during this time?

– What are some ways we can make time for silence in our days going forward?

RESPOND:

Large Group: (8 min.)

As a group, sum up why it is important to make time for silence in our lives.

Ask youth to look back at their schedules.  Tell them to take a few minutes to think about things they can take out of this schedule in order to make some time for silence in their schedule.

Hand out postcards and markers.

Ask youth to write on their postcards specific goals for themselves:

–       What can you take out of your current schedule (tv time, ipod, etc.) to make time for silence?

–       What kind of practice will you add in this schedule to include silence (walk, go to room and pray, pray for school, meet with a few friends a few times a week for times of silence, take 5 min. of silence before you go to school or before you go to bed, etc.)

–       *Make sure to include when this practice will take place.  (Time and frequency.  Ex: Sit in silence every night before bed, go on a prayer walk without headphones every day after school, etc.)

PRACTICE: 

TIME FOR SILENCE: (5-10 min.)

Give youth 5-10 minutes to spend in silence.   (Light a candle to remind the youth of God’s presence in the room and turn on Gregorian Chant music.)

Tell the youth to go into a space by themselves and away from other youth.  (You may want to take the youth to a small chapel or to the sanctuary for this time.)  Provide materials for the youth to draw, pray, sit, think, or journal.  (pens, lined paper, construction paper, play doh, markers, etc.)

CLOSING PRAYER

Why I am fasting on Wednesdays this Lent (#Fast4Families)

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Last week, on Ash Wednesday, we heard the prophet Joel call out to us to join him in a fast: “Return to the LORD, your God… with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning… Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

This Lent, I am responding to Joel’s call and joining with others around the country in a great fast for families: where we are committing to pray and fast every Wednesday in Lent for citizenship and immigration reform.  This fast impels us to “repent from an immigration system that tears apart families” and to be a collective “prophetic witness to the moral urgency of commonsense immigration reform so that all might have the opportunity to be citizens with equal respect and dignity.”

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:17-19

Rabbi Brant Rosen, a congregational rabbi in Evanston, IL, puts a face to this “tragically broken immigration system.”  His story is one of too many that leads us to this important fast for families.

And as Jim Wallis explains in his article Ash Wednesday: How Fasting and Prayer Could Change Us – and Our Country: “This is why we fast, pray and act because we are called by our faith, because we hear the cries of community members, and we will continue to mobilize to demonstrate that we will accept neither excuses nor delays. We will continue to pray, fast and act until the bonds of families are no longer broken and citizenship is no longer a dream, but a reality for 11 million aspiring Americans.”

So will you join this fast?  (It’s never too late to start.)

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* To donate to this movement and keep it strong, click here.

* Click here to sign a petition that urges President Obama to cease deportations while Congress is working toward immigration reform.

* Click here for the beautiful “Im/migration Stations of the Cross” created by Grace Commons Church in Chicago.

“Work In Progress” – Lent 1A Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11 (#fast4families)

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Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
  and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’ 
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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A few weeks ago, two of my youth group adult leaders and I took 10 ECT youth (our joint youth ministry among Immanuel, Ebenezer, and Unity Evangelical Lutheran churches in Edgewater) to Lutherdale Bible camp in Wisconsin for a winter retreat with the Chicago synod.  There, we met up with 150 other youth and youth pastors for games, fellowship, worship, and discussions about the sacraments.

At this retreat, we encountered Jesus in a new light: we encountered Jesus when we gathered with 150 other Chicago area youth for worship and felt we were beloved for who we truly are… We encountered Jesus when we met new friends and strengthened our relationships with old ones…  We encountered Jesus when we gathered with our ECT group during free-time and sang and danced to popular hip hop songs… and when we crowded onto a long bobsled, held onto each other as tight as we could, and flew down the steep hill toward the ice-covered lake, screaming and praying the whole way down.  (At least, that’s what I was doing.)  And we encountered Jesus when we ended the weekend in tears, as we communed together around the Lord’s Table, we hugged, and we said to one another “I love you like a chicken” and we really meant it.

And though exhausted, our group left Lutherdale Bible Camp last month on fire…

On fire for God.  On fire for church.  On fire for fellowship with one another.

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Like the disciples who encountered the transfiguration of Jesus on their retreat to the top of the mountain in our Gospel text last week – where they saw Jesus shine as bright as the sun – we, too, had a special mountain top experience on our retreat.

… But then, as we all know how the saying goes:  What goes up must also come down.

And so we, too, eventually had to come back down from the mountain top… to the realities of every-day life…

To school work.  Basketball practice.  ACT prep.  To the struggles of balancing a job and homework and the anxieties we had about having to face bullies when we went back to school.  To what seems to be the never-ending busyness of our every day routines.

And many of us may be already longing to escape and get away from all of this… to get away from work and practice, to get out of town, to go meet up again with our Chicago synod friends at Lutherdale.

To go back up to the comforts we experienced at the top of the mountain.

I’m sure many others of us here can relate to this.  I’m sure many of us can relate to having a mountaintop experience in our lives and then having to come back down the mountain to the reality of our daily stress and routines that often keep us running so fast that we can’t catch our breath.

And yet here we are at the beginning of Lent… at the bottom of the mountain, being extended another great invitation to retreat.  Now, this is not the same type of retreat our ECT youth experienced at Lutherdale or the same type of retreat many of us have gone on with Immanuel as a congregation or when we have attended a powerful faith conference or event.   

It’s not a retreat back up to the mountaintop. 

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This Lenten invitation is to enter the wilderness… not just for a day or a weekend… but to dwell and wander in it.  It is a retreat from the busyness of life, to empty ourselves so that we can be filled by the grace of God, and to think about what it means to be marked by the sign of the cross in ashes on our forehead – to think about what it means to be human and to belong to God (and not anyone or anything else.)  And this invitation is to thoroughly examine our own lives – which will not, in fact, last forever on this earth (sorry to disappoint) – and to reevaluate how our lives have and can have meaning in this world…

Because our world needs each and every one of us. 

Now this might seem more like a burden and an interruption rather than a great invitation to many of us when we think about others who have gone through the wilderness before us… When think about the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 long years and Jesus, who wandered in the wilderness for 40 long days and 40 long nights.  And we may even be a little troubled to think that we are being invited into this wilderness, this same place where Jesus experienced a great testing by the accuser after he had already fasted for those 40 days, was famished, and was likely at his weakest.

Now, I am not going to downplay this wilderness period.  There will be times when we feel tested.  There will be times when we feel like we’ve already wandered through the wilderness for long enough and we are too parched, exhausted, and famished to have to take on one more thing.  And in these times, at our weakest state, we may – like Jesus – still run into the most difficult temptations and times of testing.

And so in our weakness, we may wish to take the easy way out – to give into the dangerous temptations and quickly snatch up control, domination, and worldly power that our accuser taunts us with.

But this is why we are invited to go into the wilderness in the first place: to examine our lives, and to empty and prepare ourselves so that we might know how to respond to the testing of our accuser.  So that in our weakest moments, we might know how to look deep within ourselves and be reminded of who and who’s we are. 

You see, though we may – and most likely will – experience testing in the wilderness – in this Lenten season – the wilderness is ultimately a place and time of preparation.

We tend to forget this because when we begin Lent by looking at Jesus’ time in the wilderness, we often focus on the temptations and his withstanding of them.  And yet, meanwhile, we also forget that there were 40 long days and 40 long nights that Jesus spent fasting, praying, and preparing before this encounter with the accuser even occurred.

And because we loose sight of this, we also tend to focus so much on how we, ourselves, lack the ability to resist our own temptations, that we turn Lent into a time of legalism and of beating ourselves up: through self-shaming, self-doubting, and self-hating.

And yet, I don’t think this is what the wilderness is really about.  It is not about loathing over our inadequacies and our shortcomings and attempting to meet perfection.

Rather, it is about transformation.  It is about recognizing that we are indeed human beings.  And like all other human beings, we have our faults and we make mistakes… And yet, as humans, we are ultimately made in the image of God… and are constantly a work of God in progress. 

On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we heard the prophet Joel call out to us to join him in a fast: “Return to the LORD, your God… with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning… Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

This is why we need to wander in the wilderness.  This is why we need Lent…

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Just as Jesus wandered in the wilderness 2000 years ago between his baptism and the beginning of his ministry to prepare for what was to come, Lent is also our time to return to God over and over and over again as we wander in the wilderness in preparation for the journey to the cross and to the life-giving resurrection that comes after it.

As Jim Wallis in his article, “How Fasting and Prayer can Change Us – and Our Country,” puts it:

“Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to.  As Christ suffers with us in our sin and spiritual poverty, we are slowly taught how to suffer with others and mourn with those who mourn. Lent is a time for that. That’s why Lenten disciplines often contain fasting and decisions of self-denial.”

Though our Gospel text does not give us any details about Jesus’ experiences in the wilderness for those 40 days and nights before his encounter with the accuser, there is a video on youtube that provides an artist’s beautiful portrayal of what he may have encountered.  The video is a slideshow of 40 drawings of Jesus, one for each day he was in the wilderness.  (If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you check it out.)  

Rev. Jennifer Mills Knutson describes the video on her blog.  Her explanation goes like this:

“’For my thirtieth birthday,’ it begins, ‘I gave myself some time away from it all.’  Saying “no” to companionship, to food, to work, to the comforts of home, Jesus in the wilderness discovers the joy of playing with pigeons, frolicking with foxes, gazing at the moon, and watching a flower grow. Jesus embraces weakness, as his skin grows ragged and his body thinner, so that he comes to know the strength of God. He experiences fear and anguish over his own life and death as the vultures circle. He confronts his pride in the presence of the Tempter, which in this depiction appears as simply a stronger version of Jesus himself, urging him to say yes to strength and power again. The Tempter urges him to rely on his own powers, judgment, control, certainty–instead of placing his life in the hands of God. When he refuses his own strength, he knows the presence of angels, who minister to him, who lift him up and carry him back home again. ‘And now,’ he says at the end, ‘I’m back.'”

Last week during ECT youth group, we talked about the meaning of Lent and all of us decided that we would respond to our invitation to follow Jesus and enter this wilderness.  That night, each of our youth and leaders made a commitment to take on the ancient practice of fasting or “giving something up.”   Whether chocolate or coffee, Facebook or tv, we chose to take on this practice of fasting – not as a means to prove our willpower or to cut a few calories in our diets – but rather as a means to cut out something in our lives that we depend on or that consumes us and takes us away from experiencing the grace of God in our spiritual lives, in others, and in ourselves.

And each of us also decided to take on the practice of “taking something on” in our lives (in that newly created space) to help us return to God and to focus on the important things in life that we too often miss in our busy schedules: whether it be a prayer or other spiritual practice, a new family activity or ritual, a form of community outreach or service, or a physical activity that will improve one’s health.

And the invitation to enter the wilderness is extended to each one of us, as well.

Whether we choose to take on one of these practices, or join Jim Wallis and many others around the country in fasting on Wednesdays for families and Immigration reform and citizenship, or whether we choose to take on another practice, let us respond to the prophet Joel’s call to join the fast and be intentional this Lenten season about opening our ears to hear and our eyes to see the ways God is present in our lives and around us.

And let us return again and again and again to our God with all our hearts.

I’d like to leave you with a benediction –  a charge – from d365.org, a daily online devotional:

There before you lies all the world,  Given as a gift.  Go into the world as a work in progress,
 Someone who is not yet who you will be,
  But someone who is on the way.  The world will be better and blessed,  Because you are in it,
 Growing, becoming, gleaming with the light reflected from above.

Amen.

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Additional Ideas for Lenten Practices:

Ash Wednesday Reflections and Lent Activities for Families (musingsfromabricolage)

40 Ideas for Lent (rachelheldevans)

House for All Sinners and Saints’ 40 Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent (nadiabolzweber)

Introduction to Lent – Youth Group Lesson

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Materials Needed: Bibles, notecards and markers, youtube video and equipment to play video, copies of closing prayer and benediction

OPENING ACTIVITY:

– Ask youth what season in the church calendar we are about to enter.  (Lent)

– Tell the youth we are going to do a Lent Trivia Game. Tell them that it is okay if they don’t know the answers to the trivia.  This is a learning game.  (The trivia comes from rethinkingyouthministry.com.)

“One Step Forward, One Step Back” Lent Trivia Game:

Line group across the middle of the gym and ask the questions below. Those who think the answer is true should take one step forward. Those who get the question wrong take one step back. The “winner” (and aren’t we ALL winners?) is the first one to cross the finish line where you are standing. What do they win? Hmmm? How about something purple?

•       The official (liturgical) color of Lent is red. True of False? (False. It’s purple – representing royalty and repentance.)

•       Lent lasts for 40 days, not counting Sundays. True or False? (True.)

•       The word Lent comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “midwinter.” (False. It translates “springtime” since that is the time of year the season generally falls.)

•       The 40 days of Lent are a reminder of the Bible story in which Jesus spends 40 days alone in the wilderness and is tempted by the Devil. True or False? (True. It also recalls the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness.)

•       Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when people often have the sign of the cross made of ashes placed on their foreheads. Most often, these ashes are made by burning palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. True or False? (True.)

•       The ash is supposed to represent the story in which Jesus places dirt or ash on a blind man’s eyes to make him see again. True or False? (False. The ashes represent humility and our own mortality – from dust we came and to dust we shall return.)

•       Many people give up something during Lent. The point of this practice is to show your willpower. True or False? (False. It is a practice of self-denial that allows room in your life for God to do something new.)

•       Fasting is a common practice in Lent but the one day people don’t fast during Lent is Sundays. True or False? (True. People traditionally do not fast on Sundays as Sundays are to be reminders or a foretaste of the coming resurrection.)

•       The phrase “Glory to God” is traditionally never spoken during Lent and does not make its return until Easter morning. True or False. (False. “Alleluia” is the what many churches abstain from saying in worship during Lent.)

•       The last week of Lent is known as “Holy Week.” True or False? (True.)

  • On Maundy Thursday, the last Thursday in Lent, we recall the last night and meal that Jesus shares with his disciples. True or False? (True.)

EXPLORING SCRIPTURE:

Read: Matthew 4:1-11

DISCUSS:

TESTING:

–  How many days and nights was Jesus in the desert?  (40) – Does that remind you of any other story you might have heard about (Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years in our Hebrew Scriptures.)

–  What happens in our passage? (tempted or tested by the devil.)

* Note: Greek word for devil is also translated: “accuser,” “tempter,” “adversary,” “one who opposes us,” “any one who is an enemy”

–  How many times does the devil or accuser tempt or test Jesus?

–  What are the three temptations and how does Jesus respond?

–  What do you think all three temptations have to do with?  (The three temptations have to do with earthly power, control, domination, and glory.  In each case Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy.)

(Below is some background info on the three temptations from workingpreacher.org.)

•          Temptation One (4:3-4): To turn stones into bread.   Response: Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”   Context in Deuteronomy: Moses reminds the people of Israel that God tested them in the wilderness by hunger, but he fed them with manna in order to make them understand that one does not live by bread alone.

•           Temptation Two (4:5-8): To rule all the kingdoms of the world.  Response: Deuteronomy 6:13: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Context in Deuteronomy: Moses addresses the people of Israel prior to entering the land of promise. He calls upon the people to fear and love the Lord always. He provides a creed for them, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel….” (6:4), tells them not to forget who gave the land, and admonishes them to worship and serve the Lord.

•           Temptation Three (4:9-12): To throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Here the devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12.  Response: Deuteronomy 6:16: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”  Context in Deuteronomy: The setting is the same as the previous episode (Deut 6:13). Moses exhorts the people not to test the Lord as they did at Massah, a place of quarreling, where the people of Israel demanded water from Moses, which he finally obtained by striking a rock (Exodus 17:1-7).

 SON OF GOD:

–  What word or phrase is repeated by the devil?  (Son of God)

– Why do you think Son of God was repeated by the devil three times? (When we read a text from Scripture, often times the language used in the Scripture is important: it’s poetic or emphasizes what an author was trying to point to.  So it’s important.)

–   Why do you think this is important?  What do you think it means?

– A few things to note about Son of God in biblical times:

A. In the Jewish tradition (as we see in the some of our Old Testament texts, kings were often called sons of God: like in  Psalms or 2 Sam.)

B. In the ancient world a son represents his father, and in the Old Testament the king is sometimes called God’s son, meaning that he represents God on earth, and at best he is obedient to God.

Explain: Jesus was tested concerning his vocation given in baptism of being the Son of God.  But, though he would likely have been able to do all things the devil was tempting to do, he said “no” to these things.  He didn’t want to abuse his power.  While these worldly powers may have been what the worldly kings (who were called sons of God) sought, this is not what the true Son of God, Jesus Christ, was all about.

EXPLORING DEEPER AND APPLYING THIS TO OUR CONTEXT

 –     How might this story apply to our lives?  (Jesus was tested, just like we all go through times of testing and tempting.  He can understand what we go through.  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15)

–     What are some ways we have felt tested or tempted?

            WILDERNESS

–     People sometimes say that they go through wilderness periods in their lives.  What might it mean to go through a wilderness period?  (times of loss or struggle, feeling lost, etc.)  What are some examples of wilderness periods: that you have been through, others you know have been through, or people in our city, country, or around the world are going through.

–     How might we find hope in our wilderness periods?  (Ex: God meets us in the wilderness and helps us along the way. In Lent, the resurrection comes after the wilderness, and throughout Lent, we see glimpses of Easter each week.  This reminds us of that hope in the resurrection and that new life will come after the wilderness.)

40 DAYS and 40 NIGHTS

– Most of this text focuses on the temptation.  But was the temptation at the beginning of Jesus’ journey in the wilderness?  When did it occur?  (After 40 days and 40 nights of Jesus in the wilderness.)

– What do you think Jesus did and experienced in the wilderness for those 40 days and 40 long nights? (Jesus went directly from his baptism to the wilderness before he began his ministry.  He was actually driven into the wilderness by the Spirit.  He was there for a purpose: to prepare for what was to come: to prepare for his ministry and his journey to the cross and the resurrection.  So he fasted, prayed, and prepared as he got away from everything.)

VIDEO:

Explain: Our Bible doesn’t tell us much about what specifically happened during that time of preparation for those 40 days and 40 nights.  But I am going to show you an artist’s depiction of what happened.  In this video, there are 40 drawings of Jesus in the wilderness, one for each day.  Watch and think about what it was like for Jesus in the wilderness as he prepared for His ministry.

Watch Video: “A Video of Jesus in the Wilderness”

DISCUSS:

–     What are your thoughts on the video?

–     Who was the tempter or accuser in the drawings?  (a stronger version of Jesus, himself.)  What do you think the artist meant by that?  How might we take that to mean in our own lives?

–     Do you think that the wilderness was a good thing for Jesus?

–     Would a wilderness be a good thing for us?  Why?  (Have any of you ever been in a wilderness – in a place that is secluded, quiet, etc?  What was it like? How did you feel?  Was it rejuvenating or renewing?)

REFLECTION AND RESPONSE:

Explain: during Lent, we are invited to follow Jesus and enter the wilderness to prepare ourselves for times of testing and to become more aware of how God is present in our lives and around us.  It is a time to get away from the busyness of life, to simplify our lives, and to look at ourselves and our lives and reflect on how our lives have and can have meaning in the world.  We are all constantly a work in progress, and Lent (entering the wilderness) is a time for us to return to God.

There are 3 traditional practices that have been taken up during Lent:

(Write on a white board)

–     Prayer (justice towards God)

–     Fasting: (justice towards self)

–     Almsgiving: (justice towards neighbor)

Ask the youth to make Commitments: (Hand out notecards)

  1. Have the youth write on one side of the card one thing that they will fast from or “give up” during Lent (an indulgence or something that consumes them and/or distracts them from seeing or connecting with God.)Examples:  facebook, tv, chocolate, soda, video games, etc.
  2. Have the youth write on the other side of the card one practice that they will “take on” during Lent (prayer or spiritual practice, community service/volunteer work, random acts of kindness, family activity or ritual.)

*Make sure to explain that these practices are not about willpower or about losing weight, etc.  They are about making space for God (fasting) and filling that newly created space with time for God and others.

*Give examples and maybe hand out some specific family faith at home activities/rituals.  To see some of the examples, see my post: Ash Wednesday Reflections and Lent Activities for Families.

CLOSING PRAYER: 

Prayer together: (from the Book of Common Prayer)

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

CLOSING BENEDICTION:

Close with a benediction together: (from d365.org)

There before you lies all the world,
 Given as a gift. Go into the world as a work in progress,
 Someone who is not yet who you will be,
 But someone who is on the way.  The world will be better and blessed
, Because you are in it.  
Growing, becoming, gleaming with
 the light reflected from above.

 

Ash Wednesday Reflections and Lent Activities for Families

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It is Ash Wednesday: the day we are called to be reminded of our mortality by receiving ashes – the symbol of mourning and repentance – in the sign of the cross on our foreheads…

From dust we came and to dust we shall return.

It is on this day that we hear the prophet Joel’s commission: 

Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

And it is on this day that we begin our Lenten path: our journey through the wilderness and to the cross…  Our time to retreat from the busyness of life, to reflect on what it means to be human and children of God, and to open our ears to hear and our eyes to see the ways God is present in our lives and around us.

It is our time to recognize that life is short, and therefore to reevaluate how our own lives have and can have meaning in this world.  

And as Jesus wandered in the wilderness 2000 years ago between his baptism and the beginning of his ministry to prepare for what was to come, Lent is also our time to wander in the wilderness in preparation for the journey to the cross and Resurrection.

During Lent, some of us take on the ancient practice of “giving up” something… However, whether it is giving up chocolate or coffee, Facebook or tv, this practice does not serve as a means to prove our willpower or to cut a few calories in our diets.  But rather, it serves as a means to cut out something in our lives that we seem dependent upon or that consumes us and takes us away from experiencing the grace of God in our spiritual lives, in others, and in ourselves.  And some of us also take on an ancient practice of “taking something on” in our lives (in that newly created space) to help us return to God and to focus on the important things in life that we too often miss in our busy schedules: whether it be a prayer or other spiritual practice, a new family activity, a form of community outreach or service, or a physical activity that will improve one’s health.

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.

Whatever we do, let us be intentional this Lent.  Let us return again and again and again to our God with all our hearts.

“[This is] what Ash Wednesday and Lent is…a thousand opportunities to return to God with all your heart. Returning again to the only thing in which we have any true self-hood …and that is the eternal and divine love of God. The eternal and divine love of God which created you from dust and breath. The eternal and divine love of God to which you will return after your last breath when again you are dust.” – Nadia Bolz-Weber

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RESOURCES AND ACTIVITIES FOR LENT PRACTICES AT HOME:

1. Individual practices and devotionals.  Some of my favorites are:

D365 devotional (There is a free app for this.)

3 Minute Retreat (There is a $1 app for this.)

Presbyterian Daily Readings

Sacred Space Lent Retreat 

Daily Lent Devotionals (by Presbyterian Mission)

Daily Lent Devotional (by Michelle Derusha in conjunction with Southwood Lutheran Church in Lincoln, NE)

2. Devotionals and rituals for Lent to do as a family:

Weekly or Daily Lenten Family Practices:

Lenten Candles (Family of all ages) – weekly devotional and candle lighting ritual

Bedtime Meditation (Young Families)

One Time Lent Activities/Discussions:

Intentionally Celebrating Lent and Easter as a Family (Family of all ages)

Family Activities for the 40 Days of Lent Ideas (Family of all ages)

Ash Wednesday (Adult or Teen Family) – the holy season begins. Learn about this holy day.

The Meaning of Lent (Adult or Teen Family) – questions about Lent? Answers here.

Purpling Your Home (All Families) – some home decorating may get you in the mood.

A Song of Ashes (Young Adult) – what does a popular Bastille song have to do with Lent?

Get Your Ash On (Teen Family) – Did God make mud pies?

Gang Up on Lent (Teen Family) – we’ve got each other’s back.

Planting Alleluias (Young Family) – plant an Alleluia garden and come Easter, celebrate new life!

Lent: Learning to Love (Just for Kids) – it’s a season to practice love.

 3. Doing Random acts of kindness:

Random Acts of Kindness Resources: (For everyone!) website with all sorts of ideas

Acts of Kindness: (Teen Family)

4. Sharing what we have with others (our time, gifts, compassion, and money) through volunteering in the community.  There are great opportunities in your community where you can volunteer and serve as a family (such as homeless shelters, women and children shelters, community or soup kitchens, etc.): *You and your family will often be surprised at how much you receive from those you planned on “serving.”

Volunteer Match: website that can help locate agencies in your area in need of volunteers

H2O Project for Lent: (For everyone) make water your only beverage during Lent and help give water to those who don’t have access to clean water

Learning to Love (Families with kids)

Family Shield (Young Family)

If you live on the north side of Chicago, some great places to volunteer at are:

Care for Real (Edgewater’s only food and clothing pantry) – hand out food or help sort winter coats and clothes

A Just Harvest Community Kitchen (community kitchen that serves meals every day in Rogers Park) – serve a meal

Bethany Retirement Community or Breakers at the Edgewater Beach Assisted Living  – Sing Christmas carols to residents

Sarah’s Circle (women’s shelter in Uptown) – there are many different ways to volunteer

The Night Ministry – serve meals to people on the street (multiple locations)