Monday, March 22, 2010

Deeply Devoted

My friend wants to know: isn’t enough just to be devoted? Maybe you have not noticed but recently preachers and authors and bloggers have coined new phrases to express what it means to be a “true” Christian. One calls those who are truly, sincerely, committed disciples the “deeply devoted”.

During Lent, maybe we preachers are guilty of calling our people to be “deeply” devoted. So, my friend asks: isn’t it enough just to be devoted?

We do love to play with words, don’t we? No matter what you’re talking about we human beings are prone to set up degrees of devotion, of course, mainly to show that our group is the most truly, significantly, seriously devoted. My group is more devoted, in the right way, of course, than your group.

In politics we hear talk about being Americans. We can’t just be Americans; we have to be “true” Americans. Name the political party and there are those who say that there are members of the party who just carry the name and don’t really mean it. They, and only they, speak for the “true” members of the party.

What about marriage, if I’m just devoted to my wife then I give her a gift on her birthday and anniversary and Christmas. If I’m really devoted, do I then give gifts more often? What makes a better husband, a more devoted spouse? Where would you put Tiger Woods? What kind of husband is he? Undevoted?

We Christians are prone to play this game as well. We, especially at this time of year, are likely to chide those who come to church on Easter and Christmas. The purpose of this is not just to chide them but to make ourselves appear more devoted and therefore better Christians. If you’re a tither are you likely to look down on those who are not tithers? If you work at the soup kitchen, are you likely to think that those who don’t work there are less Christian than you?

You see the dilemma. Paul talks in the New Testament about Christians who see themselves as strong and weak. He says that the strong ought to bear with the weak and reach out to them in loving service.

Someone I know says that many people go to church and sit there thinking (if unconsciously) that they are better than those who are not sitting there.

Several years ago, at a funeral, a concerned member of the family came to me and asked about the deceased: “Was she ready?” I had to think about that. I had been with her over the previous year as she walked by faith through cancer and now death. I said: “What do you mean?” She said: “Did she accept Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior?” I was interested in the assumption that she believed the deceased had not and was not ready.

I said something like: “Well, she joined my church. She came to the altar and I asked her if she believed in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior and she said ‘yes’. So, I think she was ready.”

Lent is that time when we call each other back. Even the “deeply” devoted have things to repent of and do better. We’re all sinners, near as I can tell. And, we’re here in this fellowship by the grace of God alone in Jesus Christ. If someone comes on Easter and Christmas, then God bless them. And, God bless all those who live out their faith daily as well as Sunday.

I think my friend is right. It is enough to be just devoted.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Permission to Smile at Lent

It really is ok to smile during the season of Lent. This season which begins in a somber way on Ash Wednesday is a time when we call the church to “get serious” about faith and commitment. And, since we United Methodists are latecomers to the liturgical days like Ash Wednesday, we aren’t quite sure what to do.

We certainly never had Ash Wednesday when I was a child, but then that was in the dark ages. After liturgical renewal in the seventies, we decided that it was a good idea to have a common lectionary. That is, most of the mainline Protestants and Catholics read the same lessons on Sundays. With this renewal, we had, in addition to Christmas and Easter, things like Christ the King Sunday, and Ascension Sunday, and Ash Wednesday with Lent.

So, we get a good crowd in the church on Ash Wednesday and we mark everybody with ashes made from last year’s Palm Sunday palms. Sure it’s somber and serious. Who can make light of a day on which we remember our mortality and sin? So, I find myself with other clergy calling the flock to really “get serious” this time about it all.

Some are “giving up” something like caffeine and chocolate. Some are doing some act of service in addition to what they already do. Most of us are spending a little more time thinking and praying about bringing our lives under the shadow of the cross again.

However, it is ok to smile. Usually when we hear the message to “get serious” the only thing we get serious about is ourselves. We focus on me and my own shortcomings. We ask: “How can I change?” We act as if we’ll be better after wallowing around in our sin or analyzing ourselves to see if there is room for improvement.

At this stage in my life, self-improvement is an oxymoron. Sometimes I stroll through the self-help, self-improvement, section of the book store just to see what is there. One thing is sure: concentrating on myself doesn’t change me.

Christian faith tells us, maybe especially at Lent, that we are being changed and shaped. The question is: what or who is shaping us? Are we being shaped by our culture's attempts to get us to see everything in consumer categories? Or, are we being shaped by the Spirit of Christ?

Lent is more about bringing ourselves as much as we can under the influence of Christ and the cross. The grace which saved us in Jesus Christ was a gift and the grace which makes us into what God’s wants us to be is a gift.

Sure, there is much to learn. There is much growth to be had. There is much serving to be done. Lent is that time when we walk with Christ in the story of Holy Scripture and as we walk that journey it comes to us that it is our story. During Lent it becomes more of our story and draws us into that life that is filled with grace and joy.

The scriptures that set the tone for Ash Wednesday are those verses in Matthew 6 which warn us about being hypocrites and parading our piety before others for the sake of being noticed. I don’t find many actual hypocrites. That would involve a conscious “let’s pretend.” The people I know are really trying to “be serious” about their faith. So, while you’re trying to really “get serious” during Lent, remember that the cross and Jesus and everything else is a gift of God, by God’s grace.

It’s OK to smile during Lent.

Dave Nichols

Comments on Lectionary - Sept. 1

That Jesus would be healing comes at no surprise to any of us. Nor, is it surprising that Jesus is healing on the Sabbath. So, when the re...