Surprise Endings: Superheroes, fat ladies, and hope for humanity in dark times

 

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We all love the surprise ending. One where the hero miraculously reappears and the bad guys get their due. First it was the western. Then war movies. Next came the Sci-fi, followed by adventure movies. Then it was fantasy…Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter. Now we have superheroes.

When you think about it, aren’t they are all the same plot? How is it that no matter how many times we see this story, and no matter how well we know the narrative, we keep coming back for more? Why do these movies resonate so?

It seems our hearts love the plot line that, no matter how dark the night appears, help is on the way. “Look, up in the sky…” Or as Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta famously said, “The opera ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings.”

Perhaps it is because no matter how far fetched they are, these movies hum a melody our hearts already know…a tune, sung by that large lady of song which says, “Yes, this is impossible…but a final scene yet remains.”

I think the superhero saga is simply a retelling of the Christian story – the story that our hearts were made for.

Here is that story in a nutshell: Once there was One God – a glorious being who dwelt in perfect unity and love…a holy trinity. Not the self-centeredness of the human trinity of me, myself and I, but the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in self-existent, self-giving love. God desired to share his fullness and joy, so he/they (words fail us in the presence of such glory), created. And God, the creator of creativity, created intricately, painstakingly…lovingly. The first two pages of the Bible describes this in detail.

Then, in less than one page of script, we wreck the entire operation.

And the whole rest of this Bible, all of the other 2000 pages, tell of God’s relentless pursuit to win his wanderers back.

It’s a story of a growing hope. God starts with a single man, Adam. He moves on to a family, Abraham and Sarah’s. From there he widens his rescue to a nation, Israel. Then, finally, God throws out the lifeline to all of humanity.  This deliverance tale finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus: God becomes one of us, lives among us as a servant. He goes to a cross as the most unlikely part of his Father’s rescue plan. The climax of the story occurs in the days we commemorate as Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

Let me remind you of that story line: Jesus is grabbed by angry religious leaders and sentenced by a private mob under the cover of darkness. As an occupied people, his countrymen lack the ability to pronounce the death penalty. So they take him to their Roman occupiers and change the charges against him – Romans do not care about local religious rules, they re-label Jesus a traitor. Jesus doesn’t defend himself. The governor, Pontius Pilate, tries to placate the crowd by having Jesus savagely beaten. But, rather than satisfy the mob, the beating raises their blood lust. Pilate acquiesces and sentences Jesus to the death reserved for the worst criminals: crucifixion. They force Jesus to carry his cross to the hill over the highway where they execute enemies of the state. They nail Jesus to his cross and erect it between two thieves. Six hours later he is dead. But before he dies he says two fascinating things: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” And “It is finished.”

Let that sink in: Jesus actually asks his Father to forgive to forgive his executioners. Then he says, “IT is finished.” Not “I” but “It” – his reason for being on that cross is what Jesus “finished.”

In the end, they take his lifeless body down and place him in a tomb. They seal it with an enormous stone, stamp it with the mark of the emperor, and station a Roman guard unit to protect it.

The end.

Or so it was supposed to be.

But the cosmic filmmaker had other ideas…

But why was Jesus up there anyway? What was his “it”? The power in any story is not only in the action, but what the actions mean.

Jesus was on the cross as an innocent but, we are told, most certainly NOT as a victim. Why way he there? Because you and I really do have a problem that has trapped us. One that reaches into every recess of our existence…a problem that is environmental, relational, interpersonal and existential. It is a problem we cannot avoid and will not go away.

In our hearts we know that God is perfect and holy. …And, when we are honest, we painfully aware of just how much we are not.

It’s a dilemma: A God whom the prophet Habbakuk says, “is too pure to look upon evil,” (Hab. 1:13) has a love that will not allow him to look away.  In Jesus, God manages to right what we made wrong. To ride in and save the day. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life”(John 3:16).  The unlikely storyline God chose involved a cross, a tomb, and a man who wouldn’t stay dead.

It is called salvation…deliverance…rescue. We were as good as dead in trespasses, and then, As Peter said, “Christ died for our sins once for all. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. (1 Pet 3:18)

Again, he was not a victim: This was in the script all along. Jesus’ death was the rescue plan.

But Jesus is a savior who, no matter how “over” the story appeared, still had a surprise ending up his sleeve. We know that plan worked by the Easter event - Jesus walking out of a tomb. We give it a fancy, religious sounding name, resurrection. But the shocking news was that a man very carefully put on ice did not stay that way. And, now that death cannot hold him, he holds out the hope of life to us as well. Paul said it like this: “Christ has been raised from the dead…the first of a great harvest of all who have died…just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.” (1 Cor. 15:20-22)

God offers his rescue to all. But God, always a gentleman, will not arm twist or manipulate us to accept his offer. In Terminator 2, the terrifying cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up to rescue Sarah Conner. She is terrified. After vanquishing her enemies, the Terminator reaches out to her with the words, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do you want to live? Will you come with Jesus?

Will you allow his forgiveness to be yours? Will you allow his Spirit to breath new life into you? Will you allow the great author and director to give you love and acceptance…to write a new ending to your story?

John said it like this, “To all who receive him, even to those who call on his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” (John 1:12)

Tonight, what scene are you in? Are you at the height of success? If so, you might want to resist the temptation to arrogance. You have seen this story. You know the heights are an illusion.

Are you being overcome by the adversities of life? Do times look dark? You need to know, that in Christ, you have an Aslan…A hero with superpowers, unstoppable like a cyborg. A man in a white hat who has already ridden to your rescue…

He purchased your forgiveness on a cross, guaranteed your ultimate rescue when he walked from the tomb, and offers a life transformed in the in-between.

So when all looks lost, look up. For it is not until we are at the end of us that our Super Man can do his thing.

Is it just me, or is that the fat lady I hear warming up her voice in the wings?

Or as the church says, The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

 

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Real Worship: A summons to the feet of Jesus

 

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Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense.

Scientists tell us of the powerful ability of the sense of smell to trigger memories—that the olfactory bulb in our brain links scent to event. That is why walking into a home with cookies baking in the oven can carry you back to the security of grandma’s house decades earlier. Scent, somehow, unifies and cements all 5 senses and places us, momentarily, in the experiences of our past. One suspects the story of the anointing by the woman at Bethany provided just such a fragrant link in the disciples’ minds between burial perfume and Jesus’ looming Passion. The story of the woman of Bethany was obviously an important one in the early church, as all four Gospel writers record it (Matthew 26:6-12, Mark 14: 3-9, Luke 7:36-49, John 12:1-8). As a whole, the Gospel writers tell us three things in this story: Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense. That is why it is so odd that in this fragrant Gospel narrative, the memory of the eyewitnesses seems fuzzy… There is a woman. There is an anointing. There is expensive, perfumed oil. There is the objection to using it on Jesus. But then the details start getting jumbled. Are these four accounts one event? Two? Three? Scholars have wondered for centuries. It’s easy to get frustrated with the Gospel writers here. They carefully name and give character to the Twelve, yet they blur the details of this woman and her story. Who was this woman? Both Matthew and Mark have Jesus predict that this story will always be told in memory of this woman…but then her name conspicuously escapes them. Luke tells us she was a “A sinner.” John alone tells us that her name was “Mary.” But Mary was the most common women’s name in first Century Palestine. There were three women named Mary present at the crucifixion that we know of. Which Mary is this? Luke places the story early in his Gospel. Matthew, Mark, and John place it in Bethany, the day before the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest by the mob in the garden. Here are a few more details: Several days before his betrayal and death, Jesus and his disciples dine at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. While they recline at the table, a woman, whom John, the last Gospel writer by decades, identifies as Mary of Bethany approaches Jesus. We don’t know how long she had followed Jesus. What we do know is that Mary knew that worship has an object: Real worship is about Jesus. She has an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, worth a year’s wages. The jars were permanently sealed. To let the perfumed oil out one had to break the neck off. Once opened, like a jar of mayonnaise, it had to be used. Mary broke her jar, and emptied the perfume on Jesus. Worship is costly. In another fuzzy detail, John has the woman anoint Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. Matthew and Mark report that the woman of Bethany anointed Jesus’ head.  Both actions flower with symbolism. In the ancient Near East, anointing the head signified Kingship – Kings were anointed at their coronation by the high priest or prophet. The word “Christ,” is a transliteration of the Greek word “Christos,” itself a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, which means “the anointed one.”  As Rachel Held Evans says, “This anonymous woman finds herself in the very untraditional position of priest and prophet.” Only in the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus, does this make sense.”  Because real worship DOESN’T make sense. Anointing feet, on the other hand, models humility, service…love. John’s account is more intimate. Awkward even.  In a culture in which a woman’s touch was forbidden, for Mary to cradle Jesus’ feet in her hands and brush oil over his ankles and toes with the ends of her hair was unthinkable. This is most likely the oil for her own burial she has poured out. Mary breaks her treasured bottle of burial perfume and empties it on Jesus. She spares no expense. She is fully committed. She is “all in.” She is sacrificing her own future. The self-emptying of this action foreshadows Jesus’ washing the disciples feet to come the next day on Maundy Thursday. And just as we see the male disciples discomfort at that event, their unease at her display of affection is palatable. Real worship is about Jesus. It IS costly. And it DOESN’T make sense. In the midst of all this symbolism and foreshadowing, Jesus interprets the event for us: this is an act of worship in preparation for his burial. When the disciples rebuke the woman for what they see as a waste of money, Jesus rebukes them saying, “Why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” Jesus had been speaking of his impending death for a good while, but the Twelve kept missing it. The idea of a kingdom ushered in with the death of their friend rather than the death of their enemies was unthinkable. It is no wonder they complained about the “waste” of money the anointing represented – they assumed they would need to finance their ministry with Jesus for years to come. Mary alone seems to get it. She is the first of Jesus’ disciples to acknowledge his impending death… the one who anoints “the anointed one.” For this, Jesus gives her his highest praise. “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” What a remarkable thought—that from open air revival to cathedral, Europe to Uruguay, Israel to Africa, this woman’s story would be told. Jesus wanted us to remember. Yet we aren’t even sure of the woman’s name. How is it that, unlike other Gospel stories in which details drop out as we get to the later Gospels, her name does not appear until very late? I suspect it is because this good lady did not want it to appear. The beneficiaries of the events in Jesus’ ministry joined the early church after his resurrection. They shared their stories to encourage one another. Later, when it became obvious that Jesus was tarrying in his expected return, writers gathered and recorded those stories. In the early stories of blind Bartimaeus, for example, we know Bart’s name, his dad’s name, and even that a blind friend was beside him in the early Gospels. But by the time (and distance) that Luke writes, Bartimaeus is presumably gone and his name is dropped. And Bart’s story does not even make John’s Gospel, the last one written. So why is this woman not named by the early authors? The obvious guess is that it was specifically because she was still around. And SHE did not want it named. We know that Mary was a worshipper. My guess, knowing a few Mary types, is that, for Mary, worship was, first and foremost not about her, but about Jesus. And she didn’t want folks to get distracted in admiring her. My guess is that Mary is named in John specifically because she is no longer around to keep an eyewitness from recording her name. But what of you? Where is your focus? What is your perfume? What do you guard and value above all else? Is it material possessions? Is your perfume your reputation? Friends? Career? Take a moment and name that which you value most, because you cannot pour out that which you cannot name. The challenge of Mary this Holy Week is that we would dare break open that which we value most and pour it out as a fragrant offering upon our Lord. Perhaps, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the scent of a fragrant offering might trigger a memory… like the comfort of grandma’s house, bought through decades of difficult labor during hard times, we would be reminded that our comfort from God was bought at a high price. Because Real worship is about Jesus. It DOESN’T make sense. And it IS costly.   *This was the message from “Dinner Church,” our Wednesday Holy Week liturgy for families. It has a contemplative feeling (with some Taize and Taize-esque songs.) It is based on 1 Corinthians and what is thought to be the earliest non-canonical Christian literature, a teaching tool called The Didache. It is essentially the biblical “love feast” (Jude 1:12, 1 Cor. 11). The candle light and contemplative music work well for our rowdy urban kids. People prepare the meal together, light the worship/dinner space, pray and sing and eat over candle light. It also gives us a chance to give folks an overview of the upcoming Triduum of holy week and pass out devotionals for families to use at home.

Holy Week for Newbies

Matt Marino:

With Holy Week fast approaching I wanted to repost this as an invitation to my friends…

Originally posted on the gospel side:

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A primer for those wondering what all the hubbub is about.

Holy Week, in a nutshell, is a spiritual retreat without leaving home. Remember summer youth camp? You had an authentic, transformative experience of God in a group of others having the same experience. You came home connected to those people and God in a new way. You thought, “That was fantastic. I am different and I can hardly wait to come back next year.” Holy Week is a lot like that.

Holy Week is series of liturgical experiences that walk us through the final week of Jesus’ life. We journey with Jesus, in the short span of a week, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the missing guard unit, neatly rolled grave clothes, and the shocking appearance of a risen Savior. In a symbol and story impoverished culture, Holy Week opens our hearts to the gift of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. This is more than a psychological…

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Goodbye, Papa.

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Martin Ubaldo “Marty” Marino

Nov. 11, 1934 ~ March 14, 2014

In a world of unique individuals my father might have been the uniquiest. He was a high roller who hit it big. Twice. He also hit rock bottom. Twice. Unfortunately that last hit was a doozy. After that, Phoenix’s highest-flying realtor mostly “worked” from home. First it was online gaming and later the stock market, which, come to think of it, is really the same thing.

We all have our own unique vantage point on other’s lives. You may have known my dad as “Marty the realtor”… or grandpa…or golfer. “Marty the political campaign manager” or “Marty the original Suns season ticket holder.”  “Marty the colleague” or “Marty the card player.” But we all knew him as “Marty the forwarder of factually questionable spam.”

To me, Marty was dad.

And my dad was a paradox: An extroverted recluse. A curmudgeon with a heart of gold. He wore his vices on his sleeve, but hid his virtues under a Grumpy Cat exterior.

My father was a virtuoso reaction provoker. You could not spend more than 5 minutes with my father without either loving him or hating him.

Most likely both.

Usually at the same time.

When I was a child we would vacation at Pajaro Dunes, a lovely semi-private beach. But as my dad aged, he reverted to the NY kid who longed for the hubbub of the boardwalk. He began to holiday on Mission Beach, San Diego’s answer to Coney Island. He rented on the promenade. Always with a second story balcony to watch the girls and talk smack to the fellas. My dad was still talking smack in his 70′s.

In the mornings he would greet the world with vocal renditions of Sinatra, Bennett and Hoagie Carmichael. Picture the Mission Beach boardwalk at 8 am on a midweek July morning: A few fit joggers & bikers power by. Locals kibitz over coffee. Hung over college kids stumble home. But mostly families that stayed up too late are trying to grab a few more moments of shut-eye. And there, on the balcony above it all, is my retirement-aged, 260 pound, shirtless, chain-smoking Italian father belting out “Fly me to the moon.”

No, it wasn’t good. And, yes, he knew it.

But for a month each summer people would walk past our rental either snickering or grimacing. In my 49 years I cannot recall a single incident in which my dad was not the center of attention. I don’t think he tried to be attention seeking or reaction provoking. He was just a smidge larger than life.

Ideas were important to my dad. He had them. Articulated them. Argued them. And he always won the argument. Usually because his idea was persuasive. When it was not, he had perfected a technique I call “vocal Darwinism”: Survival of the loudest.

Words were important to my dad as well. He used them often – either in the declarative or the exclamatory. If you used a word wrongly you would receive a lesson on its Latin etymology, delivered in the declarative exclamatory. Inside of my father’s home, where the lion spent the lion’s share of the last 25 years, the most common words addressed to him began, “O Papa.” The “O” could be pronounced with shock, joy, fear, dismay, gratitude, or exasperation. As in “O, Papa!” when he went out of his way to help one of us, or when you caught him, a man in end stage congestive heart failure, sneaking an entire box of sodium enhanced prepackaged spareribs for breakfast.

Most of my father’s favorite words cannot be said in church.

My dad was an Italian. A New York raised, swarthy, chain wearing, chain smoking, looked like a mafia Don and sounded like one too, Italian. In case you would like to be an Italian, there are 3 essential words you need. My dad made sure we knew them: Capish (understand), Stai Zitto (shut up), and Luie Monjagovol (an untranslatable expression useful for all occasions…mostly for those rare times when you could not use any of the words my dad really preferred using…the ones you cannot use in church.)

My father was extremely funny. And sarcastic. Unfortunately, sarcasm often goes over one’s children’s heads…and when it does it often carries decades long consequences. For example, when I was seven and writing the obligatory post-Christmas “Thank you” notes, I made the mistake of telling my dad that envelopes “taste bad.” He said, “That’s because the glue is carcinogenic.” I was always learning important things from my father, like how to pronounce “carcinogenic” and that envelope glue was a dangerous yet unregulated substance.

I didn’t lick envelopes until I was a high school junior. I was working as a Suns’ ballboy when one night Ron Lee, a highly personable Suns guard, half licked a ticket envelope and handed it to me to finish. I licked my finger and used that to finish the envelope. I looked up and the entire team was staring at me. I had no idea that they were wondering if I was a racist for not licking an envelope after a Black man. With full conviction informed them, “Licking envelopes is stupid. Y’all are going to die of tongue cancer!”

My dad’s name was Martin Ubaldo Marino. I once asked him why he always wrote “Marty.” He told me “Martin Ubaldo” was long and WOPy sounding so he had it legally changed. I saw him write “Martin U. Marino” on something last year and asked him when he changed his name back. He had no idea what I was talking about.

I live in fear of what other great fictions await my discovery.

My dad was the strongest man I knew. As a kid I would hold on around his neck as he swam underwater 2 complete lengths of our long swimming pool. I could barely stay on due to the water resistance. It must have taken tremendous strength to propel his enormous body and mine through that water. I would have to let go on the first leg to get air and catch him again on his way back.

My dad broke racial barriers long before it was fashionable. In the late 1960′s, Phoenix was a very Anglo town. The first time I laid eyes on an African American was in my house. Asleep. Connie Hawkins had flown into town to look at homes and was tired. So my dad, who sold the early Suns players their homes, brought him over for a nap.

Back then professional sports were divided not by management and labor (they all made about the same money), but by color. My dad and trainer Joe Proski socialized with White and Black alike. It took me years to realize that they were the only ones doing that. He never mentioned “justice” or “reconciliation.” He just lived it.

If we did something hard working or noble my dad said, “You’re a good man, Gunga Din.” I lived to hear those words.

The event that summarized my dad as a parent and grandpapa was beating us to the hospital for our daughter’s birth…and then hazing us loudly all over the hospital for being late to our own child’s delivery.

Boys always learn the important things in life from their fathers. Here are…

10 life lessons I learned from my dad:

1. Tools are something you buy…but for someone else to actually use.

2. Do stuff you don’t like simply because you love your kids: Bouncing a Lincoln Continental all over Northern Arizona forest roads to take 2 teenagers fishing comes to mind. I have never met anyone more out of place in a forest than my father.

3. Everyone gets to win in a deal. My dad was a very moral businessman: “Never let anyone get screwed, Matt.” He once told me when some friends hatched a get rich quick scheme.

4. Care for people. One Christmas he was ordered to “tone it down” by the Salvation Army: When he drove up to the house and saw how poor the family was, he loaded the whole tribe into his Fleetwood Brougham and took them on a shopping spree to a warehouse store.

5. It’s better to be kind than nice. My dad was not a nice man. But he was a remarkably kind one. He would come to your aid no matter how ridiculous a situation you had gotten yourself into. But he would ride you on it the whole time.

6. Your gifts can be a stepping-stone or a tombstone. The same pride that made my dad a legendary real estate agent also made him too proud to return to it. Don’t be a victim of your gifts.

7. You can save a lot of money by making your own cigarettes, but money is all you are saving.

8. For a man for whom religion was a regular target of his sarcasm, I learned a great deal about faith from my dad:

-He taught me to read the Bible beginning in the Gospels. I had started the Bible twice and got bogged down in 2 Chronicles both times. Who starts a book 2/3 of the way through? My dad taught me that it is really a collection of books, and that the New interprets the Old.

-I learned to stick with it. On three occasions I thought about quitting the ministry for something that would pay better. Each time my dad was the one who beelined it to my house to talk me out of it. “Why would you do that?” He said. “You were made for this.”

-I learned that what we say and what we mean aren’t always the same thing. Last month, my father, the vocal atheist, called me concerned about a lack of faith by a close family member. The conversation was both funny and profound…

Dad: What are you doing?

Matt: At 6:30 A.M. on my day off?

Dad: You aren’t sleeping are you?

Matt: Not any more.

Dad: Do you know that  ____ doesn’t believe a GD thing about Jesus Christ. Can you believe that? I mean… JC. Who doesn’t love Jesus, GDit. What the H. Everyone loves Jesus Christ. Even I love Jesus Christ. And I do, dammit. I do love Jesus Christ. GDit. Who doesn’t believe anything? C. I mean really NOT believe anything. What the H.”

Matt: Dad, Have you considered contacting Guinness? You might have set a new record for blasphemies in a conversation for Jesus.

Dad (after an out of character apology for his word choice): You need to do something about that! You need to talk to him!

Matt: Dad, you have spent 30 years mocking faith. And you are surprised that he took you at your word? I have always known you had a secret thing for Jesus, you just protested too much. But I really think you should have that talk. Be honest. Let him know that, although you have big issues with the church, that you actually think quite highly of Jesus and it bothers you that he doesn’t.

I don’t know if that conversation ever happened.

9. Number nine takes a little setup: My dad went to great lengths to avoid exercise. If he had a religion, it might have been named Exercise-avoidance-ism. This religion had at its theological core the doctrine that “every human is allotted a certain number of heartbeats at birth and that if you want to waste yours exercising, that is your business.” So, #9, I learned that His theory on “the conservation of heartbeats” is probably flawed.

10. Speaking of flawed, the worst day of a kid’s life might be the day he finds out his dad is flawed. And my dad was quite flawed. However, one of the best days in a man’s life is the day he finds out that his flawed dad is still quite human and, in many ways, quite holy. One day last summer he and my stepmother came over unannounced and told us that she had had beaten cancer.  They had never told us that she had cancer-it might have been the only secret my father ever kept. That day, the only time in my life that I saw my father cry, he threw his arms around my stepmom, squeezed her hard enough that we feared for her safety, and blurted through his tears how much he loved her and how lost he would be if anything happened to her. I will never forget that day. It told me my dad was growing…becoming more alive…even as his body was obviously dying.

As I thought about a memorial to my father I thought, “It will be the first time someone gets the last word on my Marty Marino.” But as a Christian, I don’t actually believe that I have.

Dad I love you and I miss you already. See you later.

Holy Week for Newbies

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A primer for those wondering what all the hubbub is about.

Holy Week, in a nutshell, is a spiritual retreat without leaving home. Remember summer youth camp? You had an authentic, transformative experience of God in a group of others having the same experience. You came home connected to those people and God in a new way. You thought, “That was fantastic. I am different and I can hardly wait to come back next year.” Holy Week is a lot like that.

Holy Week is series of liturgical experiences that walk us through the final week of Jesus’ life. We journey with Jesus, in the short span of a week, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the missing guard unit, neatly rolled grave clothes, and the shocking appearance of a risen Savior. In a symbol and story impoverished culture, Holy Week opens our hearts to the gift of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. This is more than a psychological remembrance, it is actively allowing ourselves to be in that final week, baptized (immersed) into his death…”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? …in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:3-4)

Holy Week is sacramental

…and we are sacramental creatures. Regardless of any initial reaction you may have to that word, hear me out. A sacrament is a tangible symbol that creates what it signifies. Like kissing. When you first kissed that special someone on the doorstep at the end of the evening, it did more than represent thinking the girl was pretty and nice and that you enjoyed talking with her. It actually created and amplified those feelings. You walked back to your car more emotionally connected to her than you were when you opened her door a brief moment earlier.  And when her front door clicked shut, you fist pumped the air. “Heck, Yeah!” Because that kiss actually made more of what it signified.

So God gave us, fleshly, sacramental, critters that we are, a God who came in flesh. Who lived. Who breathed. Who touched us and was touched by us. Who walked willingly to a criminal’s cross, laid down, spread his arms wide for humanity, and waited for real nails to pierce his hands and feet. It is because you too are flesh and blood that you should engage in Holy Week…because Holy Week creates what it signifies: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10)

A current reality

The ancient prayers point us to the deep mystery in this: It isn’t “Christ rose.” It is “Christ is risen!” Holy Week is a current reality. A more real reality. So we do more than meditate on these holy mysteries. We allow them to become true within us, as our baptism is true within us. We join him on Maundy Thursday in His Last Supper. We are with him on Friday in His death. We keep prayerful watch before His tomb on Saturday. With growing anticipation we mark His descent into Hades and His trampling of death by His death. Finally, with shouts of joy, we greet His resurrection on Sunday morning, knowing that one day it will be our resurrection too. In Holy Week, as Orthodox priest Fr. Steven Freeman says, “The life to come becomes the life we live.”

A “deep mystery,” it should be said, is not magic. We must surrender to the prayers and liturgy – faith must be lived. In the end, Holy Week isn’t something we do. It is something that does us.

So what is the hubbub?

Holy Week is more than an emotionally powerful experience. It is an opportunity for a greater sanctification. As Paul said, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6:8) Or, as an Arnold Swarzenegger character once said, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do yourself a favor, make time to engage in Holy Week, especially the three-day “Triduum”: The despair of Golgotha on Good Friday, the muted sorrow of Saturday, the joyful Baptisms at Saturday’s Great Vigil, and the surprise of a risen Savior on Easter morning.

Almighty God, who through your only‑begotten Son Jesus Christ, overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life‑giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Holy Week Sched 2014 Blog

 

 

Celebrity Jeopardy, Pastor’s Edition

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It is a game we find endlessly entertaining. It pays lavish cash gifts to the contestants – celebrity pastors long on speaking gifts and ego. Part of the appeal is that the game appears unscripted. In reality it is anything but: First come video-venue multi-sites…necessary because “our man” is “da man.” Then book deals complete with manipulated sales. 16,000′ homes? Of course. “An ox is worthy of its hire.” – That’s biblical. Financial transparency? Not in this game, Alex. And, as celebrity stature grows, church boards are re-filled, not with parishioners, but with the pastors of other megachurches. The final page of the script is to re-brand oneself from pastor to CEO. After all, a pastor can’t take three quarters of a million in “winnings” each year. For the IRS, however, “What is a CEO?” is the answer in the form of a question for the ambitious pastor.

Last summer, in a post entitled “When did evangelicals get popes?” I pointed out the ironic similarities between celebrity video-venue preachers and the papacy that Protestantism rose in protest against. Extending the irony has been Pope Francis’ humility this year in contrast to the growing list of celebrity pastor abuses…

This new generation of celebrity preachers do not disclose salaries. They play shady games with parishioner money. They plagiarize while exhorting others not to. They shamelessly teach even children to idolize them. They bully those who would question their bad behavior. This game turns people from parishioners to Svengali following fans and renders the faith foolishness to an increasingly unchurched culture.

Yes, any public figure draws criticism, and envy is an ever present human problem. However, when you have harmed so many through your teaching and lack of financial accountability that former staff and parishioners set up websites to warn others of you, perhaps it is time for us to change channels?

I am told that I should lay off – that celebrity turnstile church pastors are “making Jesus famous”? I say they are making themselves famous, Alex. Not to mention fabulously wealthy. And when someone viewing at home grumbles we are told by the studio audience that their success validates their ministry and that we should not dare to “raise a hand against God’s anointed” (1 Sam. 26:11).

I have also been told that this is a Philippians 1 issue of “whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached…so I rejoice.” That, however, is Paul saying, “It doesn’t matter what happens to me.” This is much different. This is not a leader sacrificing his wellbeing for the extension of God’s Kingdom, it the systematic fleecing of the flock by celebrity CEOs. A more appropriate scripture would be the condemnation awaiting careless teachers (James 3:1).

I have my own answer in the form of a question: Did Jesus ask to be made famous or followed?

Like celebrity obsessed groupies, the flock willingly participates in their fleecing. They arrive at video-venues by the minivan full. Then stare like pre-teen girls waiting for a pay-per-view performance of “the Biebs” as they wait for the screen to tune in from across the continent…victims of sophisticated manipulations, emotionally steered to avoid the obvious questions.

Contestant: “I will take “idol worship” for $200, Alex?”

Host: “A big lie, a big secret, and a big bully.”

Contestant: “What are Mark Driscoll’s, Steven Furtick’s, and Perry Noble’s books, salary, and treatment of their critics?”

There are tens of thousands of humble servants of God ascending pulpits and standing behind the table of the Lord every Sunday in churches small, large, mega and super-mega. Do your soul a favor, instead of being a consumer of the “show,” join one those humble folk in their humble work. Be a part of something that exercises financially transparency. Give your time, talent and treasure to a community that is about serving and reaching the world rather than the pastor. Your faith life should contribute to more than the Nielson ratings and “winnings” of the latest celebrity “CEO.”

Cut to theme music while contestants appear to be thoughtfully crafting their latest scripted answers.

How long will we remain glued to this show? Because the kingdom of God is not a game.

A parent shares an unlikely secret to raising great teens

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Do you have kids in those really enjoyable third through sixth grade years? If so, you are probably a bit nervous about the teen years you know are looming around the corner.

I am the parent of two teens…at least until my daughter turns twenty next month. For the most part, our kids thrived through high school. And without arresting beauty, stellar brains, or athletic prowess, our kids were both voted president of their classes all through their high school years and were pursued by quality universities…including my son being invited to the Naval Academy’s summer program. Our parenting secret? While my friends pushed their kids to learn second languages, play on club teams, and take etiquette courses, we charted another parenting course. We involved our kids in an innovative program for youth. A program that data told us is linked to:

  • Dramatically reduced rebelliousness and risk of committing a crime
  • Increased participation in high school
  • Lowered rate of premarital sex
  • Reduction in binge drinking in high school and college
  • Improved academic performance in high school and college
  • Improved odds of saying they have a “very happy life” as an adult
  • And is even linked to an 8 year increase in life expectancy!

What is the activity that gives parents these outcomes we want for our kids?

The answer may surprise you. It is active participation in a local church. No, I’m not kidding. The data comes from sources such as the Center from Disease Control, Indiana, Michigan and Duke Universities, and the Barna Research Group. The caveat, the student has to be “deeply involved” in the church. According to the National Survey of Youth and Religion, “occasional attendees” have virtually no behavioral difference from non-attenders. Research indicates that regular church participation is associated with a decrease in every risky behavior that parents want their children to avoid and an increase in the behaviors that parents want to encourage.

Sometimes it is an issue of not seeing the forest for the trees. What we really want for our kids isn’t to be a great soccer player or to have a specific friend group. What we really want for our children is to have a great life. We see those other things as means to the end of becoming great human beings; self-sufficient and making a contribution to the world we leave them. The church is your number one support in your deepest yearnings for your kids.

Which brings us back to my kids: Although I am a picky parent, I genuinely like and respect the people my kids have become. I am proud of the decisions they make and the motives behind them. I am proud of how they carry themselves, a strong young woman and young man who stick up for underdogs, refuse to push others around or allow others to push them around. They are kind. They work hard. They serve others. They have stuck to their sexual purity guns. They are deep and fun. They, especially my daughter, are admirably resilient. They are viewed as leaders by their peers.

Why does it work?

To a great degree the people they have become is the result of a deeply committed walk with God. And a deeply committed faith is almost always the fruit of deep commitment to a local faith community. Regardless of what you personally think of Christian commitment, a deeply committed faith is a gift that, unlike participation in a club team, will keep giving to your child over the arc of their life.

What is the secret sauce?

Deep immersion in a church almost always includes a relationship with an older Christian mentor, aka, a youth worker. Youth workers reinforce parent’s messages from home. They do this as an influential voice a step or two older and wiser than their peers. Youth workers are role models and visible pictures of what positive choices gain one in life. They are a gift to parents that cannot be under-estimated.

As a parent, you and I have more to do with our teen’s success than anything or anyone in their lives. One of the best things we did to leverage that parental influence was to involve them in the church. At church, great young adults who love God, loved my kids. These young people, both church workers and Young Life leaders, helped my kids have a bigger vision for their lives. They helped my kids see their gifts, gave them opportunities for leadership and encouraged them to develop those gifts. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” tells us that highly successful people are the first ones to 10,000 hours in an activity. In a good church, leaders will spend a great amount of time teaching your child to serve others, speak in public, develop and articulate deeply held beliefs, discover musical gifts they didn’t know they have, and develop social skills that will bless them the rest of their lives. They will be busier, without a doubt, but they will develop new capacities, and the life skills that they need most for future life-success. And our kids are not unique in this. The kids in our small mission church’s youth program are a virtual Who’s Who of the student leaders in the four neighborhood high schools they attend.

So parents, take your kids to church. Get involved. Get your kids involved. In the end, it will do far more for them than the soccer league you miss on Sunday mornings. I promise.

Is Lent really 40 days long?

Matt Marino:

Father Brench in New England offers a nice tutorial on why Lent lasts 46 days, but even more, why a cycle of introspection is a spiritually helpful interruption to our usual praise-dominated worship.

For an idea of how biblical this is, take an afternoon and read all 150 songs in the Jewish hymnal (the Psalms) in one sitting. You will be amazed at how many would not be included in a modern hymnal as unsuitable for public worship.

Originally posted on Leorningcnihtes boc:

Every now and then someone goes through a calendar and counts the days in Lent and is shocked and annoyed (or at least confused) to discover that Lent is actually 46 days long.  (It’s six full weeks, which is 42 days, plus the days of Ash Wednesday through Saturday adds 4 more to make 46.)

Hey!  What gives?  Is this a conspiracy by the Church to trick people into a 40-day season of discipline when secretly it’s really 46, and we’ve just been tricked because we almost never bother to count?

The answer is going to sound a little weird to those who are not used to the tradition of the Church, but bear with me.  Lent is 46 days long as a season, but it’s only a 40-day fast.  How is this possible?  Because Sundays don’t count.

So, what, does this mean that Lent is a manic depressive season:…

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Game on. A sermon for Ash Wednesday

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Here is my Ash Wednesday sermon…not because I am convinced of it’s internet worthiness, but because friends have asked me to share it since I posted on the topic twice this week. 

Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 •  Psalm 51:1-17  •  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  •  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Welcome to Spring Training! 

That is what Lent is: Spring Training for the Christian life.  You know Spring Training. It’s where players:

- Find out what they’ve got.

- Learn new skills.

- Figure out what they still need to work on.

Today, Ash Wednesday, is Opening Day.

Now that you are in the ballpark we are going to spend the next 40 disciplined days getting ready for the regular season- life.

I am not a baseball guy. I don’t know much about the game. But one thing I do know is that the person who throws out the first pitch is generally a pretty bad baseball player. Have you ever seen a first pitch? Sometimes it goes into the stands. Sometimes it drops off of the pitcher’s hand and rolls to a stop halfway to the plate.  It us usually thrown out by some famous non-baseballer: an elderly ex-Senator, an opera singer, or a guy who made millions inventing the home latte maker.

Unfortunately, our first liturgical “pitch” on Ash Wednesday, like most first pitches, is a bit off kilter. You should probably know that I am a HUGE prayer book fan. So much so that I am accused of having a crush on all things Anglican. My evangelical friends are adamant that I am a non-objective shill for the Episcopal Church. I can’t help it though. The wisdom and care and catholicity of our prayer book is legendary. But, in an effort to prove them wrong, I have scoured the prayer book and found two things that I wish were not there: One of them is the opening prayer from tonight’s service. I suspect that whoever wrote the opening prayer for Ash Wednesday must be famous – It’s that bad. The theology umpire in me calls, “Foul.”

Here it is again: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made (We are looking good through the windup) and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: (still not bad) Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins (Oops. Problems on the release.) and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness;  (And the ball is in the dirt.)

The idea that we are somehow “worthy” in our lamenting or forgiven BECAUSE we are penitent is a theological “Swing and a miss.” We are not rendered worthy through our repentance and we aren’t forgiven through a perfected penitence. That prayer makes it sound as if we are cute and cuddly- as if God is lucky to have such holy creatures as us on his team.

The truth is that we are forgiven because God is so forgiving. It is God’s nature to reconcile fallen humans to himself. It is God’s nature to make all things right…satisfying both his holiness and love in Jesus Christ and giving a new nature freely to humans. It is our nature to jack things up. Give me a relationship: I’ll mess that up. Children: I’ll mess them up. A political system: Oops. A planet: Our track record there isn’t so good either.

Forgiveness, you see, is given not earned… given to humans at the Father’s initiation and the Son’s expense…and that we are drawn to by the Holy Spirit’s wooing – The entirety of the trinity is involved in human salvation. Given the mess we have made of things, the basis for our forgiveness can hardly be our penitence.

We ARE forgiven because we WERE forgiven…on Calvary. That forgiveness was proven three days later as a risen Lord strode from the mouth of an empty tomb. And that is why we are penitent: We have seen the great acts of God on our behalf and we walk in gratitude of God’s love lavished upon us. Obedience is the response to God’s favor, not the price of it. God’s provision provokes our response.

And so, in anticipation of celebrating those holy mysteries at Easter, we begin tonight Lenten disciplines, either giving up something that we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity: self-denial and self-discipline to remind us of the greatness of our God.

Luckily our liturgy pivots rapidly from the off target opening pitch as we move quickly to the Old Testament prophet Joel. Joel reminds us that God has a right to be ticked at our forgetfulness of God. Joel asks us to “rend our hearts and not our garments.”  God desires an internal brokenness – for brokenness allows God’s love to seep through the cracks in our hard outer shells of self-reliance and transform us from the inside out.

Then we have Psalm 103 in which, just as a good dad “has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him – he remembers that we are dust.”   He remembers. Do we?

Then comes our Gospel passage: “Beware of practicing your piety before others.”  Jesus says, in effect, “Don’t trust in your very religious religiosity.”  Can you think of a single time Jesus had something positive to say to those very religious Pharisees who trusted in their religiosity? Neither can I.

Finally, in 2nd Corinthians, chronologically the last of tonight’s passages to be composed, Paul entreats us, “on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”- Paul spells it out: the righteousness of God comes, not from us: It is “of GOD.” The relationship between our repentance and God’s forgiveness is “because of” not “in order to.”

This passage, by the way, is finishing a sentence in which Paul is exhorting the Church, us, to be “Ambassadors for Christ,” bearers of the message of reconciliation…So “You be reconciled,” Paul says, “because for our sake he made (Jesus) to be sin”…the one who had never known sin, “so that” (because of, in order, with the result) “that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God. “

Let that sink in:

-The holy God of creation, whose moral perfection was such that the greatest of his servants, Moses, could only see God’s back as he passed by.

-Whose holiness was so terrifying that, when Moses went up the mountain, the Israelites could only stand at a distance gazing up at that terrifying cloud.

-A God so pure that the ark representing his presence couldn’t be touched with human hands, even to protect it, without them being struck down…

THAT God has declared us to be THAT “righteousness” in his sight.

…and, then, even further, he longs to give us the ministry of reconciling others to his holiness and love.

A high and holy calling awaits us. That is why our humility before God is not just a nice ashy experience for ourselves – We are to be a light to others. We are to increase in love and mercy as we seek Christ. And that increase in love is supposed to be public. Public in order to help to others come to know the love of our Savior, Jesus.

Lent is God calling us deeper into deep – to remold us into the image of his Son and to send us to gather our friends, families, neighbors, and co-workers to his love.

And so we come tonight to be marked outwardly with ashes to remind ourselves inwardly that we are dust.

But we are redeemed dust.  Grateful dust. Dust with a purpose.

And then we will come again to the table with hands outstretched to receive the grace of God anew.

It is a slow process, this becoming like Christ – A long obedience in the same direction. Consuming Jesus and being consumed by him. So, this evening, I exhort you, engage and cooperate. Engage with the prayers. Cooperate with the symbols. Surrender afresh to the Lord of the prayers and symbols, and come, kneel, reach out your hands and receive, and, as the Psalmist said, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Game on!

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Ash Wednesday for Newbies

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Do not be surprised this week when your co-workers and neighbors appear with smudgy foreheads. You will be tempted to grab a Kleenex and help them rub out the vaguely cross-shapen smears. Resist this urge. They have not become hygienically challenged – It is Ash Wednesday!

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Lent, an archaic word for “spring,” came to refer to a season of spiritual “training” in the Christian year preceding Easter – Sort of a “spring training” for the spiritual life. Christians in the ancient traditions spend the 6 weeks before Holy Week in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember the greatness of God at Easter. Ash Wednesday kicks it all off.

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets (“repent in sackcloth and ashes“). Among Christians, the imposition of ashes associated with a 40 day fast began in the 4th century. Most likely this fast was the Lenten fast, but the evidence is a bit spotty. By the end of the 10th century, though, it was a long-standing custom in Western Europe for the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lent. In 1091, Pope Urban II extended the practice to Rome.

What do you do?

If you attend an Ash Wednesday service you will hear Holy Scriptures calling us to repentance read, have ashes imposed on your forehead with the counter-cultural words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19), and then go forward, empty handed, to receive the Lord’s Supper.

Afterward people go forth to spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. Self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to recall the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

Why?

Contrary to common opinion, Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor  making belated New Year’s resolutions – like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  It is instead about mindfulness. When we think about God, well that is a good thing. By the way, Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision in his Son, Jesus. We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Can I come?

Yes! You can find an Ash Wednesday service at any Episcopal/Anglican or Roman Catholic Church. Services are usually offered multiple times per day. You do not need to be a member. Everyone is welcome. Although in Roman Catholic churches there are requirements for receiving communion, and Episcopal churches ask you to be baptized for communion, everyone can receive ashes.

I invite you, come to church this Ash Wednesday!