A Lenten Journey on the Road Less Traveled

Thanks to Mike Freisen and Landon Whitsitt for reminding me of this excellent Thomas Merton quote. My hope is that it can speak some truth or give some encouragement as we settle in for the long haul of this season of Lent.

My LORD God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


The Meaning of Lent

It’s that time of year again — Lent. The time of year when Christians all over the world stop eating chocolate or swearing or something of the like. For the life of me I haven’t been able to decipher giving something up for Lent and a New Years resolution except that one is for Jesus. And yet we all, myself included, think each year about which to give up for Lent. I guess 40 days is a lot less intimidating than 365.

In the midst of preparing for Lent, I received an e-mail that has the Japanese word for Lent as it’s posted above. The word for Lent in Japanese is jyunansetsu. It is made up of three kanji (pictures that symbolize words or parts of words). The first kanji means “to accept,” the second means “hardship,” and the third means “a period of time.”

Together, in Japanese, Lent means to accept hardship for a period of time.

Maybe this is the heart of our Lent resolutions. Hardship is… well, it’s hard. So perhaps we resort to New Years resolution-type Lent disciplines as a distraction away from the things that are really hard in life, not that it is easy to give up chocolate or soda. But to really stand face-to-face with the hardships of life is uncomfortable for everyone.

We came face to face with death yesterday in hearing the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This reminder can be the hardship we take on. Lent constantly brings us next to our mortality.

And then, after 40 days of living next door to death, we hear the incredible news that the tomb is empty and the death has been defeated by love. This is the most important part of the meaning of Lent. We accept hardship… but only for a period of time. At the end of which we celebrate the wonder of the resurrection.


Sermon from Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.

It may surprise some of you to know that I am somewhat of a TV aficionado. Others, who have spent a bit more time with me, this may not come as too much of a surprise. One of my favorite shows on TV right now is a show called Breaking Bad. I won’t go in to the plot a whole lot because that might land me on the list of the long-winded preachers here at Our Savior’s – and that’s something I’ll hold off on for now. But one of the things I love about Breaking Bad is that a lot of the episodes begin with a very suspenseful opening that doesn’t quite make sense in the narrative of the show. But then we find out that the beginning is actually the end of the episode and a new scene starts “4 days earlier” and helps us to fill in the rest of the story. Have you seen TV shows that do this? If you watched Jack Bauer and followed along with the show 24 you know what this is like as well. Countless movies and television shows have done this. But this method of storytelling has roots far back in the halls of storytelling. We see it in today’s gospel from the book of Mark.

In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus takes James, John, and Peter up the mountain where Jesus is lifted up and begins to shine brighter than anything they’d ever seen. Then Moses and Elijah – two great figures from the Hebrew Bible, join him. Peter then says that this is a good place for them to be and wants to build a dwelling place for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Immediately a cloud overshadowed them and God’s voice breaks through this scene with a phrase that echoes the proclamation from Christ’s baptism, “This is my son, the beloved.” This is a phrase that is repeated only a few times in Mark’s gospel, but each time it is significant. The first was at the baptism, this is the second, and the third will come from the lips of the Roman centurion immediately after Christ’s death on a different kind of mountain.

So what does all of this mean? To answer that question, we should dig deeper into Peter’s words. Many scholars think that this particular part of the text took place during the Festival of Booths. This is a feast that celebrates the dwelling of God. Jews would build small booths where they would live for 7 days as a reminder that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Peter wants to stay in this place with them and build a dwelling for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter gets it. He recognizes that this is the kingdom of God breaking through. He recognizes that this is something that isn’t of this time or place. And so he wants to live here. I think a lot of times we want to do the same thing.

When I was young, maybe 2 or 3 years old, my parents bought me a little plastic console that had a steering wheel and a stick shift and – what all young children need at that time in their lives – a fully functional horn. I would sit behind that wheel and steer and shift and honk. In a way, I liked it so much because it was like seeing into my future. I loved being behind that wheel because I saw my mom and dad to that a lot and driving was just what grown-ups did. I wanted to stay there. But I couldn’t. I was still a 3-year old.

Just like I couldn’t stay behind that wheel forever, Peter can’t stay in that dwelling place of God forever either. They have to go back down the mountain. And I actually think that this is the great miracle of the Transfiguration story. A lot of people look at the Transfigured Jesus in dazzling white with Moses and Elijah and see that as the most awe-inspiring part of the story. But, for me, it’s what comes after. The gospel of this story is that Jesus comes down the mountain. He’s glowing and dazzling in all of his glory, but he gives that up to come down the mountain with the rest of the disciples and, indeed, the rest of the world. So many times we think our responsibility is to climb the mountain to be more like Jesus. We think that we, somehow, can rise to his level.

But our faith story isn’t a story of us going up, but of God coming down.

As we move into the season of Lent, we’ll find out just how far down this story goes. The Transfiguration is our mountain of light that begins the journey to the mountain of darkness. And the mountain of darkness really is an uncomfortable place to be. If we know the rest of Peter’s story, this can be an interesting contrast to the Transfiguration. Here, he insists on staying in the light, and when darkness rears its ugly head, Peter denies Christ. He gets scared. And if we’re quite honest, in our times of darkness, we get scared too.

But this is the miracle of the Transfiguration. We talk about this story as we begin Lent knowing that while we may be moving through a dark place in our lives, we are assured and reminded that Jesus is already there. Jesus is not afraid of what is difficult in our lives. Jesus will not reject us on account of our failings or insecurities. Jesus’ descent down the mountain reminds us that we don’t have to hide the hard parts of our lives from the God we have seen revealed in Jesus.

Today we are living in the in-between. We are living into that time where the future of God’s glory is not yet upon us. We know that day is coming, but is not yet here. We must come down the mountain and walk with each other in our darkness. We have seen the future and we know it glows with the light of God’s mercy and grace. The glory of it all is that Jesus comes down the mountain to walk with us in our valleys. He walks with us on our path of suffering, he walks with us all the way through the intense suffering of the cross and into the tomb where there is no body. So our job now is to be that light for all who walk in darkness. We know that the future is firmly in the hands of the One who comes down the mountain to dwell with us. So we work for justice and peace in this time and place to bring about an age where all are honored, dignified, and included in God’s Kingdom that has no end. Thanks be to God! Amen.


The Dangers of Comparing Sinatra to Bieber

My friend Holly had an excellent post yesterday about this graphic that has been all over Facebook news feeds lately. By comparing Frank Sinatra to Justin Bieber, the poster essentially gets at something that “us young people” hear all the time. Not only was life better back when the Baby Boomers were growing up, but the music, literature, food, and just about everything else was better too! Ok, that may have been a slight exaggeration, but it’s not far off. There’s something implicit (or explicit depending on how deeply you think about this graphic) that hints that we were better off as a society back then. This same line of thought says that music now-a-days is more shallow than ever.

I couldn’t agree less with these sentiments.

Here’s the thing about music. There has always been good music, if you look for it. And conversely, there has always been terrible music, if you look for it. Comparing the two, throughout any generation, is bound to bring up discrepancies. Take for instance Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Do the Twist” — yep, I’m going there.

Come on let’s twist again,
like we did last summer!
Yeaaah, let’s twist again,
like we did last year!

Do you remember when,
things were really hummin’,
Yeaaaah, let’s twist again,
twistin’ time is here!

Now can you honestly tell me that these lyrics are a far cry from “shake it like a polaroid picture”? It’s the same thing, just translated through to the culture. Which brings me to my main point…

The invention of popular music as a genre fundamentally changed the way we relate to music.

Think about the genres of music. There are some genres that have an element of timelessness to them. Chopin composed music 170 years ago and still has some of the most moving music I’ve ever heard. Genres like jazz, blues, and classical all have an element of timelessness to them. Ray Charles’ “Georgia on my Mind” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” still pack the same punch now that they did back then.

But pop music is different. Pop music is set in a time and a place — which is exactly why there is a category called 80’s music. This is why VH1’s nostalgia pieces work so well. I love the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s use the pop music of the day to bring us back to those times in our lives. And some of these pop pieces have been less than incendiary to say the least. Comparing Frank Sinatra to Justin Bieber is like comparing apples to month-old milk. You just can’t do it.

If you’re going to compare Frank’s lyrics to some modern music, here are 3 songs you could try — all released in the last year. All with great wonderful lyrics (and no, Bon Iver’s “Holocene” does not make an appearance, although it could).

1) “Poison & Wine” by The Civil Wars

I wish you’d hold me when I turn my back
The less I give the more I get back
Oh your hands can heal, your hands can bruise
I don’t have a choice but I’d still choose you

Oh I don’t love you but I always will
Oh I don’t love you but I always will
Oh I don’t love you but I always will

2) “Helplessness Blues by The Fleet Foxes

What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do
I don’t need to be kind to the armies of night that would do such injustice to you
Or bow down and be grateful and say “sure, take all that you see”
To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls and determine my future for me

And I don’t, I don’t know who to believe
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

3) “Someone Like You” by Adele

I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited
But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it.
I’d hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded
That for me it isn’t over.

Never mind, I’ll find someone like you
I wish nothing but the best for you too
Don’t forget me, I beg
I remember you said,
“Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.”

What songs would you add to this list? What are some more recent songs that stir in you?


An Afternoon With the Civil Wars

It should probably be no secret to anyone that I’m a huge fan of The Civil Wars — the wonderful folk/country/bluegrass duo, not the actual war. They’re wonderfully talented and should be listened to by everyone on the face of the earth. Exhibit A is this great half an hour they had as a part of the Lawrence High School Classroom Sessions. The songs are incredible, but the conversations after each of them are worth watching as well. Great talk about the influence of books, movies and other media on the creative process — wonderfully insightful. Check them out!

Which song stuck out to you most? There are all kinds of different bands that come to this class and talk with them about the creative process. All are recommended. Enjoy!


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