The Reality of Lent

#ParklandShooting

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The Reality of Lent, #ParklandShooting

By Beth Demme

On Ash Wednesday 2018, fourteen teenagers and three coaches were savagely murdered in a shooting spree at Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. We, as a country, have a routine after a massacre like this. It’s a routine I don’t much care for. We break into sides, camps, parties, teams, tribes, or whatever word you would choose. The point is, we divide.

In our idealized version of our American self, we are the “United” States of America. We are joined together by common ideals and goals, a shared history and a shared purpose. When there is an outside threat we do band together and stand as one nation under God. When, however, the threat is from within our collective self, we stand divided, each of us doing what we think is right. (See Judges 21:25.)

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I need to say it, to confess it. Every time there is a tragedy, I seem to find a way to insulate my heart from it.

From Columbine to the Aurora theater shooting, to Sandy Hook Elementary School, to Pulse nightclub, to the Las Vegas shooting, to the Charleston, South Carolina and Southerland, Texas church shootings, and all those in between, I found a way to put it over there somewhere.

But this one, the Parkland, Florida school shooting? I can’t insulate my heart for some reason. Maybe it’s because the school reminds me so much of my son’s high school and the teenagers who died remind me so much of his friends. Perhaps it’s because we know people who lost friends that day. Probably, it’s that the Holy Spirit finally has me where I need to be.

In the wake of the tragedy, the students of Parkland are making their voices heard. Their grief is giving birth to a movement. As this blog posts, they are here in the Florida capital where I live. Today my husband will miss work and my teenagers will miss school as they venture down to the Capitol to join with those students, pleading with lawmakers to notice them, to see their pain, and to not brush it aside—to not put it over there somewhere, as I have so often done.

The rally at the Florida Capitol isn’t just about seeing democracy in action, it’s about trying to find one’s voice in the wilderness.

It’s about feeling too small to fight something powerful and destructive, but deciding to try anyway.

It just so happens that I’m studying the Old Testament prophets right now. I’m struck by how Israel, in those last 17 books of the Old Testament, feels too small to fight something powerful and destructive (first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians). The prophets laid it out and made it real. They didn’t sugar-coat how rough the present and immediate future would be. But they also didn’t stop there. They were always reminding the Jewish people: History is unfolding. God is moving. You may feel abandoned but this will not last.

It feels like these shootings will never stop, our response will never change, and the downhill progression is unavoidable. I am reminded, though, that God is moving. This feeling of abandonment will not last. Easter is coming.

The apostle Paul makes it plain—God meets us in our weakness. “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength…. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:25, 27). God told Paul, “power is made perfect in weakness” leading Paul to declare, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

When Jesus encountered human violence—a weak people pretending to be strong—he did the most amazing, God-like thing. He absorbed it. He didn’t counter it with more violence or escalate it into a spiritual war. Jesus absorbed the violence into himself, was crucified, died, and buried. Three days later he rose again.

In this season of Lent, I am drawn face to face with my weakness. I’m forced to look at how inadequate my past responses to massacres have been. I am compelled to stand here in the wilderness, watching others—watching children—find their voice. Lent is very real to me this year. As ever, I look forward to Easter. Come, Jesus, come.

How about you? Has the way we launched into Lent this year made it feel any different for you? Does this shooting feel different to you? Can you articulate why? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.


More Like This From Beth:

Happy Va-LENT-ine’s Day

February 14th is Doubly Special This Year

Happy Va LENT ine's Day

Happy Va-LENT-ine’s Day

By Beth Demme

Happy February 14th! It’s Valentine’s Day, but this year it also happens to be Ash Wednesday, aka the beginning of Lent. So this year we are celebrating Va-LENT-ine’s Day!

Maybe you’ve been in and around church your whole life and you know all about Lent. Perhaps your Lenten practices are simply another cog in the well-oiled machinery that IS your Spiritual Life. Or, maybe you’re new to the idea and you are curious about why people are burning palms, walking around with dirty foreheads, and talking very piously about sacrificing chocolate. Hopefully you didn’t lavish your Valentine with “The World’s Biggest Chocolate Heart” only to discover that said Valentine is on a chocolate fast from now thru April 1. (Side note: I am not giving up chocolate. Feel free to re-direct all Valentine’s chocolate to me.)

No matter how well-oiled your Spiritual Life is, or isn’t, sometimes it’s a good idea to revisit the basics of something that happens over and over again, like Lent.

Lent is the 40-day period before Easter. Since Easter moves around on the calendar, Lent moves around, too. We begin Lent by having our foreheads marked with ash in the shape of a cross (hence, Ash Wednesday). Traditionally, the ashes are made from last year’s Palm Sunday palms, but it’s also easy to buy the ashes. This year, I ordered some from Amazon.

Ashes have been a sign of mortality and repentance since pre-Christian times. In Genesis 18:27, Abraham humbly described himself as “dust and ashes.” In Esther, when Mordecai learned there was a plan to destroy all the Jews, he “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes.” (Esther 4:1)

We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday church services to recognize, as a community, that we are mortal (i.e., not God) and that we need to repent (meaning, admit and apologize) for the ways we have failed to honor the God who loves us. We then spend Lent, both individually and as a community, preparing for Easter.

We call Lent a forty-day period, but one look at the calendar reveals that Lent is actually forty-six days long. It’s not that it takes us forty (or forty-six) days to stuff plastic eggs or boil real ones, it’s that we know we need this time for self-examination and reflection. We use this time to focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting for the purpose of growing closer to God.

Lent is a time to seriously consider what separates us from God, and to ask God to help us remove those obstacles.

The rhythm of life easily pulls us away from time with God if we let it. We let the tasks associated with family, work, friends, church, etc. fill up nearly every waking moment. Then we fill what’s left with Netflix and cell phone games.

Lent is a time to pause and reflect on how we can better invest in our relationship with God.

If you aren’t sure how you want to make the days from now until Easter different, these websites might help:

Or commit to reading and studying the Bible for 15 minutes every day. You can use these resources:

What do you think? How will you observe Lent this year? How will you use these forty-ish days to draw closer to God? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.


More Like This From Beth:

God Knows We Can’t Help Ourselves

And Yet, I Still Try

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God Knows We Can’t Help Ourselves

By Beth Demme

Maybe it’s my American-ness or maybe it’s just my personality, but I kind of like the expression, God helps those who help themselves. I like it because I believe I know how to help myself, at least a little.

It’s as if I can obligate God to be on my side if I do at least some of the work.

The problem is, when I read the Bible I’m reminded again and again of how wrong I am to think that way.

When I read the Bible, I find that God is on the side of the weak and powerless. One of the themes of the Old Testament is that God’s people are the underdogs, made powerful only because God is with them. The powerful don’t really need God, they take what they want/need, rather than relying on God to lead them and provide for them.

God is often presented as a shepherd – a caretaker of a helpless animal. (Psalm 23) In Isaiah 40, God “gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.” (Isaiah 40:11, NIV) God “brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.… He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.” (Isaiah 40:23, 29, NRSV) Or as the Psalmist says, “the Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.… The Lord lifts up the downtrodden.” (Psalm 147:3,6)

The lambs, the faint, the powerless, the brokenhearted, and the downtrodden epitomize those who cannot help themselves.

This is true in the ministry of Jesus as well. Think about all the people Jesus healed. They couldn’t help themselves; they needed Jesus to do what they could not.

The first person Jesus heals in the Gospel of Mark is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. (Mark 1:29-34) (Jesus casts an unclean spirit out of a man just before this, but that is not presented as a healing. The man probably felt healed, but the Gospel focuses on the unclean spirit, not the man.) Simon Peter’s mother-in-law wasn’t lying in bed, apparently on the verge of death, because she didn’t want to help herself. Jesus doesn’t ask what she’s tried so far to see if she’s done enough to earn his intervention. Jesus does what Jesus does. He walks over, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up.

Me, too. I have felt the restorative power of Jesus’ unconditional love. I know what it’s like to go from hopeless to helped.

Have you ever heard of the Indian Dalits? India is a Hindu nation and the Hindu sacred texts approve of a hierarchy of castes. The Dalits are the “untouchables,” so low on the caste system that they aren’t really even part of it. The word “Dalit” means something like broken, opened, or crushed. They live in extreme poverty and perform the work no one else wants to do, the unclean and “polluting” menial work. Because of engrained social prejudice, they are unable to “help themselves” to a better life.

And yet, the Dalits relate to Jesus. They relate to the fact that he was born, not to the ruling elite, but as a social nobody. They relate to the fact that Jesus was broken, opened, and crucified. The Dalits say that Jesus took our “Dalitness” with him to the cross, opening the way for us—all of us, including the Dalits—to experience our full humanity. The Dalits understand they bear the image of God, regardless of how others in society classify them.

I find hope and encouragement in the Dalit understanding of Jesus. I know that there are parts of me that feel outcast, broken, and worthless. I also know that I am powerless to change, or heal, those parts of myself on my own. The Dalits remind me that I worship the shepherd God who gathers helpless lambs like me in his arms and carries us close to his heart. The Dalits remind me that Jesus isn’t pausing to ask whether I’ve done enough to deserve his help before he reaches his hand out to lift me up.

I don’t need to try to do “enough” to obligate God to help me. God is already willing, and able, to help me … even when I can’t help myself.

What about you? Do you tend to live as if God will help you only if you first help yourself? Had you ever heard of the Dalits? Are there parts of you that feel broken open or crushed that you can turn over to Jesus? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.


More Like This From Beth:

Dalit Affirmation of Faith:
We believe in God, our Mother and Father; Sustainer, Protector and Helper of Dalits. Our ancestors were an original people of India; Enslaved in our own country by evil forces and broken, oppressed and segregated as Outcastes and Untouchables through the ages.
Our cries for liberation from harsh caste-bondage were heard by God, who came to us in Jesus Christ to live with us and save all people from their sins.
We believe in Jesus Christ, born to virgin Mary suffering as the Human One and Servant of God. He took our oppression and pain upon him And laid down his life on the cross to redeem us. He was dead and buried but rose again to live forever He created a new humanity and a new future under God. To realise our full humanity and image of God in us. Jesus Christ is our Lord, Saviour and Liberator.

 

Jesus Is Authority and Mystery

authority and mystery of jesus

Jesus Is Authority and Mystery

By Beth Demme

Jesus is an interesting mix of authority and mystery.

In Mark 1:21-28, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath and people are “’astounded” at his authority. Jesus is there at the synagogue with a small group of disciples who also responded to his authority. Just a few verses earlier they were fishermen. Jesus approached them and said “follow me” and they did! They dropped everything to follow him. (Mark 1:16-20)

While Jesus (and the fishermen-disciples) are in the synagogue, an unclean spirit identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God.” Jesus dispenses with the spirit, which only makes the people in the synagogue more “amazed.” They ask, “What is this? What’s going on here?” (Mark 1:27, NRSV & MSG) Mark says that from that point on “the news about Jesus spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:28, CEB)

Notice, the unclean spirit says who Jesus is, but Jesus doesn’t. He doesn’t offer any explanation of who he is or where his authority comes from.

I love this!

By not declaring his identity/divinity here, Jesus invites us to think about the big question – from where does his authority come?

The mystery is part of Jesus’ message, too.

The Problem With God’s Grace

This Truth Can Be Hard to Swallow

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God’s Grace Problem

By Beth Demme

If we were playing a game of word association and I said “Jonah,” chances are good that you would say “whale.” When it comes to Jonah, we tend to get wrapped up in questions about if, how, and why Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish. But really, Jonah is a lesson in the problem with God’s grace.

Jonah learns the terrible, awful truth about God’s grace.

Jonah learns it the hard way. God tells him to go to Nineveh, but instead Jonah runs away from the problem. He hops on to a ship, gets thrown overboard in the middle of a storm, gets swallowed by “a large fish,” and is spit out onto dry land after three days and three nights. (Jonah 1)

The appalling thing that Jonah learns is that God’s grace is for everyone, even the Ninevites.

Jonah did not want the people of Nineveh to receive God’s grace. He didn’t want them to know about God or God’s love or God’s mercy. Jonah knew that if God gave the people of Nineveh a chance at a relationship, they would jump at it. He knew they would repent and God would forgive them. And then something truly dreadful would happen, Jonah would have to accept them as part of God’s people.

Jonah didn’t want to accept the Ninevites, he hated them. They were political enemies—the Assyrians who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and then scattered the Israelites, resulting in the ten lost tribes of Israel. (Here’s a lesson on that.)

Jonah wanted them to be punished, he wanted to substitute his justice for God’s mercy.

You might say Jonah thinks the Ninevites are from a sh… sh… shady country.

In death, or on the verge of it, Jonah has a revelation. Jonah says, “As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to you in your holy temple. … I with a voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2) In other words, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord, not to me.” In that moment, Jonah understood that he couldn’t tell God who to choose and who to exclude.

But even with that apparent attitude adjustment, Jonah goes to Nineveh half-heartedly. He goes into Nineveh a little ways and offers them 7 words. That’s all. He makes a single prophetic pronouncement: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4)  After all of the build-up, all of the effort to try to avoid going, the deathbed revelation, and then once he gets there, that’s all he says?

And yet, that was all it took. We’re told that the hope of God’s love and mercy was so magnetic that everyone, including the king of Nineveh himself, believed in God and started living differently. (Jonah 3:4-9) As Jonah predicted —and feared— God welcomed the Ninevites with open arms. “This was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry.” (Jonah 4:1) Jonah says, basically, “uuuuuuuuuugh. This is exactly why I did not want to come here!”

In death (or on the verge of it), Jonah had cried out to God for help and forgiveness. God “brought [his] life up from the Pit” and Jonah promised to honor God “with the voice of thanksgiving.” (Jonah 3:6-9)

But, then, despite receiving God’s mercy himself, Jonah accuses God of being too merciful towards the people of Nineveh.

Jonah says he would rather die than see the people of Nineveh receive God’s grace.

That’s the terrible, awful thing about God’s grace. It’s for everyone. Anytime we draw a line between us and them, God is standing over there with them.

I struggle with this. I want God to be on my side, to like who I like and dislike who I dislike. Like Jonah, I struggle to be obedient to God and I’m overwhelmed with humility and gratitude when I remember God’s loving forgiveness. And, though it’s hard to admit, I’m like Jonah in that I take what God offers and try to keep it for myself and for those who think like me.

The “Ninevites” in my life can range on any given day from the person who cut me off in traffic to the person on Twitter or Facebook who posts a message that contradicts my own view on an issue like women in the pulpit, immigration, marriage equality, the value of life (before and after birth), and so on. It’s hard to admit, but God loves them too.

That, I think, is the real message of Jonah—the terrible, awful truth about God’s grace is that it is for everyone.

Who are your Ninevites? How do you feel about sharing the love and grace of God with them? Can you relate at all to Jonah’s reluctance to share God? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.


More Like This From Beth:

Why Renewal Is My Word for 2018

And the Wesley Covenant Prayer

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My Word for 2018: Renewal

By Beth Demme

My word for 2018 is renewal. Re-new-all. Make everything new again, or at least as much as I can. Some people complain that the world today is the worst and that things back then were better somehow. I get it. At times it’s easy to see the bad and hard to see the good.

Maybe I’m naïvely optimistic, but I’m looking for renewal in 2018.

I don’t expect to find renewal on my own. I’m counting on God to show it to me. God breathed life into dry bones (Ezekiel 37) and God breathed life into humankind (Genesis 2:7). Today I’m asking God to breathe renewed life into me and to let me see signs of renewal throughout 2018.

One of the most impactful prayers I’ve ever prayed is called the Wesley Covenant Prayer. It’s often offered as part of a Covenant Renewal Service. My church did this service recently and it felt … special.

The Covenant Prayer is an all-in kind of prayer. God is all-in. We learned that with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Covenant Prayer is one way to affirm that I, too, am all-in. (Click here for a business card size copy of the prayer you can print.)

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Whose am I? In this prayer I say, “I am no longer my own, but thine.” I say, “Yes God, I belong to you and I live for you, not for myself.”

The Problem With Knowledge

Are you looking for Jesus in the manger or in the palace?

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The Problem With Knowledge

By Beth Demme

The last sigh of the Christmas season has evaporated. Have you put away all of your Christmas decorations? Is the tree un-decorated and hauled to the street (or put in storage)? Have the Christmas lights been removed and the Christmas blow-ups deflated? What about your Nativity? Have you wrapped each piece carefully and stowed it away?

Mine is all safely re-packaged and returned to the attic, already awaiting its next limited run.

Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. In the church, this is when we celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men. You know, the three fellas in the Nativity who are wearing funny hats and holding little boxes?

The story of the Wise Men comes from the Gospel of Matthew. Here’s a quick run-down of what happens:

The Wise Men are astrologers from somewhere East of Israel. They see a special star rise in the sky and when they consult their charts they realize that it means the king of the Jews, the Messiah, has been born. They set out to find that king of the Jews to pay him homage. They go to the place that makes sense, Jerusalem—the capital city and the location of the Temple. They fail at first.

They meet with Herod, Rome’s puppet ruler over the region, but they know he’s not the one they’re looking for (and so does he). Herod calls together “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” to ask them where the Messiah is supposed to be born. The religious leaders say (more or less), “oh, yeah, we know all about that. Supposedly he’s going to be born in Bethlehem.”

The crazy thing is, the religious leaders don’t run around jumping for joy, they don’t take off for Bethlehem, they don’t do … anything.

It’s hard to admit, but I have a lot in common with the religious leaders Herod consulted.

Two Keys to Seeing God At Work

How to Expect the Unexpected

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The Two Keys to Seeing God At Work

By Beth Demme

As we’ve moved from Advent to Christmas and now towards Epiphany, I’ve been repeatedly surprised at how unexpected it all is. I’m more aware than ever that I need to be open to seeing God at work in unexpected ways.

The Messiah was conceived by the Holy Spirit but then was born in the normal human way to an unmarried couple from the wrong part of Israel and laid in a manger instead of a fancy crib in the palace or temple. And then, a month or so later, when it was time for his mother to go to the temple, his parents didn’t walk in and declare, “Hello Chief Priest, we’ve brought you the Messiah!” Instead, they humbly offered the sacrifice of the poor (two birds) and devoted themselves and their baby to God (Luke 2:22-24; Leviticus 12:6-8).

At the temple, it was Simeon and Anna who declared that Jesus was the Messiah, not Mary and Joseph and not the Chief Priest or any temple official (Luke 2:21-38). How did they know?

Mary and Joseph knew Jesus wasn’t just a regular baby. They had both been visited by angels (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:26-36), Elizabeth confirmed it (Luke 1:41-43), and the shepherds showed up at the manger declaring that Jesus was the Messiah (Luke 2:15-18). If Mary and Joseph and Jesus were happening today, they might put a bumper sticker on their car (or donkey or whatever) that says, “MY SON IS AN HONOR STUDENT IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. HE WILL BE SEATED AT THE RIGHT HAND OF THE FATHER.”

But Mary and Joseph didn’t declare it. They were just in the temple trying to do the right thing according to Jewish law. It turns out, they didn’t have to declare it. There were people who were waiting expectantly for the unexpected.

The Birth of Jesus is All Wrong

Jesus' Birth Is Unexpected In Every Way

Unexpected Jesus

Unexpected Jesus

By Beth Demme

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)

For church folks this line is so familiar most can probably recite it from memory, even if they aren’t much on memorizing Bible verses. It is an integral part of every Christmas pageant, no matter how humble. In terms of world-changing events, it is a drop the mic moment—the birth of Christ.

And yet, we tend to forget how unexpected it is.

We expect God to use the mighty and powerful to do mighty and powerful things. We expect God to work in big, extraordinary ways. But actually, the birth of Jesus gives us the opposite perspective.

For the birth of Jesus, we might expect God to use a king and a queen, important people from an important place. But no, we start with an unmarried couple from nowhere—Mary and Joseph from Galilee in Nazareth. It’s hard to draw conclusions from what is not said, but I think it’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t describe Mary or Joseph as especially pious or righteous.

We do know from what is said that God doesn’t work with the most well-respected couple in Judaism, or even someone important in the Roman Empire. God didn’t find someone who was imminently believable and memorable to the people of the day. Instead, God found someone who was willing.

Christmas IS About What You Get

Is it really better to give than to receive?

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Christmas IS About What You Get

By Beth Demme

“Tis Better to Give Than Receive” – you’ve definitely heard it, and you’ve probably said it. It’s what we are supposed to think about gifting in general, but it is especially supposed to be our attitude at Christmas. Paul even tells us in Acts 20:35 that Jesus said it!

Giving instead of getting fits in well with American culture. We like to give because receiving requires humility. We may even feel like the person giving us a gift has something over us, or that we now owe them a gift in return. Have you ever had the awkward experience of a friend or neighbor unexpectedly showing up with a Christmas present for you when you have nothing to offer in return? Do you keep a few extra small gifts or baked goods on hand just in case?

Receiving can be uncomfortable for us.

Receiving when we can’t reciprocate with an equal gift can leave us wanting to jump out of our skin (in other words, really uncomfortable).

Giving, however, leaves us feeling happy.  Giving generously can make us downright giddy. Last week I got to give a Christmas tree, complete with ornaments and star topper, to a family that didn’t have one. I had a big grin on my face the whole time I was shopping for them. As I chose the ornaments, I imagined the wonder on the faces of their young children as they saw the lights reflecting in the shiny orbs. I sang Christmas carols to myself as I drove the hour to deliver it. When I dropped it off I didn’t mind hauling the boxes and bags out of my car. And I sang even more loudly in my car on the way back!

Giving really is fun!