General Presbyter’s Report to the February Presbytery Meeting
One of the hardest cycles of the church year for me is Lent.
Advent I’m always ready for. I’m ready to be hopeful, reflective. I’m even willing to avoid singing Christmas carols in worship until Christmas Sunday and to be content with Advent hymns instead.Lent, however, not so much.
I never feel ready for Lent. I’m perpetually wanting to say, “not yet.” I’m not ready to be self-reflective about my inadequacies, my unfaced challenges, the list of things still sitting on my desk unfinished. I’d like it to be delayed for at least another 40 days. So, when Lent showed up on Valentine’s Day I was unprepared and not so thrilled. To top it off, I was invited – really volunteered – to preach at one of our churches which is going through their own wilderness journey during Lent. So here I was deeply immersed in the challenges of my personal faith journey and that of a strong congregation facing a difficult time.
We don’t typically talk about Lent as a corporate experience.
We keep it private. Do you think churches, congregations, can have Lenten reflections? Is it possible for a congregation to corporately say “we really missed the opportunity to do X and it changed our lives?” I had a colleague in Arizona whose church resolved that it needed to relocate. Reluctantly but not without wisdom. They’d asked the question about how to reach out to their changing/changed neighborhood and invite people in. They’d printed flyers. They went door to door. They were startled to hear the TV on behind the door, but no one came to the door. And finally, they encountered a neighbor who said very directly to them, “This church has never been concerned about me or this neighborhood before so why should we believe now that we’re welcome in your congregation?” The caller was stunned and didn’t have a good answer. The end of the story is that the church relocated, sold their building to another denomination, and more or less lived happily ever after.
This week I was reading an article on the metaphor of “wilderness” is our church life. The author framed it as a yearning to go back to Egypt when the wilderness was too overwhelming, too destabilizing, too immobilizing. To go back in our memories to what felt comfortable, safe, enriching – NORMAL in church life. He characterized this as overcoming our “death wish” which he describes as the crisis of imagination that results from our desire to go back to Egypt – by breaking the grip of three distinct habits – and I’m guilty of all of them:
“We’ve always done it that way”
— a mindset shaped by what has been without examining what is sitting in front or you or outside the church door.
“You are wrong!”
— a well-practiced commitment to thinking and living oppositionally that hardens into the ‘reactionary’ posture of a critic, defining ourselves by what we are against rather than what we are for.
“We can’t because…”
– a tendency to let constraints define us so that we are paralyzed in the present and unable to envision or lie into a more life-giving future.
“The Book of Order…………..”
— a fast way to see eyes roll and head shake. A wise stated clerk (not as wise as this one), said to me, “Jan, the purpose of the BOO is to help people do ministry as they understand it using these as guidelines.” Or another clerk when I would call for advice would ask me, “Jan, what do you want to do?” when I would ask, “Can we………?”
My list could go on. Perhaps you could add to this or write your own.
The point is that Lent is one of the times in the church year when we take a look at how we act and what difference it makes not just to ourselves but also to our ministry.
At the end of Lent is the statement that God is more powerful than our excuses, our procrastination, our naivete, our wavering. God invites reflection, repentance, and action. We are in this Lenten journey not to get stuck in what we theologically call transgressions, but rather to be open to God’s remarkable gift of grace that we know as redemption – of people, of congregations — of all of life.
I have my list of where I’d like God to show up first and redeem and renew. When I see it, I say, “that’s God’s grace” or “Thank God” and I am in awe that the God who cherishes you and me keeps being present.
Frederick Buechner says this about God’s grace:
“After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested any more. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.
“Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring is about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
“A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?
“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.
“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
“There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
Where does Lent lead?
Through a wilderness journey replete with reflection, repentance and renewal. Both as congregations and as individuals. A big long prayer of confession followed by God’s welcoming our prodigal selves home and shouting “alleluia.” And at the end of these 40 days we will know the grace of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who we seek to emulate as his disciples.
And we will be welcomed home people of grace.
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