Ash Wednesday: The Gospel Passage – Entering Lent properly

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Matthew 6:1 – 2)

I can’t imagine, literally tooting a horn when you give to the poor or to charity. I often donate things that I no longer need to a thrift shop that sells them to finance the community outreach that they do. I do not even “toot my horn” to call the thrift shop staff much-less announce to others that I am doing it!

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Verse 4)

But neither do I feel that I have been “reward” by the Divine or anyone else. It is just something I do to help out. I can’t afford to give money away but I can find other ways to help. And I do. The reward, and the only reward I want, is that I know what I am doing makes a difference.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Verses 5 – 6)

This is “my” verse – one of the verses I orient my life around. I have had many “prayer rooms”; some actual places/spaces and some that are just my own personal time to come to the Lord in prayer. I don’t “toot my horn” or make a public announcement. I just bring myself and my total attention to the Lord, and pray. And yes, I have been rewarded!

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Verses 16 – 18)

Again, beyond my experience. I guess back in Jesus time the local “hypocrites” employed trumpet playing people to announce when and where they were giving alms, prayed at loud decibels in public places and walked around looking like death’s last stop when they were fasting. We as Christians are told to life our faith publicly, but that is NOT the way to do it!

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Verses 19 – 21)

As we enter the season of Lent, let us enter it properly; as Jesus instructed his disciples and followers to live their faith lives. Without embarrassment or shame, but also without fanfare and notoriety. The world will notice and know that you are different from others they know. It will become evident in so many ways. And that, beloved reader, will be enough. Selah!

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Ash Wednesday: The Psalms Passage – Entering Lent

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51:1)

Ash Wednesday. It is said in some traditions the ashes that are smudged on the forehead are from the burnt palms from the previous year. I like that continuity from year to year. Each Lent season we enter it with good intentions that when we are forgiven from our sins, we sill sin no more. But days and weeks pass, and sin creeps in, until Lent season is upon us again and we again need forgiveness.

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (Verses 2 – 3)

I also like the idea that the church body knows that it will inevitably sin, and retaining the memory of grace, hopes on it again. Jesus dying once for us was enough. But we need to repent and be forgiven again and again. This is one of the lessons that young believers learn. That the thrill of new belief gives way to the reality of trying to life a new life in an old world.

“Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Verses 4 – 5)

While it is true that the new believer most likely has turned away from a life not at all centered on God and Christ, human will alone is not enough to keep us sin free. Or, as we have been talking about in the past few days, free will allows us to make choices that are contrary to God’s leading and guidance.

“You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.” (Verses 6 – 9)

New Christian, or old hand at the Christian life, each of us needs to be re-oriented towards God and Christ. Ash Wednesday is one of those days when we examine our selves, see ourselves as we are, seek to make amends, and hope in the grace and mercy that is to come. And opening ourselves like that, we invite God and Christ is – for the first time or again.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” (Verses 10 – 13)

It is a yearly rhythm; self examination, confession, and the hope for forgiveness. We sometimes create a journey where we move from self-examination to confession, and then “feign” not knowing what we will do – whether grace and mercy will be ours. In this way we re-discover anew the grace and mercy that God intends.

“Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Verses 14 – 17)

But the using of palms from the year before belies that idea. In its stead we recognize that human will and human frailty have tripped us up . . . again. There are many spiritual disciplines and practices that are carried out during Lent. Throughout history the church has espoused differing ways to take on “burdens” during Lent to remind us of Christ’s travail. We go without something or do something extra to mark the 40 days that are Lent. And there is good and benefit in that.

But we must also remember that grace and mercy are not to be rewards for the burdens we endure or the challenges we take up. As it is so often said, you must believe . . . simply, believe. This is the good news for the new Christian, and good news for those of us who have seen many Lenten seasons.

May you, beloved reader, enter into the season of Lent looking for the hope that is already in place. Selah!

First Sunday of Lent 2016 & Ash Wednesday: The Epistle Passage – Good things to hear and think about (mostly)

[I do not usual comment on Thursdays, beloved reader. It is not one of the days I have set aside to write. But Ash Wednesday seemed like too important a day to not focus on the theme of Ash Wednesday in the season of Lent. And there were some good passages from the weekly lectionary selections that I wanted to make sure I included. So here I am, for an extra day.]

So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you 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.
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (II Corinthians 5:20b – 6:2)

I would like to be able to stop here that is, let this stand as the complete passage cited. This would be a good place to make my comments and move on to the next scripture passage. Especially since this is an extra day this week. The writer of II Corinthians makes a good and valid plea to his readers. And moreover, a good and valid plea for this lectionary year’s theme.

But the lectionary cites more than just these few verses. And the writer of II Corinthians goes on to say more about how he and his fellow ministers have tried to be diligent and steadfast to their mission and the work of bringing the good news to all people.

We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (Verses 3 – 10)

The writer of II Corinthians says they live as good examples of God’s missionaries. And I do not fault them (or more specifically the writer of II Corinthians) for putting this out there. And there is a not so subtle message that the writer of II Corinthians (yes, often thought to be Paul) thinks his readers should conform they way they live to the way he lives.

If you have been one of my readers for a good length of time, you might know that I do on occasion weary of Paul, and at times chafe under his well-meaning writings and rhetoric. I like better what he says in the second scripture passage I am using today. The passage from II Corinthians (that I wish could have included less) is the Epistles Passage for Ash Wednesday. I am also using the Epistles Passage for the First Sunday of Lent, and will move on to that before I digress more into my opinion of Paul in this moment.

The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:8b-13)

Here Paul and I are in agreement. And here too is good advice and teaching for the lectionary theme this year, and the season of Lent. Is the word near you, beloved reader? That is, is your belief in God and Jesus in your thoughts, speech and actions? That is another good thought to hold during this season of Lent.

I am glad to have taken some extra time to set this in front of you. As we move further into the season of Lent, may you think deeply about these things. Selah!

Ash Wednesday: The Old Testament Passage – Light and Darkness

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Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—

a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.”
(Joel 2:1-2)

I am letting myself sit with these opening verses, imagining a dark shadow passing over a mountainside. I wish I had a picture, a visual to show you what I am seeing in my mind’s eye. But a picture would not show you the movement, the light of the mountain being covered with darkness. A picture might be like a thousands words; but let my words paint you this picture. Darkness, gloom; the light on leaves and trees going dim. From a distance it looks like black ink has been poured across the mountain side, and the sun itself hides from the coming wave. The sun uses the clouds to hide its face, and the clouds themselves lose their color and brightness in the face of this coming threat.

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” (Verses 12 to 13a)

In these dark shadows will you, can you beloved reader hold on to hope that the Lord will deliver you? Can you sustain a spot of light in the darkness that has over come your heart and your dwelling?

But of course, I am being melodramatic. There is no unnatural darkness; the sun rises and sets, and the clouds blow across the sky sometimes hiding the sun and other times framing it in the sky. When darkness does come – because of nature, time and the seasons – the light returns. Why should we fear?

Because beloved reader, the darkness is not covering the mountain side but covering our hearts and souls. It is obscuring the light of love, goodness, compassion and righteousness. There is a darkness blotting out our spirit and our soul. What will we do?

“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” (Verse 13b)

Do you believe, and believe in this beloved reader? Moreover, do want to have this darkness taken away? Do you think you deserve this darkness? Or are you worthy of being in the light of God?

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.

Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Verses 14-17)

We are at Ash Wednesday. If Transfiguration Sunday was the day we celebrated the light that is Jesus Christ, today we acknowledge the darkness that is in us. How can we hold these two things together – Christ’s light and our darkness? How can we enter into Christ’s light when our soul is dark. These are the questions that I set before us today. These are questions that I hope and pray we find answers to during the season of Lent. Selah!

Ash Wednesday (The Old Testament and Psalms Passage)

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1-2)

The Day of the Lord, a day of darkness and gloom. But it is not armies that come marching against us, but our sin. It has darkened our souls and threatens to extinguish the light that is our faith and belief. What can we do?!

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.

Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples, Where is their God?’” (Verses 12-17)

There is a rhythm in Christian life – sin and confess, sin and confess, sin and confess. But there needs to be a time when we sit and face squarely our sin, and feel the deep need to confess. And when we have purged ourselves of all sin, and have confessed all our faults, missteps, and mistakes. Then, and only then, can we feel the deepest sense of God’s forgiveness.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (Psalm 51:1-3)

There are times and days to confess what we have done to each other, the sins we commit person to person. These may be such days; but these are also the days to consider what our sin has done to our relationship with God and our Lord Jesus.


“Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Verses 4-5)

It is human to sin. Our nature is such that we are not perfect, and even the smallest of imperfections looms large when we come face to face with God.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.” (Verses 6-8)

It hurts to be faced and confronted by our sins. But the greater hurt would be to hide more and longer from our sins. And in facing our sins, and the fear that comes from being confronted as a sinner we find release in our Lord.


“Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Verses 9-17)

May you beloved reader enter into this time of Lent ready to encounter God and Christ in new ways, and may your faith be renewed and deepened. Selah!

Ash Wednesday (The Epistles Passage)

It does not seem like we have gotten very far into the year/the church year, and yet here we are at Ash Wednesday (although this is Tuesday). I want to take two days to look at Ash Wednesday themes and scripture passages, and use the following two days of posts to look at the first Sunday in Lent. For those who do not know, there are six Sundays in Lent (including Palm or Passion Sunday) leading up to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We will look at each day in turn during the season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and in some churches services ash or soot is used to the attendee’s forehead with the sign of the cross as an outward symbol of inner repentance of sin. The days of Lent are a journey towards of our need of confession and forgiveness of sin culminating in the Holy Days of Lent.

The writer of II Corinthians says to his readers, “[W]e entreat you 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. As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” (II Corinthians 5:20b, 6:1)

Lent can be a time we become reconciled to God. It can be time of acknowledging sin and our need & desire to be forgiven. One might rightly ask, why does this last so long, throughout the weeks of Lent.

For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (Verse 2)

Let me say that for the writer of II Corinthians and the other Epistles, there was no season of Lent. What they would have celebrated/commemorated was Passover, and it was during the Passover week that Jesus was said to have been put to death, as he celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples as the Last Supper. It is the more “modern” Christian church, starting with the Roman Catholic Church, that first apportioned the days of Lent. Actual start of Lenten observances dates back to the 300’s. Churches other than the Roman Catholic church have incorporated Lent into their church year – some with great intent and preponderance and others with a lighter touch. It is an extended period of time for contemplation and introspection in preparation for the greatest event in the church year, and in the history of humanity.

We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (II Corinthians 6:3-10)

Christians and Christianity has endured much since its establishment amongst the Jews and Gentiles in Jesus time. It is not only the writer of II Corinthians and his companions who have suffered for their faith. Christians all through the ages have been persecuted. Christianity has been maligned and misunderstood, as was Christ himself. It is good for us to set aside time in the church year and in our faith to think about who we are as Christians, what we believe, and how we have or have not lived out our faith. I invite you to journey with me through the days and weeks of Lent.

PERSECUTION . . . According to prophecy . . . And a possible remedy

For in many places and in neighboring cities there shall be a great uprising against those who fear the Lord. They shall be like maniacs, sparing no one, but plundering and destroying those who continue to fear the Lord. For they shall destroy and plunder their goods, and drive them out of house and home. Then the tested quality of my elect shall be manifest, like gold that is tested by fire. Listen, my elect ones, says the Lord; the days of tribulation are at hand, but I will deliver you from them. Do not fear or doubt, for God is your guide. You who keep my commandments and precepts, says the Lord God, must not let your sins weigh you down, or your iniquities prevail over you. Woe to those who are choked by their sins and overwhelmed by their iniquities! They are like a field choked with underbrush and its path overwhelmed with thorns, so that no one can pass through. It is shut off and given up to be consumed by fire.” (Reference:2 Esdras 16:70-78 [Emphasis mine])

The historic Anabaptists used apocryphal writings as much as they used what we consider the canonical Bible. Scripture was scripture. And this portion of scripture contains not only comfort for those persecuted but also prophecy. There have been some vague rumblings that certain groups of Christians may also be in line for persecution; not as in years before for simple belief, but for specific beliefs. In the accepting/overly liberal (take you pick of the two perspectives) society we live in there is a wide spectrum of lifestyle choices and gender identification/gender relationship preferences that exists. Under the general label of “Christians” there those who feel lead to label certain sexual orientations and identifications as “sin” and the people who make these “choices” as “sinners.” And it is these “Christian” who may be in line for persecution. But because the term “Christian” covers such a large group, all Christians may be under scrutiny.

I tell you beloved, this whole topic is a sensitive mine field, and I struggled to get through the above without setting off one of the bombs! It was easier in the time of the historic Anabaptists; you knew then who was for you and who was against you. If you were a historic Anabaptist believer anyone who did not belief as you did could, would, and was one of your persecutors. And if you were not a historic Anabaptist believer anyone who was, was heretic and radical who should be persecuted and put to death. See! Easy categories!

But back to the prophecy, and my original thought stream. It has been prophesied many times over that the believers and followers of God will be oppressed and persecuted – hunted down and destroyed is what 2 Esdras chapter 16 says. But the writer of Esdras also says, and I have highlighted this, those who are tested will be guided by God and delivered.

The question occurs to me beloved – who will be the hunted and who will be hunters? I have asked my self (several times via this blog) this question. I do not have answer. What I do have though is a new term or group – painholders. This term is from an article entitled Painholders on Holy Groundthat Michael A. King wrote for The Mennonite for their Feb 1st edition. In this article he suggests that there are (and should) people who work at keeping conversation open and ongoing amongst the groups who espouse differing and sometimes conflicting beliefs. Imagine beloved what a difference this would make. Perhaps if these “painholders” were able to mediate between differing groups the prophecies concerning persecutions would no longer repeat but would be laid to rest. And perhaps this is the type of guidance from God that passages such as these refer to. We can only hope and dream.

One more thing beloved. Today is Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent. As we continue looking day by day at the scriptures the historic Anabaptists felt were in important in their lives, I will try to be mindful of the days of Lent, and point out possible connection points. May you this day take a moment to remember your spiritual and faith ancestors, bringing to mind what they suffered through, and may still be suffering today. And may God guide you and deliver you. Selah!