Space for the Spirit in Lent

            “Two spaces after a period before starting a new sentence.”    That’s what I was told when learning how to type one summer between college and seminary.    A dear friend and a gifted writer told me last week that one of those spaces has been taken away.    Indeed The Chicago Manual of Style now says that one space is the norm.      The primary reason for a single space is efficiency.    Of course, it all comes down to efficiency, as so much seems to these days.    They conclude that typing two spaces "is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence."

            In my sermon manuscripts I put three so I can more easily see the end of a sentence coming.   In this article I have put five!     I think we need to be fighting for more space, not less.    Space gives us breathing room, which is another way of saying that space allows for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.    Did you know that the two most significant spaces in the salvation history of the Bible are the parted Red Sea and the Empty Tomb?     Empty space as the supreme sign of God’s great work.   J.R.R. Tolkien knew this and perhaps it had a strange effect on him one day.     He told the story of correcting student essays, when he came upon a blank page among the papers.    He stared at it for a moment and then wrote upon it, "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit."    It just came to him like a revelation.    And that's how he started his book, The Hobbit, the novel that leads into The Lord of the Rings trilogy.    But for that inspiration, he needed that blank page, just a little space between all of those words.

            Just a little space.    The Holy Spirit can work with that.    So here is an idea to consider for Lent which begins next Wednesday.    I want to commend to you something radical.    But it’s also simple and in some ways you might say it’s really nothing.    Buy a candle and for 10 to 15 minutes every day between Ash Wednesday and Easter, go into a room where you can be quiet, light your candle, and sit there in silence.    That’s it.    You don’t have to say anything or do anything.    Skip the candle if you like.    But just sit in silence and wait for less time than it takes to accomplish most of the tasks in your day.     If you need something to quiet your mind, say a simple prayer over and over, like “Lord have mercy,” or “God be with me.”     You could even just pay attention to your breathing in and breathing out.

            If you do that, you will find yourself wrestling with all the demons Jesus faced in the wilderness.    You will hear little voices telling you what a waste of time this is.    You’ll think of all the important tasks you really should be doing.    You’ll even hear a voice saying that this would be much more productive time spent reading a book on prayer or the Bible.    And you’ll hear a clever little voice saying that you’re really a failure at this.    All of that will prove that you’re in just the right place, wrestling with the demons in you and our world—of stress, pressure, and productivity.    And if you sit long enough, you’ll become aware that you are being held.

            So, find a way to be quiet.    And if you want to go further….then find a way to be fed—read a daily devotional, or the gospel of John a few verses at a time.    Worship every Sunday and come to the beauty of evening prayer on Thursday nights.    And then find a way to serve.    How are you going to ease the suffering of someone who needs what you can give?    A way to be quiet, a way to be fed, a way to serve.    These are the simple callings of Lent.    If you do any of these things, I’d love to hear what you discover.

Yours, R o s s

What to Pray For

Thoughts on Abortion

Dear friends,  

            Last Sunday I heard two different prayers regarding abortion and found myself in both. Earlier, that week, I had barely noticed the 40th anniversary of Roe. v. Wade. The general public seems both apathetic and accepting of the status quo. A recent Pew poll of a multitude of groups found that only white evangelical Protestants (54%) would overturn the law. A majority of Catholics and Republicans would not.

            I confess that the last time I really paid attention was when a man named George Tiller died in May of 2009, handing out bulletins in a Lutheran church while wearing a bullet-proof vest. Dr. Tiller was known to provide late term abortions, meaning abortions after 20 weeks. After his death a number of women came forward grateful to him for help in desperate situations in which the life of the mother or fetus were clearly at stake. There are about a thousand done each year in the United States and they are almost always done because of grave health issues and risk of death to mother and/or baby. A colleague of Tiller said that he did not perform abortions except for these reasons.

            Tiller’s death brought to mind a devout Catholic neighbor near my last congregation who learned late in her pregnancy that there were severe fetal abnormalities that would not allow the child to live long after birth. She was married and already had two children. Her father confided in me that the family brought the matter to their parish priest for prayer and pastoral care. He was in agreement that an abortion was the best choice. I’ll never forget the courage of the family to share this with their pastor and the understanding and care they received. I also witnessed the grief and sorrow of the family at the loss of their child and the agony of their choice.

            After Tiller’s death, I called a physician friend to learn more about what issues can arise later in pregnancy that lead to late term abortions and he was quick with many stories. He mentioned a patient who later in her pregnancy was diagnosed with leukemia. All were in agreement that to continue the pregnancy posed a grave risk to the mother’s already poor health. Other such stories and my own experience at Children’s Hospital have taught me that amazingly awful and sad things can happen in pregnancy for both mother and child. My ongoing concern though, is less about the late term cases than in the choices that are being made earlier in pregnancy.

            While in my first church, I continued my studies in Christian ethics at the Lutheran seminary, focusing on abortion. Part of my thesis included an attempt to address this difficult issue in a sermon which I preached in my former congregation on a summer Sunday when I thought as few people would be there as possible. I used the parable of the Good Samaritan for the gospel reading that day. As I looked out over the tiny congregation that morning I noticed a visitor from my home congregation suburban Maryland. It was the wife of chief justice William Rehnquist, a conservative who cast one of the two dissenting votes in Roe v. Wade.  “You’ve got to be kidding Lord,” I said in prayer and a moment of panic as I began to sweat more than usual under by alb. Not knowing anything of her views on the issue, I wondered what she would think? Would she feel like the sermon was a setup, something I kept on hand on the off chance she or her husband showed up for worship as they sometimes did on their way to Vermont every July (there was a family connection in my congregation). I decided to stick with the plan for the day. I had worked on the sermon for weeks, this was the day, and I didn’t know she was coming.

            The sermon made use of our denomination’s social statement on abortion and I talked about how under some circumstances abortion can be a tragic necessity. But mainly I talked about avoiding it, sexual ethics, the importance of adoption, and how a faithful response to an unintended pregnancy, even under circumstances that would allow it according to the social statement, might be to treat the unborn child the way the good Samaritan treated the man in the ditch: by rescuing and providing hospitality to the stranger in need. After the service Mrs. Rehnquist thanked me for the sermon without comment, and I was grateful that she said anything at all.

            Although abortions are at a 35 year low, there are still way too many (over 750,000 in the United States in 2009 by one count). For the sake of the sanctity of life, let me state the obvious: we need more prevention of unwanted pregnancies and better pathways to adoption. And yet, I believe abortion needs to be a legal option.

            I commend to you our social statements on abortion and human sexuality. I believe these statements are good guides for faithful living and worthy of thoughtful consideration in the wider church and world.

Faithfully, Ross

Startle Us, O God

It’s two weeks into the New Year and I wonder what’s new.

Imagine waking up each morning and having to entirely “make up your day.” Nothing really felt in place for you. Your life was absent of meaningful habits, helpful experiences, and dependable organizing routines. In such a scenario, you essentially have no choice but to start from scratch every day. A kind of ad-hoc living becomes your only option. This would be an awful way to live.

Many people make it through life this way, but typically not in a fashion that most of us would choose to imitate. Instead, we create and form habits. Believing that many things in life are too important to leave to ad-hoc living, we learn certain deep habits and take them to heart. This is a good practice. The best habits free us from having to decide whether or not we ought to kiss a loved one whom we haven’t seen for awhile. They liberate us from having to guess whether or not we should hoist and hug a happy toddler who is running toward us with exuberant joy. No wonder Aristotle said that a good life is made up of good habits — not spectacular achievements, just good habits. Absorbing certain fundamentals, and making them a way of life, can open the door to a very good life.

According to neuroscientists who study such things, as much as 90% of what we do in a given day happens because we are carrying out actions delivered by a kind of unconscious behavior. The traffic signal turns red and our foot hits the brake. We speak with a friend and we don’t have to contemplate the grammar that makes our words come together. Good habits do not require deep thought or attention. But over-familiarity with certain habits can lead to indifference.

Remember the Nazareth neighbors of Jesus? These hometown folks could not get excited about his coming around. Jesus seemed to them nothing more than the one they had always known. Their senses had been dulled by the regularity of his presence. He triggered nothing special in them. Their minds and hearts had grown all but indifferent to his company. Indifference bred by over-familiarity carries certain dangers too. Just as a high-voltage utility worker cannot afford to relax too thoroughly into his routine, lest the slightest misstep cost him his life, so too are there dangers in living the habits of the Christian life with a layer of over-familiarity that has turned thick and dull.

Not every day, or every moment of each day, can be filled with the kind of unpredictability that leads to euphoria. Live sporting events are popular, in part because of the way unpredictability is built into their outcome. An unanticipated touchdown scored can trigger a surge of dopamine in the brains of thousands of spectators. Those firing neurons that excite are part of what keep fans coming back. So yes, excitement and learning arise when something unexpected happens. But we need to figure out a way to prosper when predictability and over-familiarity surround us.

One sure way is to avoid a know-it-all behavior. We don’t need more of this from each other. But another way is to view each and every experience as if for the first time. A small child who giggles when thrown up into the air, and says repeatedly, “Do it again,” never sees the activity as monotonous. Each toss happens as if for the first time. This capacity to see vitality and meaning in repetitive acts and habitual behaviors leads me to conclude this thought: All of us who have understood ourselves to be Christian for a long time, and who constantly live on the brink of indifference to the riches of certain faith habits, need to rethink our perspective. We can step outside the boundaries of what we take to be so familiar, and re-enter the world of faith with the wide eyed excitement of a brand new believer. Think of this new perspective the next time you worship, or pray, or show love to someone whom you take for granted.

I’m wondering about beginning my sermons in 2014 with a new prayer I heard back in seminary:

Startle us, O God, with your truth,
and open our hearts and our minds to your word,
that hearing, we may believe, and in believing, we may trust our lives,
this day and all the days that lie ahead,
to your love in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

“Startle us,” because religion can become routine even though it is about the stunning ideas that there is a God who created us and everything that is, that the world itself is full of the beauty and glory of its creator, that human beings are created in God’s image, that God came to live among us in the man Jesus and in him has promised to be with us and love us every day of our lives and beyond and to free us from anything that oppresses, confines, threatens, even the fear of death and death itself. Somehow we manage to make that boring. So I pray it because I, too, need the reminder that the world is alive with God, our God is a God of surprises and unlikely grace and blessed intrusions into our lives.

Faithfully and I hope surprisingly,   Ross

The 12 Percent

Are you implementing any resolutions? A new year marks a time to change ourselves and/or the world for the better. Such actions are not far off from repentance and an ongoing task for Christians, especially in Advent and Lent. I imagine God cheering us on in our resolutions, spiritually or secularly conceived.

Friend and colleague Don Larsen recently shared some research on how to change in his church’s January newsletter which I pass on to you. He references the work of Richard Wiseman who teaches psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the England. In 2007 Wiseman surveyed about 3000 of his fellow Brits regarding the resolutions they made for that year. A whopping 88% of people failed to keep their resolutions.

Wiseman was more curious about the successful 12% than he was in ferreting out the reasons why the 88% couldn’t cut it. What were the 12% doing that was so different from the 88%? He observed that the Few tended to resolve just one thing and to frame that single resolve as a goal. Then Wiseman claims their success all came down to five simple principles:

  1. They broke the goal down into a series of smaller steps;
  2. They told friends and family of their goal, thereby building a community of accountability and support;
  3. They regularly reminded themselves of the benefits of obtaining the goal;
  4. They gave themselves a small reward each time they obtained a small step;
  5. They mapped out their progress on a spreadsheet or the refrigerator door or in a journal so they always knew exactly where they were in reaching the goal.

I share Wiseman’s work on New Year’s resolutions for you because I’d love for you to succeed. And I know that God is always about the work of transformation. So may the good professor’s observations be of use to you.

“But more importantly,” Don Larsen concludes in his message, “the whole exercise reminds us of the God who makes promises, keeps promises, and becomes Promise for us and for our salvation. Jesus, the Resolve of God, is the Promise-made-flesh we can count on – not only for 2014, but to the end of the age.”

My resolution for this New Year comes on the heels of Christmas and Epiphany in the story of the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem. For me, that is to recover a deeper sense of awe and wonder in daily life. So there, I’ve told you! (step 2). A journal will work better than a spreadsheet but I’m a bit puzzled about how I’ll know I have reached my goal. Still wondering about wondering….

Faithfully, Ross

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