Discovering Spiritual Truths & Celebrating God's Grace in the Every Day Happenings of Life.
A couple of days ago, I sat with a homebound member, reflecting on the depressing news that is unavoidable anytime you look at your phone or turn on a television. Tragedy at an amusement park. Massive casualties as a passenger airline falls out of the sky in China. Car accidents that take the lives of many young people far too soon. Natural disasters that leave people homeless and cities destroyed. Not to mention the ongoing war raging on in Ukraine. Sure, you can take my preferred approach and just stop watching the news altogether. But that won’t stop the sadness from occurring. Evil still rages on this world. Tragedy still transpires. Hurt still happens. Whether we tune in or not, the destruction brought on by a godless, sinful world still shatters the lives of every family. Indeed, many are the things that captivate the public news cycle, but there is plenty of heartache that happens privately and goes unnoticed by most. It is sad that it often takes such shattering calamities for perspective to ground us in what is truly important. They provide a “reality check” for our lives.
Such is how the season of Lent began, a reality check that we are but mortal beings awaiting the return of our conquering King Jesus. “From dust you came, to dust you shall return… ” This season is a somber reminder of the world’s brokenness, of our brokenness. Our time here upon earth is temporary. We are all sin-filled and frail. We cannot stand on our own. We cannot save ourselves. The penitential season of Lent firmly puts us in our place with a harsh reality—“we have sinned and we each fall short of the glory of God.” This is why, to begin our worship services, we drop to our knees in repentance. “Lord, save me! God, give me strength!” We need God’s tender mercy; we need His intervention. As the saying goes, “Tomorrow is never guaranteed.” As a result of sin, death will now come for all of us. This is a morbid and ugly reality. Yet ever since Genesis 3 this has been unavoidable. It doesn’t matter your status or your wealth. It doesn’t matter what is your heritage or worldly accomplishments. At some point (and God-willing peacefully in our old age) we will all leave this world through the unavoidable means of death. Each day is a gift from God. We would do well to not take that granted. This is precisely the reason behind our opening proclamation each Sunday morning to start our worship. “This is the day the LORD has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24) Any day we are upright and above the ground, any day we are able to take nourishment is a good day. That is not to say we won’t have problems or feel pain; but it is a day made by and gifted to us by God. Rejoice! Let us not fill our days with resentment, anger, fear or despair. Instead seek to give thanks and overflow with the joy of the Lord. Live each day and each moment with gratitude in your hearts.
The forty days of this Lenten season continue to count down. And with that, the somber tone of this opening blast begins to build with hope-filled anticipation. The darkness lifts and gives way to light. Repentance gives way to rejoicing. Guilt gives way to grace. Sadness turns to celebration. Our posture goes from pain to praise. Shame gives way to salvation. Can you hear the familiar refrains on the horizon? I can almost catch the brass band and banging drums of Easter morning. The organ hymns shifting from somber, introspective tones to melodies that infuse energy and excitement into everyone. The shouts of “Alleluia, He is risen indeed” will soon be filling the sanctuary to the rafters. This is the reason we celebrate the death AND resurrection of our Savior Jesus. This is what the somber season of reflection and confession throughout Lent culminates in. Lent is important; it is necessary. But it isn’t how the story ends. We await Easter! A stone rolled away. Jesus risen. Tomb empty. Death destroyed. Debt paid. Access granted. Tears wiped away. New and eternal life in paradise granted to all who trust in Him.
May this Easter joy, this Good News be with you always! In the midst of endless bad news, in the midst of pain and death, in the midst of hardships and inconsolable grieving, in the midst of cancerous tumors, broken marriages, strained relationships, horrific accidents, unmet expectations, financial hardships—Jesus Christ comes to bring YOU hope. To bring life. To showcase love. To bring a reason to rejoice and be glad. To bring you and me into His eternal family. To bring perspective… that God loves us so much He didn’t want us to drown in death’s sea of despair any longer. Jesus comes so that YOU know—no matter what may happen—God’s got YOUR back and He will never let YOU down. “For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thanks be to God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57 NLT)
"Somehow we just don't make the same boisterous fun of Holy Week that we do of Christmas. No one plans to have a holly, jolly Easter." (F. Mathewes-Green) …We need to change that! 😉
Nothing cute or clever from me today. Instead, I need to take on a more serious tone. It’s not fun to talk about, but very important. Several years ago, research showed that the average life expectancy in America had dropped for the first time in recent history. This was trending even prior to the current COVID pandemic we are in which only exacerbated the problem. Why? Many experts believe that the opioid crisis is one big part of the reason. For example, over 100,000 related deaths occurred between April 2020 and April 2021. Earlier this week, I sat in a presentation for area clergy with a team of people from New Pathway Counseling Services. They are a local organization that is committed to helping people with addictive disorders—whether that be alcohol, opioids, prescription drugs, or other.
Over the past several years, opioid abuse has reached epidemic proportions – and it’s happening within our communities. The face of the opioid crisis is no longer the heroin addict strung out on the streets. Roughly 21-29% of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them (that equated to 11.4 million prescription opioid addicts in 2016). In other words, the people who are struggling with such addictions are not necessarily doing so intentionally. They’re not looking for trouble. They're not longtime drug abusers. Opioid use is entirely centered around one objective–pain alleviation, whether physical or psychological. As a result, these are the people we do life with on a daily basis. It’s the college athlete with the long-term effects of knee injuries. It’s the neighbor who has just returned from active service in the military. It’s the mother of two that is in so much pain from surgical complications. It’s the teenager that didn’t realize how dangerous this “quick-fix” could be. In other words, it is our neighbors and co-workers, our friends and our family. They’re desperately trying to remove the physical pain and numb the emotional hurts as well, but in doing so, they find themselves in a spiral of despair and danger.
A related online article asked this question, putting this concern front-and-center for clergy…
"Is anyone suffering in your congregation or community? If so, then be assured they are tempted to escape through self-medicating (whether prescribed or illegal) rather than running toward the Lord. Church leaders are gatekeepers for those in any sort of pain, who find themselves stuck between those two alternatives – Jesus or drugs. Hesitating to speak openly with the church about the opioid crisis, share facts about the dangers, train members to recognize the signs and intervene boldly when required leaves those in pain at risk of falling to temptation."
As I said, I know that this is not an enjoyable read. However, the point of sharing this with you all, is to increase your awareness just as mine was during that presentation. Opioid, alcohol, or drug abuse is not a moral failing for us to just shake our heads at. It's not that simple. It is a disease. In Jesus’ time, people who were blind or lame were not looked upon by the pious as people with a disease or a disability; they were “sinners” who “deserved what they got.”
Jesus taught differently, and rightly called His followers to lead the charge of those who were sick and hurting. In that vein, you need to know that the church is here to help. Any church, any clergy. I am here to help if you or someone in your family struggle with any sort of addition or destructive behavior. I may not be the one directly counseling you; but I will get you in touch with the best people who can bring swift healing and recovery. I can connect you with the people that I am meeting and the resources that are available in our community. This will get you, or the people you care about, the help needed so much quicker than by going through a general website or helpline. I know this issue is uncomfortable; it can be delicate and even disconcerting. But it has long been said that the church is a hospital for sinners. We know this is true spiritually, but our care for broken people doesn't end there.
Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
It is nice to see things starting to open back up again. Do you agree? There is a long-awaited, exhilarating return to normal (or at least, a new normal) throughout our country. People are going back into the office for work. Students are no longer learning virtually; and recently they have seen mask-wearing become optional. Restaurants are using printed menus. Sporting events and concert halls are filling up again. Theaters and auditoriums have begun to open up. It is no longer taboo to reach out to shake the hand of a person you’re greeting. Our children can attend parties of their friends. Adults can sit shoulder to shoulder at the bar. Lines and wait times at the DMV have improved (…just kidding). It is even possible to let an innocent sneeze or harmless cough be heard in public spaces without people looking at you with condemning daggers in their eyes. To be sure, COVID has left much heartache and grief in its wake. We must continue to be smart and diligent in how we treat it and minimize further impact. But thankfully, the countless and disruptive waves of this two-year pandemic, seem to finally be subsiding.
What have you enjoyed doing again? What has made you feel normal again? Shopping without a mask? Attending the school event of your child or grandchild? Taking an overdue vacation? Gathering indoors with friends and family? Hugging a loved one or a friend you hadn’t seen in months? Going to a concert? Putting on pants and actually doing your hair or makeup to do something other than just take the trashcans out to the curb?
It has now been -- years ago, but I still remember coasting through my senior year of high school. I had already been accepted to the college I was planning on going to, and the majority of my course load was either required or relatively easy. Senioritis had kicked in and was in full effect... pretty much from the moment my senior year had started! But then there was my English class. Though the class itself was not incredibly difficult nor was the work too burdensome, I had coasted a bit too long and a bit too far. I neglected the reading and put off the journal writing. Not-so-suddenly my grade dropped to the point of not being able to graduate. Yikes! This was not a fun conversation for a perpetual honor roll student to have with mom and dad. As a direct result of my laziness, and thoroughly enjoying the fun of a socially active senior year, I was left in a precarious position. Improve the grades or else. No walking in graduation and no summer fun. Fortunately, with a few extra assignments and a flexible, albeit a bit wacky, English teacher, I was able to finish the year off strong. I passed the class and did not have to miss any of the graduation day festivities.
There is great danger in coasting through things. We miss important events, overlook essential details, or we fall into an apathetic laziness that can have all sorts of ramifications for our lives. This is what the season of Lent seeks to help us avoid. It is a season in the church year dedicated to shaking us from our spiritual stupor and prod us to pay attention to the important subject matter at hand. It is meant to ensure we don’t miss the indispensable narrative of Jesus’ passion week. Lent is a season of 40 days where we take time, intentionally, to zero in and reflect on the need for and preparations of Easter Sunday. We dare not coast through Lent. We dare not act like this is no big deal. We dare not just stop working (or worshiping) until Easter. Of course, we are excited for the uplifting sights and sounds of Easter. It is, after all, a victorious celebration. But it came after some major storms in the life of our Savior. So we continue in Lent, looking carefully at the places and moments of the sufferings Christ endured on His journey to the cross. These moments not only showcase His immense love for us, but they also give us a model by which to battle our own struggles, obstacles, and temptations.
Indeed, Lent is God’s story of putting back together a shattered world, and more importantly our shattered relationship with the Creator. We dare not miss this story because we’re too busy or distracted. We dare not overlook it because we’re having too much fun or spiritually slacking off. Think of it this way, when driving a car, if I take my foot off the pedal, the car does not speed up. It doesn’t even maintain the same speed. Instead, from the very moment I take my foot off the accelerator, the car begins to slow. Allowing the car to coast is inviting the car to stop. It may take some time, but left on its own, it will stop eventually. It is inevitable. Before you know it, a long hill or unanticipated obstacle comes and you don’t have the momentum to move forward. This Lent be intentional about not coasting in your relationship with Jesus. Lent is not a time for us to take the foot off the pedal, but to intentionally keep moving to Jesus, grasping tightly to the incredible tools He gives us in His word and to avoid any coasting that may end in a complete spiritual stop!
"Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy." (Pope Francis)
Do you recall that catchy tune from Fiddler on the Roof? "Tradition!"
My apologies if you now have that melody stuck in your head! 😉
As good Lutherans, we know it isn’t only the Jewish faith that is rife with tradition. Our Lutheran heritage also has handed down many customs and traditions over the centuries. But if we don’t know the reason or history behind the tradition, then what good is it? For the depth and entirety of a tradition to be expressed and appreciated, we need to know why we do it.
Ash Wednesday is an odd tradition. At least our preschool students, during chapel time yesterday, certainly thought so. "Why do you have dirt on your head?" "You have an X on your forehead." "It looks like an airplane." These innocent children couldn’t quite understand why grownups would come to church to smear dirt on our heads. How would you have answered?
Did you know that Ash Wednesday has its traditions from well before the Lutheran church came into existence? This first day of the Lenten season is intended to make Christians mindful of their sins and to bring into focus the gravity of those sins and their consequences. In 1091 Pope Gregory I started the tradition of marking a cross of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as he uttered the words of Genesis 3:19, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” This custom has been passed down through generations, spreading even to many Protestant denominations. That’s right, ashes aren’t just for Catholics! This is a gifted ritual for all Christians. It is completely optional, but it also can be an edifying practice for the whole Church. This custom was reminiscent of Old Testament people of God sitting in ashes or sprinkling them on the head. In a time of great sorrow or repentance, ashes and sackcloth were outward signs of grief or repentance.
Pastor Steve Vera