A Whiff of the Divine: Lent at Tiny Church

Here at Tiny, our focus in worship this Lent has been the last week of Jesus’ life. Using Borg and Crossan’s book, we’ve been look at the stories leading up to the crucifixion. The sermon series is called Journey to the Cross.

The ‘journey’ bit ties into another initiative here at Tiny, the Journey to Jerusalem. We are encouraging folks in our church to walk, run, bike, etc., then submit their mileage each week. We’re trying to make it to Jerusalem before Easter!

So far so good. We set a modest goal of 100 miles a week, which when multiplied by 10, will hopefully get us there. But the initiative has been so popular we are using a factor of 5 instead… and we may still make it to Jerusalem and back. Check it out:

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Just a small way we’re trying to encourage health and wholeness here at the church.

And yes… as the map indicates, we walk on water here.

I’m also making an effort to change up the look of worship each week, primarily on the communion table, but also through the kids’ activities in the Upper Room. Of course I haven’t thought to take pictures—sorry, I’ll do better!—but I’ll describe what I’ve done in case others want to adapt:

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The first week, we looked at Jesus’ “cursing” of the fig tree (Peter’s word, not Jesus’, which I talk about in the sermon). For that Sunday, I had a black piece of fabric laying flat on the table with a vase with several nice branchy twigs sticking out of it, sort of on the left, with the communion elements towards the right. I had a long piece of purple fabric that I snaked around the table, with one side wrapping around the vase, then curved around the communion chalice/plate and hanging off the  front. (By the way, you need to experiment with levels when you do focal point stuff. You can use books and things underneath the cloth to create some variations in height.)

We invited the kids to do this simple activity (sans leaves) in the Upper Room, which was meant to represent the withered fig tree:

Paper Bag Fall Tree2

The kids took these home to have on their dinner tables during Lent.

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This past weekend was the anointing of Jesus. I used a different multi-colored cloth for the table and put a large glass bottle (actually a decanter) on the table, along with a copy of the St. John’s Bible (which I talked about in the sermon), propped open to the gospel of Mark. I also included this figure I got on a trip to Mexico during seminary:

photo copy

We’re fortunate at Tiny that we’re, well, tiny, so people can see what’s on the table pretty well. Also, folks came forward during the prayers of the people and we did an anointing with oil, so they could see the table elements even better.

For the kids in the Upper Room, I gave them a bit of nard (the oil mentioned in the story), which is smelly stuff. They were invited to make cards for each person in the church service, using construction paper, markers, stickers, etc. I asked them to put a little smear of nard on each paper so people would have the scent as a reminder of this story of extravagant love.

The children did a wonderful job of this, and stood with me at the door following the service, handing them out. Most of the notes were small, but Caroline did do an oversized one for Robert and me:

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It has been a very good Lent so far.

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On the Return of Dessert

I backed into my Lent discipline this year. Caroline suggested we give up dessert for Lent as a family, then she changed her mind five days in. As Caroline goes, so go the siblings. But Robert and I stuck with it.

Many of my past Lent disciplines have provided a straight path from practice to benefit:
Giving up Facebook –> more incarnational time with family and friends.
Regular devotional reading –> new insights into the biblical story.

But a dessert fast is more circuitously beneficial, if it’s beneficial at all. I suspect I lost weight much more slowly during Lent than I would have had I not taken on this practice. Sundays were feast days, and while I don’t feel like I feasted all that much, I think my body got very confused and yo-yo’ed a bit.

But Lent disciplines aren’t really about self-improvement, are they? They are deeper than a reboot of the New Year’s resolution. They are about a relationship with God—a connecting with the Holy that is within and without.

Giving something up means acquainting oneself with deprivation and sacrifice, even if the sacrifice is small in the scheme of things. We don’t do enough of that in our culture. In my case, No Dessert was a string tied around my finger, a chance to pause, remember, reflect. Each time I craved something sweet, I tried to think about the sweet things in my life that are always in abundance, things I take for granted. A fantastic spouse. Hugs from children. Dates with friends over coffee. Satisfying work that pays the bills. The chance to write. I also became more mindful about the stuff I was eating. I thought about my body. I thought about what it means to hunger.

I also admit—and I hang my head as I do so—that giving up dessert was hard. Very hard.

I went to a mainline Protestant seminary with predominantly white and economically advantaged people. If you’re familiar with such places, you know that we talked about privilege.

A lot.

I like to think I am pretty tuned in to my own privilege. But my cravings for cookies and ice cream were enormous and sad and reminded me just how privileged I am. I hungered, strongly and several times a day, for something that is completely superfluous for survival. Sure, sweets make life a little more fun and, well, sweet, but they are not necessary. And yet it’s probably not a big exaggeration to say that I despaired over the lack of them.

I don’t say this to beat myself up. I say this to encourage people to push themselves with their Lent disciplines every so often. This was one of the most interesting, thought-provoking things I’ve done. If I can get so wound up craving dessert, what other wants do I try and turn into needs? To paraphrase the title of that cute little self-help book: what other small stuff am I sweating?

Robert and I broke the fast on Saturday night—OK sue me, I didn’t wait until Easter—while we were cabin-camping with our kids (more on that trip another time). We ate s’mores roasted over the fire, with Special Dark chocolate bars. They were little pillowy sandwiches of joy. The next day, I had bought a small pie at Trader Joe’s that we ate with our Easter picnic, and it was… just OK. Same with the cheap, ubiquitous Easter candy I’d been thinking about for seven weeks. It wasn’t very satisfying.

As it happens, Robert had brought Food Rules with him on our getaway, so I was reading it at the time. Pollan talks in the book about eating the “good” stuff, but doing so less often—this method of indulgence can be more satisfying than submitting to our every craving. Turns out he may be right. I normally adore Reese’s peanut-butter cups and can eat them by the fistful. But the Reese’s egg I pilfered from my kid’s basket wasn’t that great. Whereas the marshmallow, toasted on a stick that Caroline had whittled and assembled into a s’more by my husband, was heavenly.

Image is by Maira Kalman, from the Illustrated Food Rules. “When you eat real food, you don’t need rules.”

This Is the Story I’m Preaching Tonight

Andrew Solomon on The Moth: “Depression and the Cambodian Death Camps.”

MP3 file, about 15 minutes.

A slight, unassuming Cambodian woman works with women who’ve been brutalized by the Khmer Rouge. She teaches them to do the work that will save their lives and the life of the world.

It is the work to which Jesus calls us this evening.

Friday Link Love

Some things I found captivating, thought-provoking, or just plain fun this week:

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“BLOOM SKIN” — YouTube (video)

How cool would it be to do something like this in worship…

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NPR Tries to Get Its Pressthink Right — PressThink

NPR has a new ethics policy:

With [the policy], NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

Maintaining the “appearance of balance” isn’t good enough, NPR says. “If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side…” we have to say so. When we are spun, we don’t just report it. “We tell our audience…” This is spin!

May God bless them and keep them as they (hopefully) seek to live into that…

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Pursuit, by Stephen Dobyns — Writer’s Almanac

Each thing I do I rush through so I can do
something else. In such a way do the days pass—
a blend of stock car racing and the never
ending building of a gothic cathedral.
Through the windows of my speeding car, I see
all that I love falling away: books unread,
jokes untold, landscapes unvisited. And why?

More at the link. Powerful.

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Forty Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent — House for All Sinners and Saints

Good, simple ideas.

Day 7: Give 5 items of clothing to Goodwill

Day 8: No bitching day

Day 9: Do someone else’s chore

Day 10: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter

(Sunday)

Day 11: Call an old friend

Day 12: Pray the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news)

 Etc.

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Tertium Squid — Gordon Atkinson

Gordon has been blogging each day during Lent—good, heart-wrenching stuff from his vantage point as a former pastor. His mini-essays have become daily reading for me, since the book our congregation is using was written by yours truly.

I don’t have much to say to God these days. No requests. No praises. No promises that I’ll be a better boy. It’s not that I have anything against talking to God. It’s just that I did so much of that for such a long time. I grew up in the Baptist church where all we did was yammer on about this and that. Then I ended up being a preacher for twenty years. I’ve done my share of talking is what I’m saying. I’m kind of in a season of quiet these days.

I like to say I’m listening to God, but I’ve never heard God say anything. I get messages now and then but they always come through a side channel.

What I do these days when I pray is get very quiet. You have to work hard at real quiet. It takes me about twenty minutes to settle in. The Quakers taught me that. At first I thought the Quaker meetings seemed kind of long. Later I found myself arriving early so I could get calm ahead of time because I was losing a third of the hour to the fidgets.

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Elaine Pagels on the Book of Revelation — Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

Pagels … shows that Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing. It’s essentially a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement in the late first century, with Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed and the Saviour, despite his promises, still not back. All the imagery of the rapt and the raptured and the rest that the “Left Behind” books have made a staple for fundamentalist Christians represents contemporary people and events, and was well understood in those terms by the original audience. Revelation is really like one of those old-fashioned editorial drawings where Labor is a pair of overalls and a hammer, and Capital a bag of money in a tuxedo and top hat, and Economic Justice a woman in flowing robes, with a worried look.

What’s more original to Pagels’s book is the view that Revelation is essentially an anti-Christian polemic.

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We’re Starting a New Presbyterian Church — Bruce Reyes-Chow

It will be an online church.

It’s an intriguing prototype (to use language we heard at NEXT) and I think I’d sum up my opinion of this with one of the comments: “Please push the envelope on this, while regarding the en-fleshed experience of the gospel as essential.”

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Why It Matters That Our Politicians Are Rich — Boston.com

Politicians would like us to believe that all this money doesn’t matter in a deeper sense—that what matters is ideas, skills, and leadership ability. Aside from a little extra business savvy, they’re regular people just like the rest of us: They just happen to have more money.

But is that true? In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.

Read the studies for yourself and tell me what you think.

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Have a good weekend, everyone.

The Pre-Lenten Roundup

Margaret got the baby in the king cake at church on Sunday. By Sunday evening he was living the suburban dream.

The other day I surveyed my Facebook friends to find out what people are doing to observe the season.

Besides reading this OF COURSE.

I have done a variety of things for Lent, ranging from nothing special to taking on an additional discipline, such as morning prayer or devotional reading. If you are inclined to add a spiritual discipline, may I recommend my friend Mary Allison’s practice of writing a letter each day? If you’re in Memphis you can even take a workshop on the topic!

I was recently drawn to this blog that describes “speed creating,” in which this inventive fellow spent 30 days making an amazing new thing each day. What would it be like to have Lent be a season for tinkering? It doesn’t have to be elaborate, like the thread light:

I like the idea of creating something for Lent. It speaks to me of the tradition of repentance, but in a novel way. One definition of repentance is to “go beyond the mind that you have.” What could be more in keeping with that than to repurpose the things of our lives? After all, we are moving toward Easter, the ultimate story of transformation and repurposing. Death gives way to new life. An instrument of violence becomes the place where God’s forgiveness is proclaimed.

But as captivated as I am by these practices, I will be giving something up instead. I am in a Meister Eckhart-ish place, who said that the spiritual life is a process of subtraction.

The truth is, I am feeling like Bilbo these days: “thin, sort of stretched, like butter, scraped over too much bread.” I am feeling the need for some space, friends. So something is going to go.

I’m a little wary of Lenten fasts as nothing more than self-help couched in spiritual terms: I’m going to give up sweets so I can lose some weight! Self-improvement is a good thing, but is a new exercise regimen during Lent really devotional at heart, or is it a second chance at the New Year’s resolution? (That said, I think some people take the hand-wringing a bit far.)

When I give something up, it is a reminder to breathe and pray, to experience radical contentment, and to remember that the object of my fast is not the “one thing needful,” as much as I may crave it in that moment.

An example: a friend of mine is going to give up bread, so that the only bread she consumes during Lent is communion bread, what we call the bread of heaven. I’ll bet you good money that she will lose weight during this time. But do you see how weight loss is not at all the focus?

I still haven’t decided what I will be giving up, but it’s been a topic of conversation in our house. The girls have suggested we all give up desserts. I think we’re going to do this. Dessert has become a point of contention in our home—I am soooo tired of the constant needling, the negotiating, the comparing of cookie sizes. Having that whole issue off the table (pun intended) feels very spacious to me. But I’m still pondering how it connects us to Spirit.

What do you think? Those who observe Lent, what will your practice be?

One final thing. To those folks, mostly non-religious or de-churched, going around saying “I’m giving up Lent for Lent”…

Yes, I’ve heard that one.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Books

The cover of Ruth's devotional guide. Don't you want to go to the Holy Land?

My friend Ruth Everhart and I both have Lent Devotional guides coming out this year. You can read about both of them here at RevGalBlogPals.

It is easy to get into competitive mode with one’s creative endeavors, and to feel like if one person does well, then that means less of the pie for you. And let’s be honest—few of us are going to order two Lent devotionals. (Let’s be honest even further and say that for many of my readers, one Lent devotional is a stretch. Ahem.)

But Ruth and I are in a writing group together, and we scheme about creating a writers’ guild that would support, cross-promote, maybe even co-publish our work. If she does well, I’m happy. It’s also good for me. And vice versa. And if either of us does well, it’s good for the RevGals, the grandmama of online communities that I was honored to help form more than six years ago. (Grandmama? Yes. It’s kinda like dog years.) And one hopes that the reign of God is somehow illuminated too.

But what we all want, at the heart of it, is to write and be read. So order one of these books.

Fellowship of Prayer: Preview

Clergy, DCEs, church education committees… this is for you.

I was grateful for the opportunity to write the Lent Devotional Guide for Chalice Press, available for order here at the low low price of $2.95. (E-PDFs available too!) Some of you have asked me if there is a place to get a preview of the content. For a while there wasn’t, though I see now that they’ve put up a link to the first few entries. But how about a preview here at the Blue Room too? Here are the first few entries to give you a feel for the whole thing…

Introduction

Dear Reader:

As a child, I loved going through my grandparents’ encyclopedias. A favorite section was on the human body, with intricate, full-color diagrams of the circulatory system, muscles, nerves. Each system was illustrated on its own clear plastic page, so you could view it on its own, or you could lay them on top of each other—organs on top of arteries on top of bones. And then there was the skin that covered everything underneath it—an entire universe, encased in human flesh, fearfully and wonderfully made.

Life feels like this—layers upon layers, laid on top of each other. There are carpools and dinners with friends, oil changes and books due at the library. There are friends in the hospital, bills to pay, tensions with a family member, a presidential election looming, a never-ending onslaught of news and punditry. There’s that guy on the park bench, his worldly possessions crammed in a purloined grocery cart. There’s the sweet little girl in your son’s fifth grade class who just arrived in the U.S. and speaks no English. There’s the neighbor who gets on your last nerve. There’s the church committee meeting.

Life goes on as usual during between now and April 8, but with a new layer: the season of Lent. For some of us, Lent means intentional scripture reading, or giving up an indulgence through Easter, or an increased commitment to prayer, or daily reading of the book you now hold in your hands. But our life of faith is not just a set of tasks like any other. It is the circulatory system, our lifeblood, the heart that pumps life into us and keeps us going. Or perhaps it’s the nervous system, the center of feeling and awareness. Or perhaps it’s the skin—the flesh that enfolds everything else we do.

Lent can be all of these things, and more, if we give ourselves fully to the season, its themes, and its practices. Take a deep breath, and let us begin.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana

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Ash Wednesday • Feb 22

We Are Dust

Read Psalm 51. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

Tonight, many of us will attend worship services in which we receive ashes on the forehead along with the stark words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In a death-denying culture, it is one of the more radical things we do. Anthony Robinson, a pastor and writer, served a congregation that decided to have an Ash Wednesday service for the first time, followed by a community concert. When Robinson looked out on the crowd that night, his sermon about sin and brokenness clutched in his hands, he realized that many people in the sanctuary were from the greater community. How would they react to an extended time of confession? Would the imposition of ashes feel weird or punitive?

The next day he was walking with his wife in a sketchy neighborhood in town—lots of folks sporting tattoos and piercings. A young woman with both of these, plus wild multi-colored hair, stopped him. “You’re that pastor from last night, aren’t you? What you did, and what you said—it was so meaningful. It was awesome.”

We are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are dust, all of us—the pastor and the wild-haired young woman, and the toddler and the nonagenarian. Our time is short upon this earth. Only God endures forever. In the meantime, what are we living for? What are we willing to give ourselves to? We long to belong to something larger than ourselves. But what is that something? The ashes, marking us with the cross, proclaim the answer. We belong to God. Even in our frailty and finitude, a good and powerful God loves us. That is the gospel message of Lent.

Dear God, help me to live in hope this Lent. I am your child. Amen. 

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Thur • Feb 23

From the Ashes

Read Isaiah 43:18-19. Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.

Her name was Isabella Baumfree, but most of us know her by the name she chose for herself, a free woman: Sojourner Truth. A gifted preacher and activist for abolitionism and women’s rights, she aroused controversy whenever she spoke. On one occasion, when she was greeted by hissing and booing, she responded, “You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can’t stop us, neither.”

One day, while preparing to speak in Indiana, word came that someone had threatened to burn down the building if she spoke there. Sojourner said, “Then I will speak upon the ashes.”

The message is clear: nothing would stop Sojourner Truth—not hatred, not intimidation, and certainly not a lit match touching dry wooden beams. If necessary, she would stand tall on the charred remains of that building, a living testimony that oppression and ugliness are not the final word. Liberation, beauty, truth—these things prevail.

Ashes are a reminder of our mortality, to be sure, but they are more than that. They are a reminder that life can erupt from death. God’s creation testifies to this again and again, as forests are decimated by fire, only to burst with green in seasons to come. Lent testifies to this too.

You are about to do a new thing, powerful God. Give me eyes to see it, and the words to testify to what I see. 

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Thanks for all of your support and encouragement, friends. If the devotional suits your needs or that of your congregation, I’d be honored if you checked it out.