Not that Kind of Baptist

in Lent

Journey Through Lent: Ash Wednesday

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          For many who grew up Protestant, the rhythms and traditions of Lent may seem quite remote.  That was my experience for years.  My very first Ash Wednesday service was soon after I returned to Christian faith when I attended First Baptist Church, Knoxville.  I was so moved by the solemnity and redeeming power of the words and practices in that service. 

         Over the years, I have found Lent to be one of the most profound spiritual journeys of the Christian year. 

          To the lasting detriment of Protestant spirituality, a long history of reflexive anti-Catholicism infected American forms of Protestantism in the United States.  Thankfully, we seem to be climbing out of our self-imposed exile from ecumenical traditions and historic faith.

          Knowing that many may still hear the traditions and special days of Lent as a foreign language, I’ll be writing a series of articles about the major movements of Lent as a primer and way of introduction.  It is as much for me as it is for you.  In this article, I’ll introduce Lent and Ash Wednesday. 

          Let’s begin with the word “Lent.”  Lent is a weird word, don’t you think?  Say it a few times slowly.  Your brain may have already connected it to the English word “lengthen” for good etymological reason. 

          Lent comes from an Old English word meaning “lengthen,” perhaps pointing to the longer hours of daylight in the spring.  In Protestant tradition, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the night of Holy Saturday.  We say that Lent lasts for forty days, but technically it lasts for 46 days if you count the Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  So…don’t count those Sundays.  

         What is Lent leading to?  Easter, of course!  By the fourth century, Christians had lengthened the period of preparation for Easter from just a few days to 40 days.  It was aimed at preparing catechumens for baptism into the Church on Easter morning.  A catechumen is a convert to Christian faith who is awaiting instruction leading to baptism.    

          The Church has retreated over the years from the baptismal focus of Lent towards an inner spiritual preparation for Easter and a period of intense self-examination.  For forty days, we are invited to practice spiritual disciplines of fasting, prayer, and self-examination as a way to prepare for the glory and power of Easter. 

         For Baptists who believe you can’t do anything unless it’s in the Bible somewhere: fear not!  Lent is suffused with biblical tradition and allusions.  Just as Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days, undergoing temptation by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11), the period of Lent invites us to our own period of prayer, fasting, and self-examination.  The traditions of Holy Week follow the path Jesus took to the Cross and each of the major movements in Holy Week have strong biblical connections.  (More on those in subsequent articles).

          Ash Wednesday.  Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, a day which was solidified in church observance for all Christians by the 11th century, although the practice of tracing the sign of the cross on a penitent’s forehead long preceded this time. 

        If you attend an Ash Wednesday service, the most common observance includes the reading of lectionary texts.  In the case of Ash Wednesday, these biblical texts do not vary from year to year.  Those would include selections from the Old Testament book of Joel and the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, both of which emphasize repentance.  More than an echo of Joel’s rend your heart and not your clothing can be heard in Jesus’ admonition to avoid spiritual practices done for public consumption.  (Compare Joel 2:13 to Matthew 6:1-6). 

          And, of course, it wouldn’t be Ash Wednesday without ashes.  Some congregations burn the palm branches from Palm Sunday (always the Sunday before Easter) and use those ashes to draw the sign of the cross on the foreheads of congregants, saying From dust you came and to dust you shall return.  This is what God says to Adam after the humans' transgression in the Garden in Genesis 3:19.

          The symbolism of ashes is multi-layered and profound.  Ashes symbolize both our birth and our death.  Just as the first human was formed from the dirt of the ground in Genesis 2:7, we are all connected to Adam and Eve by our human lineage and our common Creator.  And when we die we are placed in the dirt through burial or cremated into…well…ashes. 

        As we receive the ashes on our foreheads, so too in many traditions does the sign of the cross get traced on the head of the casket during graveside services.  The ashes are cruciform because our mortality is contained in the symbolism of the Cross. 

          In some churches, congregants are encouraged to write their sins on a piece of paper, which are then placed in a vessel and burned.  In a congregation I pastored in rural Texas, we threw our sins into a large barrel which had a controlled fire.  There is a tangible power to seeing the record of those sins go up in flames.

          If you have never observed Lenten forms of spiritual discipline before, I encourage you to explore it this year.  Go to a church which holds an Ash Wednesday service and accept God’s invitation to deeper relationship.  Sit in silence with ashes on your forehead and simply enjoy the presence of the living God. 

          Think about a recent decision you made in which you were self-centered and ignored God’s will for your life.  Tell God about that and reflect on what that was about for you.  May the ashes cleanse and purify and heal.  Amen.    

Resources consulted for this article include:
Philip H. Pfatteicher’s Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year.

in Lent

Listening to Jesus

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Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. (Matthew 17:1-8, NRSV)

The Sunday before Lent begins is Transfiguration Sunday.  With more than a casual allusion to the story of Moses' encounter with God, Matthew emphasizes Jesus' glowing face and his "dazzling" clothes.  I've read the passage many times, but this time around my eyes lingered on the words God says to Jesus from the cloud.  This is my Son, the Beloved is a lovely call back to Jesus' baptism in chapter 3:17 when God said the same words...with one addition I'll treat in a moment.  In the baptism passage, Jesus' ministry begins with a powerful word of affirmation from God, both authorizing and blessing Jesus' kingdom mission in the world.

But the Transfiguration account in chapter 17 adds these intriguing words after the familiar words of beloved.  God says this: "listen to him."  In the Greek it is ἀκούω from which we derive our English word "acoustic" and its cognates.  It can mean both to hear and to listen, in the same way we might say during a conversation "do you hear me?" when we actually mean "are you listening?" or "did you understand what I'm saying?"  

Jesus will use that same word at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount when he says:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock." (Matthew 7:24).

Jesus blesses his followers who, unlike those who have their ears stopped up, are in a spiritual place where they can actually hear and listen to what Jesus is saying. 

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. (Matthew 13:16)

One of the recurring themes of the Gospel is Jesus' prophetic interpretation of Isaiah 6:9-10 in which the prophet castigates Israel for not listening.  In an imaginative play, God will respond by stopping up their ears.  They would be unable to hear even if they wanted to.  Jesus teaches that just as in Isaiah's day, there are people whose ears are stopped up from hearing God's truth.  Our age is no different.  

We shouldn't overread that, in my view, as a perpetual prophecy that God is deliberately preventing us from hearing the truth.  Rather, it is an apt description of the human propensity to be unable to hear the radical words of God when they are said in our presence.  

One can hear words with perfect clarity that summon us to action.  An audiologist performing a contemporary exam would conclude that there were no obstructions or pathologies in the ears; we can hear just fine.  And yet, we can be paralyzed into inaction by our foolishness or stubborness.  Sin has a way of provoking inaction as much as it does wrong action.  We can sin by omission as much as we can by commission.  

A sin of omission would be where we have heard Jesus' command in our life and simply fail to respond.  But of course we cannot even respond unless we first know what Jesus is saying.  Lots of people talk about Jesus, but seem to have no familiarity with what Jesus actually taught and commanded.  

When God said "listen to him," do you think God meant simply "process these words of my Son in your ears, but don't do a single thing about them"?  No, of course not.  To hear in the Gospel is always to obey.  If you show no signs of obedience, one can reasonably ask about you "well, did you really hear what Jesus said?"  

There are a thousand ways to obfuscate--to not hear.  We can relativize the text's claim on our life.  God was just talking to Peter, James, and John, not to me.  We can reduce the radical ethics of Jesus' teachings to an interim ethic.  Jesus thought the world was ending, but since it didn't end, those rules no longer apply.  We can willfully ignore Jesus' teachings by focusing only on the meaning of his death and resurrection.  All that matters is that I'm saved by the blood of Jesus, so I don't need to concern myself with his commands.  (Bonhoeffer called that last obfuscation "cheap grace").

On the cusp of Lent, we are called to a life of radical obedience.  We are called to listen to what Jesus is saying to us.  We are called to reflect and to comprehend what his words mean to us, today.  We are called to obey them in our particular context.  

Jesus is not a podcast or an interesting audio-book.  Jesus is the incarnate Son of God.  May we listen to what he has to say, and in our deep listening, may obedience come.  Amen. 

(The painting shown above is a photograph taken by the author in the Musee du Louvre of Rembrandt's "Supper at Emmaus").

 

 

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with
Tags: listen

Approaching All Saints

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          During worship this coming Sunday (November 1, 2019), we’ll be calling out the names of five Northside Drivers who died since All Saints’ Day, 2018: Aline Cofield; Kenneth Dean; Bill Jones; Jane Lamkin; and Larry Prince, Sr.    As we call each out loud, a bell will be rung, and Senior Pastor James Lamkin will offer a brief reflection.  These are indeed hallowed days.    

          I grew up in a tradition which had no analogue to All Saints.  Perhaps the closest was Decoration Day at the cemetery in Leoma, Tennessee.  Many of you participate in this very meaningful day, with its annual visitation to a loved one’s grave to clean and decorate, to pray and to remember.  Such observances happen privately outside the space of our communal worship.  And so, it has been special to me to have space during a worship service to formally remember our saints.  In addition to those dear ones named above, we can call aloud others who have died. 

          The proximity of this day of memory to Halloween is not accidental, although time and culture has erased the theological profundity of the day—at least in our secular imagination. 

          Like most sacred days, Halloween has been subjected to a dizzying array of secular recensions.  What began in the 8th century as a day to celebrate saints and known, appropriately, as All Saints Day, would eventually morph into Halloween some centuries later.  November 1 is the actual liturgical day for the celebration of saints, alive and deceased. 

          Halloween, a contraction of the words eve (as in night before) and hallow (as in holy, set apart, saintly), now bears scant resemblance to the Christian day of All Saints Day. It is a liminal time, nonetheless, even if it has been thoroughly desacralized.  The world of the deceased and the world of the living are thought—imaginatively—to come perilously close to one another. 

          It was perhaps not without some irony that Luther chose All Hallows Eve as the date on which he tacked his 95 theses on the castle church in Wittenberg.  Ironic because one of the fruits of the Reformation—at least the fruit which would lead to Baptists—was a thoroughgoing opposition to all feast days, days of special observance, and the entire theological superstructure which accompanied All Saints

          Protestantism, in its most anti-Catholic iterations, tended to shy away from the very notion of liminal space between the living and the dead.  That whole vast panoply of intermediary spirits, powers, principalities, saints, the blessed Virgin Mary et al. came to be subsumed under the notion of the individual walking and talking with Jesus…alone. 

          In our tradition, we have found great meaning and depth in recovering such liminal space.  Perhaps we would be aided in our remembrance of the saints by dwelling for a moment on who or what a saint is.  

          In our popular rendering, a saint in a rare person indeed.  One who by her conduct is beyond reproach.  One who appears to be closer to God than others.  Or so it might be thought by our colloquial use of the term.  She’s a saint, we would say of my maternal grandmother who never had a known outburst of anger or inappropriate conduct.  Her irenic nature was a constant. 

          The New Testament conceives of a saint in less hierarchical, and more approachable ways.  For Paul, the saints are ubiquitous and omnipresent in those congregations to which he wrote letters.  Addressing the church at Corinth, he addressed the congregation as those “called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2).  Likewise, in Ephesians he begins with To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:1).  Paul thought of himself as “the very least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8) but notably…still a saint.  The New Testament ends with these words: The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. (Rev. 22:21). 

         There were apparently lots of saints in New Testament times.  Fortunately, we don’t apply a test. There is no process of canonization.  We need not expand on the assumptions of the New Testament that all who have accepted the call into new life by Jesus Christ were saints.  We are all, each of us, sanctified “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).  Sanctified, after all, shares a common theological “etymology” with saint.     

          The act of naming aloud those who have died during a worship service is a powerful antidote to the banality of Halloween.  In such naming and in our living memories, we remember the lives of those we loved and lived with, wept and rejoiced with, worshipped alongside of, and yes, buried.  By naming those who have died as saints we place them in that great narrative of God’s powerful redemptive story.  For we know that death will not have the final word.  God will.     

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with

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