Don’t ever wrestle with your children when you have a container of yogurt in your pocket. I learned a lesson about the dangers of distraction and multitasking this week. Heading to church on Wednesday, I grabbed small Yoplait yogurt to take with me as I was heading out the door, when one of my children came at me with a wrapping paper tube they pretended was a sword. We had such a fun time playing that I forgot about the yogurt in my coat pocket. When I was defeated in the sword play and fell hard to the ground I was surprised to find my suit suddenly covered in strawberry yogurt. Oh well.
There are many distractions and a lot of multitasking going on in the lives of many of us. Several of you have mentioned to me and to our staff team that you feel weary this time of year. There seems a sprint from Christmas to the present; a busyness in the church and life. With Easter in March we have the New Year business and the spiritual activities of Lent compressed next to each other.
However, I do not believe God wants us to be busy all the time. Especially during Lent. There is value in fasting, giving something up or removing clutter from our lives. On the other hand, Lent is a season for following through. We might make a commitment to God or someone for this season and beyond but find it’s difficult to carry out or carry on. But even when we are feeling torn, tired, tried and tender, we can make it. We don’t have to give up. For at Easter we will celebrate that God has not given up on us. Let us pray. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. Open to us the morning of your word and give us the courage to keep going on our goals. Amen.
By tradition, Advent and Lent are solemn seasons. Purple seasons. Seasons of repentance and inward reflection rather than jovial celebration. It’s why we rarely sing alleluias in Lent for example. In the middle Ages, Advent became so depressing that in the medieval church decided to change the color in the middle to rose for the 3rd Sunday to provide some encouragement. Lent is two weeks longer, and so when we reach the middle of Lent there can be some fatigue. We can be tempted to let our focus slide. But then Lent has always been a period of resisting temptation. It started with Jesus resisting temptation for forty days in the wilderness.
Last Thursday marked Pope Benedict’s final day as he becomes the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign . One of you shared a wonderful cartoon with me of the pope speaking with God and God says to him, “You gave up what for Lent?” Lent is a season of prayer and reflection as we remember Christ’s journey to the cross. It’s not an easy time or an easy process, particularly when we are so busy. But as Jesus was challenged in the wilderness, Lent challenges us to develop an inner strength.
Do you need encouragement about committing to the path before you? Do you feel like giving up on something because you are weary and just don’t think you can make it? Did you put your mind to a project at home or to a lay ministry at church? Have you made a sacrifice as a spiritual practice for Lent? Or lifted up a commitment to God? Or taken a personal vow? Or made a promise to a child? Or swore to yourself to make a change?
The commitments we engage in, the vows we take, the promises we make reflect our faith. But I know in my own life I have felt tempted to throw in the towel many times and at times have said, “This isn’t worth it anymore.” Not every job or relationship or situation is meant to continue.
But there are commitments where if we have the courage to continue on the path, we and others we care about will be better for it. Lent is in part about continuing on the paths we set out on. It took courage for Jesus to resist temptations in the wilderness for 40 days. One of the reasons Jesus sacrificed on the cross was to model, and thereby give us, courage.
The writer of Psalm 27 knew all about the temptations to give up. Psalm 27 is a complex Psalm. Six verses are a profession of faith, six more are a petition of God and two reaffirm faith. As with most of the Psalms in the first section of the Book, Psalm 27 is said to have been written by King David around 1000bc. One can hear his anxiety. Enemies are coming. Adversaries are promising war. Foes are breathing false accusations. Whether David was facing a military battle or a political one he was anxious and afraid. And yet he does not give up.
He knows he shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. That is a beautiful phrase for Lent; that even if God doesn’t seem present now in your life now we shall see the goodnesss of the Lord, so we can keep calm and carry on.
What Lenten traits, therefore, lifted up by the Psalmist, help us keep calm and carry on when things seem stacked against us? First, patience is one of the most important but hard to come by qualities in a complex, multitasked, world. But “patience is the companion of wisdom,” said St. Augustine. George Buffon called “genius, just the capacity for patience.”
Too often we give up because the grass seems greener elsewhere. It’s March and we begin to see green grass coming alive again. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that the secret to nature is patience. Jaren Davis put it this way, “Nature, by example, shows us that anything worthwhile comes over time. Anything worthwhile grows methodically, building on a strong foundation. Developing a willingness to carry on despite roadblocks.“ Keep calm and carry on.
Secondly, we must have hope. The people of God waited for centuries for a messiah. We wait throughout Lent for Easter. Your life may have adversaries but the Psalms encourage us to wait and practice hope.
David ends his Psalm encouraging hearers to have courage and “wait for the Lord.” The Hebrew word for “wait” in this context means to have hope. That implies patience. I think the audience David really addressing was himself. Trying to encourage himself to wait for the Lord and not give up. He was afraid. He had enemies. People were discouraging him and talking falsely. And yet David draws strength from God not to give up.
I think about what “waiting for the Lord” could mean for teenagers. We talked in confirmation class this morning about how when you are young so many things seem to be big and situations seem to be dire. Part of the role of people who have been around awhile is to help those who are newer at life understand that it’s not the end of the world. There is always hope. There is always another option. There is a big picture, God is in change, and there is goodness yet. So wait for the Lord.
Above all have faith in what God can do through you. I have been greatly moved this week in thinking about Richard Weaver, a member of our congregation, and his inner strength. Richard died on February 21 and we celebrated his life here on Friday. During one visit with Richard at the hospital, he told me the true story of Glenn Cunningham, for it meant a lot to him and inspired him. As an eight-year-old boy in Kansas, Cunningham had the job of going to school early each day to start the fire to warm his schoolhouse room before his teacher and his classmates arrived. One cold morning someone mistakenly filled the kerosene container he used with gasoline, and disaster struck. The class and teacher arrived to find the schoolhouse engulfed in flames. They managed to drag the unconscious boy out of the flaming building. His thirteen year old brother died in the fire and most doctors thought Glenn would too. The doctors recommended amputating Cunningham’s legs, but his parents would not allow it, even though he was very likely to be severely crippled his whole life. When he wasn’t in bed, Cunningham was confined to a wheelchair with no motor ability in his legs. One day his mother wheeled him out into the yard to get some fresh air. Instead of sitting there, Cunningham threw himself from the chair, pulling himself across the grass, dragging his legs behind him. There was nothing he wanted more than to develop life in his legs. Through persistence and determination, he developed the ability to stand up, then to walk with help, then to walk by himself – and then miraculously – to run. He began to run to school. He ran for the sheer joy of being able to run. He ran everywhere he could, in a Forest Gump fashion. And then he put his mind to train, and to run and to win. And win he did. Cunningham, now known as the Kansas Flyer, won a lot of races. He won a silver medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics, where he roomed with Jesse Owens. This boy who was not supposed to walk let alone run set world records in the indoor and outdoor mile and in the 800 meters.
Richard Weaver shared this story with me on a visit to the hospital because it greatly motivated him when he couldn’t walk. Richard’s illness eventually left him in great pain and unable to walk, but he was reminded of the Glenn Cunningham story which he had read in 7th or 8th grade and it made a lasting impression. Richard was convinced that with his will and God’s help he would walk again. He did not give up. With the help of treatments and God’s grace, he regained so much mobility that he began a physical therapy program. But after a setback he was admitted to hospice care.
The Glenn Cunningham story remained a powerful life force for him while bedridden there. He thought, if he can do it, I can. Glenn Cunningham had a strong faith. His favorite Bible verse was Isaiah 40:31:
Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Like Cunningham, Richard never gave up either. He asked the Lord he knew to meet him halfway praying, “If you lift my legs, God, I will put them down.”
Richard amazed both family and medical staff with his determination to do his exercises. When he successfully lifted his knees to full height on the bed, Richard took a red lollipop from the store he kept on hand for two year old grandson and raised it high in the air as his victory trophy. And everyone at hospice celebrated.
How do we begin to prepare for the amazing victory of Easter? News that stretches our hearts and challenges our minds. I have been asking myself that this Lent. Because I am often distracted or weary. But I have been trying to expand my faith. Reading the Psalms help me to wait on the Lord. Hearing the stories of Glenn Cunningham and Richard Weaver encourage me to carry on.
Do we believe that God can allow or do something amazing? The preparation of Lent is in part about preparing us for the amazing. To believe that a man who was lifted onto a cross can walk out of a tomb. That a boy who was never to walk could be the fastest runner in the world. That a man we know found the strength to keep going in the face of immense pain. That your dreams can come true. That your faith can be rewarded. That you’ll see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. So put your legs down on the path towards Jesus. And for his sake and yours, don’t give up. Amen.