This pastweek I visited with one of the matriarchs of our congregation before she returned home from the hospital. She shared with me that as a little girl her father, a Presbyterian pastor, would have her memorize a few verses of the Psalms each day at meals. That way by the time she was grown up she knew many of them by heart and was able to recite them at important times in her life. It’s a good practice.
This Lent we are focusing on Psalms in worship. On reading and singing them as a community. During times of reflection and renewal, such as Lent, the Psalms provide an ancient form of communication with God. For what are the Psalms if not prayers to God. Let us pray, come Holy Spirit come; open to us the meaning of your eternal word and the reality that you seek each of us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
There are times when being a pastor is uncomfortable. Once I was with a clergy colleague on a long airplane flight. My colleague was wearing a clerical collar and the third man in our row saw the flight as an opportunity. Captive clergy. I have noticed that my being seated next to someone on flights, if they know I’m a pastor, has one of two effects. People either keep their distance, perhaps afraid that I’ll start evangelizing. Or people see the situation as an opportunity to talk, either to share something personal or to express their strong feelings about religion. On this particular flight the man seated next to us launched into a discussion about why he felt religion was a waste of time. He almost seemed angry with us for being clergy. I had been looking forward to an opportunity to read a magazine, watch a movie or catch up with my friend, but here we were, and the man talked at length about his objections to organized religion and faith. He argued that there is no proof of God, but that if there is a God; God would most likely end the world soon. The more the man talked the more he revealed that he was wrestling with God. As he talked at length about the preachers he had seen on TV who spoke about the end of the world, it became clear that he watched several hours of religious programming a week. For someone who had no use for God, the man was certainly investing a lot of time in religion. It seemed to me was that while the man was pursuing us as representatives of God, the Holy Spirit was really pursuing him.
During Lent, we often feel a need to pursue God more intently. We return to church again in greater numbers to seek God. There is a natural human instinct to look for the Holy. BJC is leading a trip to the Middle East in May and I have talked with several of you about pilgrimages to the Holy Land to find God. Bridget and I just finished watching the film version of the book Eat Pray Love, in which Julie Roberts’ character travels all the way to India searching for God. Last July, news reports were full of stories of how western scientists spent more than $10B on Large Hadron Collider, a “God particle” which would help us find God and unwrap the mysteries of the universe.
All this searching is predicated on a Hellenistic vision of God’s transcendence. A vision of a deity somewhere in the clouds, perhaps in a galaxy far, far away, difficult to find without a great quest by humanity.
I enjoy reading the Psalms during Lent because the Psalms lift up another vision of the divine as well. A vision of God as close and intimately involved with and concerned about us. In Psalm 139, King David describes a God who pursues us. That when we are fleeing from life, God follows us. This is a different vision from a deity content to wait on the mountain top for us to arrive. No, this God is unpredictable and transfigures on the mountaintop. A God who cannot be contained. A God who does not sit back. Who takes the initiative to come to humanity. The incarnation of Christ is perhaps the greatest proof of the point of Psalm 139. That God pursues us.
The Psalmist affirms that God finds what God seeks as he cries “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” The answer is nowhere. Wherever we go, God is there. Think about the Biblical story of Jonah. Where Jonah kept trying to escape from God but God pursued Jonah until Jonah said yes and discovered not only what was holy in God’s justice and mercy but found himself.
We begin Lent with the Ash Wednesday affirmation that humanity became flesh when God breathed spirit into dust. Yet the Lenten process of rediscovering our spiritual core can be long, deliberate, and slow; two steps forward and one back; lifelong. Times of commitment and periods of doubt. Psalm 139 acknowledges that God’s pursuit of us is a continual process that requires attention. That God doesn’t simply lock us up so we stay in one static place. That the spiritual life is dynamic.
We sense that in Lent we are supposed to be doing something intentional, but we are not sure where to look. And so Lent often begins with us tip toeing into our spiritual life. There is a UCC church in my hometown in Ohio where on Ash Wednesday they offer a drive-through imposition of the ashes. The church stations a pastor outside in the church parking lot under a church window and anyone who wants to can drive up in their car, roll down the window and the pastor makes the sign of the cross in ashes on the driver’s forehead. That way the driver doesn’t have to get out of the car, they can receive the sign of the ashes, roll the window back up and keep right on driving. After receiving the sign of the ashes last year one parishioner reportedly asked the pastor if “he could have fries with that.” Those Christians were tip toing into Lent. Technically showing up at church, but not quite ready to go all in yet.
We know Lent is a 40 day journey in which we, like faithful people before us, prepare ourselves for Holy Week and Easter. We often return to familiar practices in Lent, like vespers and Daybreak devotions, that help us focus inward and examine our life. The music shifts in Lent to help us become more penitent and reflective. These patterns bring us back to Lenten practices of years past. Yet it takes some time. On the first Sunday of Lent we can find ourselves looking to find God.
If you are not quite fully engaged in the season of Lent yet, that is ok. God is fully engaged in looking for you. We read Psalm 139 to remind us that God is looking for us. So if your life is full of appointments and demands and expectations and schedules, remember that if you want to find God during Lent the first thing you do is stop running. Slow down and allow your spiritual life to catch up with your work and family life. Allow the holy to reach you.
Secondly, Psalm 139 helps us recognize that you don’t have to just be in the church to find God during Lent. Think on our scripture. A God who “knows your sitting down” is with you at rest or in the gym. The God who “knows you’re lying down” is with you at bed time. That if you “settle at the farthest limits of the sea” and go far away for work or fun God is with you. You can find a spiritual life during Lent wherever you are. Make Lent a time of spiritual commitment that exceeds one hour on Sunday.
Third, if, like Jonah, you are trying to run away from God, perhaps because life seems depressing and unworkable, recall the words of the Psalmist, “If I make my bed in Sheol (Hebrew for hell), you are there.” Even if we are missing a loved one or someone close to us received some unwanted news. If we are trying to make sense of words which sting, remember the Psalmist’s words about God, that “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day.’”
Too often we enter Lent wrestling with something inside us and determined to find God. Thinking we have only 40 days to get it right; to be ready to honor the cross by mourning its loss so we can celebrate Easter and the clock is ticking. It all can seem too much to add anything when we are so busy to begin with. We can’t possibility commit to anything else.
But we might need to subtract something instead to be more spiritual. Let something go that is keeping God at arm’s length. That is why we often talk about fasting during Lent. Indeed Lent has its origins in Jesus’ 40 day wilderness fast that we sang about in our opening hymn.
Think of how the Psalmist concludes his prayer. He asks of God, “Search me and know my heart. Test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”
If Lent is a journey towards Easter, the resurrection, eternal life, the way everlasting, then that journey needs to start with your asking the one who created you if you are on the right path or on heading the wrong way. Inviting God into your life and praying with the Psalmist, “God, know and search and test me.” Because it is not your job to find God. Your job is simply to be found.
And then, you begin to find God in unexpected places in your life. I experienced this last weekend at a church retreat when members of our community were away from their routines and distractions, and deeply shared parts of their lives. They talked about drums and poems, pieces of land and small stones. Things that weren’t necessarily spiritual. But I was struck by how God-filled they were. So are many conversations with many of you about ordinary parts of life that became spiritual as they are shared. Like the man on the airplane tiptoeing into his faith, the more we talk about things that matter to us the more we reveal our spiritual core.
Father John Powell, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, tells the story of one of his students in his Theology of Faith class named Tommy. Tommy was unusual in many ways, for one thing he had the longest hair that Father Powell had ever seen, and he was also an atheist. Somehow, both teacher and student made it through the course together. When Tommy came up to turn in his final exam, he asked his teacher, “Do you think I will ever find God?” Powell answered, “No, Tommy, I don’t think you will ever find God, because I am certain that God will find you first.”
Sometime later, Father Powell learned that Tommy had actually graduated but that Tommy had terminal cancer. One day, Tommy returned to talk with his teacher. He recalled their last conversation. Tommy’s long hair had fallen out, as a result of treatments. However, his eyes were bright and his voice was firm. Tommy told Father Powell that he had quit looking for God. Instead, he had decided to do something else. He would tell those he loved that he loved them.
Tommy’s first customer was his own dad, the hardest one. His father was reading the newspaper one day. “Dad, I would like to talk to you,” Tommy said. “Well, talk,” responded his father. “I mean it’s really important,” said Tommy. The newspaper came down a few inches. “Dad, I love you. I just wanted you to know that.” The newspaper fluttered to the floor. They hugged each other and cried. They talked the whole night. It was easier telling his mother and little brother. They, too, cried. Tommy recounted these conversations to his old professor. He said, “You were right. One day, I turned around and God was there.”
If your roadmap to serenity seems too complicated, let this Lent be the time you choose a different route. One where you notice that God is already here, waiting for you. Christ beacons you to walk the Lenten path to Jerusalem with him. Not by pushing. Not insisting, but inviting. Until you say “yes.” Yes to love. Yes to sharing. Yes to the spirit. Yes to the one who is before you to show us the everlasting way. May it be so. Amen.