Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and Lent

Yesterday at youth, we celebrated Fat Tuesday by eating a lot of pancakes and bacon.  The history behind Fat Tuesday is that it’s the day before Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent), and people used up all their “rich and fatty” ingredients in their house so that they could start fasting for Lent.

I sometimes compare giving up something for Lent like an easy New Year’s Resolution – There aren’t really any consequences for breaking the resolution, and it’s only for 40 days (as opposed to an indefinite New Year’s Resolution).

But other times, I realize that Lent is actually a big deal.

“We too easily forget our Maker and Redeemer; replacing God with things and ambition. Lent is the season that does something about this situation. It calls us back to God, back to the basics, back to the spiritual realities of life. It calls us to put to death the sin and the indifference we have in our hearts toward God and our fellow persons. And it beckons us to enter once again into the joy of the Lord–the joy of a new life born out of a death to the old life. That is what Ash Wednesday is all about–the fundamental change of life required of those who would die with Jesus and be raised to a new life in him.” – Robert Webber

Thinking about Ash Wednesday and Lent this way certainly makes it seem a bit more important than resolving to lose five pounds after the holidays.

Shane Claiborne puts it nicely:

“In a world filled with clutter, noise, and hustle, Lent is a good excuse to step back and rethink how we think and live. In a world of instant gratification, it’s a chance to practice delayed gratification – to fast – so that we can truly appreciate the blessings we have.  In a world where virtual friends are replacing real ones, it is an invitation to turn off TV and computer screens so we can spend time with real people again.  It’s an opportunity to give up something that is sucking the life out of us so that we can be filled with God, with life, with love again.” – Shane Claiborne

What’s sucking the life out of you?

For myself, I am starting to notice that the two easiest things that come to mind are my irregular prayer patterns, and me wasting time on my *$#&#%*# phone.  Not praying leaves me un-centred, more prone to being a jerk, quick to criticize and roll my eyes, and less likely to see the world through the eyes of Jesus.  And my phone allows me to not be present to the people and the work around me.

(On a side note, these seem to be the same things that I give up and take on multiple times a year, year after year.  I think I’m going to have to reflect on that for the next 40 days….)

So, it’s Au Revoir to social media on my phone, and it’s Adios to my phone being in my pocket while at home.  (Try to be gracious to me, as sometimes I’ll need my phone and social media for work.)

And it’s Bonjour to waking up early for centering prayer, and it’s Hola to Common Prayer:  Liturgy for Ordinary Racials.  This year, I’ll even try throwing some evening prayers in there as well. (Try to be gracious to me, as I hate mornings, and I have small children).

And this Lent, may we all be filled with God, with love, and with life again.

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Harry Potter, Evander Kane’s Tracksuit, & Oprah

Based on Matthew 16:21-17:8


This week, as I was pondering this text, I asked one of you a question.  “When you think of the Transfiguration, what do you think of?”

The quick response was, “Harry Potter.”

Right. Because, Professor Minvera McGonnagall is one of the teachers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and she teaches her Minerva-McGonagall-Wallpaper-hogwarts-professors-32795911-500-375students the transfiguration spell, where you can turn one thing into another thing, such as a bird into a cup.

That’s awesome.  So I asked, “But what do you think of about the transfiguration of Jesus?  Where he’s on the mountain and his face is shining and he’s hanging out with Moses and Elijah?”

“Oh.  Right.  That story.  Not much.”

I love it.

Let’s start talking about the Transfiguration by talking about our cultures preoccupation with success.

We love to win.  And we hate to lose.

CFL Free Agency was this week, and the Bombers were declared the winners on Day 1 because they signed a bunch of good players.  And some of us celebrated that.

And, also this week, the Winnipeg Jets traded Evander Kane to the Buffalo Sabres.kane

Productivity across the province came to a grinding halt as we all talked and analyzed whether or not the Jets were better than before, who were the winners and losers of the trade, and wondered whether the tracksuit was thrown into the shower, cold tub, or hot tub.

But at the very least, Dustin Byfuglien is back on defence!  That’s a good recipe for success!

Magazine covers gives us tips and steps to success.  Ash and I are planning on a summer holiday, and so we spend time on Trip Advisor to find the best places to stay.  It’s RRSP season, so we’re all looking over our financial statements to make sure that we’re making the best decisions for our retirements.

We love reading stories about winners, about people who beat the odds and came out on top.  Like children’s books about pigs that don’t get turned into delicious bacon, like a hobbit travelling to a volcano to destroy a magical ring, like a teenage wizard who is able to defeat Lord Voldemort, and whether or not he uses the transfiguration spell.

We love our success stories.  Partly because they are inspiring.  Partly because we want to make good, and not bad, choices.  But also, partly because deep within us, we don’t want to be failures.

In this way, we’re kind of like the disciple Peter.

Before we read this morning’s text, the previous 8 chapters are basically Jesus being a rock star.  A  humble rock star, but one none the less.  He’s walking on water.  He’s calming storms.  He’s feeding thousands of people.  He’s healing people left, right and center.  It’s miracle after miracle after miracle.

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He’s kind of like Oprah giving things way.  You get a miracle, you get a miracle, everyone gets a miracle!   And then all of us are sitting in our living rooms, crying because all of Oprah’s guests are going home with George Foreman Grills and her favourite shampoo.

At this point in the story, Jesus is definitely winning.

But then, Jesus drops a bomb on Peter.  Jesus tells Peter that he, Jesus is going to suffer, and die, and rise again.

Now, we have the advantage of looking at this conversation post-resurrection, so we kind of know how the story ends, but Peter… He didn’t.  All he heard was that his hero, his Rabbi, the guy he gave up every to follow, his model of success and winning, was going to fail and lose.

Yes, Jesus talked about rising again.  But only after suffering and dying.  Jesus first had to lose.

But Peter doesn’t know much about this whole rising again business.  He just sees Jesus’ suffering and death as defeat and failure.

This is why he tell Jesus “Never, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!”  Matthew 16:22.

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He’s kind of like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.  Here’s Jesus, there’s suffering and death, and then Peter says, “You shall not pass!”

And then what Jesus says next is the TSN turning point, the crux, of it all.

Jesus tells Peter than he’s only thinking about human concerns, and not God’s concerns, and that being a disciple means taking up your cross, and that in order to save your life, you must lose it.

The way of Jesus is suffering love.   Even love for enemies who are going to kill you.  Yes, there is resurrection.  But the resurrection only has power because of the suffering love of Jesus that leads to death.

And we really have a hard time with suffering love.

I am continually reminded of a story about Mother Theresa I heard about her and her work in Calcutta.  After years of working there, her feet were quite deformed.  One of other nuns there explained why.  She said, “Our charity receives hundreds of used pairs of shoes for the people staying with us who have leprosy.  Whenever a box of shoes comes in, Mother Theresa digs through the box and takes out the worst pair of shoes for herself.  That way she knows that all of her friends at the mission have better footwear than her.”

The way of Jesus, is suffering love… Deformed feet doesn’t feel like winning, does it?

I went to a preaching seminar years ago, and the guy said:  “For the love of all that is good in the world, you need to give your congregation more tangible, realistic examples of faith than Mother Theresa.”

So I’ll try.  Every year, at the end of November, we go to Ashley’s parents place near the Whiteshell to get a Christmas tree.  We bundle up the kids, bring a sleigh, and have a grand old time.  Except this year,  it was -30 degrees with a bitter north wind, and we decided that this was not going to be a family affair, but rather one where a few of us jumped out the truck with a chainsaw and cut down a tree out the ditch as fast as possible.

Also, this year my brother had asked us to get him one too, so we cut down two trees as fast as possible and went back to the hot tub to warm up.  (Evander Kane’s tracksuit wasn’t there).

My brother came to Steinbach one day and picked a tree, while we decorated the other one.

A few weeks later, one of my friends saw our Christmas tree, and started laughing.  It was spindly, with big empty spaces and droopy branches.  They even compared our tree to a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

My response?  “Well, if Mother Theresa can have deformed feet, I can have a spindly Christmas tree.  Because the way of Jesus is suffering love.”

Tough life, isn’t it?

Obviously, that’s a ridiculous example, but I get that same feeling at all sorts of things.  When I get my income tax refund, is my first instinct to see who I can share it with?  When I catch a bunch of fish, is my first instinct to see who I can share it with?  When I bundle up to go snow blow my driveway, is my first instinct to start at my neighbours?  When I see someone sitting by themselves, is my first instinct to leave my comfort zone and talk to them?  When I look to retirement, is the first thing I see myself doing is volunteering or making blankets or cooking with MDS?

As pathetic as it was, it took a lot for me to let go of that Christmas tree.  We love to have success, we love winning, we love having the best…

The way of Jesus is suffering love.  The resurrection only has power because of the cross.

Which brings us to the transfiguration of Jesus, not Professor McGonnagall.

Jesus is on a mountain, his face shone like the sun, his clothes became as white as light, and he’s hanging out with Moses and Elijah.

And a voice comes down from heaven:  “This is my son, whom I love;  with him, I am well pleased.  Listen to him!” 

There are many ways of looking at the Transfiguration.  One of those ways is simply confirming that there’s something special and unique about Jesus, that he actually is God’s son, and isn’t just a raging lunatic.  I mean, Jesus just told his disciples that the way of God is the cross, the way of God is suffering, the way of God giving up your life AND your Christmas tree.

The transfiguration confirms this is God’s son, rooted in his identity as God’s beloved.  And that we should listen to him.  That there’s something going on here that we need to be paying attention to.  Something that doesn’t come all that natural to most of us, since we don’t really like losing and suffering and having ugly Christmas trees.

After this voice booms from the sky, the disciples were on the ground terrified.  And then Jesus came and touched them, and said

“Get up.  Don’t be afraid.”  And then they went back down the mountain, back to the nitty gritty of life.

Don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid.

The way of Jesus is the cross.  Don’t be afraid.  It’s going to be okay… It ends with resurrection.  I know that the way of the cross, of suffering, doesn’t make sense, especially in a culture of success and power and winning, but that’s okay.   Even when you’re carrying your cross, you’re loved.  Even when the world is heaping scorn and hate on you, you’re loved.  Even when you feel as God has forsaken you, you’re loved.   Don’t be afraid… I’m going to be with you.

And it’s here, when we’re powerless yet still seeking to love others, that we end up being truly powerful, because love wins.

A story about Pope Francis, and then something a little more tangible for the rest of us who aren’t pope material.

I think that one of the reasons why pretty much everyone loves Pope Francis is because he gets this.  He understands that the way of Jesus is suffering love.  This is why he sleeps in the guest house, doesn’t wear fancy clothes, and sneaks out at night to serve homeless people.

But one of my favourite Pope Francis stories is that recently, he appointed some new cardinals, which are the leaders who will elect the next pope.  Many of the cardinals didn’t come from the places that had the most money or prestige, but rather from the far corners of the Earth who were immersed in the suffering love that Jesus called them.  None of them had any clear doctrinal reputations on hot button issues.  Rather, he tended to call people who were working with refugees, working in slums, and those who were elected by their peers for their work, not their status or education.   One of the Cardinals thought it was a joke that he was being picked as a Cardinal, because he was so immersed in his work with “the least of these” that that kind of power and success wasn’t even on his radar.

But it’s in giving away power, in taking up a cross to follow Jesus, that we find true power and discipleship and love.

“The cross wasn’t so we can walk in the power of the resurrection.  The resurrection was so we could walk in the power of the cross.”  – Greg Boyd

And now, for those of us who aren’t working with refugees or in Calcutta, here are some wise words from Henri Nouwen.

“Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making [God’s] vision come true.

We must remind one another constantly of the vision. Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are. Instead of making us escape real life, this beautiful vision gets us involved.”

The transfiguration:  It could be about Professor McGonnagall’s spell from Harry Potter.  Or, it could be about us listening to Jesus, the son of God, and that if we want to be a disciple of Jesus, we must take up our cross and follow him.

Treasures in Our Pews

We had child dedication this Sunday at Grace Mennonite.  I preached a 5 minute sermon, asking the question “Will Our Children Have Faith?”  


Don’t store up treasures on earth, but rather, store up treasures in heaven.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The point of life is not only about how much we own, or how nice our stuff is, or our retirement plans.  I think most of us here know this.  Yes, we seek to work hard and make good financial decisions, but we all know that we’re not going to be buried with wads of cash in our caskets.  We’re not Egyptian Pharaohs.

Jesus reminds us that instead of focusing only our own stuff on earth, we should be storing up treasures in heaven instead, for that is where our hearts will be.

Jesus isn’t very specific on what exactly those treasures in heaven are.  Is it how we pray?  How we forgive? How we work towards peace?  How we practice hospitality and generosity?  How we love God and love our neighbour and love our enemy?  Yes.  These are most likely part of what Jesus means by “treasures in heaven.”

But I’m going to take a bit of a leap here and say that part of us storing up treasures in heaven is asking ourselves questions, like, “Will our kids have faith?”  “What kind of faith will they have?” “How can we nurture their faith?”  “How do we make sure that our kids will know that life is about more than getting money or stuff?”

This morning, my sermon is going to be one of my most practical sermons ever.  I usually like to explore the stories in the Bible and try to find ourselves in those stories, I like to ask questions, be a bit more conversationalist… But today, I’m going to take a risk and be remarkably direct.

To the parents of these children, to all the parents here today.

Some remarkably smart people out of Fuller Youth Institute have set out to figure out what the most important factors are in parents passing on their faith to their children.  While it’s not a direct formula, and there are obviously no guarantees, researchers have found some key indicators that help determine what kind of faith our kids will have.

The number one indicator for whether or not our kids will have faith is:  The faith of their parents.   One of the best indicators of a strong and vibrant faith in children is a strong and vibrant faith in their parents.  Every time we invest in our own faith, we are investing in the faith of our children.

This is both good news and terrible news.

Good news, because it’s there for the taking, it’s attainable, we can do something about it, we’re already doing it, we’re important, God gave us these children for a reason!

Bad news, because it’s a huge responsibility, we often feel inadequate, we fail, we have a hard time praying, sometimes we don’t want to come to church, and how are we supposed to pass on our faith if we’re constantly working it out ourselves?  And who the heck really reads Ezekiel anyways?

No matter how adequate or inadequate we feel, our own approach to faith is important.  That means that every Sunday where we work our tails off to get everyone to church, every time we pray, every time we volunteer (or at least thing about it), every time we sit in the pews and hope that our kids aren’t too loud, every time we seek or offer forgiveness, every time we practice generosity, every time we try to love our neighbours, every time we seek peace… It’s all an important piece of the puzzle.

The other good news about passing faith on to our children is that it’s not only how strong and vibrant our own faith is.  It’s also about the quality of our relationships with our kids.  The better our relationship with our children, the better chance that our faith rubs off on them.  So that means that every time we read our kids stories, every time we sit down and have supper as a family (even if there’s a bowl of spaghetti on someone’s head), every time we go tobogganing on an icy Abe’s Hill, every time we go on vacation, every time we go skating and bike riding and canoeing, every hockey and soccer game that we watch… All of these matter.  They’re really important.  Every time we invest in our relationships with our children, we’re investing in their faith. 

So that’s not too overwhelming, is it?  Invest in our own faith, invest in our relationships, and we’re well on our way to figuring out what kind of faith our kids will have.

But, child dedication isn’t only about the children and their parents.  It’s also about the church.

How can the rest of us ensure that our children have faith?  It’s not a great children’s program, it’s not a hot shot pastor, it’s not how new our songs are.  One of the best indicators of how churches can support kids having faith is quite simply how much they embrace and support them.  The same researchers have come up with the magic ratio of 5:1.  If 5 adults invest significant time and energy into 1 kid, that will mean the world to them and their faith development.

This too, is equal parts encouraging and equal parts terrifying.

It’s encouraging because we can do it!  We can learn names, we can share candy and cookies, we can give high fives, we can pray for kids, we can write them cards, we can go for ice cream, we can support them financially, we can look at parents who show up not having slept a wink the night before and give them a hug… All really tangible things.  There are 8 kids being dedicated, so that means 40 adults!  There are easily 40 adults here this morning.  I feel like I’m preaching to the choir because we’re already here, dedicating our kids!

But it’s also terrifying, because it’s a great responsibility.  It means that we have to show up at places where the kids are, it means sharing our worship time and space with kids who are chucking cheerios around, it means leaving our comfort zone and learning names and stories, it means having to bake cookies, it means taking time out of our busy lives and investing it in young people, it means that sometimes we show up on Sundays not for ourselves, but because our presence matters in the life of a young person.  And if you add up all the kids here at Grace, we need 200 adults, and that’s all of us.  Everyone here has a role to play.

5 adults to 1 kid is the magic number.  Equal parts encouraging and terrifying.

So there we go.  Invest in our own faith, invest in our relationships with kids, and we’re on the right track.

Show up.  Sit together in a pew.  Learn names.  Give high fives.  Pray.  Go tobogganing.  Eat together.  Share money and candy.  Smile together.

It sounds awfully mundane, doesn’t it?  It’s pretty down to earth, not very snazzy or flashy, pretty long-term… But in doing so, I truly believe that we are storing up treasures in heaven.

Amen.