Why Have You Forsaken Me?

(Year B, Good Friday, March 30, 2018; Psalm 22)

15       My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd;
my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; *
and you have laid me in the dust of the grave.

16     Packs of dogs close me in,
and gangs of evildoers circle around me; *
they pierce my hands and my feet;
I can count all my bones.

17     They stare and gloat over me; *
they divide my garments among them;
they cast lots for my clothing.

(Psalm 22, BCP 1979)

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I don’t normally write about the psalms, tending to focus more on the Gospels and Epistles.  However, I feel strongly that it would be a disservice to overlook Psalm 22, as it has the most explicit description of Our Lord’s crucifixion found in a prophetic work.

I am writing this a few hours after having followed the two great traditions of Christian observances on Good Friday – giving a truthful confession seeking earnest reconciliation and repentance, and participating in the Stations of the Cross mini-pilgrimage around my church’s sanctuary.  I am writing a few hours before participating in one of the most solemn and somber liturgies of the Christian year, when we commemorate Our Lord’s death and burial, having been betrayed and falsely charged on Maundy Thursday, shortly after instituting the Lord’s Supper.  The graphic for this piece is Station 12 of my parish’s Stations of the Cross which are set up in our sanctuary.

Before becoming an Anglican Christian, I had a very… strained relationship with the psalms.  I didn’t understand their purpose, why they were in the Bible.  I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were trying to tell me, or what I was supposed to “do” with them.  Of course, at the time, I saw little profit in the Old Testament other than as history of the people Jesus came from.  With that general view of the Old Testament, it’s little wonder that my view of a book of abstract poetry was limited and (shamefully) dismissive.

Anglican (along with Orthodox and Catholic) worship forces the participant to consider the whole of Scripture, including the psalter (the collection of psalms).  More than that, it forces one to interact with the Scripture, and with the Author of Scripture – our prayers are two-way: The Scripture speaks to us, and we respond in our collects, petitions, intercessions, and thanksgivings.  The psalms fit into this process both as God speaking to us from Scripture, and us taking up the petitions of the prayers as the voice of the Church, though some of the psalms are primarily one or the other, and other alternate, like a dialog.  This is part of why, I believe, the popular mode of reading the psalms in prayer is responsively – the back and forth nature reminds us of a dialog.

It didn’t take long for me to realize my great error in dismissing the psalms, and never was the sin more apparent than when I first read Psalm 22 – as I said, this is the most explicit description of the crucifixion found in the Old Testament, and it describes a mode of torturous execution that would not be present in Palestine until several centuries after the psalm was written.  Not only that, it describes precisely the events that are recorded in the total of the crucifixion account, when referencing all four of the canonical Gospels.  Details like lots being cast to divide Jesus’ garments among the soldiers, the nails piercing hands and feet, the crowd jeering him for his inability to save himself – all of these reveal the prophetic voice and intent of the psalm.  David was never so surrounded, even in his flight from Saul; he was never pierced by nails in his hands and feet; his clothing was never divided amongst captors.

Most telling though, is when Jesus makes reference to the psalm from the cross in his dying breath: “Eloi eloi lama sabacthani!” which is the Aramaic translation of the opening verse of Psalm 22.  I didn’t catch this even after I first read the psalm, but this exclamation, which I had taken to be merely an outcry to God, also served the purpose of putting the psalm in the minds of the crowd, if their hearts and ears were opened.  In the synagogue, the psalm would probably not have been referenced by its number, but by a phrase early in the text.  A vestige of this is retained in the psalters of the historic Church, where a “title” in Latin or Greek is present, which is usually the first few words, or maybe the opening phrase of the psalm.  So, in effect, Jesus is not only crying out to God, he also calls upon the faithful to recall this psalm of David so that they would have the truth revealed to them.

When I realized this, I was struck by the importance of this psalm and the depth of prophecies potentially contained in all the psalms.  I was also reminded of Jesus illuminating all the Scriptures concerning himself to the pair of disciples on the Emmaus road – which included the psalms and the prophets.  Last year, in partnership with my Vicar, I led a study which examined the presence of Christ in the psalms.  This internal integrity between the psalms, the prophets, and the narrative accounts in the Gospels of the suffering and death of Our Lord drove away certain doubts that I had battled with when I viewed the Old Testament as just a history book.

On this Good Friday, I ask and encourage you to engage with the psalms, and especially Psalm 22, 40, 69, and 110.  If you have the time, I also encourage reading Psalm 119 in its entirety; this psalm talks about the speaker’s deep love and obedience to the Law of Moses, a depth of love and a thoroughness in obedience that is seen in only one man in the whole of Scripture – Jesus the Messiah.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

Hosanna in the Highest!

(Year B, Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018; Liturgy of the Palms Gospel Reading from Mark 11:1-11)

“And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’” – Mark 11:9-10, ESV

Цвети (улазак Христа у Јерусалим)
Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem,
Petar Milošević

Today is Palm Sunday, the day when the Church remembers the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when people lined the street to acclaim him as the coming King who would usher in the new Kingdom of David.  It is also when the account of Jesus’ trial, mocking, torture, crucifixion, and death are told in the Gospel reading for the Eucharistic service.  As my priest put it this morning, if this juxtaposition seems jarring, good – it’s supposed to.

One of the thematic features of the liturgy for Palm Sunday is the reinforcement of the fact that the same crowd that was moved to proclaim, “Hosanna in the highest!” when Jesus entered Jerusalem was equally stirred up to denounce him and call for his execution, shouting “Crucify him!” mere days later.  I have been to congregations where the people play the part of the crowd in both Gospel readings and say “Hosanna” during the Liturgy of the Palms before the Processional, and also “Crucify him” in the Gospel during the Eucharistic Liturgy.  This is done to drive home to everyone in the congregation that Jesus was the only person present at his condemnation who was innocent.

In my last posting, I mentioned my struggle against pride in reading the Gospels and supposing myself better than the disciples who totally missed the point in Jesus’ teaching.  I used to struggle in a similar fashion when I read the accounts of Our Lord’s Passion, especially the crowd being stirred up against Jesus.  All modern Christians want to say that they wouldn’t be part of the guilty ones who cried out “Crucify him!” but the Gospel account makes plain that everyone who wasn’t Begotten from the Father had an intimate hand to play in the condemnation and death of Jesus.

What are the alternatives to being in the crowd?  There’s Pilate, aloof and disinterested in Jewish power struggles except for how it might impact his assignment to keep the peace in Judea, amazed in the enduring silence of Our Lord, but unwilling to make any move toward faith and truly speak out against the injustice.  There’s the Jewish religious leaders, who bought off people to rouse the crowd and spread rumors and false testimony.  There’s the soldiers, to whom Jesus was just another dirt-poor man from Galilee, another rebel who was shown to be nothing special.

Where are the disciples?

Peter is the last we see of any of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel by the time Jesus is condemned to death, and he denied any connection with Jesus, as had been foretold earlier in the day.  The Gospels say that they all went into hiding, with only one being bold enough to come to the foot of the cross (St. John the Apostle).  The people who are the least culpable are the guiltiest – Jesus had told them that these things would happen, and that he would be raised up and glorified, yet they didn’t believe him, and so they scattered as foretold in Zechariah 13:7.

As modern-day Christians, seeking to put ourselves in that first-century scene in Jerusalem, our choices are limited in terms of roles to play, and in truth not all Christians would be found in only one crowd.  For myself, I believe that I would probably be with the disciples, cowering in a room waiting for the soldiers to drag us out to be flogged, humiliated, and, if we were lucky, stoned to death.  Palm Sunday calls us to examine our hearts and see where we would be in the list of the guilty – because there is no option to stand on the sideline, and the one who was condemned and crucified was the only one innocent before the crowd.

Palm Sunday is the beginning of the observation of Holy Week in the Christian Church.  If you can join a local congregation in the observation of the liturgies and rites this week, I strongly encourage you to do so.  These are some of the heaviest and most powerful prayers and services of the Christian calendar.  The Maundy Thursday liturgy is one of the oldest collection of prayers in the Christian tradition, and the Maundy Vigil calls you to join in the disciples’ difficulty of staying in prayer for “even one hour.”  Good Friday is the soberest and most solemn service of the whole Church year, and confronts us with the cross of Christ, its scandal and our guilt.  Finally, the Easter Vigil and Resurrection Sunday usher in the Great Feast of Easter, which brings us out of Lent and into the joyful celebration of the Risen Son.

This week, I pray that all Christians would be mindful of their sins and seek repentance for anything they are truly sorry for, and continually thank God for the mercy shown to us in the willing sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Hour Has Come

(Year B, Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018; Gospel Reading form John 12:20-33 [34-36])

“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.  So these came to Philip…and asked him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’  …Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.  And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’” – John 12:20-24 (ESV)

wheat_in_field
Wheat in field

There are many occasions where I fool myself into feeling superior to the likes of Peter, James, and John when they are jockeying for position, supposing myself to be among those who really get “it” about what Jesus is bringing and somehow think that I would do better.  As misguided and outright wrong as that attitude is – just as misguided and wrong as their jockeying for position – it is nevertheless an honest view of the characters portrayed in the Scripture.  I must continually remind myself that the only reason I’m somehow better able to appreciate the teachings of Jesus is because I have the benefit of the past twenty centuries worth of theological discourse and Christian teachings.  Put me in the identical shoes of any of the Apostles in the Gospel writings, and I’m probably going to be in the same boat of (mis)understanding as they are.

And it is readings like this that most point that out to me.  Because I remember first reading this account before I had the benefit of a study bible, or read any commentaries, or was exposed to the teachings of the Fathers, and thinking that Jesus’ response was seemingly disjointed, and – dare I say it – melodramatic.  Why should Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus cause him to go into a lengthy discourse about grains of wheat and glorification, and receiving eternal life by hating your earthly life?  As a young Christian I wasn’t exactly troubled, but I was puzzled.  The text does say that he said these things to show what kind of death he would experience, but I still failed to see why Greeks had anything to do with it.

One of the constant mysteries that underlies all the Gospel accounts is in regard to the identity of Jesus.  Is he a Prophet, a madman, or God Incarnate?  John’s gospel was written after the three synoptics, and is written, as I’ve stated in another reflection, to highlight the “whys” more than the “hows” and “whats” – which the synoptics cover more than adequately.  The mystery in John’s gospel account is deepened considerably in that John explicitly states that Jesus, being the Word, was with God and was God (John 1:1), and yet portrays him as possessing what appear to be certain limitations to his power.  This passage appears to me to be one example – it seems as if Jesus takes the interest of the Greeks to be a sign not only that his crucifixion is near, but also that it is time to let the disciples in on what is about to happen.

Paul writes in the second chapter of Philippians that “…[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8, ESV)  Part of the “emptying” of himself, and taking on the form of a servant, must have meant losing the divine omniscience that He would have in His glorified state.  But even though he had to rely on the sign of the appearance of the Greeks, he was able to discern what they meant, just as he was able to read the hearts of those whom he encountered during his ministry.

When this is brought to mind, the seemingly out of the blue remarks by Our Lord come into focus – the appearance of the Greeks marked for Jesus a turning point in his ministry.  He had done many things in the fulfillment of prophecy to the Jews, but the interest of the world outside the Hebrew people marked that the call to the Gentiles to come and believe in the Lord Jesus was imminent.  Before it could happen though, the Christ must be captured, mistreated and tortured, killed shamefully, and then rise in the fullness of the Glory of God.  He was telling Phillip and Andrew that before he could be proclaimed to the world (by preaching to the Greeks) he must first put off his mortal body and put on His Resurrection Body.

All Christians have some ministry that they do – it is a consequence of the Faith, no one can truly call themselves a Christian and be content to sit on the sidelines, or doze in the pews.  As James says, “so also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17, ESV) Not all ministries are publicly acclaimed; many lay Christians engage in the ministry of intercessory prayer, which is done in closets and by beds and only occasionally on street corners.  Since we all have ministries, we either will encounter or have encountered turning points where something happens that signifies some coming change and makes us ready for the next faithful action.  These changes can be anxiety inducing, and we either rise to the challenge or shy away, vainly hoping to maintain the status quo.

This week, I ask you to reflect on your personal ministries, whether they are large or small, and ask God for insight into their shifting needs, how they need to grow to work in harmony with His will.  Also ask for clarity and understanding when reading the Word of God, so that you aren’t like me, and unwittingly committing the sin of Pride by thinking the Lord disjointed and ineloquent.

Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Feeding the Five Thousand

(Year B, Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018; Gospel Reading from John 6:1-15)

“Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down.’ Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number.  Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.”
– John 6:10-11 (ESV)

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Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish (ca 1620-1623)

The miracle recorded in this Gospel reading is the only one aside from the Resurrection that is recorded in all four Gospel accounts.  This is notable, since the Apostle John in the rest of his Gospel seems almost to take great pains to not mention miracles worked by Jesus that are recounted in any of the other three canonical Gospel accounts.  In fact, the only other one that is written about outside of John (in Matthew and Mark) is Jesus walking on water.

Why is this?  A reader of John’s Gospel will note pretty quickly that it is very different in style from the other three Gospels.  Whereas Matthew and Luke start off with accounts of the nativity, and Mark jumps straight into Jesus’ ministry, John talks about the Incarnation, explicitly saying that Jesus “was with God and was God.”  Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount Jesus’ parables in an effort to communicate the hidden wisdom God intended to reveal to those whose eyes and ears and heart were opened; John’s Gospel contains seven “I am” statements, intended to get Jewish readers to recall the name of God told to Moses: “I AM THAT I AM.”  Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke are focused on Jesus’ actions and what he did and what he said, John is intent on what it means.

So why is it that John records this miracle when he leaves out most of the others?  In John’s Gospel, all miraculous works are signposts to reveal the hidden truth about who Jesus is as not just a prophet, but as the Word of God Himself.  In contrast, miracles in the other three Gospels reveal in general terms the authority and power given to Jesus to do wondrous things (again, the difference between “what happened” in the synoptics, and “what it means” in John).  For John to record a miracle meant that it had significance in revealing the Messianic character of Jesus.  In my thoughts, these may have been the miracles that John himself, when looking back on his time as Jesus’ disciple and then Apostle, was most impacted by in coming to his conclusions about and faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

The revelation of what the feeding of the five thousand means in terms of Jesus’ messianic character actually comes later in chapter 6, after the end of the reading.  One of the seven “I am” statements recorded in John is “I am the bread of life” and is said after the crowds who had been fed come looking for Jesus and asking – somewhat surprisingly – for a sign so that they would believe his teachings.  They seemed to think that receiving bread from a prophet was just something that disciples of a prophet were supposed to expect, citing their fathers’ receipt of manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4, 15).  Jesus reveals to them that he is something greater than manna – not the miraculous provision of food, but he himself is the true bread.

In all of the accounts of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, the Gospel writers use language that make it clear that the multitude didn’t just get a subsistence portion – Matthew says “they were filled,” John says they ate “as much as they wanted.”  The miracles in John’s Gospel seem to serve the same purpose as the parables of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Just as what was a meager portion was turned into an abundance, the man who was described as “meek and lowly of heart” is in reality the Word of God that sustains and gives life and meaning to the Creation.  Additionally, this miracle, I think, is a prefiguring of the Eucharistic feast.  As mentioned above, this miracle leads to a teaching moment where Jesus reveals that he is the Bread of Life.  The imperfect (meaning, incomplete, not fully realized) miracle of manna was made complete not by a bigger banquet of choice foods, but by the Bread of Life being given freely to any who believe in Him.

Aside from the theological import, this miracle shows us the depth of God’s care for His Creation.  In Matthew’s account, it says that Jesus had compassion on the multitude, and that was his motive for feeding them from the loaves and fishes.  The story of God’s actions on behalf of His people is steeped in accounts of His Providence (which itself is rooted in God’s quality of being Gracious).  This provision is presented in one of two basic ways – either by removing a need or an obstacle or by fulfilling a need, sometimes beyond what was needed in a way that forces the recipient to goggle and renders the recipient speechless at what has been given.  When either of these are accomplished by means that defy possibility, you have a miracle.

I encourage you to think about the multitude this week as you face your individual daily trials and obstacles and needs.  Think about what it would be like to be just one in a sea of people and starting to all get hungry.  Remember that even though they were in a remote, barren place, Jesus not only was able to feed them, he wanted to feed them.  This is the God we serve and love and worship: one who is not just powerful but is also loving and compassionate.

Grace and peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

Take Up Your Cross

But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”  And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

– Mark 8:33-35 (ESV)

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“21 New Martyrs of Libya”, Tony Rezk, 2015

 

What does it mean to “deny [yourself], take up your cross, and follow [Jesus]”?

On February 12, 2015, the world was first made aware of a great evil done by enemies of the Church.  Twenty-one men, twenty of whom were Coptic Christians, and one man who was a literal moment-of-death convert to the Faith, were tortured and beheaded by persecutors purporting to be the vanguard of an apocalyptic and anti-Christian state.  These men were in Libya doing construction work – 20 Egyptian Copts, and one non-believer from Chad.  They were kidnapped by masked men and were brought to a Libyan shoreline.  One by one they were asked if they were Christians, and then given the chance to renounce this claim, to instead follow a different religion, which they refused.  The strength of the Copts’ faith – to die as professed and confessing Christ-followers rather than live as turncoats – caused the 21st man to acclaim “their God is my God” when the enemy made the offer to him, and so die with those who were ethnically and philosophically different from him.  The icon of their martyrdom is in the bulletin this week, and I encourage you to take it home with you to remember the sacrifice of your brothers in the Faith.

This is a modern example of what Jesus means when he says that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and gospel’s will find it.”

I fervently pray that none of us is faced with torture and painful execution at the hands of enemies of the Cross.  It is my preference to die a Holy death without violence and fully and totally prepared in my faith.  However, I feel that it is very important that we understand and fully realize that it is exactly this that Jesus means when he requires his followers to “take up their cross.”  We must, whenever and however it is required, cling to the confession of our faith in Jesus as the bedrock of our very existence, so that in the day of trial, persecution, or even martyrdom we may boldly proclaim “Jesus is my Savior and my God.”

I will freely confess that this Gospel reading is one of the passages that has given me the most trouble in my faith.  Because I don’t want to “take up my cross.”  I don’t, at my core, want to suffer, want to face hardship, want to even be inconvenienced on account of my confession that Jesus is my Lord.  I think this is somewhat our nature as humans – we are very good at survival, so to willfully accept and pursue a course that is counter to that fills us with dread and reluctance.  Sure, there are thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies – but, being realistic, these are seen as outside the norm, and doesn’t it take a sort of special dedication (or mental derangement) to find pleasure in placing one in harm’s way?  The vast majority of humans seek to keep living instead of flirt with death.

This is what makes the faith of martyrs so intense – the martyr’s sacrifice is either undeniably holy or obscenely absurd, depending on who is looking at it.  To the one whose eyes and heart have been opened, the Spirit of God can be seen in the faith of someone who is not afraid to die for the witness of the Cross.  To the hopeless and adrift, someone who willingly rejects a path to survival is at best a morbid and deluded person to be pitied, and at worst a deranged person to be feared.

The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word “martys” which means “witness.”  A martyr bears the ultimate witness to their beliefs – and the history of the Church is filled with accounts of people who became believers as a result of the faith of the martyrs, just like the 21st man on that Libyan shore, who came to belief as his friends and colleagues were killed around him and as he himself faced painful death.  This man’s eyes and heart were opened.   We have every reason to believe, based on the witness and promises of scripture, that his faithful death was not in vain; that he has won a martyr’s crown with the 20 who were Christians for most if not all of their lives.

The Gospel is a message of two sacrifices: the first is the sacrifice of Jesus, which is the perfect propitiation for our sins, eliminating the need for any other sacrifices of flesh and blood; the second is the “living sacrifice” that St. Paul refers to in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans.  All disciples of Jesus are called to give themselves up to serve the Kingdom of Heaven and witness about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  If this seems like a difficult calling, don’t feel you are alone – it very much is.  This is why the Church has an annual period of overtly sacrificial living embedded in the liturgical calendar.

Lent is a season of self-denial.  It is commonly seen as a season of preparation for the coming feast of Easter, when we celebrate the Resurrected Lamb of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is true that you cannot truly appreciate the joys of Easter without the somberness of Lent – just as we cannot truly appreciate the joys of the coming Kingdom without the hardships and sacrifices of this life.  Lent is a training ground in the midst of relative joys and pleasures, an opportunity to voluntarily give up luxury and take up discipline of our souls, minds, and bodies.  This way, when – not if – the world comes against us and we face hardship, persecution, or even martyrdom, we are prepared.

As our vicar noted last week, this is not a preparation based on our natural hardiness, or on our strength of will – that is stoicism and is devoid of hope and promise.  No, just as “success” in fasting is found in prayerful acknowledgment that our natural hardiness or our strength of will is insufficient to give any meaning to our self-denial, the preparation we undergo teaches us to call on Jesus in the midst of all hardships – whether it is temporary or terminal.

Not all of us will be called to be martyred in the flesh, and again I pray that we will all live holy lives and die holy deaths, fully prepared in our faith and untouched by violence.  For the remainder of my sermon, I will focus on the general calling of self-denial which does not require facing violence and death, which is what I expect most of us to face in our everyday lives.

While not all Christians are called to face imminent death for their beliefs, all Christians are called to give up passions, sinfulness, unfruitful desires, as well as pleasures that do not edify the soul, or are outright contrary to God’s stated will in Scripture.  This in and of itself can be a witness, especially when someone comes to Christ from a life that was devoid of this self-denial.  The person who enjoyed riches, and after coming to Christ donated practically all he had to a Gospel ministry bears witness that what used to be the most important thing to them is truly secondary to the message of Christ.  Similarly, the person who was mired in drugs and unsavory habits who, after coming to Christ, reaches out to minister to similarly afflicted people bears witness that the anchor around their neck that no one could remove has been lifted from the depths by the strength of the King of Glory.

I struggle with intemperance – with food, with drink, with entertainment, with nearly anything that could be called on its own enjoyable or innocently pleasing.  I am at my most un-Christlike when I feel that I haven’t gotten my “share” of something, which generally means if I’m not sick of it yet.  This has led to mental and physical struggles with health; dissatisfaction in the gifts that God has given me; friction with my wife, with friends, with roommates, nearly everyone who interrupts my ultimate aim of personal satisfaction.  Diets on their own work very temporarily; trying to strongarm my attitude to be more “content” fails after the first minor setback; resolving to be a better husband/friend/roommate/brother/son/coworker/etc only gets me so far as the next time whoever it is opposes me.

I have only found satisfaction in the denial that Jesus preaches.  It wasn’t until I took up Lenten observance that I saw the first glimmers of hope that whatever hole it is in me that food, strong drink, television, and video games couldn’t fill could be overcome, or stoppered up, or provided with something that would actually and completely satisfy rather than just frustrate my soul with its pale imitation of what was previously denied to it.  Because I am like Peter – I place more emphasis on the things of man and therefore I miss the things of God.  I believe that I am getting better, but if so it isn’t because of anything that I do, but the Spirit which fills what my self-denial leaves behind.

I encourage all of you to use this Lent as a training ground.  Last week, our vicar alluded to “fasts” of things that Christians shouldn’t be doing to begin with; I want to expand on that and encourage you that if there are things in your life that meet that charge, Lent is the perfect time to start working against them.  Don’t put them off as a fast to be taken up again at the end of Lent, but certainly use the season of self-denial to begin to train yourself that the goodness of Our God is greater than whatever momentary pleasure or benefit you are confronted with.  Even if Easter comes and you still occasionally find yourself doing whatever it is that you identify as needing to permanently give up, the fact that the Spirit has illuminated the thing, and has moved you to better behavior is victory on its own.  With continued prayer and fasting, you will be delivered from the thing you struggle against.

I also ask for and encourage your prayers for our brothers and sisters around the world, who face persecution and martyrdom daily.  There are many organizations who spread their stories and work to provide at least some measure of material relief.  One that I personally have investigated and commend to you is Voice of the Martyrs.  In remembering the persecuted Church, remember also to pray for your own continued and increasing faith and trust in the Lord so that in the day of trial you would “endure to the end.”

Grace and peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.