Sabbath Tuesday: Confessions about Lent

 

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Lent is a period of 40 days before the Easter celebration, in which the church traditionally fasts in remembrance and reflection of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. The central images of the season are the desert, dust, and ashes, as Christians remember their mortality, sinful nature, and dependence on God. Though it is a darker season than Advent, it is a journey that has a bright destination: the Easter feast that celebrates Christ’s resurrection, and humanity’s salvation from death and sin. 

I’ve never understood fasting. I easily get light-headed from hunger, I see food as an important factor in relationships, and not eating means not dancing, so fasting doesn’t add up in most cases. But Lent is just that: a season of fasting, created for the act of fasting. And suddenly I’m thrust into a practice of the church that humbles me and challenges me, and Lent becomes a season of change.

Over the past few years, as my interest in the church calendar has increased, I have dabbled in Lenten practices—praying the divine hours three times a day, fasting from a particular habit, contemplating pieces of art—but I’ve failed a full commitment to the season. There are many resources that can help you define goals for Lent, but those will only take you so far. Here’s what I’ve learned in my few years of thinking about—and attempting—Lent.

Lent is meant to be practiced in community.

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to my liturgically-drawn soul to be in a church community this year that is digging deep into Lent. I’m already anticipating the altered sanctuary as the colors change from green to purple, the focus on lamentation and confession, and the imposition of ashes that will take place tomorrow night.

Even if you’re not in a church that practices the season of Lent, find fellow believers that share in your desire to walk through this time of fasting and confession with you. Not only do you need people to be praying for you and encouraging you on your journey, but you need a community of believers to discover together both the darkness and the beauty of this season. I tried doing it alone in the past, and regret it.

Lent requires a plan.

And “not eating any chocolate” isn’t it. I’ve realized through trial and error that if my Lenten sacrifices are merely a dieting plan to lose those last five pounds, then I’ve made it into a season that supports my own desires, rather than one that recognizes the power of self-denial.

The Book of Common Prayer invites believers into the three common practices of Lent: “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.” Health is the goal of Lent, but not a shallow health that is merely concerned with the physical—a spiritual health, which is closely connected to our physical state, is the aim.

Lent is supposed to make us uncomfortable.

The early church practiced a fast a few days before Easter to mourn the crucifixion of Christ before celebrating the Resurrection. Over time, this extended to a forty day fast—an obvious reflection on other forty day fasts in the Bible, but particularly a remembrance of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. If you think about Christ’s own fasting and temptation in the desert, and the challenges he faced there, Lent is a way for the church to participate in that. This wilderness of the soul, of facing our own demons, of discovering our inability to overcome and Christ’s power—these are the underlying assumptions of the season.

Have you ever wondered why fasting is particularly related to food? Because it is a common human need. Physical fasting is not to say that the body is not important, but fasting does reflect our spiritual need for God, just as we have a physical need for nutrition. More to come on this later, but as you consider how you might participate in this season, realize that the long-standing tradition in Scripture and the church of fasting from food has a particular value.

 

Here are some questions to reflect on as we begin this season:

  • Do I have a community, large or small, that will walk through this season with me?
  • Is there a fast that I can commit to in order to deepen my experience?
    • (a day of fasting a week? a particular type of food? a certain meal?)
  • Is there a habit that leads me away from Christ instead of towards, and needs to be broken?
    • (this is where “fasting” from other items—social media, shopping, etc. comes in)
  • In what ways can I deepen my prayer life during this season to practice self-examination and grow closer to God?

 

 

How to Practice Examen

One of the most fruitful times in my teaching career was practicing daily examen during Lent in 2015. The day would end (and that could be anywhere from 3:40 to 6:00), and to my habit—or obsession—of cleaning off my desk before going home, I added the habit of reflecting on my day at school.

Examen is a practice found in St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. If you Google it, or talk to those who practice it, you’ll find countless variations—but it all comes down to this one simple act: reviewing your day in prayerful reflection. Some practice it weekly or monthly, others practice it daily, and others pray through Examen during particular seasons, like Lent.

I’ve found examen particularly helpful in terms of vocation. In addition to the general reflection of God’s presence in your day, I like to ask questions that address my own roles: Was the Holy Spirit welcome in my classroom today? Did I take opportunities that were placed in front of me to participate in God’s work? Did I treat my students as children of God?

Setting aside this much time at the end of long day can be daunting, but even doing this once a week is helpful. However, practicing examen daily  can be a great way to re-focus your spiritual life during a particular liturgical season—like Lent, which begins in week!

Click the links below for three ways to practice examen: a general examen, an examen specifically for teachers, and another specifically for students. Examen should be done at the end of the day, and for teachers, I think it is most helpful to practice it at the end of the work day while still in your classroom.

examen for everyone                  examen for students                examen for teachers

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Sabbath Tuesday: A Reflection on Marriage [and some punny valentines]

I obviously have to follow the Valentine’s Day trend and say something about love. Actually, Will and I don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day, as it makes Will angry that so many are “manipulated by Hallmark to further participate in our consumerist culture,” according to him (I generally agree). And he’s too hipster to buy me flowers on the day you’re supposed to buy people flowers, so he surprises me on random days instead.

We celebrated our fourth anniversary about six weeks ago with a bike ride on the Galveston beach in freezing 45-degree weather, where our relationship was defined in the simple act of me trying to ride through the McDonald’s drive thru on my bike, but being unable to because I didn’t have my wallet with me, and Will refusing to condescend to such a level (“It’s illegal!!”).

There’s a line in an Andrew Peterson song that has deepened my views on marriage this past year. In “My One Safe Place,” Peterson sings:

I know that you’re broken, too,

But you are a sacrament that God has spoken through.

 I’ve heard over and over again the comparison between marriage and Christ and the church, but that line made me realize that is exactly what we’ve been experiencing in our own marriage over the past four years: each other’s brokenness, love, sacrifice, and faithfulness. Will and I loved each other when we walked down that aisle together in celebration four years ago, but I’m not sure I understood the depth of love that two human beings could experience together.

Marriage is a microcosm of the triune love, a small way for us to experience just how deep Christ’s love for us can be, for us to know the power of forgiveness and faithfulness and sacrifice. I’ve credited the renewal in my spiritual life to many things—praying daily prayers, reading Hopkins, teaching high school students… but the gift of marriage is one of the many reasons I have a better understanding of God today.

I’m forcing Will to celebrate with me this year, because I surprised him with movie tickets to Lego Batman, so suddenly he sees Valentine’s Day as a valid excuse for a date night. Here’s to love, Hallmark holidays, and the joys of marriage.

 

MY FAVORITES THIS YEAR
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Sabbath Tuesday: Work and Rest

fullsizeoutput_701As you may know, the idea of Sabbath Tuesdays began in the classroom– a quick weekly break during our AP classes every Tuesday afternoon before we began new lessons every Wednesday.

Today, I am remembering the power of those Sabbath moments. The beauty of taking that deep breath, of resting, only occurred to us because we needed to breathe, and we were tired. So we rested, and were renewed.

Sabbath is full of grace because the rest of the week is full of work. Over break, I had difficulty thinking in terms of Sabbath. But today, I’m rejoicing in the beauty of work, as it is something we were all created for. Each day we have the privilege of being sub-creators, producers, participators in this grand scheme of redemption. And it is only after ordering our lives in this pattern of work and rest that we experience the Sabbath grace in its fullness.

During our Sabbath Tuesdays at school, we would read a Wendell Berry poem. I’ll leave you with one to consider today as you contemplate the joy of work.

Whatever is foreseen in joy

Must be lived out from day to day,

Vision held open in the dark

By our ten thousand days of work.

Harvest will fill the barn; for that

The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

 

And yet no leaf or grain is filled

By work of ours; the field is tilled

And left to grace. That we may reap,

Great work is done while we’re asleep.

 

When we work well, a Sabbath mood

Rests on our day, and finds it good.

-Wendell Berry, from This Day collection

Sabbath Tuesday: Studies in Frailty

Keep our frailty before us, Lord : that we might set our hearts on you.

This was the prayer today in my Sacred Ordinary Days planner  (a review on this coming soon). And what a perfect way to begin a semester.

Today is the first day back at school for many university students, myself included. Students usually have one of the following reactions:

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But my relationship with the first day back to school—as both student and teacher—has always been a complicated one. Even in my fourth year of teaching, I was nervous to go back not only after summer break, but Christmas break, and even the one-week-long spring break. And I wasn’t nervous because I don’t like teaching. I love teaching, I love spending time with students, I love preparing lessons, I even love reading students’ work. Now, in my seventeenth year of being a student, and fifth year at the university level, I’m still restless and nervous to start a new semester. Obviously, loathing school isn’t my problem. So why the apprehension?

The first day of school—in August or January—reminds me of my frailty. I often asked myself as a teacher, especially on these first days of school, how I’m entrusted to guide ninety students through their humanities education, or why anyone thought I was capable of commanding an entire classroom. I may look confident in my heels with my journal of lesson plans and extra copies of handouts, but the first day of school has always been one of my weakest. As I return to school as a student, I have many of the same doubts and fears.

But praise Him for insecurities, because it gives me an opportunity to receive the grace I need each day. Teaching is the loveliest, most frightening, most exhausting, and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, and that daily dose of grace reminded me to welcome Christ into the classroom, where I saw Him work through my weakness.

It is the same here in my graduate studies. My graduate degree is important to my development as a teacher and as a human being—not for the piece of paper that could help with a job search, but because it is helping me to understand education in a way that will affect my vocation and the numerous students I will teach in the future, and giving me time to think through the connections between theology, literature, and reading practices. And these days of frailty remind me that without Christ, it is all for naught. My own strength may result in a graduate degree, but my weakness gives opportunity for Christ to guide me in my studies. Above all, I want him to be present as I contemplate education, literature, and pedagogy.

So here’s to the first day of school, to insecurities, and to grace that daily provides.

Keep our frailty before us, Lord : that we might set our hearts on you.

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First day back to school, me in my natural habitat- i.e. my study. 

Sabbath Tuesday: Thoughts on a Funeral

Today I attended the funeral of a dear friend’s mother. This post—and the event itself—seems quite out of season: we just celebrated the birth of Christ, and two days later I find myself, along with many others, mourning the death of a faithful woman taken all too soon from her family.

Funerals are awkward gatherings, full of timid reunions and casual hellos as attendees search for conversation that falls between furthering pain and introducing triviality; for a Christian funeral, there also seems to be a constant, unwieldy tug-of-war between sorrow and hope. In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher goes so far as to claim “It is better to go to a house of mourning / than to go to a house of feasting, / for death is the destiny of everyone; / the living should take this to heart.” As the Preacher suggests, funerals remind us of our mortality and the brevity of life, a mememto mori in action. But the mourning reminds us of something else, too: the tension between what is and what should be.

It is most unnatural for us humans to die—despite popular belief—because we were created to live forever in relationship with God. When the first humans met sin, and sin introduced death, it was not the natural way of life given to us by the Creator. Thankfully, Christ restored our relationship with the Father through his sacrifice, but we’re still living in the consequences of sin. It is the reality of our world that death takes away those closest to us, but it is not the intended reality.

Though we celebrated a well-lived life today, and the culmination of her relationship with Christ as she joins the heavenly feast, we also mourned her loss, and the presence of death itself in the world. And that is why it is entirely appropriate for funerals to be a place of mourning, a time that feels surreal and awkward and unnatural and out-of-season. Funerals were not intended to exist. They are a reminder of the human condition of fallenness as we wait for Him to come again.

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Sabbath Tuesday: Advent, Week 4

A Holy Interruption

Advent often seems contradictory. It is a season of hope and invitation, yet it also tells the story of doubt and fear. It is a season of expectation, but it precedes one of the greatest interruptions in all of history.

Though there were many looking for the Messiah and waiting expectantly, Jesus’ birth was mostly treated as an interruption. For Mary and Joseph, it interrupted their marriage plan, and seemed quite inconvenient to the groom, who was apprehensive of other’s responses to his virgin fiancee’s pregnancy. For the shepherds, the birth interrupted their daily practice of caring for the flock. Even for Herod, this coming of a child “king” interrupted his reign, creating a state of paranoia. And it didn’t stop there—Jesus spent much of his ministry interrupting established rituals, interrupting hopeless moments to complete the miraculous, and interrupting the lives of his disciples, who gave up everything to follow him.

If a king was going to come and dwell among us, we could have at least given him a room. But his interruption was so inconvenient that he came to us in the lowliest of settings. And Jesus’ ministry was completed in the same way: on the night of his betrayal, he washed the feet of his followers, humbling himself to the last. The incarnation is only the beginning of Christ’s life of interruptions, his upsetting of established ways of thinking and doing.

Advent seems to be a time of interrupted expectations—hope in the midst of hopelessness, a growing light in the midst of darkness, a Savior awaited and then delivered in a food trough for animals.

And maybe this is the reason that Christmas “sneaks up” on us each year, why we never feel completely ready. By nature, God becoming flesh is an interruption, and something we can never quite prepare for. And though we long for His arrival, the mystery of the incarnation eludes us year after year. Every year during the feast, we remember that He came not in a vacant time in history, but in the midst of tangible events and real worries and doubts and fears. This Christmas, just like the first, He dwells among us, interrupting the stories and narratives we thought were our own.

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All praise to Thee, Eternal Lord,
Clothed in a garb of flesh and blood;
Choosing a manger for Thy throne,
While worlds on worlds are Thine alone.

A little Child, Thou art our Guest,
That weary ones in Thee may rest;
Forlorn and lowly is Thy birth;
That we may rise to heaven from earth.

Thou comest in the darksome night
To make us children of the light;
To make us, in the realms divine,
Like Thine own angels round Thee shine.

Sabbath Tuesday: Advent, Week 3

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Christmas is supposed to be a season of joy, peace, and cheer. Everyone and everything around you will remind you of this—from Starbucks cups to Christmas music to the simple greeting, “Merry Christmas!”, we are bombarded with the seasonal cheer.

But some find this to be season of doubt, or fear, or confusion. Perhaps it is because of the loss of a loved one who no longer sits with you at the Christmas feast. It could be unanswered questions about the Incarnation itself. But here is something to consider: you are in good company.

Though we criticize those who don’t express joy and peace during this season, doubt and fear are very much part of the Advent story. Joseph doubted Mary, and feared the angel that appeared to him. Mary feared the angel, and questioned “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Zechariah doubted the angel’s words, and was made mute for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. And John the Baptist—even after imprisonment—still wasn’t sure if this was the Messiah, and sent his own disciples to inquire.

Yet even those who doubted and feared were invited to be part of the Advent narrative. And as they began to observe and listen and participate, something incredible happened. Joseph obeyed, protecting Mary. Mary sang a song of praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Zechariah prophesied: “The sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” And John the Baptist prepared the way for the Messiah, even baptizing him.

As we await our Lord, remember this—He comes for all, doubters and afraid included. Rest in the knowledge that Advent tells your story, too—watch, listen, and participate.

Sabbath Tuesday: Advent, Week 2

We sang this hymn this past Sunday at my church’s Lessons and Carols service, and it perfectly encapsulates the Advent message with its overtones of hope, desire, longing, and deliverance. May you expectantly and joyously await his coming.fullsizeoutput_6d9

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

Sabbath Tuesday: Advent, Week 1

As I was writing an essay yesterday evening, I glanced up from my work and gasped. A brilliant pink had spread across the clouds, the leaves from the nearby oak juxtaposed in black. A few minutes later, the pink had faded to brown, the sun swiftly leaving the sky to be enveloped by darkness.

Advent is like this. It appears for a few fleeting moments, rushing by in all of its glory, and we catch a glimpse that—if we’re paying attention—stirs our imagination and longing. But it is a brief season, shorter than Lent, much shorter than ordinary time.

What is Advent? It is the season of waiting and expectation that precedes the celebration of Christ’s birth. It is the beginning of the liturgical calendar, which marks the cycles that Christians walk through each year in remembrance of Jesus’ time on earth and our calling as His followers.

Perhaps Advent begins the liturgical year because it encourages a particular stance of waiting and expectation, of invitation and hope. Throughout the liturgical year, we are aware of the work being done within us by living through the narrative, but it is not something that can be forced. This season of waiting, of longing, reminds us of that grace that inhabits the liturgical year. And soon, we’ll experience those glimpses of beauty, hope, and light—reminders of His coming.

A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices.

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

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