Archive for the ‘giving’ Category

Embracing Lent

Posted: March 6, 2011 in advocacy, Bible, church, giving

This post is an annual repost that seeks to help people from non-liturgical traditions – like mine – understand and be blessed by the wonderful season of Lent which begins this Wednesday.

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This past Sunday I preached about addictions – idols really; those things we allow into our lives believing that they offer life, but ultimately do not. The key text was Isaiah 44. In the text, people take inanimate, lifeless objects, like wood, and fashion them into gods to be worshipped.

Times haven’t changed.

People still do this. We make things – money, food, sex, accomplishment, a particular political philosophy, the words of a radio or television personality or cable news station, whatever – our gods. We chuckle at the idea of folks worshipping a piece of wood, but it’s not as funny when we think about the men, women and marriages that have been ruined by people worshipping pornography or sexual immorality.

At any rate, all this talk of addictions and idols reminded me of the importance of the Christian calendar, in general, and our present season of Lent in particular. Lent, as you may know, is the 40-day period before Easter. In short, it is designed to help believers share in Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice – at least that’s the most popularized aspect of the season. But at a deeper level, we might want to consider the fact that since we are all idolaters – looking to other things give us life – Lent is perhaps our one chance, our one excuse every year to give ourselves permission to melt our golden calves. Lent is the perfect chance to try giving something up, something that has come to master us.

What I mean is simple: Oftentimes our false gods and idols seem so overwhelming that we surrender the fight thinking that nothing can be done. This is made easier by the fact that we generally enjoy idol worship. If we didn’t we never would have begun our idol worship in the first place. When we think about giving up our addictions they pain and sacrifice just seems to much.

But Lent sounds like a suggestion. It’s just 40 days. Spring training is longer, for goodness sake. If your god is shopping or over-eating or over-spending or terse, course language then giving it up for 40 days seems like something you can do.

Lent is subversive this way. For the last 7 years I’ve participated in Lent, setting aside some crutch I’d come to deepened on to deeply. Each year I’ve learned the same thing: I can live without it! In years past I’ve set aside certain language, red meat and few others things that I’m too embarrassed to mention. And every time I’ve learned that those things don’t give me life and never could. They were blocks of wood. I learned that not only did I not enjoy them all that much, they were harming me in ways I never noticed or considered. What’s more, for each idol I’ve relinquished, I’ve never returned to using them like I did before. Lent provided me an excuse to try – without feeling like I was trying to climb Mount Everest – and ultimately allowed me to loose idols and addictions and be free.

So here’s my encouragement to you. If like me, you’re from a non-liturgical tradition that thinks Lent is strange or foreign, just give it a try. This is how we learn; we try things. Pick up the idol that is eating at you and say, “Until Jesus is raised (Easter), I’m leaving you in darkness.” My bet is that by doing so, you will come to see the light.

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…it’s time to get serious about transformation. You know you’ve waited long enough to transform whatever it is that you think you want transformed (and yes, I said “think you wanted” because if you really wanted it, you would be doing it already.)

Resolutions are weak! They fail because (1) they begin at the level of behavior, (2) are hastily made and typically cliche, and (3) are arbitrarily set. Yet many of us want to change and live healthier, more productive lives. Here’s how:

  1. Begin With Who NOT What. To sustain a change, you need to decide who it is you want to be; what you want others to think about you and say at your funeral. For instance, if I want to be a generous person, there are endless possibilities – time, money, talent, hospitality, credit. But if you simply want to give more money to charity, your decisions will be predicated by your bank statement. Plus, you have to seek out agencies to give to. Trust me, if you decide to live a generous life, it will transform all your interactions not just one.
  2. Structural Change. We are people of habit. If you want to lose weight this year (which is a bad resolution when compared to being healthy), you’re going to need to physically change  functions in your life. Where is the workout time going to come from? Where will you get the money for new shoes, workout clothes, a trainer, gym membership, or a treadmill? Who are you going to give permission to hold you accountable? What are you going to do with your kids while you workout? How are you going eat differently? Do you need to buy organic? Where will the money for healthier (and more expensive) food come from? If you don’t execute a structural change around your transformation, it will fail.
  3. Reward. You’re going to have to reward yourself – no one else will do it! If you’re looking to lose 40lbs, you’re going to have to celebrate losing 2lbs. This is what Chip and Dan Heath would describe as “shrinking the change.” Before you begin, you should determine when and how you will pat yourself on the back. Major changes take a long time, congratulating yourself along the way will help keep you motivated.
  4. Focus On The Good. It’s easy to quit something after you feel you’ve failed. However, that’s the wrong thing to do. Forgive yourself and start anew. Lamentations says the Lord’s mercies are new every morning. God’s willing to do it for you; do it for yourself. If you miss a deadline or going to the gym one week, just go back. And remind yourself that last year you weren’t going at all.
  5. Embrace The Spirit of Discipline. Of course, it’s going to take some discipline to get where you want to go, but often it’s not the discipline itself that thwarts us. We fail because we don’t understand the “spirit of disciplines.” The spirit of disciplines is that change comes from doing small, often boring things repetitiously and change is produced over time.  Whatever you’re doing is going to take time, become boring, and appear as if it’s not working. You must know this going in. If you don’t, the monotony will wear you down. Remember, the change only comes through the tediousness. When you’re bored, it’s beginning to work

Transformation can come for you, it just takes serious, focused effort over time. Go for it! I’m in your corner.

 

 

This is a reprint of a post I wrote several years ago. It has been updated since its original posting. Each Advent I read and re-post it here. It is my favorite piece, of all the things I’ve ever written. It continues to challenge me every Advent

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A friend of mine was walking through his neighborhood a few weeks before Christmas years ago. Living in Houston it never gets too cold so walks in December aren’t unusual. Anyway, as he approached one house, he noticed the Nativity in the front yard. Everything was in its place; shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and manger. Only inside the manger was the baby Jesus wearing a Santa Claus hat; fur-lined, red, and with that cool looking white ball thingy at the top. My friend points out that that’s the problem with Christmas – many of us cannot see the difference between who Jesus was, what He taught and did, and the unhinged, consumeristic fervor of America’s most gluttonous season.

It all begs the question: What should we be thinking and doing at Christmas?

Before a renaissance in my own thinking over the last 7 years, Christmas was essentially about getting the stuff that I wanted, the presents under the tree.  A good Christmas meant I got what I wanted and the sweet potato pie was tasty.  It had nothing to do with Jesus.  In my religious tradition we simply did not celebrate Christmas as a religious event.

It was purely secular!

I remember asking my sixth grade Sunday school teacher, Larry, why we didn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter, and why we paid absolutely no attention to the Christian calendar.  No Pentecost! No Advent! Nothing!  Larry told me that no one knew the exact dates of those events so to celebrate them on the dates proposed was outside what we knew from the Bible.  That’s true, I suppose.  However, I also knew that my grandmother, as a black woman born shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Mississippi, had no birth certificate and no one could remember her exact birth date, but she still got older each year and we still acknowledged her life. I applaud Larry and the church of my youth for being concerned about what the Scriptures say, but at the end of the day it taught me that Christmas was about the same thing that Fisher-Price and Mattel wanted Christmas to be about: The stuff!

That teaching has been hard to shake!

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around, I know that there are very few things that I need. A new pair of pants, some new shoes, maybe, but nothing alluring – no iPhones or new cars.  I tell myself that I don’t need anything, don’t want anything, and that I won’t ask for anything, but I can never keep up with my plans.  Suddenly newer things start shining, old things seem, well, old and in need of replacement.  Those things that seemed like nice hobbies to start “one day” turn into imperatives that need me to invest in them immediately.  So I end up needing, asking and wanting more. Thank goodness for Christmas sales.

Before I know it, this time of year, this Advent season in which the church is to anticipate the coming of Jesus into the world, this time when we are to be looking to the Heavens with expectation about the healing of the world, and the healing of our broken relationships with each other, and our broken relationship with God has somehow become a dime store smash and grab to see what stuff we can make off with.

Have you ever had that experience? Am I the only one?

Recently, I was thinking about my Christmas coveting and reading about Francis of Assisi (these are not two things you should do simultaneously).  Francis was born the son of a wealthy merchant and had visions of becoming a superior fighter. After an illness, however, he began to experience deep religious feelings.  He would go off by himself to pray, wear ragged clothes and give away money from the family business to the poor.  As you might imagine, this made his father a little – um, irritated!  His father took Francis to court and asked that the Bishop force him to give back all the money Francis had given to the poor.  Equally as irritated as his father, Francis stripped off all his clothes, hurled them toward his father and walked out of the court proclaiming that he would only now speak of his Father in Heaven.

From that point, Francis renounced materialism.  Over time, Francis founded several mendicant – which is fancy word for “beggar” – religious orders.  Unlike other orders, Francis and his followers rejected not only individual property, but also communal and collective property.  In short, they had no stuff!  For Francis, poverty was not an end in itself, but a means of aligning with Jesus, the disciples, and the gospel by direct imitation. Jesus owned nothing. Francis owned nothing.  One of Francis’ biographer/followers wrote: “While this true friend of God completely despised all worldly things, he detested money above all.  From the beginning of his conversion, he despised money particularly and encouraged his followers to flee from it always as from the devil himself. He gave his followers this observation: money and manure are equally worthy of love.”

Might we imagine spending Christmas at St. Francis’ house this year?

I wonder what this patron saint of animals and the environment who married “Lady Poverty” for the sake of the gospel, might say about “Black Friday” – the day after Thanksgiving – when Americans sleep outside department stores to get the first look at sales.  Or what might he offer to a Christian community that essentially sees and treats Jesus like Santa Claus?  Perhaps he would feel uncomfortable with the fact that American Christians, who by and large have too much stuff already, spend the season of Advent concerned about getting more stuff.

Perhaps St. Francis might tweak our practice of Christmas a little.  Maybe he would say that during Advent and Christmas, we shouldn’t focus on our riches but our poverty.  Of course, there are a lot of us who give to good causes year round, but that’s not the only kind of poverty I’m talking about.

I’m also talking about real poverty – spiritual poverty.

I’m talking about the way many Christians display no demonstrative difference in their character than non-Christians.  I’m thinking about Christians who proclaim love for the powerless babe in the manger, but spend each breath of their existence trying to beg, borrow, steal and deal for more power for themselves.  I’m speaking of pastors and church leaders who have no vision for the communities they serve and no love for the sheep of their flock, looking only to the church for what they can get from them.  I’m concerned about people who are made miserable through their own self-concern. And I’m talking about those of us who fundamentally believe that something other than God will finally or ultimately make us healthy and whole.  We are all so deeply, deeply poor.

And that’s why we need to visit friend Francis this year.  We need to strip it all off and look only to our Father in heaven.  If we don’t we will continue to look around the next corner, over the next bend, and under every rock for that “thing” we think will make us whole.  Yet we will certainly not find it.

Monday I received a cold call from the local hospital, Kaiser Redwood City. The wife of an elderly couple was dying and the family wanted a local pastor or chaplain to come by and pray with them. The social worker (and you know I have a special place in my heart for social workers) knew the family was Protestant and we were the only “non-denominational” church she could find.

So, I went to the hospital. The couple was in their 80’s and had been married for 63 years. For the past 8 months the husband and his adult, special needs son had visited his dying wife, and for 8 months she hadn’t gotten any better. The 8 months of anticipation hadn’t curtailed his heartache as his tears revealed. And now I was with them. I was there to pray before he told the doctors the very last thing any of us ever wants to tell a doctor; that it was OK to let her attempt her own breathing, all the while knowing she couldn’t.

It was Holy ground.

I’m reminded tonight of all the petty and small things so many of us in the church become consumed with. It’s hard to miss pettiness when it rubs up against the beauty and heartache of loving devotion.

In these times I’m mindful of the simple power of love and that loving one another volunteers us for tears. Yet in the end, who among us would rather not have loved?

It took seeing Vice-President, Joe Biden, on MSNBC donning ashes on his forehead to remind me that today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Over the past five years, I have formed a deep appreciation regarding Lent. As a boy, I was tacitly taught that it was some strange “Catholic” practice, and as such should be rejected on that basis and that basis alone. Fortunately, some good people showed me the deep benefits of engaging these deep and highly spiritual practices. I know that some of you — especially those with my American Restoration Movement tribe heritage — are somewhat skeptical about Lent, but you needn’t be.

Here’s what Lent is all about: Lent is a forty-day liturgical period of fasting and prayer before Easter. (I think we can all agree that fasting and prayer are Biblical. And 40 days is certainly Biblical!) The forty days represent  the forty-days Jesus spent in the desert where he was tempted and tested by Satan. Not only does Lent engage us in some sense of Jesus’ fast, it also prepares us for Holy Week and Easter, as we encounter sacrifice as Jesus sacrificed. In addition, Lent is designed to teach us that we are dependent on God and God alone to provide for us. Though some practice differently, Sunday’s during Lent are not generally considered as part of the 40 day fast.

In previous years I’ve given up red meat, caffeine and a host of other things for Lent. Each has been difficult, but each has been as blessing. I find this season of the liturgical year both inspiring and challenging. In Lent, I’m reminded about how desperately we need to experience sacrifice. Sacrifice is a terribly important way to imitate Jesus. Indeed, without sacrificing we can never truly imitate Jesus. And for those who question the legitimacy of Lent allow me to tell you about a wife who was horrible deceived by her husband about the family’s personal finances a few years ago. This came as part of several instances of disruption and heartache. Fortunately for him, his house of lies came crashing down just before Lent. In response his wife gave up thoughts of divorcing him as her sacrifice for Lent. You guessed it. The marriage recovered and she remained with him, working through pain and forgiveness and saving their family.

Trust me, this season can reshape, reform, and renovate our lives. So I encourage you to engage Lent this season. Some of us need to start slow, others need to dive in deep, but I encourage you to sacrifice as our Saviour sacrificed and use the next 40 days to share in the lifestyle of Jesus.

This is a reprint of my favorite thing I’ve ever written. It may not be the best, but it’s my favorite. Each Advent, I post it and continue to be challenged by the life of St. Francis.
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A friend of mine tells a story about walking through his neighborhood a few weeks before Christmas years ago. Here in Houston it never gets too cold so walks in December aren’t unusual. Anyway, as he approached one house, he noticed the Nativity in the front yard. Everything was in its place, shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and manger. Only, inside the manger was the baby Jesus wearing a Santa Claus hat; fur-lined, red, and with that cool looking white ball thingy at the top. My friend points out that that’s the problem with Christmas – many of us cannot see the difference between who Jesus was, what He taught and did, and the unhinged, consumeristic fervor of America’s most gluttonous season.

It all begs the question: What should we be thinking and doing at Christmas?

Before I came to the church where I currently serve, Christmas was essentially about getting the stuff that I wanted, the presents under the tree. A good Christmas meant I got what I wanted and the sweet potato pie was good. It had nothing to do with Jesus. In my religious tradition we simply did not celebrate Christmas as a religious event.

It was purely secular!

I remember asking my fifth grade Sunday school teacher, Larry, why we didn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter, and why we paid absolutely no attention to the Christian calendar. No Pentecost! No Advent! Nothing! Larry told me that no one knew the exact dates of those events so to celebrate them on the dates proposed was outside what we knew from the Bible. That’s true, I suppose. However, I knew that my grandmother as a black woman born shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Mississippi had no birth certificate and no one could remember her exact birth date, but she still got older each year and we still acknowledge her life. I applaud Larry and the church of my youth for being concerned about what the Scriptures say, but at the end of the day it taught all us kids that Christmas was about the same thing that Fisher-Price and Mattel wanted Christmas to be about: The stuff!

And that teaching has been hard to shake!

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around I know that there are very few things that I need. A new pair of pants, some new shoes, maybe, but nothing sexy – no iPods or new cars. I tell myself that I don’t need anything, and don’t want anything and that I won’t ask for anything, but I can never keep up with my plans. Suddenly things start shining, old things seem, well, old and in need of replacement. Those things that seemed like nice hobbies to start “one day” turn into imperatives that need me to invest in them immediately. So I end up needing, asking and wanting more. Thank goodness for Christmas sales.

Before I know it, this time of year, this Advent season in which the church is to anticipate the coming of Jesus into the world, this time when we are to be looking to the Heavens with expectation about the healing of the world and the healing of our broken relationships with each other and our broken relationship with God becomes a dime store smash and grab to see what stuff we can make off with.

Have you ever had that experience? Am I the only one?

Recently, I was thinking about my Christmas coveting and reading about Francis of Assisi (these are not two things you should do simultaneously). Francis was born the son of a wealthy merchant and had visions of becoming a superior fighter. After and illness, however, he began to experience deep religious feelings. He would go off by himself to pray, wear ragged clothes and give away money from the family business to the poor. As you might imagine, this made his father a little – um, irritated! His father took Francis to court and asked that the bishop to force him to give back all the money Francis had given away. Equally irritated, Francis stripped off all his clothes, hurled them toward his father and walked out proclaiming that he would only now speak of his Father in Heaven.

From that point, Francis renounced materialism. Over time, Francis founded several mendicant – which is fancy word for “beggar” – religious orders. Unlike other orders, Francis and his followers rejected not only individual property, but also communal and collective property. In short, they had no stuff! For Francis, poverty was not an end in itself, but a means of aligning with Jesus, the disciples, and the gospel by direct imitation. One of Francis’ biographer/followers wrote: “While this true friend of God completely despised all worldly things he detested money above all. From the beginning of his conversion, he despised money particularly and encouraged his followers to flee from it always as from the devil himself. He gave his followers this observation: money and manure are equally worthy of love.”

Could you imagine spending Christmas at St. Francis’ house?

I wonder what this patron saint of animals and the environment who married “Lady Poverty” for the sake of the gospel, might say about “Black Friday” – the day after Thanksgiving – when Americans sleep outside department stores to get the first look at sales. Or what might he offer to a Christian community that essentially sees and treats Jesus like Santa Claus? Perhaps he would feel uncomfortable with the fact that American Christians, who by and large have too much stuff already, spend the season of Advent concerned about getting more stuff.

Perhaps St. Francis might tweak our practice of Christmas a little. Maybe he would say that during Advent and Christmas, we shouldn’t focus on our riches but our poverty. Of course, there are a lot of us that give to good causes year round, but that’s not the only kind of poverty I’m talking about.

I’m also talking about real poverty – spiritual poverty.

I’m talking about the way that many Christians exercise no demonstrative difference in their character than non-Christians. I’m thinking about Christians who proclaim love for the powerless babe in the manger, but spend each breath of their existence trying to beg, borrow, steal and deal for more power for themselves. I’m speaking of pastors and church leaders who have no vision for the communities they serve and no love for the sheep of their flock, looking only to the church for what they can get from them. I’m concerned about people who are made miserable through their own self-concern. And I’m talking about those of us who fundamentally believe that something other than God will finally or ultimately make us healthy and whole. We are all so deeply, deeply poor.

And that’s why we need to visit friend Francis this year. We need to strip it all off and look only to our Father in heaven. If we don’t we will continue to look around the next corner, over the next bend, and under every rock for that “thing” we think will make us whole.

Happy Birthday, Boo!

Posted: February 12, 2008 in family, fatherhood, giving, home, Katharine, kids, life, Malia

p2121121.jpgMy youngest daughter, Katharine (who at home is just called “Boo”), turns one-year old today. Malia’s first year seemed to take forever, Katharine’s moved lightening fast!

It’s amazing how different our girls are. Malia is an investigator. She’ll get interested in something and want to know everything about it. Katharine is an explorer. She likes to see, touch and taste as much as she can. For her it’s about quantity and experience. At any rate, Rochelle and I are extremely blessed to have two wonderful, beautiful girls. Happy Birthday, Boo.

(The pic above is of Katharine about 90 seconds after she escaped the womb, her eyes weren’t even open yet. She looks better now.)

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This morning, Malia and I took advantage of the free short-stack of of pancakes at IHOP. They are asking folks to give the money they would spend on pancakes to Shriner’s Hospital. It was fun to sit and eat and talk over my favorite food, just the two of us.

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The best part of working where your daughter goes to school? Malia and her classmates just came in to sing me a Valentine’s song! It was perfect!!