A Lenten Practice that Won’t Be Easy – for Me

I don’t remember when I adopted the annual practice of a Lenten discipline. I’m pretty sure that it was after I’d begun serving as pastor of my first churches, though it might have been before seminary graduation. I tried on a number of ways to draw closer to God in those days.

For some years I mostly practiced a discipline of “giving something up for Lent.” Some have heard me tell the story of giving up anxiety for the season, and how delighted I was that I’d succeeded. Some have heard me tell the follow-up story. The next year I pledged to give up anxiety for Lent again… and failed.

I have never successfully repeated a Lenten discipline.

More recently, I have added an activity, practice, or creative effort to the season. I “take something on” as well as “giving something up.” I don’t announce my choices for the season. I recall Jesus’ stern warnings about praying so that other people could hear rather than that God could hear. Lenten practice should be about my relationship with God and with myself. It’s not to make me look pious to others.

This year, however, I have to make an exception. I think I will need help. I’ve decided to give up self-deprecation for Lent.

It’s a challenge.

I love humor. I love a sense of fun, games, and jokes. I do not, however, like to tell jokes at someone else’s expense. I don’t like to make fun of anyone’s appearance, background, personality, or challenges. I don’t like to make fun of anyone’s vulnerabilities or strengths. Sometimes these jests don’t hurt, but far too often they do. “It’s just a joke” doesn’t cut it. I’d rather not do it.

(By the way, this doesn’t mean I’m successful at this. I do poke fun at others from time to time – and I tell myself not to do it again.)

I’d rather poke fun at myself. That’s what I try to do. Truthfully, I’m the only person I have the right to poke fun of, and I do it pretty often.

Within a few hours of deciding I’d stop doing that for Lent, I caught myself doing it several times.

Self-deprecation might be a more comfortable frame for humor, but for me it is also a sign of insecurity and anxiety. Some of those jokes function to disguise those things, and some of those jokes function to invite comfort for them. Both the mask and the invitation to comfort are… problematic. Both allow me to avoid internal struggle by turning it outward. Both allow me to avoid the work to resolve or refresh what’s unsettled in my soul.

That’s a good reason to give it up, at least for a season.

But it’s going to be difficult, and I don’t think that’s self-deprecation. I invite your help as this season goes along, friends. If you detect me “putting myself down,” I invite you to call me on it – not comfort me, call me on it. “Eric, didn’t you give that up for Lent?” will do.

It is, and will be, a challenge.

Tempted; Deceived

Of course I’d be out-crafted
by the crafty in the absence
of the knowledge, of the wisdom,
to discern what’s right and wrong.

Of course I’d be deceived
by a deceiver in my
ignorance of good and bad,
of lawful and unlawful acts.

Of course I’d take the way that ends
my ignorance, my foolishness,
my childishness, my folly.
Wouldn’t anyone?

I’ll take that fruit and share.

I’ll also wish I’d thought,
in all my quest for wisdom, that
perhaps the One who loves me best
might ache at my betrayal.

A poem/prayer based on Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year A, First Sunday in Lent.

The image is Eve Tempted by the Serpent by William Blake – Victoria and Albert Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24661174.

Like an Angel

Speak to me like an angel, Jesus.

If it were me and not the Rock,
not the fearless Sons of Thunder,
I do not think I would have seen the cloud
that in its brightness overshadowed them.

Speak to me like an angel, Jesus.

For me, I think your radiant form
and figures suddenly at hand
would be enough to seal my eyes,
collapse my knees into the dust.

Speak to me like an angel, Jesus.

I might, in fact, have stuffed my clothes
into my ears lest I, lest we, should hear
of things beyond our understanding
said by you or Moses or Elijah.

Speak to me like an angel, Jesus.

That would have offered to
the Voice Divine a challenge!
“Listen to him!” bellowed into my
cloth-swaddled ears.

Speak to me like an angel, Jesus.

Gently lay your fingers on my shoulder.
Brush your fingertips along the seam.
As my grip loosens, lean and whisper,
softly: “Do not be afraid.”

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 17:1-9, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year A, Transfiguration Sunday.

The image is a study of Saint Andrew and another apostle for The Transfiguration by Raffaello Sangio – http://www.topofart.com/artists/Raffaello_Sanzio_Raphael/painting/11317/St.Andrew_and_Another_Apostle_in’The_Transfiguration’.php, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23549876.

Cracked and Worn

I didn’t want a divorce
but I got one, Jesus.
A broken relationship
handed to a judge.
No prison, but
I’ve never been released.

So many gifts I’ve laid
before your altar
never certain whether
there was someone I had hurt.
But no, I lie. There was always
someone whether I knew or not.

To reconcile, though – ah, there’s
the rub. For now I’ll ask
“On whose terms, precisely, Jesus?
I have my injuries, my hurts.
Who’ll make their peace with me?
Who’ll listen to my terms?”

Don’t say it, Jesus. I know
just what you’ll say to such
a question; you’ve no need
to say, “My terms.”
Oh, go ahead. I’ll wait. Just
say it… Oh. You did.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 5:21-37, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year A, Sixth Sunday after Epiphany.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Smoke-Choked Basket

Don’t look this way, Jesus, please.
If you’re looking for light, excuse me.

I’m only gasping underneath this
smoke-choked basket here because…

I’m not certain how much glow You’d get
even if you lift the basket.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 5:13-20, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year A, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany.

The image is “Light Under a Basket,” a 1532 Bible illustration by the Italian Petrarca Master; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4006971.

A 2019 Accomplishment

Sometime toward the end of 2018, a Tweet (that I can no longer find) challenged weekly preachers like myself to include a quote from a non-white, non-male, non-straight person in every sermon of the coming year. Intrigued, I decided to do it.

I was a little worried about finding those quotes.

I wasn’t worried that the materials didn’t exist. I know very well that people of every gender identity and every race have done great work in theology, social commentary, and Biblical studies. That didn’t mean that I’d have success in finding it. My personal library’s authors are predominantly white and male (and presumably heterosexual). I’ve been using online commentaries as a research aid, but hadn’t deeply considered who the authors were. I knew I’d been quoting particular people fairly often, and that some of these were women or people of color, but in what proportion? I didn’t know.

As it happened, finding those quotes was quite easy. There are several solid websites around offering lectionary-based commentary to preachers. In some cases, the editors have intentionally sought diversity in their contributors. When a site has several years of commentary available (as Working Preacher does), it increased both the likelihood of finding strong quotes from non-white, -male, and -straight voices and widened the spectrum of perspectives I read about a text.

The remarkable aggregation site The Text This Week has the virtue of several years of material and also of casting a very large net. Even when its editor is behind on things because of life challenges, it remains a must-visit collection for its links to prior years’ commentaries.

Record-keeping was the bigger challenge.

I’m a geek (note the title of the blog). I decided that the best approach to a question like this was a database, so I built one. Each quote gets its own record. Each person quoted gets a record as well, and I record their gender identity, race, religious affiliation, time period, and some other information. Sometimes that information was not easy to find, by the way.

It was pretty easy in any week to see that I had or hadn’t met my objective. At the end of the year, a report confirmed that I had met the goal.

I’m quite grateful to the challenger (I just wish I could be certain who it was). They brought my attention to something I hadn’t thought about, and I plan to keep that attention. I’m also grateful because I rather like my quote-recording tool, and I’m thinking about ways to make it useful in other ways as well.

Thanks for the challenge. I’m pretty sure it made me a better preacher this past year.

Blessed Are

by Eric Anderson

Searching for hymns that used the Beatitudes as their inspiration, I was quite surprised to find very few of them. And, well, I decided to add one. It was first sung in worship at Church of the Holy Cross UCC, Hilo, Hawai’i, on February 2, 2020.

Upon the mountain, Jesus sat with all his friends about him,
The crowds drew close and silence fell. He taught them without shouting.
He spoke of blessings to the poor. He spoke of new creation.
He spoke of a world overturned when mourners find their comfort.

You meek take hope, the earth is yours, though others pride to take it.
The ones who thirst for righteousness will drink until they slake it.
There will be mercy for the ones whose mercy flowed in rivers.
The pure in heart will see our God in majesty forever.

You who make peace have always been the children of the Maker,
And so are those who suffer for their holiness of labor.
If you are caged and tortured for your witness to redemption
The gates of heaven will open wide when you are present to them.

The hardships of the world are real, as human eyes keep weeping,
But every tear that falls is held within the Savior’s keeping.
Blessed are the humble, meek, and poor; the pure in heart, the peaceful.
Yes, God embraces those who bear the burdens of earth’s evil.

Suggested tune: ENDLESS SONG 8.7.8.7.D.

Copyright © 2020 by Eric Anderson
Used by permission

The image of the Sermon on the Mount is an etching by Jan Luyken from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations housed at Belgrave Hall, Leicester, England (The Kevin Victor Freestone Bequest). Photo by Philip De Vere. Credit: Phillip Medhurst – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20116195.