It was thirty years ago or so when I experienced something I could call a transfiguration story. It was thirty years or so ago when I could relate deeply and truly for the first time to what Peter is going through and saying in the gospel for today.  Peter’s experience was on a mountaintop face to face with God and recorded for all time in the Holy Scriptures.  My experience was by the side of a lake, face to face with Bible camp counselors and imprinted only on my heart. But it was no less a time when God became very real to me and I, just like Peter, wanted to stay in that moment and that feeling forever.

I tell this story so often because it is so fundamentally a part of the story of me. I was fourteen years old and at my church, like here, a requirement before confirmation was to attend a week of Bible camp.  I did not want to go, I had no desire to go, and I went kicking and screaming in my own quiet and passive-aggressive way.  I was painfully nervous and shy at that age, I had no idea what to expect.  A week full of strangers? What would be fun about that? A week full of church? What did I need with that?

But out of respect for my pastor and the requirements of my church and the demands of my parents, I went. And it is no exaggeration to say that I saw God that week.  Through the words and actions of counselors who daily took time with us and shared the word of God with us. Through the songs that sang of simple wonder and joy and peace. Through that place and time set apart for growing in spiritual community. Through a sudden and growing sense that God had a purpose for me, for all of us, and the conviction that even in my own middle-school worries and wonderings, God cared about me and always would. That week changed everything for me – I heard the gospel I had heard my whole life in a new way, in a way I could understand and feel to my bones. I could see the glory of God shining through everything.

So, whenever I read the story of the transfiguration and how Peter and James and John are up on the mountain to pray with Jesus and Jesus is transfigured before them and his face is glowing and his clothes are dazzling white such as nothing on earth could bleach them and then Moses and Elijah appear with him and they are talking – Peter says to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three dwelling places: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” My first reaction is to think that Peter wants this moment to last, to stay there forever, and that makes sense to me – because isn’t that human nature to want to stay in those moments that touch us and move us deeply? Whether it is a deeply spiritual time, or the summer you first fell in love, or when your kids are little and so adorable, or when all feels good and well and right with the world.

But, wait a minute, the dwelling places aren’t for Peter and James and John along with Jesus and Moses and Elijah – he proposes to build dwelling places for just Jesus and Moses and Elijah up on the mountain top.  What? He wants to keep them there? While the regular people go back to regular life?  He wants to keep them Set apart?

It seems to me we might understand this as well.  Or do we never reserve parts of our Christian life for only Sunday morning? Do we pray daily or keep it largely at church? Do we read the Bible at home or is it mostly something we do when we read the scripture lessons at church?

I can’t tell you how many times over my years as a pastor that I’ve run into people around town and they’ll say something to the effect of, “Oh, pastor – I didn’t recognize you without your pastor robe on.” I think to myself, do they think I just hang out here in my robe all the time? That I don’t leave and go do other stuff? But I remember I used to think the same thing when I would see my hometown pastor out and about – “Oh look, Pastor Vetter is out of the church! He’s in the bank! He’s walking to the post office! He leaves the church?”  Well, of course he did. But in my mind it made sense that Pastor Vetter went with the church – we all like to compartmentalize things. Chips and Dip go with Superbowl Sunday, roses and candy go with Valentines day, Pastors, prayer, Bibles go with churches.  I think that is why Beer and Hymns gets people’s attention – because it is a pairing of things that we don’t think of together.  It makes some very uneasy – but for others, it just makes it interesting.

To Peter, Jesus hanging out forever on a mountain top – shining and talking with Moses and Elijah in their designated dwelling places high and far away – that made sense.  Keep the holy stuff and holy moments together.

But of course, Jesus won’t be compartmentalized. Never for a moment would he stay set apart. He comes down off the mountain and into the messiness of life down below because a shepherd needs to be with his sheep.  Surely life would have been easier for him if he had stayed up on the mountain, but he would only have fulfilled a fraction of his purpose. What good is it to be shiny and glowing on a mountain all the time? Shiny and glowing Jesus high on the mountain wouldn’t have been much good to the man who came to Jesus in the village down below needing desperately for him to heal his son. Shiny and glowing Jesus set apart high and far away on the mountain wouldn’t have been much good to any who needed to hear his teachings or experience his grace.

While Peter is still talking a light-radiant cloud envelopes them and they became very aware of God’s presence – and a voice emanated around them saying, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.”

Obviously, if you are going to listen to someone, you need to be around them.  You can’t keep them perched far away on a mountain and be actively listening to him. Peter and the others knew that no matter how extraordinary that moment had been, and no matter what reasoning Peter might have had for wanting to build those dwelling places, the moment drifted away with the cloud and Moses and Elijah as well.  All they were left with was the command from the voice of God’s own self, “Listen.”

It seems to me that word is much at the heart of the church season we will soon be entering.  Lent begins in just a few days when we gather here on Ash Wednesday to hear the Word, to confess our sins, to receive the ashes on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and to share in Holy Communion. On Ash Wednesday and each week during Lent we gather for church on Sunday and also have the opportunity for worship on Wednesdays to set this time apart, to give ourselves space to listen for God’s voice and to reflect on the discipline of Lent – repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love. These become the specific occasions and opportunities for spiritual renewal during this season of renewal.

Repentance is turning from sin. It is turning 180 degrees away from sin to walk toward God. We participate in repentance when we join together in the confession on Sunday mornings and Lenten services – particularly Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.

Fasting comes to us from Judaism and was recommended by Jesus. It is a practice that is designed to strengthen the spiritual life by weakening one’s attractions to pleasures of the senses. Thus fasting is always coupled with prayer and spiritual preparation.

Fasting does not necessarily mean giving up all food for a day. More frequently it is the giving up or limiting of a particular food or food group (sweets, desserts, chocolate, butter, fat, eggs, etc.) Abstinence from some activity (such as television, internet, movies, entertainment, etc.) on certain days, at certain hours or throughout the season is another way to observe the Lenten fast. This is designed to give more time for prayer and spiritual work.

Prayer is when we are drawn closer to God in contemplation and communication. Prayer is our half of a conversation with God. That means that prayer is not only speaking, but listening as well.

Finally, works of Love – this can be anything we do for someone else – generally someone outside our family.  Examples of works of love are as varied as your imagination: shoveling the sidewalk for someone else, visiting homebound people, bringing a meal for someone who is going through a difficult time, writing a letter of encouragement. When doing your work of love, meditate upon Christ’s words, “As you do it for the least of these, you do it for me.”

After making your choices and beginning your discipline, it is not necessary to share your choices or your acts of love with anyone else. In fact, anonymity is regarded as better (Matt.6:1-7, 16-18).

Don’t be too hard on yourself, too rigorous, or too legalistic. The idea is to have a discipline that moves you spiritually closer to God, not one that focuses you solely on your discipline.

There’s nothing about the discipline of Lent that is a shiny and glowing mountaintop experience of God. The grand alleluias get put away and we tend to the work of Lent for us here in the valley below – practicing at being God’s people. Working at it. Letting the turning of the season and the giving of ourselves over to it transform us. Giving something more each week of our time, and our attention, and our selves.  Trusting that as we journey through this season quietly and listening, and staying awake with Jesus, we might arrive at Easter morning with renewed spirits.

Lenten Discipline

During the church season of Lent, it isn’t uncommon to hear church-y folks talk about a “Lenten discipline”.  Well, at least I know some pastors talk about it and in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the congregation will often pledge to commit to the discipline of Lent: repentance, prayer, fasting, and works of love as a sort of spiritual training period.

I love Lent and that during this 40 day period we are to take on special practices to help bring our thoughts back to God more frequently. I’ve preached about this in different ways over the years and it often reflects what I’ve been reading or thinking about. One year I encouraged my folks to add something to their routine instead of fasting – for example, add some devotion time or add more Bible study time to their week. Too many years I have engaged in fasting from different foods but it always seemed to turn into just another diet plan, disguised as being spiritually motivated, but ending  as most regular diets do – feeling mad at myself when I eventually got too hungry to continue. To tell you the truth, for the most part, over my years, I have not done very well at mastering any sort of Lenten discipline except to show up and preach and lead worship an extra time each week at the Wednesday night services – which I guess is something, but it’s also a part of my job, and I’ve always wished for more.

I have grand visions of a day, when my kids are grown, when I’ll take the forty days of Lent to engage in a retreat of pure silence or spend the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter morning on a long hike on El Camino de Santiago.

For now, however, I’ll stick to small things. I won’t write about what I have chosen to do this year because I just preached about how in Matthew 6, we are told that it is better to be quiet about our giving and our fasting and our works of love. It’s best to keep our Lenten discipline between us and God, let this season quietly and subtly transform us.

Whether or not we participate in a Lenten discipline, God loves us. However, we need reminders sometimes of how much we have and that we can’t be a slave to the many comforts that most of us have. This is the great value in fasting from a particular food or from any enjoyable activity: each time we reach for that sweet or that remote and remind ourselves that isn’t a part of our lives for the next forty days, the spoiled brat inside says, “why not?” Then, each time we get to answer, “because I was made for more than my belly and my own comforts. I was made to be a child of God. Now, what does that mean?”  What a great thing to be thinking about over and over again. Fixing our minds on these kinds of thoughts help us arrive at Easter morning a little more aware of who we have been, who we are, and how we want to be.

If you haven’t yet decided on a Lenten discipline, it isn’t too late. Here are some ideas:

  1. Prayer: set aside some special time each day for prayer. You could send a note each day to a different person and let them know you are praying for them. Don’t forget to pray for your pastor and the Sunday School teachers and church office staff!
  2. Repentence: Each Sunday in the Lutheran church services we say the confession together. Don’t forget to include confession to God in your own personal prayers. Remember that repentance means to turn away from our sins. Spend time contemplating how you can turn away from temptations and pray for God’s strength to live in Christ’s light.
  3. Works of love: Anything we do for others in Christ’s name is a work of love. Is there someone in your community who could use a little extra help? Does someone need a note of encouragement? Could you bring in lunch for the office or buy coffee for the person behind you in line? Committing to doing one work of love each day in Lent could change your life in beautiful ways.
  4. Fasting: fasting is quite simply, to deny ourselves something for a time and then each time we think of that thing, to turn our thoughts to God.  Many people in the Bible, including Jesus, fasted. This self-denial helps us to grow spiritually.  I like how Jen Hatmaker put it, “A fast is not necessarily something we offer God, but it assists us in offering ourselves.”



Ash Wednesday

There were a few chores I really enjoyed while growing up.  Feeding the chickens and ducks was always fun, and hanging up the laundry on the clothesline was also something I never minded doing – but the one chore that my brother and I actually fought over getting to do was to carry the trash up to the big old burn barrel at the top of the hill, dump it in, and light the stuff on fire. I liked burning stuff. I liked creating that little spot of warmth on a dead cold winter day.  I liked watching the sparks rising into the evening sky.  I liked the smell of the smoke that would hang on my old wool coat for days afterward.  And as I got older I remember the ritual of tossing things into that old burn barrel as a rite of passage of sorts…a bad exam or two that I felt my parents didn’t need to see, some of the tattered magazines that we cleaned out of grandma’s house when she died, old clothes and dolls, and as the years of high school and college unfolded, even some old love letters met their fate on top of that hill.  There was something ceremonial about throwing things in that burn barrel and tossing a match on top.  Sometimes they had to be coaxed into catching fire – but then they would burn brightly until finally all that was left was just glowing cinder and ash. Of course the leftover ash wasn’t nearly as fun as the blazing fire.  A chore we didn’t like was emptying out that burn barrel when it was full of ashes…we had to shovel it into a big wheelbarrow and wheel it to a specific spot that my dad had designated as the place where the ashes and other remains of the burn barrel went.  It is in that spot where still today you can see the unburnable bits of the our history – the metal zipper from my favorite 2nd grade jacket,  the nails that held together an old picture frame, parts of my brother’s toy fire engine. No, the place where the ashes went wasn’t the fun place.  It wasn’t warm and light-giving like the fire on top of the hill.  The ashes were cold and grimy.  The ash place was full of forgotten, dead, and unwanted things. Of course I have been thinking a lot about ashes as this Ash Wednesday approached.  “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” are the words we each hear spoken to us when we have ashes placed on our foreheads.  This is a day that we choose to think about the dead and unwanted things in our own lives – the things we need to repent. The broken parts of our lives that require God’s grace and mercy.

This is a reflective day in our church year – the scripture uses words that promote that idea of quiet – in fact, the word secret is used 6 times just in the nine verses of our Gospel reading.  Jesus uses it to express how our giving and praying and fasting should be done – and also to express God’s presence even in the parts of our lives that we think are most secret. Do you have any secrets?  Oh, I think most of us have a few.  There are many kinds of secrets.   

Some secrets people keep are wonderful secrets – I think of couples I have known who didn’t want to share what they were going to name their baby that was on the way because they just wanted to treasure that information for themselves and not be getting everyone’s opinion on the name beforehand. Secrets can be sweet – an engagement ring being hidden away until just the right time, a surprise birthday party. Those kinds of secrets are fun. 

Another kind of secret is the one we keep just because we don’t know how others will react if they find out the truth.  Until we know if others are Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, mean or nice, we often keep our true feelings about certain things to ourselves.

At the first church I served in New York, I had been there a few years when one of the older gentlemen in the church invited me over for coffee.  I had spent a lot of time with him over the years I had been there – sitting in the hospital room with him and his wife, Evie, as she was dying; and later as he was helping out with different projects at church.  I felt I knew him pretty well.  But this particular day as we had coffee he was telling me stories – amazing, stories – and not all of the stories were about good church-going sorts of behavior. They were the sorts of stories you tell a friend…not necessarily your minister. And at the end of the afternoon before I left I said to him, “Pete, thank you for telling me stories about your past.  I’ve known you three years and you never mentioned any of this before. I had no idea what a colorful life you have led.”  And he smiled and said simply, “Well, now enough time has gone by that I know I can trust you with my secrets.” It’s true, isn’t it – we don’t share our secrets with people unless we know they will treasure those secrets, keep them safe like we do.  It is a privilege when you are entrusted with someone’s secrets.   

In his book Telling Secrets Frederick Buechner writes about a difficult secret in his own life and the relief he found when he finally began to share a story he had kept secret for a very long time.  He says, “One November morning in 1936 when I was ten years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room, and then went down into the garage where he turned on the engine of the family Chevy and sat down on the running board to wait for the exhaust to kill him.” Buechner continues, “Except for a memorial service for his Princeton class the next spring, by which time we had moved away to another part of the world altogether, there was no funeral. He was cremated, his ashes buried in a cemetery in Brooklyn, and I have no idea who if anybody was present. I know only that my mother, brother, and I were not. As far as I can remember, once he had died we rarely talked about him much ever again, either to each other or anybody else. We didn’t trust the world with our secret, we hardly even trusted each other with it”  

In the years that have passed, Buechner has since written many times about his father’s death. He says that for him, carrying the burden of that secret was too much. He needed to share it – and that he found that each time he shared it – it somehow gave permission to others to share their secrets as well. And the surprising thing was that once those terrible things that people kept inside were spoken out loud, admitted, looked at directly, they weren’t so frightening anymore. When they were brought out into the light of day those secrets lost their power.  

Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent – we spend time in confession. We dare to take a look at our secrets – those things we have done or have left undone and by offering these things up to God along with our heartfelt repentance, they lose their power over us. The darkest sins, the blackest stains on our hearts – they will never be as strong as the light and love of Christ. 

God knows who you are. God knows what you need. Don’t bother to bring anything with you to receive the ashes on your head tonight except your real self and your repentant heart.    

Tonight the ashes that will be put on our foreheads will remind us that we have fallen short, that we have failed in much, that all dies – even us.  But thank God, there is one who can take ash and dust and make something new.  That is what our journey over the next forty days is all about.