How to Celebrate the Lenten Season

Easter gardenOkay, so not many folks think of Lent, which starts this Wednesday, as a celebration. This is, after all, a serious time when we’re meant to reflect, repent, and ponder Christ’s sacrifice for us.

But I love Lent and, for me, it’s a somber celebration. I relish the notion of having a time set aside to actively anticipate and prepare for the best worst thing that ever happened. It’s the ultimate looking forward to.

So, how to celebrate Lent?

First, I like to consider whether to give up/sacrifice something or add something. I’ve given up specific foods (French fries!), credit cards, shopping, checking reviews of my books, and one year I even gave up fear. That one was tough! I think I’ve only added something once–it was the fruits of the Spirit. Now that was a good year!

If you’re giving something up, it should be a challenge. If it’s not hard, what’s the point? One year I gave up candy. Where I work there’s a candy dish in every office. It was tough not even snagging a mint! On the flip side, this probably isn’t the time to stop smoking if you’ve been a pack-a-day smoker for years. I’ve toyed with giving up sugar, but recognize that would be setting myself up for failure.

If you’re adding something, make sure it’s something you can stick to as well. Pray as you drive to work each morning. Read one of the Psalms before bed each night. A friend told me she’s setting aside an item to donate to charity each day of Lent (and not just stuff she doesn’t want!).

Next, each time you crave the thing you gave up, or participate in the thing you added, let that moment turn your focus toward God. Consider the ways you’ve turned away from Him and refocus your heart and mind. It’s not about beating yourself up, but gently redirecting your attention towards grace.

Next, if you slip up, don’t quit. If you just can’t resist that slice of cake or forget to say that prayer–don’t let it ruin Lent for you. Use it as yet another opportunity to turn your heart toward God again. And again. And again. Lent is 40 days for a reason. God knows how slow, obstinate, and hard-headed we are. (Or is that just me??)

Finally, when Easter arrives (the BEST celebration ever!!), consider indulging in the thing you sacrificed. If you gave up chocolate, get a Lindt bunny. If you haven’t looked at Facebook in six weeks, check in to see what your friends are up to. Of course, it might be that you gave up something you now realize you can do without. I still don’t have a credit card. If you did gave up cigarettes, maybe it’s time to say goodbye to them forever. If so, celebrate that.

And if you added something? Consider the fruit you’ve harvested. Has your prayer life improved? Do you know scripture better? Have you made a difference in someone else’s life? If so, celebrate that.

How about you? Have you given up or added something for Lent? Do you plan to this year? Let’s cheer one another on!

Mustard Seed Faith – At Last!

mustard seedFor a long time now I’ve assumed, based on Matthew 17:20, that my faith is pretty pitiful. Not even a mustard seed’s worth. That scripture suggests that if my faith were as much as even a BB-sized seed, I could move mountains or cast mulberry bushes into the sea. And I can’t. Goodness knows I’ve tried.

It’s long been a discouragement.

And then I heard Susie Larson talking about planting apple seeds. She talked about how one seed produces a tree with, say, 100 apples. And each of those apples has multiple seeds with the capacity to produce another 100 apples. And so on and so on until you have millions of apples.

And just like that the light bulb lit! I had been focused on the SIZE of the mustard seed and had overlooked the fact that it’s a SEED. What do you do with seeds? You plant them.

In other scripture Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. It’s something tiny that grows into a tree as much as 20-feet tall and almost that wide.

So, in order to move mountains, it’s not about summoning up a tiny seed’s worth of faith. It’s a question of where I plant what faith I have. Jesus didn’t say the mountain and the mulberry tree would move TODAY.

I do have a seed’s worth of faith. Lots of seed’s worth of faith. And I can plant them wherever I go. At work, in the community, among friends and family. And some of those seeds will take root and eventually produce fruit. And then their seeds will do the same. And so on until mountains have shifted and entire forests have been cast into the sea.

Like so much of what I learn on this journey, it’s not about me. My role is small and often goes unnoticed. But taken as part of God’s glorious, intricate whole—it’s integral. Planting seeds matters.

Come sow with me. Nothing is impossible.

He replied, Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” – Matthew 17:20

Preach it, John!

church-doorsYesterday our pastor talked about the third chapter of Matthew. You know, John the Baptist preparing the way for Christ. Basically, it’s about John preaching repentance.

And John must have been an effective preacher, because he inspired the crowd to ask what they needed to do to avoid being cut down and thrown into the fire. John’s answer is surprisingly simple.

  1. If you have more than you need, share what you have with someone who has less than they need.
  2. If you’re a tax collector, collect only what you’re authorized to collect.
  3. If you’re a soldier, don’t extort anyone by force and be content with your salary.

Although it seems underwhelming, his response was so powerful, the people wondered if John might be the Messiah. So what’s powerful about this answer?

It seems to me, what John was telling people, was to simply do what’s right. But I was also struck by what he didn’t tell them. He didn’t tell the people to make sure their neighbors where giving to those in need. And he didn’t tell the tax collectors to make sure other tax collectors where following the rules. And he didn’t tell the soldiers to check in on other soldiers who might be extorting others. or complaining about their pay.

I know I’m all too often guilty of excusing my own behavior by comparing it to the behavior of others. Do I give as much as I can? No, but I give more than she does. Do I break the rules? Maybe, but not as drastically as he does. Do I harbor discontent? Well sure, but I’m much more justified than they are.

And I think that’s where we can get stuck with John’s simple instructions. Basically, he’s telling the people to look after their own business and do what’s right. But as soon as I think someone else isn’t doing right, I figure that gives me permission to slide a little myself.

John preaches a marvelous sermon. Do what’s right in God’s eyes. If only John had handed out blinders.

Appalachian Thursday – Mountain Saints

devotionalAppalachia is about people as much as it is about place.

We have a lovely Christmas tradition at my church. Our pastor gathers scripture for each day of Advent (December 2-24 this year) and assigns them to volunteers who then write a short entry for a devotional that’s handed out to the congregation.

I think this is our third year and I LOVE reading the thoughts and ponderings of my church family each morning. Of course, I also LOVE sharing my own thoughts. This year I was given two scriptures–the first being Psalm 90, a Psalm of Moses. Not your typical Christmas reading. I’d just been to visit one of the saints of the church (in her 90s) when I sat down to write my entry for December 4. I was struck by how much she and Moses had in common. And so I wrote this about one of the amazing people in MY Appalachia:

EVERLASTING
Psalm 90

Establish the work of our hands . . .

Her mother made the dress, stitching love and hope into every seam. A 1950s confection of white lace over taffeta, sleeveless with opera length gloves, tea length.

Let your work be shown to your servants and your glorious power to their children . . .

There was one child, a girl, a pearl without price. Now the child watches over the mother, offers what comfort this world holds.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us . . .

Her brother survived the war. After peace was declared, his plane crashed in the ocean. Afflicted with just twenty-one years.

The years of life are but toil and trouble . . .

Oh, but the joy of a good man. A good marriage. Sixty-seven years. She can close her eyes and see him on the day she wore white lace over taffeta.

You sweep the years away like a dream, like grass renewed in the morning . . .

She knows the joy of thrusting her hands into soil, of making flowers grow, of inviting life to spring from the earth. The pot on the windowsill reminds her.

A thousand years in God’s sight are nothing more than yesterday . . .

Without saying the words, she loves these mountains that are as old as the world. Older than she is or ever will be. Made from the same dust.

The Lord is her dwelling place.
From everlasting to everlasting . . . God.

The Church in the World

BBQ 10-18This year, our church opted to do something a bit different in place of our usual homecoming. We hosted a party for the community.

Instead of focusing on our history, reminiscing, and then feasting in the fellowship hall, we invited the neighborhood to come out for free BBQ. And it was great!

This wasn’t about getting people to come to church and then feeding them. While they were welcome to come to services, they were also welcome to just come eat and enjoy some great bluegrass. It was about getting the community together to talk, eat, tap their toes and . . . well . . . spend time together.

Instead of a homecoming that focused on our past, we focused on our present. Our here and now going on right outside our door each and every day. Don’t get me wrong, I love history. (Shoot, I write historical fiction.) But it was nice to look out instead of in this year.

I hope we do more of this type of thing. I hope we continue looking beyond the walls of our church building to get to know our neighbors. Seems like there’s some scripture that mentions that very thing . . .

Mark 12:28b-31 – “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

French Creek Pioneers

I had the pleasure of attending the French Creek Pioneers gathering this past weekend with my dad and brother. This is a meeting of folks descended from the original settlers of French Creek, Va., back in the early 1800s (before West Virginia became a state). There were Goulds, Youngs, Smallridges, Sextons, and Phillips among others.

I’m descended from the Phillips line. The first ancestor to come to America was Nicholas who came to Dedham, Mass., in 1630. Six generations later, in 1815, David Phillips moved his family to French Creek. Seven generations later, in 1971, I came along.

These are the Phillips for whom I named the characters in my Appalachian Blessings series. They aren’t based on any specific ancestors, but are rather a collection of bits and pieces I’ve read or seen or heard along the way. And it was SO special to set up a book table and share those stories with folks who are . . . well . . . my family!

I love sharing my Appalachian stories with just about anyone, but it’s extra special to share them with family members who share the same heritage. Here are some photos from the weekend–click on the images for captions.

 

Who ARE the Poor?

bouquetSunday’s sermon was about helping the poor. Our scripture was from James 2 which cautions us not to show partiality for those who appear to be better off.

Which set me to thinking about what, exactly, it means to be poor. There’s the obvious answer–people who don’t have enough to meet their basic needs of food, shelter, clothing . . . The homeless. The hungry. The family struggling to make ends meet. The senior choosing between food and medicine.

But it occurred to me that there are plenty of other kinds of poverty in this world:

  • People who are poor in friendships/relationships. Basically, the lonely.
  • People who are poor in joy/peace. Those who struggle with depression or maybe they’re just overwhelmed by life at the moment.
  • People who are poor in safety/security. Those who live in places with high crime or who are fearful of how people might treat them.
  • People who are poor in faith/spirituality. Unbelievers of all kinds–folks who believe this life is all there is.
  • People who are poor in health/wellness. Terminally ill people or even those who are chronically ill.

I suspect this list could go on and on. The point is, while I may not be poor financially, I’m poor in other ways. And so is everyone else.

Our pastor talked about how the poor are often people we don’t see or notice. They’re on the margins of society, tucked away, hidden, unrecognized–which can make them hard to help. We have to LOOK for the poor. But I think that extends to the people we DO see on a regular basis as well. Probably they’re poor in one way or another. And either we fail to notice it or they do a good job of hiding it.

What if we all started paying attention? What if I take the time to notice when a co-worker is poor in time and offer to help with a task? Or that a neighbor is poor in visitors and stop by for a chat? Or that a friend is poor in peace and take time to pray with her?

Sometimes we do nothing because it feels like there’s too much need to even make a dent. And yet . . . I know how wonderful it is when someone notices I have a need and meets it. Maybe if we all did just a little, it would add up.