Sunday, February 22, 2015

For the Love of Fish Fries and other Lenten Practices

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. 
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

When I was in middle school and high school, I played basketball. I wasn’t a very good player or even a dedicated player, but I was on the team and occasionally played with the starters. Unlike today's student athletes, I didn’t do anything much in the off seasons. Whenever the first few practices of the season rolled around, it was brutal. I can remember blisters the size of quarters on my feet, cramps in my side, burning in my chest and muscles that ached with each step.

I was reminded of those practices this week when my yoga instructor told us to stay in our warrior two position even if it hurt a little, even if we started to shake. In her soothing, otherworldly voice she reminded us that by practicing a little suffering we would get stronger. She's right, I thought, as my thighs started to burn. The muscles form because they tear during exercise and then the body rebuilds them even stronger. 

And really, that’s what sports practices are—a time to get stronger, practice skills and come together as a team.  And there’s no hiding the fact that you were lazy in the off-season. When you're terribly out of shape the coaches know it, your teammates know and you certainly know it.

As I flowed through my yoga poses that day, I was thinking that Lent is also a time of practice and even teamwork. In Lent, we practice our spiritual disciplines and we gather in community. Like all practices, we are preparing for something. In Lent, we are intentionally taking time to prepare for a season that hasn’t come to us yet.

Lent as Practice

Lent gives us an opportunity to try new ways of getting closer to God. We can push ourselves a bit and do things that don't come naturally.

Give something up. Most of us are familiar with the practice of giving something up for Lent. Some people give up chocolate, others sugar or alcohol or coffee. In a sign of the times, some of my friends are giving up Facebook or other social media. We give something up in order to understand something about Christ’s suffering. Lent is the season in which we recognize that our salvation came at a cost. The purpose of giving something up is to  experience and understand suffering on a small scale knowing all the while that Jesus did this on a big scale.The writer of 1 Peter reminds us that:

Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, 
in order to bring us to God. 

Add something on. Some of us practice Lent by adding on a spiritual discipline. Maybe it’s adding a morning prayer or trying to memorize some scripture. We can practice keeping a journal or try writing a prayer every day. Another practice might be to look at every person you meet and think about how they are made in God’s image. We take on a practice or two that changes how we see the world. The purpose of these practices of giving up or adding on is to draw closer to God.

Check out these ideas for things to try for Lent.

Community Building
See the interactive map here
In addition to being a time of practice, Lent is also a time of teamwork or community building. Here in Western PA we have fish fries and community lunch services during Lent.  Wondering how popular the the fish fries are? Google has a map of the fish fries in the area. 

Now if you are questioning why a fish fry or lunch gathering is Lenten practice, you are not alone. At first glance they seem pretty superficial. What is holy or righteous about a fish fry during a time of fasting? There hasn’t been much scholarly exploration of this over the centuries, so bear with me in my explanation.

First, let's put in in the context of the prophet Isaiah who tells us that we don’t have to be miserable and somber during a time of fasting. His message is that repentance is a much about what we do as what we feel or how we look. Isaiah calls us to be a team, to work together for God’s justice. He writes:

Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
    a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
    and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
    a fast day that I, God, would like?
“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
    to break the chains of injustice,
    get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
    free the oppressed,
    cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
    sharing your food with the hungry,
    inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
    putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
    being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
    and your lives will turn around at once.
--The Message 

When we gather at a fish fry or community luncheon, we see neighbors and friends who may have been hibernating during a long winter.  There is the buzz of a community coming together. We inquire about families and friends, we show that we care. This is one way we begin to show our love to our neighbors. 

We also meet new people since a fish fry attracts people from many different demographic groups, but we are all there out of some kind of hunger, whether it's literal, spiritual or emotional. We usually gather at a long covered table and make conversation with whomever is sitting next to us. Eating together creates a common bond and knits us together as a community despite our differences. 

These people, this community, can sustain us when we encounter difficult times in our lives. These are the very people that Isaiah tells us to care for in their times of hardship and they are the people who may care for us in our seasons of temptation and isolation. We are to work together.

Finally, I think we can argue that Jesus likes a fish dinner. He surrounded himself with fisherman. If you remember Jesus’ call to the disciples you may recall that he said, follow me I will make you fishers of men (or people for those of us with two x chromosomes).  The fishing was always good when Jesus around. He also shared a fish dinner with the disciples after the resurrection. 

A fish fry also attracts huge crowds, something Jesus was known for. When Jesus feeds the 5000 hungry people on the hillside, what does he give them? Fish and bread. What do you get at a fish fry? Fish on bread--and a choice of two sides with a home baked dessert.

Gathering people, loving people, feeding people. Sounds pretty Jesus-y to me.

Getting ready for the season
Lent helps us to understand the seasons of life.  So often in our faith walk we think of the power of Christ. We trade the upbeat snippets of scripture that tell that we can do all things in Christ or the God has plans to prosper us.  We think we should feel peace during Advent, joy over Christmas, and excitement at Epiphany. But the reality is nobody lives a life that is all peace, joy and excitement.

Lent shows us that life sometimes doesn’t meet our expectations--even for the best of us. Lent gives us permission to let our gray mood match our gray sky  Lent tells us that it’s OK to suffer. We don't always have to put on a sunny smile as we face the dark and the cold seasons.

In Lent, we are reminded that there are seasons in the church year and there are seasons in our lives. Some of those seasons are joyous and exciting—we get married, we have children or grandchildren, we retire or we move someplace warm. Jesus had those good seasons early in his ministry. He was successful and was making a difference in the world.

But even Jesus had "off" seasons. Even Jesus, the perfect son of God underwent suffering. Jesus felt the pain of having people turn on him. Jesus knew what it was like to have friends betray him. Jesus knew what it was like to look like a failure. Jesus understands your life.

Jesus’ life and our lives go up and down like a roller coaster. Today’s reading from Mark shows us that. Jesus is baptized and the Holy Spirit tells him he is God beloved. You, too, are God's beloved. That’s a top moment.

But, things plunge to the bottom as the Holy Spirit drives him into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted. You, too, will face temptation. You, too, will be in the wilderness.

It’s important to notice something about the descent though. When Jesus goes to the wilderness, when Jesus faces temptation, the Gospel writer Mark emphasizes that Jesus is not alone. The angels are there with him. When you walk through your dark valleys, you will not be alone. 

And this is the good news for us in the ups and downs of our lives. As we descend into darkness we can still find God. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadows God is there.

But sometimes in wilderness, we have to take God’s presence on faith. In the light of joy, in the excitement of new things, in the peace of prosperity, we can see God clearly. But in the dark, it’s different.

In the dark, we can’t see the hand in front of our face. We don't know where we are going. In the dark, we don’t know what is beside us or behind us of us. In the dark, we may not be able to see or feel God with us. In the dark, we cry out why have you forsaken me? In the dark, we need faith, because there is no proof in sight. We need to learn to trust that what we cannot see is still there. 

And this is why we practice. This is why we need Lent. We need the Lenten practices so that when our season comes, we are prepared. Well, as prepared as we can be.

We need to practice seeing God at work in the dark and in the suffering because it doesn’t come naturally. We need to practice so that when we have an off-season of job loss or divorce or illness or death, we can trust that God is there. We need to practice a little suffering or practice a little forced prayer so that we are as prepared as we can be when we end up in the dark or the wilderness. We need to practice finding God in the dark. 

We also need to forge community connections so that when we are in need, we have a team who can help us. We have to have trusting and loving relationships with people who will be our ministering angels and walk with us through the dark wilderness. Sometimes, if things get really bad, we need to rely on the faith of others to carry us when our own faith is stretched thin and the darkness threatens to overtake us.

We practice going through Lent, knowing the resurrection is at the end of it. We practice walking toward that hope year after year during Lent. We do this so that we remember that God is with is in the valley. We do this so that the seasons of dark and light become ingrained within us. We do this so that when all seems hopeless we can take it on faith that there is a way out of the valley. 

In our gospel today, we see that at one moment Jesus is basking in the waters of baptism as God’s beloved. In the next moment he’s forced into the desert to face temptation. He is God’s beloved AND he suffers. Just like you and just like me.  I pray that this Lent is a time of practice and teamwork so that we can learn how to minister to each other in the wilderness. I pray that each of us learns walk though our dark valleys rather than be swallowed up by them. I pray that our Lenten practices can allow us all to feel closer to Christ--in the light and in the darkness that are the seasons of our lives.  

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