My good friend Andrew Daugherty, Minister of Faith Formation at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, shares his sermon from the first Sunday of Lent last weekend. It’s a beautiful message that is uplifting, encouraging, and an important reminder of who we are and how we might move through this season of Lent. Please take a few minutes to read it or to listen to it by following the link after the jump. Blessings.
You can listen to Andrew’s sermon by clicking on this link or you can read the text below.
“God, Godiva and Lady Gaga: A Spirituality for Lent”
This is the first Sunday of Lent, or as many of us might refer to it, Oscar Sunday! The 84th Academy Awards airs tonight. If you plan to watch, you’ll behold celebrity star power in its full splendor. You’ll lay your eyes on the likes of Swooney Clooney and Brangelina. Tinsel town glam gowns on the red carpet runway will feature both a feast for the senses and the fashion senseless.
But this year, add to the Hollywood flash a dash of the holy. Tonight Mother Dolores Hart will walk the red carpet wearing the only clothes she owns: her nun’s habit. Now, she is avant-garde in more ways than one. Nearly 50 years ago, she took a chauffeur-driven limousine on a one-way journey from the star quality of California to the stark quality of a cloistered convent in Connecticut. She gave up a one-in-a-million opportunity to follow the courage of her convictions. And it came with a cost in the currency of fame, glamour, and wealth. For her beauty and acting talent she was once billed as “The Next Grace Kelly.” She has been called the Selena Gomez of the 1950’s. She even had her own 1950’s version of Justin Biebur. His name was Elvis Presley. And she was his first on-screen kiss.
God is the Bigger Elvis is one of this year’s Oscar-nominated HBO documentaries. It tells the story of actress Delores Hart’s spiritual transformation. And it is the reason that she will be gracing the red carpet again tonight. Here’s a woman who had all of Hollywood calling. And she chose to answer a holy calling instead. Ask her to explain it and she says:” How do you explain God? How do you explain love?” “I never felt I was leaving anything that I was given, she says. The abbey was like a grace of God that just entered my life in a way that was totally unexpected — and God was the vehicle. God was the bigger Elvis.”
Dolores Hart gave up screen tests for the tests of faith. She gave up acting aspirations, so that she could give herself fully to spiritual inspiration. Very Lent-like, don’t you think?
Lent is the sacred season of 40 days plus Sundays in which we prepare for the feast of Easter. It gives us time to cultivate a spirituality of letting go: letting go of our usual patterns of control or addiction or fear. Author Nora Gallagher reminds us that it can be a spirituality of giving up, too: When she walks into the sanctuary on Ash Wednesday, Nora is already wrapped in a cloud of guilt and remembering what it was like to give up smoking. Her friend quips: “‘Anne’s giving up drinking, Terri’s giving up chocolate, and I’m just giving up.’”
Her friend has a point. Lent can be about giving up; not just Godiva or Grey Goose. It is giving up one’s will to say “no” to lesser things, so that we can say “yes” to better things. It is giving up more of “my will” so that “Thy will” can be done on earth as it is in heaven.
We do this by giving increased attention to spiritual practices. Some of you this week have thought about ways you want to be different when Easter Sunday comes. And so you have shared practical steps you want to take to make the next 6 weeks more spiritually nourishing: 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night of silence and meditation; reading a daily devotional; fasting from Facebook; participating in Wednesday night adult faith formation; to give up complaining; to run 40 miles in 40 days.
With practices like this, you might think of Lent as a 40-day spiritual boot camp for the soul. It is a time designed to build spiritual muscles like mindfulness and attentiveness and compassion.
Today’s Silent Meditation sums it up well. Lent is a call to weep for what we could have been and are not. Lent is the grace to grieve for what we should have done and did not. Lent is the opportunity to change what we ought to change but have not. Lent is not about penance. Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now.
Lent is a summons to live anew.
Early Christians saw it this way. By the 4th century, many churches interpreted baptism as a dying and rising with Christ. Lent, then, became a time to prepare new converts to the faith. It was a stripping off of old patterns and taking on new patterns in order for a new self to come to birth. St. Augustine described it as the spiritual equivalent of “time in the womb.” Thus, it is a gestational time spent in the darkness. And with nature’s lengthening of the days toward spring, it is a time to shed light on the shadows of our lives.
These 40 days of Lent are patterned after today’s Gospel. Jesus is chauffeured by the Spirit (The Gospel of Mark says “driven,” you understand) into the wilderness. Unlike Delores Hart’s limousine ride, Jesus is given a round-trip ticket to the desert to duel with the devil.
Speak of the devil: The forces we face in our lives are not the stuff of cartoons and caricatures. And so I’m with Rob Bell in having a hard time believing that somewhere down below the earth’s crust is a really crafty figure in red tights holding a three-pointed spear, playing Pink Floyd records backward, and enjoying the hidden messages. In a recent sermon, Dr. [Stephen] Shoemaker [Senior Minister of Meyers Park] put it powerfully: let’s see the tempter as the cacophony of accusing and lying voices inside our head and in the world, voices that distract us from our true identity and mission and tempt us to be less, or other, than God has made and called us to be.
Imagine a student taking SAT’s after days with no sleep; no food. Jesus takes this spiritual aptitude test in the wilderness in the worst of conditions. Israel’s tests become Jesus’ tests. Jesus’ tests become our tests. These are not just temptations to do something we want to do but shouldn’t. They are temptations to be someone we are not. It cuts right to the heart of identity: who tells you who you are? Who do you rely on to tell you the truth that you live by?
The Spirit didn’t so much “lead” Jesus into the wilderness as a warden forces a prisoner into solitary confinement as some punishment or for just some trial tests to make sure he was up for the-Savior-of-the-world job. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, because that’s where all of us go sooner or later; to stare right into the face of our deepest fears; to sit alone in the silence long enough for paranoid and obsessive and insecure voices to speak their lies; to set our eyes on our most sumptuous temptations; to face the worst that life has to hurl at us.
Who in their right minds would seek out the dark periods of life? The thing is, we don’t have to. They have a way of finding us. A spiritual Sahara desert of the soul is:
- The psychological wilderness of depression and anxiety.
- A desert of physical exhaustion.
- A professional wilderness of unemployment or the threat of it.
- The loneliness and isolation of grief.
- A friendship that has grown distant.
- A spouse who finally says, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
One of the most popular spiritual teachers in the world, Richard Rohr, who will be with us in April puts it this way:
Dark periods are good teachers. Spiritual energy is in the dark questions, seldom in the answers […]. Grace leads us to the state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaninglessness in which we ask, “What is all for? What if I don’t want to wake up tomorrow?” […] It should be the work of Christians who believe in the mystery of death and resurrection to help people when they are being led into the darkness and the void…to tell those in pain that this is not forever; there is a light and you will see it. This isn’t all there is. Trust it. Don’t try to rush through it. We can’t leap over our grief work, our despair. We have to feel it…the time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation.
It’s no wonder that “giving up chocolate” is usually at the top of the list in what to give up for Lent. You’d think that God was anti-chocolate despite sharing the first 3 letters with the name Godiva! But as much as we might crave it, there is no such thing as chocolate-covered Christianity. There is nothing sugar-coated about what Jesus endures in the wilderness. Not until he goes to the margins of society in the wilderness do we fully see the splendor of his humanness.
It may not feel like it, but when we trace Jesus’ tracks in the wilderness, we are on the right track, too. To any who have ever felt isolated, left out, left behind, and denied, you’ll find spiritual solidarity in Jesus’ gut-wrenching struggles.
You never know what sorts of people will find hope in such struggles. Even in the full splendor of her wild costumes and eccentric public persona, pop music idol Lady Gaga takes a hope-filled message to people on the margins of society. Last year’s hit single “Born This Way” is an anthem promising solidarity to those who have been targets of bullying. It’s a sobering reminder that Lent as a season of self-denial is sometimes hard for people who are used to being denied. Thus, this message for those who need to fast from discouragement and feast on hope:
I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track baby
I was born this way
Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track baby
I was born this way
Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re lebanese, you’re orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause baby you were born this way.
Jesus is beaten down and bedraggled in the wilderness even as God’s beloved. In the wilderness, Jesus is bullied by the devil, tested and taunted because of who he is. Does this sound familiar?
To those who have been beaten down by bullying. To those who have absorbed the wilderness message of the Tempter before they have heard the baptismal message of God’s beloved, redemption cannot come through condemnation; only through love and by love. To those who have been made to feel worthless, you need to know that God is “gaga” about you. And so while we are cultivating a spirituality of giving up this Lenten season, some of us may need to go ahead and give up self-hatred and accept God’s acceptance of us. Some of us need to give up self-doubt, and accept God’s belief in us as beloved.
See Jesus again in the wilderness. He endures this time of trial and hardship and he comes out on the other side laying claim to God’s claim: staying true to his identity as God’s beloved son. What will it take for us to do likewise?
Jesus is in the wilderness. There is nothing to dull his senses. No Godiva. No Grey Goose. No Ambien of any kind in the desert. His dependency is on nothing other than the God who calls him beloved; the One who gives him an identity in which he need not prove his worth or his superiority. The One who teaches him and all of us that there are hungers that run deeper than the stomach.
To find God and to find ourselves in God is the hope of Lent. To any of us who are afraid of death, the big death or the little deaths that we are called to live through; we are now given the grace and the space to ask: What if it’s not death that ends life, but death that begins it? What if night doesn’t end the day? What if it starts the morning?
The gritty, grimy ashes plastered to our foreheads this past Wednesday come with a reality that hits us between the eyes: we are dying…and yet…we live.
Through the dark night of suffering, though it feels like a thousand winters long, what if something new is waiting to be born in us? During this Lenten time in the womb, let us wait together, even in the dark, for God to do bring to birth a new self; a new identity; even while we struggle; even especially while we struggle and pray with unglamorous but grace-filled hope: “I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Amen.
Bracken Long, Kimberly. “Forty Days in the Womb: Worshiping in Lent.”Journal for Preachers. 30. (2007): 9-15.
Chittister, Joan. “Ash Wednesday and Lent: Beginning Again Always.” HYPERLINK “http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sister-joan-chittister-osb/beginning-again-always_b_830218.html” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sister-joan-chittister-osb/beginning-again-always_b_830218.html (accessed February 20, 2012).
Rob Bell, Love Wins. New York: HarperOne, 2011, 70.
H. Stephen Shoemaker, “Jesus the Tempted,” January 24, 2012, Myers Park Baptist Church.
Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999, 42.
“The Merton Prayer,” from “Thoughts in Solitude.”