I have been looking forward to presiding at Eucharist today at JOS for a very long time. In fact, I've been wauting over 35 years. For those who do not know me, I am Kathy Sullivan Vandenberg. For many, many years I have been ministering to God's people. They have taught me many things. Today I hope to share with you some new insights concerning past and present Lenten practices taught to me by the people I have known.
Can any of you tell me some Lenten practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving you have learned in the past and still do now? [Fasting one day a week. Not eating chocolate. Saying an extra rosary. Not eating meat on Friday. Giving up alcohol.] Any more? After thinking about Lent and the practices people use to get ready for Easter, I came to an astounding revelation: I believe the traditional Lenten practices were made by celibate make priests who had no families!
Just think of it! During Lent we have been asked to do one more thing, say one more prayer, come to church one more time. At the same time we continue to raise a family, take the kids to basketball practice, make sure school assignments are done and meals are cooked. If there is someone infirm the family is taking care of, there are doctors' appointments to be made, care giving to be done, while at the same time we have to get to work.
Let me give you an example of a real situation I found myself in two years ago. I work very part-time as a hospital and home-hospice chaplain. There I meet people just like you and me who are struggling with all of the daily activities plus they have extra non-normative stressors in their lives. I met a wonderful woman who was caring for her dying husband. She had to coordinate nursing services, social work services and home health care services on a daily basis. She had six children, several grandchildren, friends and family who were helping. She was active in her church but had trouble getting there because she needed someone to stay with her husband. Yet she was concerned about not being able to pray as she should, not being able to read Scripture, not being able to attend Lenten services. Did I also mention that this woman was completely exhausted?
Today's Exodus reading with Moses came to mind as I was talking to her. Here was Moses, a shepherd in the desert, who was used to having things go a certain way. He could predict what was going to happen with the sheep and find the correct ways of doing his job. But all of a sudden he saw a flaming bush in the distance. Rather than running away in fear, he walked over to the bush. This took courage on his part. He came so close to the bush that God called out to Moses to "come no nearer, take off your sandals because this is holy ground." Moses did as he was told but did not keep his mouth shut. He continued a dialogue with God because he wanted to find out what God wanted him to do. Moses was a person who thought for himself and was not afraid to have a different relationship to God.
Sometimes we get so tired and so afraid we do not want to see God in new ways or see God with a new attitude. It sometimes seems much easier to pray the same prayers, to follow the same Lenten practices of our childhood, and not think it possible that we can reason and think for ourselves.
Going back to the woman I talked to: I asked her what it was she needed to do. She said, "I need to sleep." "Might this be your prayer time," I asked. "Can you lie down and cover up with a prayer quilt and go to sleep as your prayer?" Wonder of wonders, she had never thought of this sleep as a new Lenten practice. What about the family member tired and stressed over raising a family, worrying about the job and wondering how not to feel guilty because there's never enough time in a day to do one more thing.
Again, as I was preparing the readings for this Sunday, I thought about the reading in Luke about the fig tree that wasn't producing any figs. I read a lot about fig trees lately and found out that often fig trees do not produce because they can be stressed. I believe God is the vine dresser/gardener. God has such compassion and love for the fig tree that God wanted the fig tree to rest for another year. God directed that the fig tree renew itself by making sure it was fed with manure or should I say with rest and healthy activities for another year. I believe God wanted that fig tree to "think."
Are we like the overstressed fig tree, not bearing fruit (such as compassion!) for itself, excessively worrying without much action, running so fast that God's word can't be heard? We are the people of God. We have to think for ourselves. We need to listen to God as God directs us to think in new ways. Have courage. Believe in yourself. God is teaching us something new every day!