Lent Reflections Blog from Presbytery Leadership. Scroll down to read.

“He must increase, but I must decrease.”by Rev. Randy Barge

“They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.'” 

John 3:26-30

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” These powerful words of John the Baptist are words I need to keep close to my heart. They are words that cut across the grain of my natural inclination to seek recognition, distinction, influence, and importance. How easy it is for many of us pastors to fall into the trap of self-importance. The very nature of our work makes us vulnerable to the temptation of placing ourselves at the center of everything. We tell ourselves that we are doing the Lord’s work and advancing the Kingdom. Maybe we are; but a lot of times, it is also about us, our ambitions, our hopes, and our personal advancements. But if the world is going to be healed, he must increase, and we must decrease.

He must increase. He, who even though he was equal with God, took the form of a slave. He, who refused the temptation of human glory in the wilderness. He, who came to bring good news to the poor and the vulnerable, as one of the poor and the vulnerable. He, who lived his life completely for God and for other people. He, who forgave his enemies even as they nailed him to the cross. He, who denied himself and picked up his cross for the sake of the whole world. It is Jesus the Christ who must increase. Imagine a world filled to the brim with his Spirit, a world of justice, peace, and love.

But that is only half of it. If the love and light of Christ is going to increase, there must be room for him in our hearts and in the world. So, we must decrease. That is a scary notion for many of us. In a world obsessed with increase and growth, decrease sounds like the root of all evil. The word itself portends diminishment and death. And who in their right mind wants to die? Yet, that is what the season of Lent is all about; it is about dying: dying to our egos, our ambitions, our thirst for recognition and importance often at the expense of others. It is only by dying to ourselves that we can make room for the one who brings true life.

During the season of Lent, we assume the role of the servant and take our place among the broken and the poor. We pick up our cross and we follow our Lord. And every step along the way, we become less and less, and he becomes more and more.

Living Into Lent: Embracing the Journey by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“…return to me with all your heart…”
(Joel 2: 12)

And so our annual pilgrimage begins – from the wilderness where Jesus both challenges and renews his spirit for 40 days to the honest and pain-filled prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane. It is a journey that compels us to consider once again the miracles and teachings of the one we call Messiah. It is a pilgrimage that goes from great hope to great pain and disappointment – ultimately taking us into the darkness of a tomb and the silence of a somber night – as we await for light to break through, by his death-defying resurrection.

Growing up in the Hispanic Presbyterian church in NYC, ashes were not something we did to mark the start of this season of reflection. In many ways, I innocently skipped over the 40 days of Lent and went straight to Easter, with some minor attention to Palm Sunday. As a choral singer – whatever spirituality and theology I understood – was first framed by the music in Spanish of the “Old Rugged Cross” and “Cristo La Tumba Venció“ (Christ Conquered the Tomb). I still can easily hear echoes of those songs and feel the warmth of the community. We were an intergenerational choir – younger and older – helping one another learn the melodies and harmonies. That spirituality would later be honed by Easter favorites and words of works such as Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Singing with the Gospel Choir, the Chapel Choir and Seminary Singers at Princeton Seminary would musically shepherd me through the importance of these forty days – along with a growing understanding of the value of both the ashes and the forty-day Lenten journey that takes us to Easter.

For me, never has that understanding and gift of this season been more important. Perhaps this personal awareness and need is driven by the deep losses of the past 18 months. Perhaps it is driven by the exhaustion of busyness that shapes our lives. But at a time when our personal life-rhythms along with information overload, hyperbole and hate often frame our cultural discourse, the language of Lent invites us to stop and engage the unspoken silence within us. Lent invites us to consider that intimate and quiet dialogue with ourselves and with God. I understand the temptation to avoid this dialogue – to avoid this journey. Not only can facing our innermost selves be unsettling, but once there, it requires that we consider changing and surrendering those deep fears, insecurities, and disappointments that get in the way of our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Once in that sacred space, it requires ownership and action on our part – and frankly, the work of transformation is just scary. After all, as the phrase goes “we can’t un-see what has been seen.”

But I believe this is part of our responsibility as Christians – to deepen our understanding of God and self; to consider where it is that our values reflect more of the culture than Christ’s teachings. It is part of our ongoing discipleship – to allow continually for the Holy Spirit to break in and shape our spirits in ways that allow us to lead and live our lives from a place of grace and humble strength; that allow us to return to God and the true image in which we have been created. This is what Lent is all about – a time to reclaim our identity and reframe how we live as followers of the one who will take us from the wilderness through the labyrinth of this life; who will walk with us through miraculous possibilities to the dark reality of violence; who will envelop us with the resurrection light that defies death and transforms our lives.

So here we go, as individuals and as communities of faith – stepping into this annual pilgrimage. Some of us are fasting or giving up things for this season – may we do so with conviction. Some of us are using this time to add practices that reclaim and deepen our identity – may we do so with humility. Some of us will sing our way through these weeks – may we do so with a quiet joy and conviction that pierces the hearts of those who hear. Whatever discipline we practice during these weeks, may we embrace each day of the journey with intentionality. The pilgrimage has begun. Along the way, may we hear the words found in the Old Testament book of Joel calling us forward – Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning…”

The Season of Lent: 2019 Resources

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Isaiah 58:8

Resources for the Lenten Season:

 

 

Between the Sounds of Marches and the Cross

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him,
“Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”
He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent,
the stones would shout out.”
(Luke 19:39-40)

One cannot help but notice the current conversations and images of this season have been perhaps as challenging as the ancient images of 2,000 years ago. This past week, we have witnessed children and youth marching in cities throughout our nation – declaring their concern for where we, as adults, have failed them while affirming their hope for the promise of a future. Let us rewind 2,000 years –an ancient city where children and adults were singing and marching together as they accompanied and followed Jesus through the city gates – declaring their hope for the promise of a future that looked different than the one they knew; one that defied the status quo. Fast-forward to today – it is a season of marches – remembering and reaffirming the need to stand with the poor. Rewind 2,000 years – the marching throng was eager to live in a world where oppression and inequality would no longer frame their daily existence. Their songs were framed by “Hosanna – God save us.”

The parallels are uncanny and unnerving, as we find ourselves between the shouts of Palm Sunday and the light of an empty tomb. This is holy week – a week that began with songs of hope and new possibilities while giving way to unsettling whispers in the shadows of fear and concern. While some are singing and shouting for hope, others are wondering how to stop the music and silence the lyrics. While some are dreaming of a new world, others are fearful they will lose the world as they know it. And it is all happening simultaneously, causing a deep unrest in the culture around us and within us.

The significance of Palm Sunday has evolved, for me, over time. Although I still love the processions and the affirmation of the one who became us to save us, I now cross the city gates with a profound sense of unrest for what is to come. I am aware that the initial singing and palm waving gave way to a collision of fears, values, power, assumptions, and hopes that spilled out upon that ancient city – culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus. The values of Jesus were not welcomed by those in authority – neither religious nor secular. The teachings of Jesus caused great unrest – so much so, that they would not risk co-existence and he – the Christ – the identified cause of the unrest – was eliminated in a most dramatic and violent manner.

It is no secret that we have somewhat romanticized Palm Sunday, but history reminds us there was nothing romantic or a-political about our Messiah’s entrance into Jerusalem. The tension of the questions with which we are wrestling today are the same ones of 2,000 years ago. Why is the church talking about what feels like politics? Why is the church not saying more about injustice? These conversations are stirring a huge unrest in our society. They are challenging us to ask ourselves about our role and voice in this world as Christians. What is it that distinguishes us as a “Jesus people” in the world? If the children are singing so boldly, should we not be asking ourselves – Why? Could there not be an important truth in their voices? If we are honest, the youth of yesterday and today have always sung songs in ways that challenge the ‘what is’ in an effort to claim the ‘what can be.’ And it is precisely that “what can be” that offers hope and gives courage. As a people of faith, it is the hope of resurrection possibilities that compels us forward in ways that often collide with the ways of the world. We believe those resurrection possibilities will always find their way back into the light out of darkness. Ultimately, they cannot be stopped or silenced. As Jesus reminds the religious leaders of his time, when they asked him to stop the sounds of “hosanna,” his response was “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

This is the holiest of weeks, where the sounds of hope again collide with the sounds of denial and fear. But we cannot get to Easter morning without wrestling and dealing with the sounds of unrest that lead us to the discomfort and guilt of the darkest night when, for a while, it appeared that death and violence had the final word.

This is just a hard week.

It should be!

The Children Shouted, “Hosanna!” I Beg You To Save Us by Linda Rutkosky

The blind and the lame came to Him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area,
“Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
Do you not hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise?
And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night. (Matthew 21: 14-17)

The children shouted, “Hosanna!” I beg you to save us.

Children do not make themselves bigots. They are not born materialistic. They do not come out of the womb with low self-esteem, therefore bullying others to feel superior. Nor are children born with any notion of what beauty is. They are molded, influenced, corrupted … by someone else and/or society. They are innocents exposed. So why is it that they are miraculously not all totally mucked up? How is it, given every effort of sabotage, that children are amazingly smart, brave, caring and intuitive? When the innocents speak we should listen.

The children shouted, “Hosanna! I beg you to save us.

Have we not witnessed countless children over the past few weeks saying just these words? Shouting, pleading, banding together … I beg you to save us. Regardless of how one interprets the data regarding the prevalence of school shootings and what determines a mass shooting, the fact is that children in every corner of this country are afraid to go to school. At the end of the day, most of us wonder about going anywhere in public in our country today. We wonder who lurks with a weapon that shoots 90-120 rounds per minute into an unsuspecting crowd.

When my daughter moved to Texas she joined a PCUSA church. Reflective of our denomination’s thoughtful reformed tradition, this church’s stated mission is to be “deliberately diverse and fully inclusive.” In particular, this church’s reputation (long before the historic vote in Detroit) is one that welcomes the LGBT community. My daughter is straight, however being “deliberately diverse and fully inclusive” matters a great deal to her and her young generation. She got married in this church and while we were in the throes of planning the wedding, I visited and worshipped there one Sunday with her. Just after the passing of the peace during a very traditional service, a man stood up and began to loudly publicly shout vulgarities to the effect of, “You sinners … accepting gays … all going to Hell!!” After this brief tirade, he flung on a large backpack and stormed out. In a split second I thought, “What if he is the sort to open that backpack and use a machine gun to mow us down?” This obviously did not happen. Like I have said, he made a scene and then stormed out. That same Sunday happened to be the very first day for their new Pastor. She was remarkably unflustered and preached an excellent sermon about why our friends hurt us. That she would preach on that very topic at that very time was certainly by God’s grace, love and divine guidance.

We have had countless mass shootings in all sorts of venues. We are living in a constant heightened state of fear. And if I may be so bold … the culture that is harboring this fear is of our own doing. Who is the adult in the room?! I lament that we give credence to the voices of too many modern day chief priests and their scribes. We as Christians should be doing everything we can to elevate (and be one with) the voices of the children.

So let us be like the children and shout, “Hosanna”! I beg you to save us.

Amen.

Seeing Jesus, by Rev. Randy Barge

“They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  John 12:21-32

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” That is an understandable request. There are many people in our world who have heard of Jesus and wish to see him. It is the responsibility of those of us who are pastors, to help our congregations see Jesus. And of course, it is the responsibility of all of us, as the church, as the body of Christ in the world, to help those outside of the community of faith see Jesus.

Seeing Jesus is not always easy. In fact, in the gospel narratives, people seem always to have trouble seeing Jesus for who he really is. And that continues even today. There are some people who see Jesus primarily as a miracle worker. Someone who performs signs and wonders. And that is the only Jesus that they are prepared to see. There are other people who see Jesus primarily as a great teacher, a great dispenser of timeless truth and wisdom about how to live their lives. And that is the only Jesus that they are prepared to see. Still, there are others who see Jesus as a great proponent of social righteousness, a champion of the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden, and that, too, is the only Jesus that they are able to see.

I am not knocking any of this; Jesus is all of these things and more. But according to John’s gospel they are not the best way to see Jesus. The best way to see Jesus, if we really want to see him, is to see him when he is lifted up. That is what Jesus himself says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Lifted up.

When I was a teenager, I used to harbor fantasies about being lifted up, hoisted on the shoulders of jubilant teammates after sinking the winning basket in the NCAA Championship tournament. It’s a fantasy that I still entertain from time to time. But when Jesus speaks of being lifted up, we all know what he is talking about. He is talking about being lifted up, on the Cross, in an act of self-giving love for the sake of the world.

Lifted high on the Cross, the radiant glory of the love of God is visible for all to see. It is a love that came to be in solidarity with all the victims of violence, cruelty, prejudice and injustice. It’s a love that was not afraid to face down the hatred and contempt of a broken world and absorb it all into itself. It is a love that was willing to suffer and die in order for us to be reconciled to God and to one another. Perhaps the best way for me to help others to see Jesus, is my own willingness to walk in the way of that same self-giving love.

“Now What?” by Rev. Kevin Porter

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8

Even if you are not a huge football fan, you have to admit the way this season unfolded for the Eagles gave the city of Philadelphia and its surroundings a boost in morale. Finally, after years of mediocrity punctuated by just enough seasons where they were good and close enough to the prize to make it really hurt, they not only went to the Big Game, but with their backup quarterback (and facing the dynasty also known as the Patriots), they won it!

And although there are several storylines of their journey that found their way into many pulpits (including the Providential selection of Isaiah 40:31 as an appointed scripture reading for Super Bowl Sunday), the more important lesson to learn from this shared roller coaster ride of emotions is, “Now what?”

Let’s face it. In this region we are used to shifting gears from excitement to disappointment to resignation, and finally to philosophical musings. We’ve gotten comfortable over the years coming to terms with something less than the happiest of endings. But actually winning the Big One – this is new territory. Even in the movies, when stuff like this happens, they roll the credits. What comes after the initial victory that is transferable to the Game of Life once the grease is off the light poles and the parade is over?

The scripture passages for the fourth Sunday of Lent hang together in a way that provides perspective on our life circumstances in all seasons:

Psalm 107 is arguably the most dramatic of the readings. It is a psalm of thanksgiving, giving voice to individuals who know the saving grace of God first-hand and have a story to tell. One was lost in the wilderness with no food or water. Another was in prison, sentenced to hard labor, at the end of his strength, and no one cared. A third was suffering illness so severely as not to be able to eat or drink, and was near death. A fourth was on the high seas in the midst of a storm so rough they felt the water was tossing the boat into the heavens one second and pulling it to the ocean floor the next.

In each case, whether their plight had been the result of their own doing or not, at the pivotal moment they cried to God and were delivered. The wanderer was led to an inhabited town, the prisoner was freed, the infirmed was healed, and the seas were calmed. Having lived to tell the story, each has come to the sanctuary to bear witness and give thanks to God.

The Old Testament reading from Numbers 21:4-9 probably reminds us of people we see every day, maybe even the one we see in the mirror. Like those who gave their testimony in Psalm 107, the people of Israel have reason to give thanks. Less than 40 years removed from some of God’s most miraculous acts of salvation on their behalf and fresh on the heels of yet another prayed-for victory, their thanksgiving was short or rote at best.

Their complaints of, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food,” are not new to their weary leader Moses. In the past, the people complained to Moses, and he complained to God about them. And whether through the provision of manna on the grass each morning, quail so abundant they were sick of it after a couple days, or water flowing from a rock, God responded to their questions of, “What have you done for me lately?” remarkably.

This time, the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people and many Israelites died through the serpents bites. When the people acknowledged their sinful lack of gratitude and Moses interceded in prayer on their behalf, God instructed Moses to make a serpent of bronze, wrap it around a pole, and lift it up so that anyone bitten by a serpent could look at it and be healed.

The epistle reading from the first ten verses of Ephesians 2 relates Paul’s counsel to a congregation like many today. It is welcoming of the new believer still awestruck from dramatic salvation encounters reminiscent of those in Psalm 107. It is also the home of those who grew up in a household of faith, or were so seasoned in their identity as Christians they had begun to think of those out of the church as different from themselves.

Paul reminds them they “were (as) dead in the trespasses and sins” as those not in the church. Not only were they (and we) like them, but it is only by God’s grace and love that, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, (God) made us alive together in Christ.” (v.5) Knowing it is one thing to recognize a need for God when we are in trouble, and quite another when we believe ourselves to be pretty decent church-folk, Paul makes it clear in verses 8 and 9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Boom! Drop the mic!

In my experience, most of my encounters with the serpent have been less about being bitten and more about being seduced to eat the fruit offered. Namely, I am more likely to rationalize any choice that is not in total obedience to God as no big thing, not hurting anyone, or a small “oops” in an otherwise good life. In so doing, I find myself negating the truth of the gospel for myself and others. My good works are not good enough, and pretending they are, and projecting a worldview based on that premise for others, is a recipe for death of the soul.
Like winning a Super Bowl, we may reach a moment when we believe we have done everything right and have won the Game of Life, but those moments are not sustainable forever.

The gospel reading from John 3 provides perspective for everyone seeking a victorious life: “God so loved the world that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And even that belief is a gift from God. Only by looking to the Son of Man who was lifted up, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” (v. 14) will we find healing.

May this Lent deepen our faith, our gratitude, and our invitation to others to embrace it in every season of life.

The Firmament Proclaims God’s Handiwork by Stephen King

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which…like a strong man runs its course with joy.”
(Psalm 19:1, 4-5)

It was damp and the sky was ashen grey the other day when I set out for a run. Given recent events in our nation, the harsh winter we have had and the Lenten season we are in, it seemed appropriate that the sun never came out of its “tent” that day. And yet there were unmistakable signs of better things to come. While numerous puddles reflected the grey sky above, they also highlighted the abundance of God’s firmament below.

I find running to be a good opportunity for another type of reflection—a time to lose oneself in the natural world, compartmentalize the day-to-day struggles we face and clear the mind to ponder the bigger picture and gain direction on the challenges ahead. Occasionally, though, reality intrudes and the solitude is interrupted by the presence and sounds of other human beings.

And so I found myself at the beginning of Manayunk towpath, aware of the ducks silently but assertively swimming against the current where the canal splits from the Schuylkill River. Further on, the quiet was broken by the rattling of a kingfisher, and then the wooded trail began to give way to a manmade, reclaimed industrial landscape. It was impossible on such a grey day not to notice the vivid colors of a Mural Arts installation depicting three-dimensional fish, and in its shadow I witnessed three men actually fishing in the canal. It was unclear whether they were catching anything in the muddy water below, but they appeared to be having fun shooting the breeze while trying.

There were many more people as I continued along the canal, and I could hear the sound of music emanating from Main Street above. I reached my turnaround point and jogged the 10-20 yards up from the path to see what was going on. It turned out to be a Mummers parade, another colorful contrast to the weather—and the crowd was clearly in a good mood, many sporting their Eagles swag.

It was time to head back. As the crowd noise began to give way to the sounds of red-winged blackbirds, I became increasingly aware of signs of rebirth all around me—literally green shoots rising from the dirt. I thought that it won’t be long before daffodils and forsythia will be in bloom and turtles are basking in the canal, and I was also reminded of the already budding weeping willows and flowering Lenten roses I had seen previously.

This is where I turn to the words of Psalm 19:7-9, which describes the Lord’s precepts as “perfect…sure…right…clear…pure…[and] true” and certain of them as also “reviving the soul…rejoicing the heart…enlightening the eyes…[and] enduring for ever”. Further, Psalm 19:10 declares the order of God’s ways as:

“More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.”

These verses give us hope. Although bees have not yet emerged from their winter hibernation to start producing a new season of honey, soon enough they will be giving life to the budding trees and flowers around them—so that we may bear the fruits of God’s handiwork in our midst. So in this Lenten season, I invite you to consider the ways God’s presence continues to break through, interrupting and reminding you of the new life before us. And may it bring a sweetness to the spirit even in the midst of so much greyness.

Carrying Our Cross alongside Those Denied of Themselves by Rev. Greg Klimovitz

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and
take up their cross and follow me.”
Mark 8:34

I have read and preached on numerous occasions about Jesus’ invitation to cross-carrying discipleship. Yet when I recently wrestled with these words in the safe and comfortable confines of my local coffee shop, I paused. I have never been threatened with the fate of a cross. The ancient Roman symbol of criminality and treason has not been hoisted upon my shoulders or public record for any reason, let alone my faith. While I have faced a few inconveniences and made marginal life alterations based on personal convictions and matters of faith, I have done so at my own will. Even my choice to participate in occasional activism has been a free decision with minimal consequence. My story of discipleship encounters little resistance from outside authorities and is framed by privilege not persecution, which occasionally creates dissonance when I read Jesus’ words.

For most in the Western world, this is our story. We do well to acknowledge such positions of assumed comfort, especially as we pray for and become more aware of those for whom the cross is more than a devotional exercise but a daily burden carried as it intersects with the their race, orientation, economic class, the laws of the land, and encounters with oppressive systems in this nation and those abroad. Their voices and witnesses must be elevated as those most credible to speak to the depths of discipleship.

But my privilege is not the end of my struggle with Sunday’s gospel narrative. I also wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ invitation to the denial of ourselves as a prescriptive measure for discipleship.

Since the beginning of Lent, my newsfeeds have been dominated by stories of young people rallying around the country in light of the horrific events that unfolded on Ash Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They are calling attention to how, in light of yet another mass shooting that has claimed the lives of our youngest citizens, they are regularly denied the very protection and security of themselves. While adults spin wheels in partisan debates about gun laws and how to make their schools safe and secure versus domestic war zones, youth are taking to streets and microphones to demand immediate action that improves their condition and eases their plight right now. I lament that grown-ups have made it so youth feel the need to act as their own advocates, but I am grateful they are doing just that. They refuse to be denied themselves and their right to life.

The same could be said of those most marginalized by pervasive and systemic racism, women whose stories trended the #MeToo movement and underscored the reality of gender inequality, sexual harassment, and abuse, and others most susceptible to pipelines to prison that exploit young people of color in ghettoized communities that lack access to necessities like grocery stores, clean water, and quality education. Their very selves are denied and their cries for a more just society exploited as pawns in abstract rhetorical games.

Again I hear Jesus and pause, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I then wonder, what does it mean to deny ourselves when so many have had their selves denied not as a mark of discipleship but as victims of a broken, divisive, violent, and wounded world?

One answer may lie in our willingness to embrace the call of Christ to deny anything that isolates us from the concerns of or increases the risk of harm to our most vulnerable neighbors. Instead, we walk, possibly even march, alongside any and all whose selves are being denied. We do so no matter the cost to our personal well-being or the life of our institutions, preferring the divine thing of steadfast commitment to God’s concern for those on the margins over human things of privilege, power, and insulated self-interest (Mark 8:33). This is the bedrock of Jesus’ words and witness that we are neither to be ashamed of nor deny in the midst of this “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mark 8:38).

Over the last three years of my call to serve alongside the faithful of this Presbytery of Philadelphia, I have been deeply moved by the cross-bearing, self-denying witnesses of our churches and related ministries. Congregations and worshipping communities have constructed T-Shirt memorials for victims of gun violence, attended judicial hearings for detained immigrants, provided hospitality for refugees, and written grants for mural projects created alongside artists previously incarcerated who work collectively towards restorative justice and the reform of the prison system. There are faithful saints who developed programs to provide nutrition for children in at-risk and neglected urban neighborhoods and other congregations partnered with local agencies to combat the opioid epidemic that continues to deny their neighbors wholeness and health. In all of these faithful expressions and more, isolated categories of conservative or progressive have been cast aside and minds set not on human things but the words of Christ, who was always on the side of the marginalized and oppressed.

As we continue to move through this Lenten journey, which began with an all-too-familiar reminder of the brokenness of the human and social condition, may we ponder what it means for us to deny ourselves for the sake of all those whose selves are being denied. May we continue to listen to the cries and concerns of our neighbors, especially the youngest disciples among us, in efforts to imagine how Jesus is inviting us to carry crosses either alongside or on their behalf. May we cling to and fix our minds on the words and witness of Christ versus any other human thing, to include partisan agendas. In so doing, may our discipleship begin to bear fruit of solidarity and hope in even the darkest and most despairing of places, no matter the cost.

On Ashes and Broken Hearts by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“Create in me a pure heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart,…”
(Psalm 51:10,16-17a – NIV)

As expected, Ash Wednesday arrived inviting us once again to enter into a season of reflection as to how we embody the values of Christ in our daily lives. We are again launched into that 40-day pilgrimage meandering from the wilderness to the Upper Room to the Mt of Olives and through the city gates to the ominous silhouette of three crosses standing on the place called Golgotha.

Once a religious ritual not shared by Protestants, the imposition of ashes has become embraced in our congregations. Some of our leaders are standing by rail stations early in the morning with the service of “Ashes to Go” as commuters make their way into the city. Worship services brought the faithful together remembering the broken journey of humanity – the temptation of our hearts if you will, in the pursuit of “being God” instead of “being of God.” An original purpose of this practice was to publicly affirm our brokenness so that others would pray for us. It was a way of humbly claiming that our hearts needed the prayers and encouragement of others as we sought to be faithful to the Gospel; that our hearts needed God in order to finding healing. There is something precious about affirming that our hearts are constantly in need of one another’s prayers.

As happens on occasion, this year’s Ash Wednesday was celebrated on another holiday – a hallmark one – Valentine’s Day. Although probably not known by many, this holiday commemorates a legend of a third-century priest in the surrounding areas of Rome, Italy by the name of San Valentino. One legend says he was arrested and imprisoned for not honoring Emperor Claudius II mandate against Christians. Helping Christians at this time was considered a crime. Priest Valentinus was caught both marrying Christian couples and aiding Christians during this time of persecution. He has since been associated by being a saint of the heart and love. Today this holiday is marked by flowers, candy hearts and special romantic dinners. The hope of this hallmark holiday has also become a reminder of the loneliness and broken hearts that many are confronted with as they consider broken relationships, isolation, and other losses in their personal lives. It is a complicated day, to say the least when expectations are easy to not be met.

The coming together of these two holidays of the heart in many ways made sense. It is clear from the Psalm that what God wants from us is our hearts. The spirit of our hearts is what makes us open to new possibilities. Healthy hearts are generous and giving. They are willing to do the hard work of loving and forgiving. Broken hearts that remain uncared for can lead to atrocious and inexcusable behavior. I was reminded of this when seeing the movie Three Billboards, as it honestly demonstrated what can happen to any of us when our hearts are broken and we have not found peace.

And on this week’s Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s day, we were again reminded of just how true this is as a nineteen-year old man-child terrorized a Florida high school killing 17 and injuring at least 14 others. Hearts have again been broken as families and friends endured the ‘not knowing’ and then the news of the massacred. This act of terror is inexcusable. No parent or family should ever worry that their child will be shot while at school. I believe we know this to be true in our heads, but we seem to be shielding our hearts by becoming numb to the truth of this reality.

How many more deaths do we need to witness from a distance in order to allow our hearts to be broken in a way that only God can heal? When will our heart be broken enough so that we will not only be the change, but work for the change in others through the work of our churches and our public witness? This is a challenge that we as a church must find a way to address together. This is one of those courageous conversations that will make us uncomfortable – but that we must have. This is no longer a political debate. This is a theological faith question about the kind of life God wants for all creation. These are our children. They are our hope and future. And this is the time for which you and I have been created and called to serve.

I am not naïve about the many conflicting interests involved in this conversation, but one thing is clear to me. We will never find the answer in the rhetoric, in Hallmark clichés, in another person, in weapons, in laws or even insular prayers. Our only hope as we make this pilgrimage to the cross is our offering up the depth of our brokenness, the truth of our broken hearts to a God who requires in the end that you and I “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”