Category Archives: Lent

First Fruits

“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

–1 Corinthians 15:20 (NIV)

I grew up around a farm. I didn’t really live there, I just hung out there a lot. It was my grandfather’s and I basically just visited on the weekends and stayed most of every summer, but I proudly considered myself a “farmboy.”

Truth is, I helped in the haymaking each summer, and usually got to go out with Grandpa gathering sap once or twice each Spring, and a couple of times gathered eggs from the henhouse. That’s it. Not much of a farm life after all.

BUT, I remember the wait for the fresh peas and green beans from Grandpa’s garden. Oh, and the corn on the cob, too! I could hardly wait for Grandpa to say they were ready, ‘It’s about time we tried some of those peas and beans.’ (He actually liked the onions and turnips and asparagus too, but even grandparents can’t always be perfect, I suppose).

And that first small serving of fresh vegetables, that first taste of the fruit of Grandpa’s hard work, was delicious! But with that first taste of those “first fruits” came the knowledge that much more was on its way! We wouldn’t have to wait much longer!

It doesn’t take much of a farm boy to recognize the parallel in our Christian walk when Paul talks about death and uses Christ’s resurrection as the “firstfruits” of the resurrection to eternal life that all believers will experience. If we have accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior, then we can look at Christ and recognize that His resurrection is merely a “firstfruits” of ALL believers’ resurrections to come. There is HOPE of what is yet to come! For us… and for our loved ones in Christ who have already “fallen asleep” through death.

Oh Christ, You are only the FIRST fruits of resurrection. HALLELUJAH!!!

I stumbled across a devotional I wrote for the Lenten Devotional our worship committee created in 2001 at our Trinity UM Church in Patton, PA. We invited the congregation to reflect on a list of Scriptures and pick one to write a devotonal about.

This was my meditation reflecting on 1 Corinthians 15:20.

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While Joseph Waited

At Olmsted Manor earlier this month, our new superintendent walked a group of us pastors through Genesis 39 – 45 with Joseph. Before this passage starts, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers while they told his father that some wild animal had killed him. Joseph meanwhile ends up as a slave in Egypt at the age of 17. And these next few chapters see him from age 17 to age 30 or so.

I found myself challenged several times. Over the next few days, I’ll share a few of my observations and challenges of that retreat.

First, at both the beginning and the end of Genesis 39, Scripture goes out of its way to highlight that God was WITH Joseph.

Joseph endured, time after time, unjust circumstances and unfair accusations. At one point, in chapter 39, he is invited to betray his master by the master’s wife, and he does the right thing. And yet ends up removed from his position and imprisoned unjustly. Later on, in chapter 40, he is promised that someone will plead his case and seek justice for him. Yet it doesn’t happen. Joseph is literally forgotten by the one whom he had thought would stand up for him. Yet we are reminded over and over again that God was still with him.

Not only was God with him, but whether it was in Poitiphar’s household, in the prison, or in Pharaoh’s service, God “gave him success” no matter what it was Joseph attempted next.

There have been times when I have felt unfairly treated or misunderstood. I can’t even say that I was as pristine and pure as Joseph, always choosing to avoid whatever temptations came my way nor choosing to sinless before God. And yet, in each situation, I have tried to allow whatever happened to draw me closer to my Lord and to my family. And God has gone out of His way to make sure we knew He was with us every step of the way, whether we knew exactly where we were going or not or what might possibly be our next step. As we allowed situations to draw us closer to Him and to each other, we have had a peace that God was in control, even when it looked like we were in a freefall.

Secondly, again, at both the beginning and the end of Genesis 39, Scripture goes out of its way to highlight that God gave Joseph success in whatever he did in the midst of those unfair and unjust times.

As I allow the down times, when I feel like I’m forgotten and seem to have been derailed from what I thought God was doing in my life, I can remember how Joseph, in those same circumstances, simply did the next right thing. He couldn’t see any way out of his situation (on his own), but he still chose to find the right thing to do in that moment, and to do that right thing. And rather than being forgotten, Joseph was being watched by the One who was with him, and that One was watching out for him.

I can trust the God who is with me, to continue to lead and guide me even in the down times of despair and discouragement. And I have but to “do the next right thing” to be considered successful. It may, or may not, lead to promotions. It may, or may not, lead to recognition or prestige or fame. But in the final tally, it is being considered successful in God’s eyes that matters most, isn’t it?

I don’t know if you have times when you feel unjustly and unfairly treated by friends, family, employers, or whomever, but the account of Joseph reminds us that if, in the midst of the “stuff” we face in life, God IS with us, and as we draw closer to him and choose to do the next right thing, we can still be considered “successful” by the One that matters most.

 

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Guarding the Intellect

As part of my Lenten preparations, I attended a clergy retreat at Olmsted Manor, a retreat center in the midst of the beautiful Allegheny National Forest in Ludlow, PA. This is one of the reflections from my time away at Olmsted.

            —————————————————————— 

Of all the spiritual practices, and spiritual professions, one could choose as part of one’s faith, I think being a hermit one of the most extreme. Coming from a Greek word meaning “person of the desert,”[1] the hermits were ones who, because of their love for Jesus Christ, they left their old life behind and moved into a solitary place like the desert so they could devote themselves fully to seeking God in prayer and meditation.

I just finished an English translation of one of the writings of one of these Desert Fathers of our faith: “On Guarding the Intellect” by St. Isaiah the Solitary. There’s debate about exactly who this Isaiah was (and WHICH Isaiah was he), but we know that this devotional piece was written somewhere in the fourth or fifth century in the Israel/Egypt area of the Middle East.[2]

St. Isaiah begins with a description of one of the emotions human beings find arising within themselves; an anger of the intellect. He outlines the idea that this anger burns against that inside of me or you that is disgusted (and angry) about our flaws, our failures, and especially our sins. “Without [that] anger a man cannot attain purity.” He explains to those who want to follow his example that there are times when this kind of anger will ease up and one might be lulled into thinking that everything is okay now. However, the Christian is most in danger then. He cautions that we (those who might learn something from him) need to stay in an attitude of prayer over our sins, otherwise we will be tricked into believing we have nothing to worry about.

Having a “hatred for sin” is a sign that the anger has steered you in the right direction… away from sin and towards God. Isaiah explains to prospective monks that they “should shut all the gates of [their] soul, that is, the senses, so that [they are] not lured away.”[3] He believes that it is through the senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing that we are most easily ensnared… not to fall into some big sin, but usually to simply get distracted from what we were supposed to have been doing.

Watching out for attacks from the enemy of our souls and from the distractions of our senses is not the only prescription St. Isaiah has identified though. In paragraph #13, which are called “chapters” even though they are only a paragraph or two long, the hermit admonishes “Unless a man hates all the activity of this world, he cannot worship God.”[4] It sounds extreme, yet he simply means that to truly worship God and give God the praise and devotion He is worthy of, requires that we be so single-minded, and clearly focused on serving, loving, and following God. Thus everything else in this life pales by comparison.

To continue to be clear minded in our worship of the Lord, he also stresses that each prospective follower “Examine yourself daily in the sight of God” and see what really is in your heart. Thus you can cast away any distractions and be wholehearted in our devotion.[5]

Ultimately, the goal St. Isaiah the Solitary is striving for, as were all of the Desert Fathers, was to become a hesochast, meaning a person who has found the stillness and silence that brings inner peace and tranquility. But this stillness is “Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him.”[6]

Regarding the intensive self-examination for sin, St. Isaiah challenges the potential followers: “If you are afraid of sinners like yourself seeing your sins, how much more should you be afraid of God who notes everything?” [7]

His concluding word of encouragement and hope is blunt: “Whatever you are doing, remember that God sees all your thoughts, and then you will never sin.” [8]

[1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hermit

[2] From the introduction to this document found in The Philokalia (vol. 1) edited by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth (Faber & Faber Publishers, London) 1979, p. 21. (This book is referred to as Philokalia hereafter)

[3] Philokalia, p. 23, chapter 7.

[4] Philokalia, p.24, chapter 13.

[5] Philokalia, p.26, chapter 20.

[6] Philokalia, glossary entry “Stillness” on p. 365.

[7] Philokalia, p. 28, chapter 27.

[8] Philokalia, p. 28, chapter 27.

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Deny Yourself (But What’s Your REAL Motivation?)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”   

–Matthew 16:24 (New International Version)

Growing up. I had no idea what Lent was. But by the time I became an adult I had learned that it was a time on the Christian calendar to re-examine our own hearts and make sure we were really walking out our faith… and not just talking about it. In that way, we could be prepared to really celebrate Easter.

It was a few more years before I actually took serious the idea of giving up something for Lent, as a way of “denying ourselves” like the Scripture commands us to do. In some years, I have given up chocolate, desserts, or certain activities. I can’t say that it ever made much of a difference in my life. And I don’t think I’m the only one like that either. The organist at one of my earlier churches regularly gave up watermelon for Lent… not that she could have even found a watermelon in the winter/spring days of Lent. It just didn’t make much of a difference in her life. The idea is supposed to be that we select an extra spiritual practice to add to our daily lives so that we can leave less room for sin in our lives and actually get closer to God… and at the same time, we become healthier spiritually and physically. Thus people have chosen to participate in extra activities like fasting, praying, Bible studies, and even Lenten lunches.

At one of the Lenten lunch this year, the Rev. Beth Creekpaum challenged the Christians gathered together to go beyond just giving up something as a way to improve our own spiritual or physical health. Instead, she shared a Christ-like suggestion that originally came from Pope Francis: Let’s pick up an extra spiritual practice for Lent this year that goes beyond ourselves. It’s ok to fast and pray and such, but let’s add things like taking the money we saved while we fasted for a meal and donate that money to a food pantry. Or perhaps use the time we would have spent watching mindless TV and spend that time visiting someone who’s shut-in. Maybe we could even run an errand for them while we are at it. Or shovel their sidewalk. The possibilities are endless!

Lent has just started and continues into the beginning of April. It’s not too late to select some way of denying ourselves and drawing closer to Christ. But let’s then use that time or money we’ve saved to turn around and bless someone else that Jesus loves.

Pastor Dayton

 (Originally appeared as my pastor’s letter in the March 2015 issue of The Flame, the newsletter of the Clarks Mills United Methodist Church, Clarks Mills, PA)

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