by Jeff Rainwater, 6 March 2017, Cheyenne, WY

“My God, my God,
why have you
forsaken me?”

Words never spoken
for myself in this
sheltered life I live.
There has never
been need.

Yet too often I have
need to cry:

My God, my God,
Why have I
forsaken you?

Which is the deeper cut —
Shame or abandonment?
There is a lightness
the righteous heart
knows the guilty
heart never will.

So I fall
upon my knees
and beg to the

“Lord, have mercy,
upon me, a

Giving It Up… Control

First sermon in our Lenten series: “Giving It Up.”  Many thanks to for the inspiration and framework of this series.  Thanks as well to David Lose and his working preacher article that was also an inspiration for this sermon.


What are you giving up for Lent?

2013-02-lentSo, it is Lent.  What are you giving up for Lent these next 40 days not counting Sundays?  It is a common question this time of year and kind of fun because of all the interesting things people try.  Long ago, it used to just be meat that one gave up, but now the choices are as diverse as our society.  Every year the website searches the twitter feed to determine what people are giving up for Lent.1

In the past, the list has been headlined by giving Twitter and Facebook — an irony.  This year, #1 on the hit parade: being pope.  Apparently most Twitterers have a sense of humor.  Next on the list, though, is swearing, soda, social networking and alcohol.

What might God want you to give up?

2245523931_52b16df3f1_oAs I was thinking what I might give up for Lent, I came across an interesting quote: “Lent is for Life not just for chocolate.”  It made me wonder:  If I was to let God choose what I was to give up this Lent, what would God choose?  In the right spirit, there is some value in giving up things like chocolate or soda pop.  Our Ash Wednesday liturgy said that fasting interrupts our daily lives and calls us to prayer.  I gave up all drinks except water and let me tell you, every time I want my Coke Zero or cup of tea… Well, let’s just say my life has been interrupted and I have been called to prayer often.

Still, if I was to list all of the things that God would like see removed from my life, I have a feeling chocolate would not be very high on the list.  So during the weeks of Lent this year we are going to consider a few of the things God wants us to give up.  And I will warn you now:  The list is a lot tougher than giving up chocolate, facebook or swearing.  Today, we are starting with a big one… control.

Control : The Grand Illusion

There is nothing that marks our society more than our desire for control over… well, everything!  And this desire seems to only grow.  One example: the remote control.  Think back 30 years (if you have lived that long).  How many of these did you have in your house?  I remember growing up… we had one remote control for the tv… me!  Jeff, turn to channel 8.  Jeff, turn to channel 4. Now, not only are there lots more channels; there are lots more remotes too.  We have no less than 5.  Why?  So I can control what I watch.  But, be honest, don’t you sometime feel burdened by all this “control” you have over your life.  We have so many choices today to control our lives that it becomes dizzying.  Another trivial example: Sometimes when I go to the store to get some toothpaste, I just want toothpaste.  But, no, I have to choose between whitening, breath-freshening, gel, paste, both, tartar control… I’m not sure I am in control anymore.  A less trivial example:  We have electricity — a wonderful tool to help control our lives.  And yet how in control do we feel when that is taken away even for a short period of time?  Ask the people on the East Coast who went through Hurricane Sandy.

That, you see, is the great lie, the grand illusion.  Today, we have no more control over our lives than we did.  We may even have less.  This is not a modern problem.  It is the first lie that was sold to us way back in the garden.  You can have life on your terms, the devil said, and it will be a dream come true.  You, apart from God, by yourself, should know what is good and what is evil.  Take control.  You make the choices.  You don’t have to rely on anyone.  How did that turn out anyway?  Was it a dream come true… or has it been our nightmare?  Broken relationship.  Broken lives.  A life forever after that lived in fear.

Jesus’ Alternative : Trust

Many years later, not in the garden but out in the dessert, the devil comes calling to try to sell his lies only this time Jesus offers an alternative.  Instead of trying to control, Jesus chooses to trust.  Jesus trusts in God.

“We sometimes refer to the devil as ‘the great deceiver’ and with good reason. [But what is really deadly about the devils words] is that he sows mistrust. He plays upon the insecurity of Adam and Eve.  He calls into question God’s intentions. God hasn’t told you everything about the forbidden fruit. So what else has God not told? What else is God withholding? It is a story of seduction based on mistrust that leads to the dissolution of the relationship between the two humans and God, then between Adam and Eve themselves, and then between them and all creation.

[In the Gospel] The devil again attempts to sow mistrust: you may go hungry; you do not have enough; how do you know God is trustworthy. In each case Jesus replies with Scripture. Over the years people have made a great deal about that, inviting us to respond to life’s challenges by remembering or quoting Bible verses. And while there may be something to that, I wonder if it’s not so much that Jesus quotes Scripture to deflect temptation as it is that Jesus finds in Scripture the words to give voice to his trust.”2

Jesus could have taken control.  Had his needs met, had his confidence in God confirmed, Had respect of those around him.  But he relinquished control and chose to trust God wholly with his life, trusting God’s will for his life instead of what might be his own.  And if you think that wasn’t a challenge, fast forward to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus faced again with this choice prayed bitterly and sweated blood.  Fast forward to the Cross.  Was it worth it?  Fast forward to the Empty Tomb.

Letting Go & Trusting God

That is what I am talking about when I say that God wants you to give up control.  You are not to give up control to anyone or everyone.  But give up control to One who is trustworthy.  Trust God.  Now I know that is easier said than done especially in a culture that has made control into an idol.  It will take a lot of prayer.  Matthew does not mention it but I can well imagine Jesus’ 40 days were full of prayer.  We know he often went into secluded places to pray.  I am not sure it is possible to truly trust God without truly praying to God, talking with God, listening to God often.

It’s going to take some patience.  Today, we have a big problem with delayed gratification.  We want everything and we want it now.  But God’s timetable doesn’t often fit into our schedules.  God is patient, maddeningly so.  We must learn to be patient.  And we are going to have to be persistent in our prayer and in our patience.  It is easy to fast from something a day, a week.  Lent’s 40 days tests us.  I thought I would put in some cool statistic here about how long it takes to form a good habit so I googled it, found a great article on Psychology Today, “How Long?”  Here’s the answer: “It depends.”  Thanks.  But that’s the truth, isn’t it?  We are talking about life changes here.  It will take time not just to receive answers from God but to actually learn to trust, learn to relinquish control, so we can see the ways that God is already trustworthy.

First Steps

Which brings me to a possible first step suggested by David Lose, preaching professor at Luther Seminary.3  Pull out your GPS guide.  See that section ‘something to remember.’  I want you to write down something there.  First, write down something in your life that you do feel confident of God’s support.  It shouldn’t be a “given” — stuff you never worry about, but something that matters, maybe you worry, yet you trust God.  Then on the next 3 lines, write down one thing that is difficult to trust God with right now.  Got it?  Now, take this GPS guide home with you.  Put it in your pocket or your purse.  Carry it around and a few times this week, maybe when you are thinking of that “other” thing you gave up, pull it out, give thanks for the way you do trust God and pray about the thing you are having a hard time with.

Give up control.  Let go and let God.  How is that for a Lenten discipline?  Sounds pretty tough, right?  You might just need to trust God to help you.  In the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


1. back to post
2. This is an extended quote from David Lose’s article. I liked the language too much to mess with it. back to post
2. Ibid. back to post

Crying for the World to Change

I was thinking about repentance today.  After all, it is Lent, the season of repentance.  Lent is the 40 day season of preparation before the great celebration of Easter.  Yet when we give up something for Lent, I suspect most of us look at that particular practice more of as a faith challenge (“Can I do this?”) than as a means of showing penance and contrition (“I’m sorry, God”).  In short, repentance seems in short supply even during Lent.  Yet it was not a reflection on Lent that led me to think about repentance.  It was a post on CNN’s Belief Blog by Stephen Prothero:

My Take: Rush Limbaugh’s ‘apology’ fails test for public confession

It’s a good article and worth your time to read.  Prothero not only calls into question Rush Limbaugh’s apology but also gives a good summary of what confession is (or at least should be).  First, admit wrongdoing; second, say you are sorry; third, humble yourself; fourth, change your ways.  What struck me in particular was his mention of tears in his second point.

“Second, show that you are truly sorry. Saying “I’m sorry” (which Limbaugh did not do) is a good start, but it isn’t enough. You have to make yourself believable. Here tears are not necessary, but they help. Others need to believe that you are confessing for the sake of your soul, and not merely for the sake of your career. Hint: the best way to make that happen is to actually be sorry.”(bold emphasis mine)

First, I cannot imagine Rush Limbaugh, the radio persona, actually ever being moved to tears by his own poor choice of words.  And then I began to wonder, might Prothero actually be wrong?  Maybe tears are necessary, if not for true confession, then for true repentance.  From the collective wisdom of the Desert Fathers, found in the Philokalia, there are many references to the shedding of tears.

 When you fall from a higher state, do not become panic-stricken, but through remorse, grief, rigorous self-reproach, and, above all, through copious tears shed in a contrite spirit, correct yourself and return quickly to your former condition. (St. Theognostos, II, On the Practice of the Virtues, sec. 48)

before we have experienced inward grief and tears there is no true repentance or change of mind in us… for without tears our hardened hearts cannot be mollified, our souls cannot acquire spiritual humility, and we cannot be humble. (St. Symeon the New Theologian, IV, Practical and Theological Texts, sec. 69)

The Desert Fathers saw tears at least as a sign of true repentance and perhaps even a means for achieving true repentance.  I cannot imagine Rush Limbaugh, the radio persona, ever being moved to tears over his mistakes.  But when was the last time I cried over mine?  Too long I am afraid.  When was the last time I cried at all?

If I cannot be moved to tears by guilt, then can I by compassion?  This week was a heart-wrenching week in the news.  So many killed by the terrible storms moving across the Midwest and South.  So many continue to be killed in Syria by the hand of their own government.  So many children die in Africa by a disease that is preventable (every 60 seconds malaria claims the life of a child in Africa; want to know more?  I was almost moved to tears.  Why only almost?

I believe God cries tears over such tragedies of the world.  Jesus wept.  So why don’t I?  My four year old daughter cries tears over the slightest hint of disappointment from her father.  So why don’t I?  How have I become so callous over the disappointment of my heavenly Father who loves me?  How have I become so callous over the pain I see in the world?  In his beautifully haunting song, “Tears of the World,” Michael Card imagines the collective grief of the world filling the oceans.  And he, too, wonders, “So how could it be that my own eyes are dry?”

I remember a favorite line from one of my favorite books, The Lord of the Rings.  Gandalf, saying goodbye to Sam, Merry and Pippin for the last time, declares, “Go in peace!  I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”  Some tears are not an evil.  Some tears are heaven-sent and blessing… tears of guilt, even, and tears of compassion.  Our tears, when joined with God’s tears, can lead to true repentance and wash away the stains upon this world.  In the chorus of “Tears for the World,” Michael Card prays a prayer… for tears.  This Lent, it is my prayer for me and for you.

so open my eyes

and open my heart

and grant me the gift

of your grieving

and awaken in me

the compassion to weep

just one of the tears of the world.

-Michael Card, “Tears of the World”

Getting Our Hands Dirty: Ash Wednesday Sermon

dirty hands

Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? -Matthew 8:34-37, The Message

“With the possible exception of the equator, everything begins somewhere.”  – C.S. Lewis

That is a wonderful quote by C.S. Lewis. Today is a beginning. Today we begin a journey… a journey we call Lent. And I wonder what you think this journey looks like. What does Lent mean to you? For some of us, it is the adventure of trying to give up something we like. A high school classmate of mine gave up Facebook. She signed off last night and said, “See you on Easter!”  Some of us give up chocolate or caffeine. And there is value in these attempts; if nothing else, we learn how engrained some of the substances or practices are in our lives. Before our daughter Emma was born, Laura and I gave up tv one Lent.  We both realized how much tv was in our life… maybe too much.  Didn’t keep us from watching it after Easter though. There is value in these attempts, but is that really the journey Jesus calls us to… When Jesus spoke today of self-sacrifice was he talking about giving up sweets for 40 days? It probably was no less than that, but surely it was more.

For some, the journey of Lent is deeper. It is a confrontation with nothing less than our sinfulness. “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” “Repent!” That word has a certain pattern associated with it where I come from. It goes something like this: You realize, somehow, how sinful you are; how worldly you are. You feel really bad about it, you confess your sins and ask for help, usually in the words similar to the sinner’s prayer, and you promise that you will be a good little boy or girl from that moment forward, with help from God, of course. And that, I believe, is a part of this Lenten journey too. Psalm 51, the Psalm most associated with today is an implicit confession of fatih. A prayer that implores God to “Create in me a clean heart” implies that my heart may not be so clean right now. “Renew a right Spirit within me” suggests that my Spirit may not be right; that I may not be pointed in the right direction.

But, once again, I am not sure that is what Lent is wholly about either. Because turning away from what is bad is not enough. We must learn what we are turning toward. Today Jesus did not talk about the importance of the sinner’s prayer or making a full accounting of our sins before God. He talked about something else. And if it’s any consolation, the disciples weren’t always sure of what Jesus was talking about either. Jesus begins to talk about him going to face suffering, to be accused, and ultimately to be killed. He talks about a Cross. And, as Laura mentioned on Sunday, Peter stands up and says, “No way!” That’s not the way to go, not for you, not for us.

It is then that Jesus makes his invitation to them and to us. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat. I am.” That is ultimately what this Lenten journey is about. Nothing more and nothing less than starting from where you are right now in your life and putting Jesus in the driver’s seat. Nothing more and nothing less than following Jesus wherever he leads.

And it strikes me that Jesus may be leading us in a direction different than what we expected. For example, I at least have had the thought that Lent is all about getting clean. I’m kind of cleaning myself up before Easter. I’m putting aside the worldly issues of my life. And that is a part of Lent, but certainly not all. As I look at Jesus’ movement toward the Cross, I realize that he was getting his hands dirty in this journey to Jerusalem. He was taking on the messiness of our lives as he walked. He picked up not only the dirt of the road on his feet, but he picked up the dirt of our suffering, our worries, our cares, and yes even our sins. He got his hands dirty on that road touching the unclean to make them whole, lifting up the children and blessing them. He got his hands dirty. How does that fit into Lent?

There is a Lenten practice that I (and many pastors) have that you never see. Every year I burn the ashes used in this service. Now I could buy sterilized pre-prepared ashes that come in nice, clean packages ready for use. But every year I seem to forget so I have to burn the ashes myself. I used to make them out of the previous year’s palm leaves as tradition holds we should. But burning palm leaves has a distinct, rather awful, odor and I’m not sure I want the neighbors complaining. So this year, these ashes are out of paper… In fact they are from our paper shredder which means these ashes come from the mundane details of our life. Old bills, junk mail, notes no longer needed. And as I’m preparing the ashes, inevitably my hands get covered in the stuff. I get my hands dirty.

This year, for Lent, I am inviting you to get your hands dirty in the stuff of life. As we let Jesus take the lead, we are going to reflect on some real issues of our day, like self-esteem, and friendship, and work, and money. This Lenten journey is about discovering the true self, the real you and real me, along the way through reflection on real issues in our lives. Do we let friendships get in the way of faith? Or worse, do we block our friends sometimes from becoming who God intended them to be? Whose image of ourselves do we rely on most? Does our true self get lost in others’ opinions? Do we make our lives only about our work? Or our worries only about our money?

And as we follow Jesus we hopefully will learn that we can only find our true selves through self-sacrifice and even suffering sometimes. Our church identified some ways that you can give of yourselves for others this Lent — the food drive, the Peru mission trip, the Benevolence Fund. But more than these I hope you will keep an eye out for fellow travelers on your journey. Take time to talk to a neighbor, give an elderly person a hand, write a note of encouragement to a teen, listen to someone who’s grieving.

Where will Jesus lead us this Lent if we put him in the driver’s seat? Who will he ask us to meet along the way? What plans of ours will he ask us to change so that we can, following him, journey through the messiness, even the suffering, in life to find hope on the other side. May you have a blessed and life-giving Lent as we follow Jesus together. “With the possible exception of the equator, everything begins somewhere.” Right now, Right here, is a great place to begin.

My thanks to Rev. N. Neelley Hicks and the good folks at United Methodist Communications who created a wonderful Lenten resource, A Journey to Hope, which First UMC is using this year.  This sermon was inspired and resourced by this work.