Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Reading an email correspondence recently, I noted that the sender put “Matthew 6:27” underneath his signature. I don’t really know this person other than that we are a part of the same email group. I had received several messages from him, and as I looked back, I realized, he always signs that way. His name, and then Matthew 6:27.
So, I reached out to him just say, ‘Hey, I didn’t realize you were a Christian. I think it is really great that you sign your messages that way.’ He hasn’t responded to my overture. Like I said, I don’t really know him.
Jesus is speaking. Matthew 6 is the middle of his Sermon on the Mount. In verse 27 he asks, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Of course, this jumped out at me because of the spiritual discipline I committed to uphold for Lent 2020. Through prayer, time in worship, and daily practice, my 2020 Lenten spiritual discipline is to renounce worry. Jesus says in verse 25, “I tell you, do not worry about your life.” I want to do my best to follow that command literally.
I wrote this in my February 2020 church newsletter article. Typically, we don’t broadcast our spiritual disciplines for the world to see. In Matthew 6, verses 3, 6, and 18, Jesus warns against announcing when we give to the poor or pray or fast as spiritual disciplines. We most certainly should do these things, but Jesus encourages us to practice these disciplines in secret, for God’s eyes, not to gain spiritual credit in the eyes of others. Spiritual disciplines should never be cases of “look-at-me.” Our spiritual disciplines should draw us closer to God.
So, why do I announce mine every year? I do it in my role as pastor. I hope church members will follow my example. I don’t mean each person needs to practice the disciplines I’ve committed to. Rather, I encourage each Christian who would follow Christ to follow my example by undertaking spiritual disciplines that will specifically help him or her grow in Christ. Maybe for you it is a practice you need to spend more time on - service or prayer. Or, maybe for someone else, it is giving more money, so that you discover God is who ensures your life, not your bank account. For another, it might be fasting, so that we discover God fills us and we crave him more than satiating our appetites.
For me, the discipline this year is to renounce worry as an act of faith, a pathway to joy, and a step of obedience. Why this rather unconventional discipline?
Without going into too many details or rehashing stories told too many times, 2017-2019 have been difficult years for me. Each year ended with me thinking, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over,” only to be greeted by more severe challenges at the very start of the new year. I’ve come to dread what the next January might bring. Followers of Jesus are not to live in dread. We are called to joy.
Each of the past three years included many nights with me wide awake at 2, 3, 4AM. Sometimes, I could name the weighty issues that drove sleep from me. I tried reading, praying, playing online chess with people halfway around the world. Often, I just ended up brooding until daylight and then plowing through the next day. Other sleepless nights, I could not name the demon that wouldn’t allow me rest. I simply sat with the foreboding hanging over me. Followers of Jesus should be able to rest secure in his arms. He modeled this, sleeping soundly as the boat he and the disciples were in was tossed about by angry waves.
Reflecting upon how much the stresses of pastoring and parenting repeatedly shook my sense of wellbeing, it became clear, I was not setting a good example to my church family. We know the world is drowning in sin and bound for death. Why would we be surprised when things get tough and life is a struggle? Part of my responsibility is to help us, God’s family, see God in the midst of the storm. The challenges of 2017, ‘18, and ‘19 may subside or be overcome, but this new year will provide obstacles of its own, and when we overcome them, 2021 looms. Joy doesn’t come when the problems go away. Joy comes when we set our eyes on Jesus even as we find ourselves in the midst of struggle.
Thus, I knew I had to get a grip! And I knew I couldn’t do it on my own power. I knew I couldn’t just will myself to stop worrying. I need God’s help. God offers that help. So, I need to turn my attention from the worries and stress to the God who helps.
I wrote the newsletter article and declared my intent to renounce worry. That same day, I went to hear the orthopedist’s conclusions about my ankle. He said it was messed up in about 4 different ways and the best bet would be surgery, followed by 6 weeks of no weight bearing.
I’ve spent the last 25 years visiting church members before they have surgery. I pray with them. Then I go home. They are in that hospital bed for a while, and then rehab, and then maybe they return to health, or maybe not. And I have prayed, maybe while in morning quiet time, or maybe while out walking or jogging. I worry, I pray, and then I get on with my healthy life.
It’s a life where I feel like I need to have a lot of control. Whether it is my family, or the church, I need to feel like I am in control. I’m not! But I need to feel like I am. After March 6, I won’t be able to pretend that. I won’t be able to rely on my own strength and independence. If I want to come to the office to work, I’ll need Candy or Igor to drive me. At home, there are a number of adjustments we will need to make to accommodate my post-surgery condition.
Immediately after the talk with the surgeon, the implications began settling in, and it made me … no, I couldn’t. I had just hours before declared my intent to renounce worry. Could God so quickly put my resolve to the test?
Let’s be clear. My problems are very small compared to what many people here have had to face. I know that. The issues that worry me come in the natural course of life. The degenerative condition in both my ankles would have required surgery whether I declared my intent to renounce worry or not. God didn’t cause me to need the surgery just to test whether I really would lean on Him and not worry. Rather, God met me in my distress, both the pressures of the past three years and my more recent fears. You may perceive your problems to be much bigger than mine, or not as significant. Whatever you’re facing, joy comes when we meet Jesus in it, take His hand, and allow ourselves to be led as He walks us out of it.
Jesus knew his journey would lead to his death, and I believe, he knew it would be death on a cross. Never did he show the slightest apprehension about his fate. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion, he begged for another way, but that was not the prayer of worry. That was a prayer of anguish at being betrayed, denied, and abandoned.
He says, “I tell you, do not worry.” He had the authority to give this command because he is Lord, because he faced much worse than what we face, and because he did it without worrying himself. His “do not worry” is not an overture of encouragement. It’s a command from the Holy God.
Along with the command comes grace, because try as we might, we cannot follow it, not perfectly. Committing to spiritual disciplines is our attempt to lean-in, into obedience, into the realities of the Kingdom.
I wonder how the guy who signs his name with Matthew 6:27 is doing in his own efforts to renounce worry. As I said, he never got back to me. But someone who does know him told me a little more about what led him to this verse. He is young, under 25. Last year, his sister died while having a seizure. Unbelievable grief! What more can be said? Jesus’ words of promise - promise that we need not worry - have been a lifeline for this young man.
Having turned fifty, having just gotten over the flu, facing one ankle surgery and possibly another, as well as other procedures that come with turning 50, 2020 will be for me a year of attending on my own health. To do that well, I need to focus more than ever on who I am in Christ. The church is His and He’ll take care of it and even help it thrive. And he’ll help me do my part in it, but he will have HIs successes with or without me. My family is his and I have my part in it. Through prayer, worship, and daily intent, I must lean into Him.
I close by inviting you to consider your own story. The God who walks with young people through unbearable grief and helps 50-year-olds come to grips with their own frailty is the same God that walked Jesus down the road to the cross and then out of the empty tomb. That God loves you. God knows your story. So, spend time considering your story, especially the struggles that threaten your spiritual life. Then select spiritual disciplines to which you will commit from now, Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday this year. Through the consistent practice of these disciplines, lean into Jesus’ embrace. You’ll grow in your relationship with Him and even in times of trial, you will have joy.