First Sunday in Lent 2018 — Preaching Notes
Wilderness | REHAB WORSHIP SERIES
As we were considering the season of Lent, we thought the idea of rehab was a helpful approach to the high holy season, which has historically led people on a path of readiness for baptism on Easter morning. This path included making an intentional choice to turn away from present practices, beliefs, relationships, and patterns of behavior, in order to enter into a time of intense spiritual preparation that led the exploring believers not only to entrance into Christian community through baptism, but to live as disciples in a state of hope, healing, and wholeness, which Jesus called eternal life.
In part, we were inspired by our colleague Taylor Burton-Edward’s recent experience of cardiac rehabilitation after his heart attack.
Cardiac rehabilitation is but one form of rehab the people today may need to undergo. We thought about the present opioid and heroin crisis that is sweeping the nation. We thought about people in recovery from alcohol abuse, gambling, and sex addiction. We thought about people being released from prison and re-entering society. We thought about soldiers returning from difficult tours of duty. We thought about people grieving the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job, or moving to a new community or into retirement.
As we studied the texts together, we noted that this year we begin the season of Lent smack dab in the middle of Black History Month. So as we begin our trek into the wilderness of Lent this week, we pray that as leaders in The United Methodist Church, we will be especially cognizant of the fact that racism continues to pervade our life together, especially those of us who live in the United States.
The only thing that seems clear is that the rehabilitative needs we face today call upon us, both as individuals and as a human family, to begin this season by following Jesus into the wilderness. Because these problems are each a kind of wilderness, are they not? And as they say in twelve-step programs, “The first step is admitting we have a problem.”
What is the wilderness? We want to suggest that the wilderness represents those times in our lives when we begin to face, head on, our own brokenness. We admit we have fallen and can’t get up on our own. We admit we have lost our way. We admit we are facing trials and temptations. We admit we have come face to face with evil. We admit that we can no longer manage on our own. We need help. We need a Savior.
For some, being in the wilderness is a temporary condition. For others, it is the status quo of their entire lives. But whether our wilderness is temporary or seems to be permanent, we experience it the same. Being in the wilderness is a time of testing.
When we first started talking about the wilderness, we found ourselves primarily pointing to places: the desert, uncultivated land, unsettled spaces. The wilderness is where the wild things are. The wilderness is where there is no ready supply of food or fresh water. The wilderness is desolate. It is a place of desperation.
But wilderness also speaks to periods of life or states of mind: lost, unsettled, wandering, discerning, tempted by Satan, tested by God. The wilderness is a time of trial. It is a probationary period.
Heading into the wilderness, whether it’s imposed upon us or we voluntarily go, is only the first step in the rehab journey toward reconciliation, healing, and wholeness. But it is a step we must take to start the process of recovery.
When Taylor talked about his experience with cardiac rehab, he said one of the hardest parts was the lifestyle change. When you are in rehab, there are things you can’t do anymore. Taylor couldn’t do normal daily activities. Alcoholics can’t go to bars. Drug addicts can’t be around users. Entering rehab necessarily involves a kind of radical departure from what you had before, creature comforts, usual habits, normal ways of being.
In the wilderness, there aren’t orchards. Water isn’t easily and readily available. Food is limited. In the wilderness, you might have to change your diet. You might have to self-impose limits until after you have returned from the forty days. And in rehab, if you are successful, the small changes you make will become part of a permanent lifestyle change.
The good news in this passage is the knowledge that whatever sort of wilderness challenge we might have to face, we don’t have to face it alone. Our Scripture story for today tells us that our Lord and Savior has gone ahead of us. He understands how difficult it is to take those steps, to resist the temptation to take an easier route through our troubles, or detour around them completely if we can. He understands our temptation to bury our feelings, to hide our truths, to seek the path of least resistance. He understands because he has been there himself. He has been there, and he persevered.
I’ll talk about take one in a future sidebar.
Here I’ll just note that because I’d done Take One about a month earlier, I had some idea what to expect the experience to be. And that was, in general, a helpful thing.
The primary thing I knew is I could absolutely trust the staff both to keep me progressing and to watch out for me.
I knew this was something I had to do. My heart attack in April had left me weak, with little endurance, and slow, both physically and mentally. I had already become slower because of the progress of arthritis, another familiar inheritance. Having lost about thirty pounds since January had helped the arthritis some, but I had another thirty to go to get into the recommended BMI range for my height, and the heart attack set my mobility back further. It was like I hadn’t lost the first thirty. I didn’t expect more regular cardiac exercise to hasten my weight loss (and, as it turned out, it didn’t). But I did hope that it might improve mobility as diet managed weight loss (and it did).
So I began anew in late May. Take one hadn’t counted. It really was beginning again.
Stretching (10 minutes), six minutes of fast walking laps around the main gym, four minutes on an arm machine, six on a bike with no resistance, six on a bike/arms workout machine with minimal resistance, and blood pressure checks before and after. That’s where it would start from the new Day 1. I understood it would build from there. The good thing was I got through the new Day 1 without incident. And then Day 2, the next day, and Day 3 starting Tuesday the next week, a day that began (as I learned Tuesdays always would) with an education session and a brief walk instead of the usual ten-minute stretch.
I was getting through it, with helpful support from the nursing and training staff, and some sense of collegiality from the many others (all but one at least twenty years older than I) who were in the class.
After three weeks, as the time, resistance, and goals for the machinery were gradually amped up, I changed the order of my workout. I found the bike/arms machine was the hardest thing I faced each time, the equipment that left me the most exhausted. So I decided to do it first, and then arrange the other pieces as a sort of extended cool down from that. I could psych myself up during warmup (or education and walk) for that, and ….push it at the max to meet or exceed the stated average watts goal, then simply get through the rest of it. This was the one I felt I needed to master, because it was the one that seemed to have the greatest chance to master me.
Cardiac rehab three times a week became my new normal. And because of my travel and work schedule this summer, once I was released back to work, it would become my new normal for just over five months. Arrive. Record morning weight and wait for blood pressure check. Put on pouch and monitor. Stretch. Bike/arms machine. Bike. Arms machine. Walk laps. Cool down. Take blood pressure. Report results after each machine or exercise. Over time, more resistance, longer walks, added weights, higher watts, and added rowing machine. Day by day. Week by week. Month after month. Repeat.
I can’t say I liked it. I liked and trusted the staff, completely. It was good to be with others doing the rehab and getting to know some of them along the way. But I did not enjoy the workout itself. At all. It was more like I was trying to get through it, to best it. Still, I can and do say my cardiac rehab completion certificate may be the most important certificate I have received in my life.
by Dawn Chesser
As a person of privilege, I have to be reminded that the current situation, in which it appears some people have become empowered in a new way to openly claim and profess their racist beliefs, is actually not something new. It hasn’t been revived. It hasn’t been suddenly released. It has always been here. What has changed is that people of privilege are starting to see more fully what our brothers and sisters of a darker hue have been experiencing every day, all their lives. What has changed is that we cannot bracket our responsibility to proclaim “Black Lives Matter” as a special observance every year during the month of February.
Likewise, we can no longer bracket women’s history as something to recognize during March, or consider the situation of Asian and Pacific Islanders only in May, or celebrate Hispanic heritage only during September and October, or remind ourselves of Native Americans only during November. We must be continuously diligent in recognizing, celebrating, and using the gifts of all the diverse people of The United Methodist Church, not just during special months, but year-round.
by Matthew B. Smith, Pastor, Destination Community Church
The significance of the wilderness should never be underestimated. Jesus entered the wilderness freshly baptized and left the wilderness, ready to call his disciples. Followers of Jesus also go through “wilderness experiences” and carry suffering that ultimately brings them into closer fellowship with Jesus.
My story is no different. My wilderness was a twelve-year journey through a battle with alcoholism. I kept face in public. I finished two degrees, became a college professor, and would have been considered successful by most people’s definition. I wore a smile, worked hard, owned nice things, and took care of business. Inside, I was aware that I was deeply lost and running away from God. But for the most part, I was able to cover this with achievement and excuses.
Addiction is no respecter of persons. It comes in all forms and afflicts members across all strata of society. I never intended to become an alcoholic. And I certainly would not have admitted such if asked. I felt that I didn’t have a problem because I didn’t drink every day and didn’t suffer physical withdrawal. But I was completely dependent on a drink when I knew I needed one. I had managed to cover my pain and withhold my inner demons from others, and I did this tactfully for as long as I could.
After one difficult year of marriage and a growing distance from God, I made the decision to get help. This was after almost losing my family, home, and everything else around me. I cried out to God for help and chose to quit drinking and turn everything over to God. I knew that I could not quit on my own, so I sought help through a faith-based recovery program.
One would believe that my wilderness was coming to an end, but I felt that it was just beginning. Recovery is so tough. When an addict parts with the addiction, there is an overwhelming sense of boredom, confusion, and soul searching. We come to realize that we don’t know who we are and must discover this anew. This is scary, painful, and all-together difficult for a man in his thirties to do.
Through the darkness of my personal wilderness, Christ helped me overcome alcoholism, called me into pastoral ministry, and restored my marriage. As of February, I will have been sober five years. I am a full-time pastor at an exciting, vibrant church. My wife and I had another daughter two years ago, and I’m witnessing God in ways I never could have imagined. That was a time I could not imagine my life without alcohol. Now I can’t imagine my life with it.
I am but one more reason to believe in the power of the gospel as it pertains to recovery and overcoming obstacles. Grace found me in my wilderness and delivered me. Now I have a regular opportunity to speak to others in drug and alcohol recovery. The Father truly turns ashes into beauty.