Matthew Fleming: Lent Devotion: Growing in Awareness
CONFESSING NEED FOR ME TIME
I have a confession to make. I have a hard time prioritizing time for myself. Folks often call it self-care: the need to tend our spirits and our bodies in ways that give us life. I have two young kids, a spouse who gives much in her career vocation, and a calling of my own that I love. At different seasons, I’ve poured myself into work because I love to do it – not because of obligation or necessity but because it brings me joy. But I’ve found that this joy can be seasonal too.
In one of the cold winters where I live in Minnesota, I decided to reclaim some outdoor time and begin downhill skiing again on my day off. Yes, they truly are hills not mountains in this region, but I enjoyed the time speeding down on snow with the wind in my face. I looked forward to it and I noticed it when I skipped a week or two.
The act of confession begins with self-awareness. But perhaps it isn’t always about sin or failings. Perhaps it’s about a need to tend ourselves.
Later in the season my eldest daughter asked if she could ski with me. Of course kids want to experience something that their parents have – but only if it gives us joy. We found some lessons (because it turns out I can’t teach skiing) and in a few tries we were enjoying the rush of the hill together.
Perhaps the best self-care doesn’t stay within ourselves. It’s a joy that can’t be contained, that recharges our spirits and bursts out to share with our children, our elders, our friends and neighbors, and all of God’s world.
Loving God our lives are often crowded by the needs of those around us. At times we confess that our love for neighbor is framed by obligation or duty rather than the bursting grin you share with each of us. Teach us to love ourselves and in so doing share the love that molds us and grounds us with the whole world. Amen.
THINGS LEFT UNDONE
I am a keeper of lists. I’ve tried a wide variety of digital tools, bullet journals, or productivity apps only to abandon them after a month or two. But the yellow legal pad? It hasn’t failed me yet. I will draw a little box next to the task that needs to be done. [ ] buy coffee [ ] send that email [ ] prepare that lesson [ ] write that sermon. I find that I never quite finish any list that I make in a week. I add to it and leave things unchecked.
In one of the old confessional liturgies of the church, we confess the things we have done and the things we have left undone. There is a freedom in this confession – in naming a whole list of ways that we have not lived up to God’s dreams for us and for the world. Of course this list could be as mundane as forgetting to purchase coffee for the house (in our home, the most mortal sin if I’m honest). But it could also include the ways we’ve failed to advocate for neighbors in need, our apathy at political discourse, our inability to make meaningful conversation with people who think differently from us. The list could be exhaustive and exhausting.
But the act of confessing it puts a box [ ] next to all of the things we’ve left undone so that we might hear the words of forgiveness and the moment of grace. By naming all of these unspoken, unseen, unacknowledged, and undone items in one fell swoop, we can enter the next moment or week with confidence that God will use the things we are doing for the betterment of those around us.
Merciful God we confess the things that we have left undone, the tasks forgotten, the correspondence stalled. Our minds and our bodies fail to keep all of the lists. Forgive our forgetfulness and apathy. Move us to compassion and understanding, so that we might partake in your love for all of creation. Amen.
I grew up in an evangelical context that emphasized the constant need for repentance and drilled into us the total depravity of our human condition. We emphasized sins, counting them, joining groups to talk about them, guarding against them, yet consistently sinning. There were conferences and programs and small groups that all seemed to call us to stop sinning, but it seemed impossible. When the questions of faith started feeling more like sinking sand than a solid rock I slowly started to think that this approach wasn’t helpful either to stop sinning or to more authentically encounter God’s love for me.
Much later in life I stumbled upon the story of Martin Luther, a medieval friar who was caught counting
all of his sins. Rushing back to his confessor time and again, he couldn’t go a moment without seeing the sin in front of him. Luther’s discovery of radical grace was out of this experience, hearing a call from God to live not in the constant counting of sins but in the forgiveness freely given.
Living as if we are forgiven, as if God’s grace and mercy are real for us, means no longer serving as the sin accountant, because we know that we’ll always lose at that endeavor. It means receiving the pure gift of grace and freely offering it to our neighbors but also to ourselves. At their best, I think churches can be places that live out this forgiveness and grace, claiming the gifts that God has given each of us and reminding one another of the goodness that God has in store for all of us and for the world.
Gracious God the sin accounting business is not ours. Even though the numbers never look good for us, you offer us freedom in Christ to live out the many callings you have for each of us. Remind us we are loved, remind us we are forgiven, and remind us of all we have to share with the world around us. Amen.
CONFESSING SYSTEMIC SIN
I grew up thinking that sin was about what I’ve done – all the wrongs that I had committed against God and against the people around me. Perhaps you did too. This is certainly one aspect of our failure. But if we only see sin as the things that we’ve done consciously, by ourselves, I think we fall into a trap. We make it about us.
More and more I see sin as an interconnected web of systems: failures in our life as a community to tend to one another. We sin as a community when a child goes hungry. We sin as a community when our political ideologies get in the way of treating one another as human beings. We sin as a community when Black students perform worse than white students on standardized tests. We sin as a community when the globe keeps warming and we feel incapable of making a difference.
Systemic sin ties us in knots that make us think we can’t make a difference. These lies convince us that it is a grand conspiracy or a power that is not our own. But community is people. Systems are choices and relationships, causes and effects. When we confess systemic sin, we confess our complicity in these networks. We confess our apathy for making a difference and we ask God to turn us around, individually and collectively, because that is the work that God is doing. God is calling each of us to tend this creation in all of its brokenness as co-creators in God’s dream of love for every living thing.
Dear God there are systems at work in this world that do not tend for all of your creation. Forgive our complicity. Forgive our apathy. Awaken us to our call as your co-creators of peace in all that we do. Raise up leaders who will build networks of love and compassion and understanding so all might experience your dreams for the world. Amen.
NO FUTURE WITHOUT FORGIVENESS.
The world lost an amazing human in the recent death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In his book, No Future without Forgiveness, he tells the story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in his home country of South Africa. The guiding thread of the book can be found in his words: “Forgiveness is nothing less than the way we heal the world. We heal the world by healing each and every one of our hearts. The process is simple, but it is not easy.” The book details in story after story how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission unearthed the truth of apartheid in South Africa. One by one, this nation told the stories of oppression that Black South Africans experienced at the hands of the colonial whites. Yet this nation also sought reconciliation through this same process, telling the unvarnished and brutal stories, seeking ways to make right what had been wronged, and looking for reconciliation.
Indeed there is no future without forgiveness, but it can only begin by looking at the unvarnished truth of the failures, individually, systemically, generationally, of our nation. God desires wholeness for each of us and for the whole world. But we must look head on at the sins that we have committed and the things that we have left undone, whether in our time or generations before. And only in naming these painful truths can we have any hope at reconciliation. Indeed there is no future without forgiveness.
But we believe in a God who makes future possible. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorialized on the statue of him in our nation’s capital, we believe in a God who is rending “out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
Loving God, your dream is for dignity and honor for each of your children. Yet our society does not function this way. Across our history, time and again, we have failed. In this moment as a nation and a human community, show us the way of truth and show us the way of forgiveness.
The Rev. Matthew Ian Fleming is a recovering evangelical who opens up his Bible bruises with curiosity, wonder, and a fair amount of irreverence. He is the founding director of Church Anew, an international platform equipping church leaders to ignite faithful imagination and sustain inspired innovation. With four colleagues, Matthew launched Alter Guild, a podcasting network with over 350,000 downloads that now features four shows including Cafeteria Christian with Nora McInerny and New Time Religion with Andy Root. Matthew is ordained in the ELCA and serves as teaching pastor to St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. At home, Matthew sings unrequested car-duets with his spouse, Hannah, jams on banjo with their two daughters, and religiously bakes sourdough bread.
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