Pastor's Blog

Lenten Thoughts from Malaysia, by Heather Hain

Heather Hain is on temporary work assignment in Malaysia with her company and wrote us her Lenten thoughts. We look forward to having her and her husband, Pete, back with us in May.

Every morning and night I hear calls to Muslim prayer here in Malaysia. It is a constant reminder that I am in a different place in the world, where religion is an important part of life to the majority of the population. I have not been going to church, but find myself praying as I am listening to the chants and wondering what others are praying for in their lives.

I have been thinking about this Lenten season and how Christian people often sacrifice something in their lives during this time in order to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. We did not participate in this at home when I was younger. However, half our community was Catholic, so it was a requirement that my friends find something to ‘give up.’ Often it was something minor that they found easy enough to live without. It was rare that any teenager gave up something that was a true sacrifice in their life. I don’t know if at that age we even understood what sacrifice meant or viewed Lent as a time of reflection on Jesus’ sacrifice for us.

This year I have given up the comforts of home, the relative silence of the suburb, life in a first world country, connection to everyone 24 hours a day, driving, feeling safe outside, decent sidewalks, the hustle and bustle of New York, and family and friends. What I have gained in the process is an appreciation of what I have in the U.S., less stress by being disconnected, a chance to look at the scenery around me, finding safe places within myself and with Pete, new ways to explore, a relaxed atmosphere and people, and a new sense of family and friends with those I have met in Malaysia and around the world.

Even these sacrifices to me seem so little to what other people have sacrificed and what Christ endured for us. Everyday I look along the roadside and water’s edge at the shanties, places barely standing and bent out of shape, and know that people live and work there. And are happy to do so. I see people crippled by disease and infection walking the streets in my neighborhood and other places as if nothing is wrong with them. I see elders, ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles,’ with no teeth but the best smiles in the world. Most of these conditions would not be issues or noticeable in our daily lives in the U.S.  In Malaysia, they are an everyday occurrence that people accept as a way of life and not unusual.

During this Lent I am able to truly reflect on all that I have and that has been given to me. My basic needs are all met. I have a well-paying job and colleagues I enjoy, now in two countries. I have a family that is understanding and loving. My Christian faith has been nurtured by loving congregations and communities across the nation, and I am not persecuted for my beliefs. I understand the sacrifices others around me and before me made so that my life could be easier.

This Lenten season, be mindful of what others, including Christ, have sacrificed and are sacrificing for us.  Think of the things you can gain by ‘giving up’ something in your life.

Springs in the Wilderness

Lent traditionally begins with the story of Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness, alone with his thoughts, alone with the struggles of his soul.  This is not an experi-ence that is alien to any of us.  Who has not found himself in such a place, in such a struggle, at some time in life?  What may be startling is that Jesus seems to have sought this out.  He chose to go to the wilderness.  He chose this solitude.  It seems he chose to confront his demons head on.

      I have often chosen to go on a retreat to wrestle with an important decision for myself.  But I did not choose a wilderness.  I went to a beautiful setting, like the Warwick Conference Center, or Mariandale Retreat Center in Ossining, where I had a lovely room with a comfy bed, three nutritious meals a day, caring hosts, kind company, and helpful worship services.  I was never hungry, thirsty, lonely, or deprived in any way, at least not in any external sense.  The wilder-ness times for me have been more an inner experience than an outer one.  Perhaps the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness may be a parable of that interior wrest-ling that may be true for all of us.

      Such wilderness experiences may arise at any time.  We don’t need to seek them out; they will find us.  So why Lent?  I don’t know that I can answer that, but I’ll hazard a guess.

      When we find ourselves in one of life’s wilderness times, we are usually caught by surprise.  We weren’t expecting one, and certainly didn’t want one.  But there we are, smack in the middle of it.  Having fallen into a pit, we may quickly discover we aren’t prepared to cope with it.  We don’t have the resources we need.           So it just may be that the practice of Lent is an opportunity to prepare for such times.  It is a time for being intentional about cultiva-ting our spiritual resources, our connection to God, to our com-munity of faith, to our ultimate values, to the meaning of our lives.  It is when we have these tools ready at hand that we are better prepared to face the time of trial.

      It is like the practice of Sabbath.  Is Sunday the only day reserved for God?  Is only Sunday holy?  No, of course not.  Every day is holy.  God is ever present.  Why the Sabbath then?  The Sabbath helps us develop our attention to God for a focused period of time, formerly a full day, now more like an hour.  By seeking to give God a period of undistract-ed attention, we hope to develop our capacity for an awareness of God at all times.

      Perhaps Lent provides a more extended time of attention to the meaning and purpose of God’s presence in our lives just so that we may more intentionally live out that awareness all the other months of our lives.  I can’t speak for you, but I know I need this time each year to be recalled to who I am, to Whom I belong, why I am here, and what I am here to do.

            What might this time of Lent be for you?

Wintry Seasons

I have always thought of February as the “armpit” of winter, the nadir in the long dark curve of winter.  However… it seems January this year may force me to change my mind.  It’s only January 25 as I write this, but it will be hard for February to be darker, snowier, or colder.  If it is, I’m heading for San Juan!

      With daytime highs in the teens and nighttime lows nearing zero (not to mention wind chill factors), this feels like the coldest January of my life.  On the plus side, I have finally made my snow blower pay off!

      Whoever planned the church calendar (at least for us in the northern hemisphere) got it right when January & February were the months chosen for the season of Epiphany.  Epiphany marks the weeks between the seasons of Christmas and Lent.  It is the time when the church focuses on the ways in which Jesus enters our world bringing light into the darkness.

      We know about the darkness, viscerally.  We know it with our physical senses as we endure weeks of days that are short on sunlight, both in length and intensity.  These days are often gray, overcast, and oh so cold.  We also know it emotionally.  The short dark days cause many people to experience SAD (seasonal affective disorder).  Lack of full spectrum daylight can actually make us sad.  We tend to be more confined by clothes and walls; we may feel more isolated.  Every difficulty takes on darker tones.  All of this can also lead to a sense of spiritual darkness, the absence of God in the world at large, and in our interior world.

      It is into this world that God arrives.  God arrives as the infant Jesus in the manger, then as the adolescent Jesus querying the scribes in the temple, then as the itinerant rabbi Jesus turning the world upside down.  God’s light shines in the face and life of this Jesus of Nazareth.  As the Gospel of John affirms of Jesus, this Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, will not, cannot overcome it!

      Those are the words, the Word, the promise to which I cling in these dark, wintry days of my life.  God has sent Light into the world, my world, that I might find the strength to not only endure the cold, but overcome it.  It may be an icy and treacherous world, but with the Christ Light within me, and among my family of faith, I am and will be unafraid. 

            When the shadows of the darkness threaten me, I turn to the Psalms and the Gospels.  In the Psalms, I find my every experience and emotion reflected and carried into the presence of God.  In the Gospels, I find God looking for me and claiming me as a beloved child; you too!  It doesn’t get any brighter than that!