Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Primer on Lent

This post was adapted from a chapel speech I gave at Shoreline Christian School in 2009.

I did not grow up in a tradition that promoted any special practices having to do with Lent. My Catholic friends told me that “giving up something for Lent,” usually something they liked such as candy, was a way of paying Jesus back for all he had sacrificed for us. That never made much sense to me because I had been taught that it was impossible to give Jesus anything he didn’t already have, and what he had sacrificed for us was a free gift. But the church I attend now has some Lenten practices that I have found worth considering as I seek to be more like Jesus. We practice Lenten traditions as a way of experiencing God’s presence and remembering our dependence on him rather than as merely a time of abstinence from earthly delights such as chocolate.

For those of you unfamiliar with the history, some background is in order. My pastor, Mike Guerrero, has taught us that Lent is the 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the Saturday before Easter). Lent means simply springtime. Some believe that the 40 days were related to Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and solitude in the desert before he began his earthly ministry. In the church, Lent is usually observed as a time for reflection on the sacrifice of Christ, and that is why it has often been associated with repentance, soul searching, reflection, and re-dedication.

The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is often known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday or Carnival. It was a day to get all your indulgence in before beginning a period of fasting or abstinence from some activity or food. Because many traditions abstained from red meat during Lent, Fat Tuesday was sometimes called Carnival, which means Farewell to Meat. Many people still celebrate Mardi Gras, but they forget the period of solemnity or reflection on the sacrifice of Jesus which was to follow.

Nowhere in Scripture are the traditions of Lent commanded, but they have been a part of the church’s practice since the early centuries. We choose to participate in Lent willingly, not out of obligation. So why the period of abstinence? Why do we or should “give something up for Lent”?

On the one hand, as I said earlier, what sacrifice could I make that would be at all significant in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf? On the other hand, it’s hard to spend time reflecting on Jesus’ sacrifice when you’re stuffing your face or playing video games or whatever it is that’s distracting you from this kind of worship. (A disclaimer: Eating and playing video games CAN BE worship. But there is a time for everything, and sometimes that means there is a time to refrain from our ordinary pleasures so we can focus on God in a different way.)

A couple of years ago my pastor that giving something up for Lent was not about paying Jesus back, but about creating reminders in our lives that would help us to meditate on Jesus’ love and sacrifice for us. He also said that we could participate in Lent by giving something up or by adding a discipline to our lives such as praying for someone specific daily.

I decided that made some sense. A built-in way to reflect on Jesus’ death and resurrection made sense. So then I prayed that God would show me what I should do, whether I should give something up or add a discipline to my life, and what that should be. And while I was praying, guess what popped into my head? Diet Coke! People have been trying to get me to give up Diet Coke for years. They told me it would make my headaches go away, I’d sleep better, I’d lose weight, blah blah blah. But none of those reasons was strong enough to make me want to try for very long. I mean, I really really like Diet Coke. I wasn’t going to stop drinking it without a really good reason. But there I sat in church, very much feeling that this idea was given to me by God in answer to my prayer, and now I had not just a physical reason to give it up, but a spiritual one. I knew that God was directing me to obey him in this way. I started immediately. I didn’t want it to be a legalistic practice but rather a spiritual one, even though it would require a pretty strict physical discipline on my part. (Did I mention that I really really like Diet Coke?)

Here’s what I discovered. Every time I thought, “Gee, I’d really like a Diet Coke right now,” instead of reaching for a Diet Coke, the thought of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection would come into my mind. Seriously. And I would think, “No, I’m not going to drink a Diet Coke. I’m grateful that God is bringing this to my mind.”

My headaches did not go away. I did not lose weight. I did not sleep better. But I sensed daily, hourly, even sometimes moment by moment, the presence of God. I was refreshed by this period of voluntary abstinence. And it sounds crazy, but in some ways this experience was easy. Don’t get me wrong; I still really really wanted that Diet Coke. But suddenly the rewards of God’s presence and reflection on his sacrifice on my behalf were much much greater than the rewards of a cold, perfectly carbonated Diet Coke sliding down my throat.

So what are some ways we can practice the discipline of Lent? Two ways: putting off and putting on. Ephesians 4:22-24 says: ”You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Putting off disciplines might include such things as:
• Giving up a favorite food or drink or dessert.
• Giving up something that takes up too much of our time such as video games, TV, Facebook, texting, shopping, reading for pleasure (sorry, you can’t give up reading for school), etc.
• Giving up anything that is beginning to take on addictive qualities in your life.
• Going to bed on time every night (at a more reasonable hour).
• Giving up spending money on a personal treat, such as Starbucks or McDonald’s or buying music.

Putting on disciplines might include:
• Praying everyday for the healing of a broken relationship or for the end of human trafficking or some other problem that has been on your heart.
• Getting up earlier in the morning to help make the school lunches for the family or to read your Bible and pray.
• Looking every day for an opportunity to serve someone, preferably without anyone ever finding out about it.
• Doing your homework daily before you turn on the TV.
• Volunteering regularly to do community service or to take on a responsibility in your church.

It is helpful to keep in mind four contexts that shape our lives as we seek to be more like Jesus, especially as we pray about, choose, and implement a Lenten discipline: community, solitude, humility, and awareness.

First, community—Although this is primarily a private endeavor, we still participate in Lenten traditions as members of a faith community. We can support one another in prayer, encourage one another to be disciplined, and especially if we choose a “putting on” activity, look for ways to serve others.

Solitude—Jesus was very critical of those who fasted publicly. The Pharisees would fast on Mondays and Thursdays because those were market days and everyone would notice and admire their fasting. We should choose to do our Lenten disciplines in such a way that we don’t draw attention to ourselves. It should not become an issue of pride but one of worship.

Humility—One of the important qualities of choosing a Lenten activity is dependence on God. If we give up something we don’t care about, we are not allowing God to strengthen us. Instead, we can manage it ourselves. We should allow God instead to bring something to our minds that will force us to be humble before him and allow him to have the glory for enabling this discipline.

Awareness—the point of this whole Lent exercise is not to prove to ourselves how tough we are or how spiritual we are. It is to reflect on the sacrifice of Jesus in preparation for Easter, and to allow the presence of God to become more real to us. This requires an active participation of our hearts and minds, saying, “I do this to remember Jesus,” instead of “Look at what a great Christian I am!”

Finally, one more reminder. Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday—none of these are ends in themselves. Instead, as my pastor says, they are meant to aid us in our walk of faith. They are intended to help us remember this central truth: “Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” That is a truth worth celebrating in whatever way will help us remember daily. We can be refreshed by a humble, voluntary discipline that points to the miraculous, salvific work of Jesus and allows him to be our strength.

This year I’m giving up internet Scrabble. I’ll be back at it the day after Easter.

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