I was recently granted the opportunity of writing some curriculum for preteen students. I mention this only because my subject material was quite a challenge. I was commissioned to write about what it takes to trust God in difficult situations. The topics ranged from suffering and persecution to loneliness and doubts. Not exactly the easiest stuff to try to communicate to preadolescence students with burgeoning faith. The topic of loneliness is particularly difficult because more than anything it speaks to our human condition. Anyone reading this post has at one time or another experienced the feeling of being alone and it is particularly poignant during this season of the Christian calendar. This time of year we find ourselves embroiled in the Lenten fast and all that comes with it. Lent is a time to reflect on repentance, mortality, and ultimately our human experience. Lent is intended to bring us closer to the human experience of Christ as we practice life ‘without’ in order to understand what it fully means to experience life with Christ. It is no wonder that the culmination of the Lenten fast is the experience of Good Friday and the anguish Jesus must have experienced as the Triune God took death into itself in order to redeem our condition. Christ became the discarded on our behalf. He was rejected by the empire, by his own, by his followers and left to die…
I know this in no way compares, but without fail I always seem to get sick during Lent.* It is almost as if my body decides to remind me of my mortality in its’ own way. But being sick also leads to feelings of separateness and loneliness. Not to completely reflect selfishly, but sickness always makes one turn inwardly and be consumed with one’s own self. One of the most difficult things to do while being sick is to be a parent. In all honesty I wish I was wealthy enough to just hire my kids out to a nanny until I am back to my normal health. And that’s what amazes me about Christ. In the midst of the most miserable state one could possibly be in (beaten to the point of death, stripped naked, abandoned, and crucified as a common state terrorist outside the city gates) he proclaims, ““Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” – Luke 23:34. When he was at his most alone moment in his earthly life he was concerned for those of us who were perpetrating those acts.
So I return to Lent. A season where we practice some form of apartness (I realize this is a made up word, but if you have a degree in Theology you are allowed to do this) or separation for the sake of coming a little bit closer to understanding the sacrifice God made for us. So maybe it’s not too bad to feel sick…maybe being low is really the only way to come a little bit closer to knowing what it feels like for Christ to love us when we discarded Him.
* A quick disclaimer: If these random thoughts lack cohesion it is due to the fact that I am not at my best…
Today was the day…and it has been awful. But in order to save myself embarrassment and to be able to continue to enjoy the existence that I am used to, it was a necessity. You see, I have begun to wear a hole in the right back pocket of my jeans where I usually wear my wallet. And these aren’t just any jeans…these are my jeans. The all American-made denim that I enjoy on an almost every day basis. The jeans that because of their raw-denim make-up have rarely seen the inside of a washing machine but have been worn into oblivion. And so, in order to go on with life as I know I switched my wallet pocket. And it is awful (first world problems, right). But seriously…it effects everything. It effects the way I walk, the way I sit, the way I drive…almost everything. I am having to re-orient little portions of my entire day. I may even have to visit a chiropractor after this.
But as my morning continued I began to think about the significance of today being the day for this: Ash Wednesday is the day I switched my wallet? Ash Wednesday; a day of repentance and reorganizing our life into the rhythm of God. A day when we begin to look at our life in terms of mortality, eternity and grace. A day when we reorganize our life by a calendar based not on human happenings but rather on the life of Christ. We begin to mark our days in preparation for the Resurrection of our Lord and the celebration of love conquering the powers of death and hell. And I think that maybe this is a great day to switch my wallet.
You see, the liturgical calendar was put into place to remind us that this is not our home. While we are busy living our our lives in meetings, appointments, dates, months, years, etc. all of a sudden the life of the church breaks in and reminds us that this stuff does not define us. It really is meant to be a physical and blatant reminder that we are called to reorient our very existence around Christ. Colossians 3:1-2 puts it this way, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Lent and the practices surrounding the liturgical calendar prod us into setting our minds on Christ and not on the cares of this world. And this focus allows us to move and live and have our being with the singular goal of establishing God’s kingdom here on earth.
Sometimes in this life we need reminders as to why we are here. Sometimes we need seasons like Lent and Advent to break in and remind us of whose we are. And although reorienting our life around these can be difficult at times, I assure you, it’s a lot better than switching your wallet pocket and it has far greater impact.
So this morning as we were leaving the drive of our house my six year old asked me a very important spiritual question, “Does mommy water our plants?” Well knowing about my wife’s lack of a chlorophyll colored thumb I gave the discretionary answer of, “probably not”. But I had to measure his concern. You see he was able with his aunt’s help to by my wife some tulips for Valentines day and I know he just wanted them to last a little longer…to be honest I am surprised they have lasted this long. But then it almost heartless fashion I added, “But to tell you the truth son, flowers die. That’s what they do. They are beautiful and fragile.”
Segue into Ash Wednesday. Isn’t that a beautiful picture of where our heads and hearts should be on this day the ushers in the Lenten season? God has made us into His image and placed within us the beautiful image of His Son and the gift of reconciliation. And at the same moment we are made of dust. We are insanely fragile. James 4:14 puts it this way, “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” So inside this fragile shell which is here today and gone tomorrow God himself inhabits us for His glory. How much more amazing does that make this season.
You see for centuries Lent has been a time of recognizing our mortality and our dependency upon God for all things. So we empty ourselves for forty days. It may be of something simple like TV time or Soda, or it could be something more difficult like Facebook (tongue in cheek). But whatever the case may be we limit ourselves in some form or fashion in order to allow more space for God. After all, it is He who makes this mortal existence beautiful. It is He who transforms our dust shell with His breath. So maybe this Lenten season you are able to truly reflect on the Church’s cry of remembrance and recognize the beauty in our fragility, “Remember Mortal thou are dust and to dust you shall return.”
During the Lenten season I am often drawn to think more about tradition. Lent itself is after all a Christian tradition. And we have all sorts of traditions in the church. Just think about it or a while. Most of the people who read this blog could roll into any protestant church in the United States and feel like you know what is going on. Whether it is simple things like wearing your Sunday best or standing during communal prayer, the church is full of traditions. And some of these are very necessary to the survival of the church, while others…hmmm.
My wife was having a discussion with some of the ladies from our church yesterday when this very topic came up. They were discussing Francine River’s The Last Sin Eater and how Francine River’s urged the readers at the end of the book to follow Christ and “be rid of our secrets, our traditions, our ignorance and our fears.”* But the question arose, “are we supposed to rid ourselves of all of our traditions?” By no means!
Tradition in the church is ultimately the legacy of the church. Our traditions often communicate our story. And our story forms us. So what happens when traditions differ between generations? This is where the “holy tension” comes in. The church is a beautiful living organism that will sometimes need to move and grow through it’s traditions. Some we need to continue to cling to, as they help tell our story and some we can leave by the wayside in lieu of making the gospel culturally relevant. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11:1-3 Paul praises the Corinthian church for holding to the tradition of women covering their heads in church. For most of the modern church, we have realized that this is a tradition that does not affect our laity except in helping them to understand that modesty is something that should govern apparel for worship. So the tradition we can leave behind, but the heart of the tradition still has relevance.
And this is where the holy tension plays out in the life of the church today. What traditions do we cling to? Where do we carry on the tradition or look to just live out the heart behind the tradition? This is the reason that inter-generational dialogue and interaction is so important in the church today. Without the voice of the saints, how will the younger generation know how to weigh tradition and truth. We must continue to hold to this holy tension as generations learn from each other and we tradition ourselves into the story of Christ.
* The traditions referred to in the book The Last Sin Eater were traditions born out of ignorance rather than being informed by Christian tradition of orthodoxy.
Every year when we come around to the Lenten season I always have people ask me why I take part in Lent as a Spiritual practice. “Isn’t that something that Catholics do?” And yes, as an ancient spiritual practice and a part of the Christian calendar, this is a practice that is usually reserved for the higher liturgy traditions. But I also believe it is a practice that has great value in other Christian traditions as well.
Lent is defined as the forty day period leading up to Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday and is an observation practiced through fasting to symbolize Christ’ forty days of fasting during his temptation in the wilderness. The unique thing about the Lenten fast is that every Sunday during the time period from Ash Wednesday to Easter is a day of celebration from that which you are fasting. This is intended to prepare your hearts for the ultimate celebration in the Christian calendar…Easter! There is a traditional fast prescribed by church tradition, but often in protestant denominations, laity have taken part in a selective fast where they sacrifice part of their daily routine to the forty days.
So how does this add value to our walk with Christ? Lent is really all about appetite…which is ultimately where temptation strikes. We have appetites for all sorts of things and in Lent we sacrifice one of our appetites up to a time to grow with God. In an interview last year, Mike Breen (the head of 3DM), referred to the effectiveness of Lent in the following quote. “Learn to use your will to give something up so that the doors of your heart are crowbarred open just enough so God’s Spirit will give you His power over the other Appetite.” God’s Spirit is partnered with our consecration to Him. If we are yielding our appetites up to Him for forty days, perhaps we are able to easier give the harder things over to Him as well. Growth through Lent can look a lot like growth in Holiness. So may you find forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter as an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to walk with you into the ultimate celebration in the Christian year…the Resurrection of our Lord!
“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11