Lent. Lent. Lent. What to do about Lent. That is our dilemma `du jour’.
It seems, nowadays, that trying to give up something for Lent is second only to making New Year’s resolutions for durability. Unfortunately, we can still remember the last time we tried to do either, and what the end result was.
Therefore, it is much more fashionable these days to simply rationalize that we are far too mature, too sophisticated, too intellectual – perhaps even too righteous– to actually engage in Lenten contrition; particularly under the assumption that we’ll actually fare any better than we did with those pledges (perhaps the same ones) we made to ourselves on New Year’s Day.
So, we come to the jaded opinion that the season of Lent is just a residual addendum to New Year’s, and therefore any special measures on our part would be rather superfluous. Then we simply stoically endure the occasional, inconvenient pang of guilt, and let it go at that.
I must confess, I gave up making New Year’s resolutions years ago. But, I’m not quite ready to give up on Lent, yet. Somehow, in my heart of hearts, I still believe that Lent is much, much more important even than trying to start off the New Year on the right foot.
And so, today, I find myself asking myself, “Is there not yet something which we can grasp onto as being specifically un-superfluous about our involvement in Lent? Something spiritually non-symbolic, or strictly liturgical, about the way we spend these forty days? Something that is still personally – even functionally – meaningful about this good intentioned, self-reflective, penitential season of Lent?”
I supposed as one reared, indoctrinated and dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian, deep in my reformed soul, I want to sacrifice something for the One who sacrificed so much for me. Not just give up something that happens to be bad for me: like Diet Coke, or Quarter-pounders, or Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Ice Cream (although, those might well be the very sacrifices my wife Diane would suggest to me). But, if I do give up something, I want it to really mean something.
I want to make the sacrifice for God. Not just give up something for me under the pretense of it being for God. Rather to give up something that I know is coming between my heart and my Lord. Something that I tend to cling to so desperately in my life that I choose to ransom – as for thirty pieces of silver – the quality of that precious relationship with Jesus Christ, rather than give up the thing.
C’mon now. Don’t look at me like that. Let’s be real! Sure, I’m a pastor—but I was made a human being long before I was made a minister (a process which, by the way, you may have noticed is still going on). Of course, I have those kinds of struggles in my life. And I know very well what they are. Just as you know very well what those things are for you! If we can’t be honest about that, for heaven’s sake, then we might just as well celebrate Mardi Gras right up until Easter strikes pay dirt, and then move directly to Christmas.
You know what I’m talking about: maybe you like to profess brotherly/sisterly love, but get way too much enjoyment from vicious gossip about others; or maybe you voted for the candidate who loudly proclaimed family values, while you haven’t spoken to your own daughter for over ten years; or maybe you profess Christian charity toward others, while putting a dollar in the collection plate and spending tens of thousands on yourself. Or maybe it’s something darker . . . more insidious . . . something that destroys both the flesh and the soul. Something you hide fervently from the rest of the world.
But, guess what: God knows.
So, here we are, right back to our original dilemma. What are we going to do about Lent?
And – more to the point – how are we going to do it?
Suddenly this all seems like much more than just some exercise in fanciful whimsy. For now we are talking about our spiritual sanctity; our mental sanity; our physical salubrity.
What, indeed, are we – as wayward descendants of Adam and Eve – to do with that original dilemma, outside of shop for this season’s latest fashion in fig leaves?
It’s obvious that we cannot undertake this journey on our own. For if we try to do so, we are surely doomed to fall short of our destination—truth is we are no better equipped than our fledgling ancestors in the Genesis story.
So the first thing, I believe, we need to do is to place ourselves under God’s grace.
I truly believe that God looks at me and lovingly sees great untapped potential. Don’t you think God looks at you in the same way? The season of Lent calls for a pilgrimage back to the spiritual basics. And it calls us to pare down on all extraneous baggage so that we might travel light that arduous journey. Take only those things truly necessary: faith, courage, hope, humility, intentionality, determination, devotion, commitment, patience, perseverance and – perhaps most importantly of all – time. Precious time. Time spent together with the One who loves us so fully, so faithfully, so unfailingly and unceasingly.
Which leads us to two other essential provisions for our Lenten journey: 1) a map, and 2) a spiritual manifesto.
Our `map’ is the same map spiritual sojourners have been using for millennia—the Bible.
The Bible is still the best place to seek direction for our feet and assurance for the soul. Personally – along with countless others – I have found the Psalms to be of particular succor in discerning a spirit that resonates with both the humility and the encouragement needed to sustain such a pilgrimage. The Psalms can lead us from the depths and the heights of our very human experience, and ultimately back to God once more. It is especially helpful, I believe, to select a psalm that truly resonates and memorize it verse by verse; allowing it to sink deep into your being until it becomes part of your very soul.
The second essential provision, a `spiritual manifesto,’ is the platform from which we can safely delve into the depths of the wounded soul.
There is a wee prayer, which has endured two thousand years of stark spiritual sojourn: “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It was the prayer of the parabolic publican who humbled himself in the temple, and about whom Jesus affirmed, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” [Lk. 18:14]. Often called the Jesus Prayer, this simple prayer has its monastic origins in the Egyptian desert, which was settled in the 5th century by the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers. They called this prayer the Prayer of the Heart, because of its effectiveness in opening up the heart toward God: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Orthodox). Used by faithful sojourners for generations, it has long been considered an appropriate daily – even continuous – attitude of approach to a gracious God.
When temptation is acute, when trials are severe, when need is great, faithful recitation of this humble petition to God will open the gates of mercy and strengthen the praying soul.
Throughout our Lenten journey we can come frequently and deeply to God by this little prayer. It is not enough for us to say silently to ourselves, ‘I know what I am, O Lord,” and give up on ourselves as a hopeless case. And certainly, that is not the intention of this prayer. Nor is that the response God that is seeking from us.
Which brings us to a final essential element of our journey, one which is necessary for its completion: a faithful response.
If we are to travel in a way which is other than vicarious, then we must make our rejoinder to God. Such a response should follow naturally if our first two principles are being upheld. Which is to say, if we have first fully surrendered ourselves to God’s grace, and have followed the map of the faithful and remained true to our manifesto by coming before God in a continuous attitude of humble and open-ended prayer, then I believe God will lead us to a proper response. For it is God’s predisposition – in patiently, faithfully, lovingly waiting for our response to God – to help us find healing for our contrite hearts.
And, quite likely, that God-inspired response will have something to do with such spiritual matters such as: the relinquishment of a personal vice; reconciliation within a relationship; restoration of a lapsed spiritual discipline; restitution for harm done; recompense for a debt owed; renewal of a life drawn thin.
So be vigilant. If you are willing, God will create the opportunity for you to grow in faith.
Lent can still be a meaningful experience, if we truly take it to heart. And, while the journey will likely be an arduous one, it doesn’t really have to be so very complicated. It’s mostly a matter of trusting God enough to place our soul fully in God’s keeping; and then loving God enough to follow in obedience God’s faithful guidance.
One more thing: It’s important to remember, as we begin the journey, that our spiritual efforts are not meant to prove something—either to God, to others, or to our self. Rather, this holy season is designed for our spiritual – and thereby physical, mental, relational, and emotional – edification. That we might emerge on the far side of these forty days with a deeper, richer and more fulfilling relationship with God in our Lord Jesus Christ.
And May You Know the Blessings of God as You Travel in His Footsteps.