We are now in the Lenten season and let me begin by first sharing the conclusion of my post in case you have an attention span of a 2-year-old:
Lent isn’t about you
or about what you’re giving up.
But we’ll get to that soon.
For those that might not be familiar with Lent, it is the 40 day period (not including Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday that has traditionally been a time of preparation for those who were preparing for baptism and later expanded to include the larger Christian community. It marks a time of prayer, penance, repentance, humility, self-denial, and soul-searching as one draws closer to the Passion of Christ and ultimately, culminating in the celebration of the Resurrection. You can check out my sermon to get a crash course on the history of Lent – and how it started (likely) as a 2-3 day event and eventually became a 40-day rhythm by 325 AD at the Council of Nicaea.
I appreciate the Lenten season for many and various reasons. In fact, the Lenten season is important to me because it helps me create rhythm in my life – something especially helpful when busyness, chaos, randomness, clutter, and lots of noise inundate my life. I deeply appreciate Lent because it helps me prepare for Passion Week – the final week of Christ. And while we know Easter brings upon us the celebration of the resurrection, I am grateful that the Lenten season more thoughtfully and deeply prepares me for Crucifixion Friday or known by most as Good Friday.
This year, I’m choosing – along with some other things – to give up “coffee” during the Lent season. Trust me, for someone that runs a cafe, has his offices in a cafe, and has access to Stumptown Coffee, this will certainly be a “test” of self-denial.
But even after acknowledging that I myself am “giving up” coffee during Lent, I’m ambivalent and reticent about how vogue or easy it is to give something up during Lent. Umm, especially when it’s something like chocolate, sodas, sugar, Facebook, Twitter, television, and – umm – coffee.
I don’t want to knock those who give stuff up. Not at all. Go for it. More power to you.
Religion gone bad.
In fact, I understand the significance of self-denial and feel it’s something we should actually pursue more of – especially beyond the Lent season. Like as a life commitment. But if we’re not careful, we can so easily just fall into religious practice for the sake of religious practice. If the goal is merely the giving up of something without taking up of something more significant, the focus is just merely on the stuff which we give up or really, the focus is on the practice of giving up something rather than giving into Jesus – or in other words, our solidarity with Jesus. In truth, it becomes about us. Again.
Anything that produces rituals, expressions, practices, and the like – without ultimately inviting us to a deeper understanding and worship of the Living God…lends itself to empty religion. Slowly but surely without us even knowing.
And what we need isn’t more empty religion.
We need Gospel.
And by Gospel, I’m not speaking of a self-help, pop spiritual psychology, but a Gospel that cuts into the heart of humanity with a grace that compels us to not just merely to salvation but a life committed to justice, reconciliation, and redemption.
Isaiah 58 speaks of fasting but fasting that God is not pleased with. It’s a fasting that caters to our own eyes, flesh, and pleasure but not the kind of fasting that God invites us to:
a life broken and transformed
by the things of God
“I will tell you why!” I respond.
“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
you keep oppressing your workers.
4 What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
5 You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?
6 “No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
7 Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
8 “Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
9 Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.
“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
10 Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring.
12 Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.
Or in other words, I wonder if God might have these words for me (and for you if I may be so audacious):
“Umm, I didn’t ask you to give up coffee. I asked you to surrender your life.”
So here’s the question:
In what way does the self-denial of whatever makes you more mindful of Christ and the Kingdom of God?
For me, I don’t want to think of it as only giving up but rather a season of more deeply ‘giving in’ or ‘giving to’…
- In what way am I more compelled to give in to the ways of God?
- How am I more deeply giving in and giving to – to my neighbors, wife, children, church, strangers, refugees, etc?
- How am I more deeply giving or growing in stewardship, generosity, my convictions, etc?
- How am I more giving in to the Ways of Christ? How am I more giving in to Mercy, Justice, and Humility?
When you give up something, replace it with something more beautiful, more just, more compassionate, more honoring to Christ. Removing weeds without planting something…only produces more weeds later.
When you give up _______ for Lent, do it with purpose and love for God. Doing it for the sake of doing it…makes us only like a clanging cymbal and a resounding gong.
“Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”
Here’s an alternative invitation for Lent – whether you give up something or not:
Give yourself more fully to Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
Remember, you are dust
and to dust you shall return.
Repent, believe, and be saved by the gospel of Christ.
Rejoice in the good news that God has conquered death and sin.
Thanks be to God.
(originally written in 2011)