Friday, February 20, 2015

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-9a
Psalm 51
Matthew 9:14-15


As I was perusing my Facebook wall before bed on Ash Wednesday, I noticed several folks who had proudly posted articles such as "4 Reasons Why I Don't Observe Lent", or "I'm Giving up Lent for Lent". An article on a local news station's website about the local Episcopal Cathedral doing "Ashes on the Go" on Monument Circle had generated 19 comments. Every last one of them snarky repudiations of Lent, fasting, and Roman Catholicism... which is ironic, given the fact that the article was about Episcopalians.

Anyway, the jist of most of the articles is that Lent is just for show, it's works based salvation... that kind of thing. One of the kinder articles listed the following four reasons for why the author doesn't observe Lent:
  • Lent can lead us to focus on giving up the wrong things and leads to a false righteousness.
  • Lent often involves a fast which is frivolous.
  • Lent can wrongly lead people to believe that they can be saved by their works.
  • Lent often becomes ritualistic instead of deepening our relationship with God.
I have to confess... he's right about these cautions he puts out there. Lent can lead to all of these things, and worse. Lent is not something that is to be played around with. It's not a joke... not if it is to be done in a way that is truly God honoring and that will pay out dividends in your own spiritual life.

The writer illustrated his first point, about giving up the wrong things and leading to a false righteousness, with the example of a person who gives up chocolate for Lent by cheats with an ex. He rightly points out that such a practice is quite hypocritical, and is definitely not in keeping with the Gospel. I absolutely agree that sexual purity is of far greater importance than giving up chocolate. But was the transgression caused by keeping Lent? No. It was caused by the sin-nature residing in the individual, a sin nature that such an individual may not have been seeking the power of the Spirit to reign in. That gets back to a key tenant of Lent. 

If we think that Lent is about building our self discipline from our own reserves and willpower, we are going about it the wrong way. Lent needs to be, essentially, a time where we recognize that it is God, and not our own fallen nature, that will strengthen us against temptations... be it to chocolate, or to far more dangerous and sinful things.

This leads to the second observation, about a frivolous fast. Again, the commentator is right, but for the wrong reasons. His thoughts also bring with them a false assumption. First, a terminology check is in order. Fasting means to abstain from food, water, or both. Abstinence means eliminating something (or things) from our diet. When people 'give something up' for Lent, they are abstaining from it. On Fridays, when the fish come out in force in the cafeterias of the land, the reference is that people 'abstain' from meat. Abstinence and fasting are two different animals. Abstinence from, let's say, chocolate for a period of seven weeks is, on the surface, pretty frivolous. Same goes for TV, or coffee, or Facebook.  But there are people who have serious connections to these frivolous things. For them, the removal of these things from their lives for seven weeks is a massive sacrifice. How many of us log into Facebook dozens of times a day? Imagine the time we'd have free for other purposes, perhaps Scripture study or reflection, prayer, feeding the sick... if we didn't spend so much time plugged into the Net. Sometimes, these distractions can overtake our lives. They become reasons for living. The begin to become idols... gods, if you will, in our own lives. Overcoming our reliance, dependence, and addiction (at times) to them is vital for wholeness in life... and it is God who graces us with the ability to walk away and find renewal.

Third, we get into Lent and works-salvation. A few weeks back we addressed this issue, looking at the question of salvation by faith alone, comparing and contrasting Romans and James. As we read, the only place in Scripture where the phrase 'faith alone' is used is in James 2:24 where we are told "we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone." Our actions reflect our response to the God who pours out upon us his grace. When we choose works of faithfulness and righteousness, we do so because we are not refusing God's grace, but are willing to allow his grace to flow freely in our lives. When we choose evil deeds, it is because we are resisting the grace of God. No matter what we do, it is a manifestation of how we are responding to God. The saving work of Jesus Christ is still what brings salvation to us... but we have to manifest a desire to appropriate that work to ourselves, or we are wasting our time. My most compassionate moments of service as a hospital chaplain don't save me. The grace of God does, when I am open to it. If I slam the door on him, and on his abundant gift of grace, I'm exiling myself... and God's grace is not present in that moment.

Finally, of course Lent can become ritualistic. My morning routine is ritualistic. Humans are ritualistic creatures. The issue is not with ritual. The issue is with DEAD ritual. If I keep Lent because I have to - and yes, many people do keep Lent for precisely such a reason, then it's doing me spiritual harm, not spiritual good. Our family relationships can become ritualistic, and devoid of life. How many people do we know who 'stay married for the kids', for example, whose love grew cold years before. If it is all a show, then Lent is useless. 

But you see, the whole point of Lent is missed if we rail against it for all the ways it can be screwed up. Let me, then, summarize what Lent is and can be to you:

Lent is a time of intensive training for the soul. It's a human tradition, an adiaphora (thing indifferent) if you will. We keep it, though it's not specifically commanded in Scripture. It is a time where we join together with other believers in asking God for the strength to continually (not just for 40 days) amend our lives and grow spiritually more resilient.  It is a time where we rightly challenge ourselves, and where we succeed, when we do succeed, by abandoning the self and embracing God as the strength which leads us to overcome our bad habits, our sinful tendencies, and walk in the way of truth.

Lent is a time to lean on the Spirit with a greater trust than you've ever had before, and to transform your life permanently. Alas, we sometimes fail with the permanent part... I know I have. And yet, the good news is that we need not wait for Lent to come around again to pick up on spiritual disciplines and reliance on God. But if we can learn to do it for an extended period, and if we can perhaps continue to build upon past Lents in years to come, Lent can become a time of amazing transformation, setting us up for deeper experiences in our day to day walk with God.


That all who have adopted Lenten spiritual disciplines would learn to trust, 
not on their own strength, 
but on the power and presence of the Spirit in transforming their lives for the better, 
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

That those who feel listless or unengaged in their spiritual lives, 
that God's transformative grace would encourage them 
to reconnect with him, and with others, 
as they walk the journey of this life, 
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

That those who feel lost in their sins 
might find, in Christ Jesus, 
the sure hope of mercy, 
and the courage to confess and renew themselves in the Spirit, 
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

That those who feel overwhelmed in this life, 
as they face critical decisions, 
or walk through their life seemingly alone, 
would recognize the loving care of the Father in their lives this day, 
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

For our patients, their families, and our staff, 
that their needs and concerns would be heard with love by God, 
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.

For the needs dare to speak aloud...
... and for the needs we hold in the silence of our hearts...
...let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, hear our prayer.