In the midst of Holy Week, with Lent winding down, I’m contemplating the season in which I consciously chose not to “give up” anything for Lent. No, the season didn’t begin with me receiving ashes. I didn’t chose to fast, or refrain from eating meat on Friday. I gotta’ confess…I don’t feel like I’ve missed that much in opting out of any particular Lenten observance. You may argue, therein lies the problem.
The observance of Lent hasn’t historically been a Protestant thing. I never knew of Lent in the church where I grew up. It wasn’t until I entered seminary that I was challenged to “observe a holy Lent,” as the United Methodist Book of Worship extended the invitation. I sought desperately to learn what this “holy Lent” was all about. It was more pronounced by the fact that in Junction City, KY, where I served as pastor during seminary that the Roman Catholic Church was literally next door. Yet, it was all still new to me.
I suppose it’s a good thing that seminary opened to door to all things Lenten because my first post-seminary appointment was in Morgan City, LA. Does anyone know where Morgan City, LA is located? That’s right. Deep in the heart of cajun, heavily Roman Catholic south Louisiana. There, almost everyone observed Lent. Sit down restaurants in Morgan City? During Lent you wouldn’t find meat on the menu on Friday. Catholic churches would have fish-fry fund-raisers every Friday. Lent was a real thing. I’ve sought to observe a “holy Lent” ever since.
Honestly, as I anticipate the coming of Easter Sunday, I think more about Christ’s call to new life, and not just to new life, but to a holy life. Too often, in my observances of the Lenten season, my anticipation for Easter was that I could have coffee once again, or re-engage with social media, or have a big, old juicy steak on Friday evening. It was about getting through Lent to celebrate what I could do once again. It was about going back to the old life, not living into the fullness of the new life.
I suppose it is for me that the Lord hasn’t called me to observe a “holy Lent,” but rather to observe a “holy life.” I rather believe the Lord has been calling me to instill the practices that constitute a holy Lent into my life throughout the year, not just for a season. It might just be that practicing fasting regularly (which John Wesley did, by the way) will take me deeper into the life of a disciple.
Perhaps I’m just over-thinking things here. Perhaps I’m convicted that I didn’t observe Lent this year. Maybe that’s what really has me thinking out loud. Perhaps it’s just that it’s Tuesday and I should be writing a blog and I couldn’t think of anything else to write about. I’m not sure what it is, but I am sure that if a “holy Lent” doesn’t lead to a “holy life,” then it’s been a wasted Lent, and I hope none of us have a wasted Lent.
Maybe I shouldn’t think out loud so much. Maybe I should just focus more on Easter. Yeah, that’s probably what I should do.
We are in the season of Lent. Lent is that 40 day period (okay 46–but Sundays don’t count) between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday that began historically as a time of spiritual preparation as early converts were prepared for membership in the body of Christ. It was also a time when those who had separated themselves from the body of Christ were reconciled through confession and repentance.
I’m struggling with what it means to “observe a holy Lent,” which we Methodists are invited to do on Ash Wednesday.
I can’t say that I like Lent. I don’t like Lent because I am convicted by how un-holy I can be. I am convicted because Lent calls me to reflect on the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, and as I consider his response to temptation, I realize my own failure in places that I’d rather not reveal here.
This time of reflection necessarily leads me to this whole idea of confessing my sins in the face of all those failures. Oh, I’ve got lots to confess, too. I am reminded of a story I heard of four pastors who often met for a friendly gathering. During the conversation one preacher said, “Our people come to us and pour out their hearts, confess their sins and needs. Let’s do the same. Confession is good for the soul.”
In due time all agreed. One confessed he liked to go to movies and would sneak off when away from his church. The second confessed to enjoying cigars and the third confessed to enjoying card playing. When it came to the fourth one, he wouldn’t confess. The others pressed him saying, “Come on now, we confessed ours. What’s your confession?” Finally he answered, “It’s gossiping and I can hardly wait to get out of here.” I really don’t like Lent because it causes me to reflect and confess, and that’s just awfully painful.
And then, there’s just the whole idea of self-denial. I actually have to give something up? Come on, now! You can’t be serious? I enjoy my coffee, or my diet coke, or my red meat, or my…well, you have to fill in the blank, because I have too many of my own blanks to fill in (whoops! There’s another confession!), but you get the idea. I just don’t see the need for self-denial, after all. God has blessed me greatly, and doesn’t God want me to enjoy these blessings? But because I’m a company man, and I want to at least appear holy, I acquiesce and I practice the Lenten observance by reflecting and praying and confessing and giving up.
A Land Between Holiness and Hell
What I come to discover through the observance of Lent is that I live life in a land somewhere between holiness and hell. I long desperately for holiness, but hell is so much easier. I discover that one who is truly holy cannot help but enjoy the blessings of God—blessings like love, joy, peace and contentment. I discover God’s grace poured out in a thousand ways in the most unnoticeable places, and I learn to say, “Praise the Lord!”
The observance of Lent reveals to me that what I counted as blessings (material possessions, health, good success) are more fruits of my own labors than they are God’s blessings, and the reality that any and all of those “blessings” are transient in nature—here today and gone tomorrow. It causes me to wonder if there were no material possessions, no good health, no great success, would it affect my trust of Him?
I realize just how hollow I can be, and somehow, by some mysterious means in this realization, I am drawn closer to Christ (isn’t grace amazing?), and I don’t seem quite as hollow as before, somehow perhaps even a little more holy. Forget that I was drug kicking and screaming to the observance. The Spirit has done His work—somewhat akin to the terrible tasting medicine we received when we were children. We hated it, but it worked.
So, I invite you to observe a holy Lent. Pray more deeply, reflect more seriously, confess more faithfully, and deny the comforts that shape us. Do so kicking and screaming, if you must, but be prepared to see the Spirit work and draw you closer to Christ. That is what Lent is about, you know.
The great Methodist hymn writer, Fanny Crosby, is known for some great hymns of the church. Among those hymns are Blessed Assurance, Rescue the Perishing, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior. Historians have noted that Crosby is responsible for over 9,000 hymns in her lifetime. That’s incredible when we remember that she was blind from the time she was six weeks old. She died in 1915 just shy of her 95th birthday, and the final verse she wrote said, “You will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye.”
Long before she penned those last words, in 1869 she penned another of her now famous hymns. That hymn resonates with me as I spend this Lent at the cross of Jesus. Hear the words of the first verse of her hymn Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross:
Jesus, keep me near the cross;
There a precious fountain,
Free to all a healing stream,
Flows from Calvary’s mountain.
“Keep me near the cross” is my prayer this Lenten season. It is near the cross that we not only see Jesus, but we hear the words he speaks from the cross. Jesus made seven statements while He hung on the cross. They were the last words of Jesus; each one has significance and meaning, and teach us something about the heart of God.
Famous Last Words
First, He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.” In the midst of being unjustly wronged, Jesus was still able to offer a prayer of forgiveness. Next, he interacted with two criminals being crucified beside Him. One rejected Him, the other repented and cried out to Him to save him to which Jesus responded, “You will be with me in paradise,” a wonderful word of salvation.
Then, Jesus spoke a third time from the cross. In his anguish, he looked down from the cross and saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved–the Apostle John. Here is what John recorded:
25 Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene.26 When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.”27 And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from then on this disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 25 – 27 NLT)
As I read these words, I make two discoveries.
The Power of a Passionate Love
The first discovery is the power of a passionate love. I see the passionate love of Jesus. Let’s remember all that happened to Jesus in the past 24 hours. He had been whipped, His back being completely torn to shreds. He had been punched repeatedly in the face. Romans had taken a crown of thorns and crushed it down upon His head. He had suffered an incredible loss of blood. He was desperately weak and thirsty. They took spikes, driving them into His wrists and feet, fastening Him to a cross, slamming it into the ground with all of His weight being held only by those spikes. He knew he was dying.
Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British author and poet said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Here is Jesus, hanging on the cross watching the soldiers gamble for his clothes. If there was ever a time Jesus would be justified in being selfish, it was now, but his mind turned not to himself, but to others—particularly, his mother. Jesus dying concern is for his mother.
Jesus saw his mother and said, “Woman, he is your son.” Jesus was taking care of his mother’s needs. It was his tender compassion at work, even from the cross. Joseph was likely dead, and in ancient near eastern culture widows had no means of support. It was the oldest son’s responsibility to care for his widowed mother. Jesus was doing what I’ve witnessed so many others do through 28 years of ministry. As I’ve journeyed with many through their last days the concern most expressed is not for themselves, but for the one’s they leave behind. Who will care for them? Did I leave enough for them? Will they be alright? Jesus had a deep, passionate love for his mother, and he was expressing it from the cross.
Jesus wasn’t the only one expressing a passionate love, though. So was his mother, Mary. What mother could choose to watch her son die such a gruesome and painful death? Don’t you know that with every blow of the hammer, Mary felt the nails going into Jesus’ feet and hands? Don’t you know that with every labored breath of Jesus she lost a little of her own? It was a mother’s love that kept her near the cross in the face of such pain.
A few years ago, a newspaper report out of south Florida reported of a little boy who decided to go for a swim in the lake behind his house. In a hurry to dive into the cool water, he ran out the back door, leaving behind shoes, socks, and shirt as he went.
He flew into the water, not realizing that as he swam toward the middle of the lake, an alligator was swimming toward the shore. His mother in the house was looking out the window saw the two as they got closer and closer together. In utter fear, she ran toward the water, yelling to her son as loudly as she could.
Hearing her voice, the little boy became alarmed and made a U-turn to swim to his mother. It was too late. Just as he reached her, the alligator reached him. From the dock, the mother grabbed her little boy by the arms just as the alligator snatched his legs. An incredible tug-of-war began between the two. The alligator was much stronger than the mother, but the mother was much too passionate to let go. A farmer happened to drive by, heard her screams, raced from his truck, took careful aim and shot the alligator.
Remarkably, after weeks and weeks in the hospital, the little boy survived. His legs were scarred by the vicious attack, and on his arms were deep scratches where his mother’s fingernails dug into his flesh in her effort to hang on to the son she loved.
The newspaper reporter, who interviewed the boy after the trauma, asked if he would show him his scars. The boy lifted his pant legs. And then, with obvious pride, he said to the reporter, “But look at my arms. I have great scars on my arms, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let go.”
This was Mary hanging onto Jesus as long as she could. Her passionate love kept her from turning away.
The power of passionate love was at the cross that day. Jesus, keep me near the cross that I might know such a passionate love.
The Power of an Incredible Purpose
The second discovery I’d like for us to make is the power of an incredible purpose. We find this power in the Apostle John—the one whom Jesus loved. It was this John who had a special place in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. It was Peter, James and John who saw Jesus gloriously transfigured on the mountain. It was Peter, James and John who were invited by Jesus to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and they were invited to go with Jesus deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray before his arrest. It is an awesome lesson for us that those who are close to Jesus will be entrusted with great opportunity to serve in the Kingdom: to do for Jesus what he could not do for himself.
Jesus was saying to John, “You have to take my place. You have to do what I cannot do.” We see in these words, not simply a concern of a son for his mother, but also a demonstration of the re-ordering of relationships based on Kingdom principles. Jesus was affirming what he taught in his ministry. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been confronted by great crowds, so much so that Mark says his family was looking for him because they thought he has “lost his mind.” Word came to Jesus that his mother and brothers were outside:
33 Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Then he looked at those around him and said, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. 35 Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3: 22 – 34 NLT).
We are familiar with the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” In Kingdom relationships, Spirit is thicker than blood. This was John’s commissioning to become the hands and feet of Jesus and demonstrates to us that the purpose of the church is to become the hands and feet of Jesus. As the elder son was responsible for the mother, so those who are becoming people of Christ are responsible for the forgotten of society. You and I are responsible for others. What an incredible purpose!
I am reminded of the story of the husband who had an affair and divorced his wife so he could marry his mistress. The two married and had children. After the children were born, the new wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As her days final days drew near, she asked the ex-wife to visit her. The ex-wife reluctantly went to see the dying woman. As the two chatted, the dying woman looked intently at the ex-wife and said, “I have a request.”
“What is that?” the ex-wife replied.
“When I’m gone, will you take care of my children? I don’t know anyone I could trust more with their care,” was the woman’s request.
The ex-wife hesitated for a few moments and the air became heavy as the mother thought about the request she had made. Finally, the ex-wife replied, “I’ll gladly care for your children after your death.”
Later, friends asked the ex-wife, “How could you consent to do that after she destroyed your marriage?”
“God’s love has given me the power to forgive. I think I can accept her children as my own,” was the woman’s answer.
God’s children become our own when we stand near the cross. Like John, we are charged to do for Jesus what He can no longer do for himself–care for others. What an incredible purpose!
Want to know your life purpose? Stand near the cross. That’s where we discover the power of an incredible purpose.
The countryside is dotted with churches in disrepair. I’ve seen them. As a District Superintendent for the United Methodist Church, I saw several churches that were abandoned and left to deteriorate. I also visited lots of churches that weren’t kept very well. What brings this to my mind is the fact that we’re dealing with many issues of maintenance that need attention where I serve as pastor. But, I’ve visited others where the building was falling down around the congregation and no one noticed. The congregation is so accustomed to the peeling paint and dirty carpet that they no longer notice it. They haven’t taken the time to fix the faucet in the bathroom, and the Sunday school literature, well it’s only twelve years old, but it’s still useable, so…
We just don’t take care of our buildings the way we should. What’s that got to do with Lent? Shouldn’t we be talking about repentance and prayer and other spiritual disciplines? Yes, we should, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The description of those run-down buildings gives us a good idea of the state of the Temple in Jerusalem when the prophet Joel was young man. Centuries of misuse and disuse had caused Solomon’s once magnificent structure to look more like a building in the slums than in the upscale section of Jerusalem. As Joel grew, there was a turnaround. Later, this dilapidated building was cleaned up and refurbished. After the remodeling, the offerings and sacrifices were restored and Temple life returned to normal. Well, almost.
The prophet Joel wrote the words of his prophecy because there was still a problem. The turnaround in the nation wasn’t complete. Everything looked good on the outside, but there really hadn’t been much of an internal change with these people. God wasn’t looking for an outer change as much as he was looking for an inner one.
It’s the same for us as we seek to observe a holy Lent. God is looking for repentance from us. He doesn’t just want us to say all the right words, and he doesn’t want to simply give us a list of duties to work on, or as we walk this 40 day journey. Outward actions are nice, but if there is no inward change, it’s really all for naught. Jesus says as much in Matthew’s Gospel.
That neglected building, that church that no one is taking much care of, is me. If I take an honest look at my life, here’s what I see? I can’t say there’s been more good than bad. I can’t say that during this past year, I have been more interested in the things of God vs. the things of this world. In just this past week, I can’t honestly say that the Lord has always taken first place in my heart, but he has slipped through the cracks as other priorities crowded him out? Work, spending time with friends, the television and the computer, even simply “me” time have all taken priority. I am good at scheduling things that bring me happiness…and making sure that I keep those appointments.
But, have I been so busy taking care of the other matters of life that I neglected the church inside of me? Is that building strong, well-kept, and beautiful? Or, is there deferred maintenance that needs attending too? Sometimes, we lock the doors of our hearts, and just expect that our faith will remain intact, and so we can take a little vacation from working hard on our Christian lives, and when we come back, everything will be fine. If we don’t keep up the maintenance, the spiritual building will begin to fall down around us–metaphorically speaking…
Lent is a perfect time to begin that deferred maintenance in our heart. Joel’s prophecy has one word that serves as the beginning of the work–“Return!” If we’ve been away from the Lord for a while, or if we haven’t followed him as vigorously as we know we should, God is holding out an invitation to us: “Return! I want you back!”
God tells us how he wants us to return to him. The Lord says, “Rend your heart and not your garments.” In Biblical times, if a person were really upset over something, they would tear their clothes as a sign of sadness. But many people played a little game with God. When they were confronted with their sin by God’s priests and prophets, they would tear their clothes, they would put ashes on their heads. They’d do everything that made them look sad, and then they would go back to those same sins. The problem was they were trying to cure cancer with a band-aid.
The outward signs of Lent—putting ashes on our forehead, confessing our sins, singing sad songs—are all nice things to do, but they mean absolutely nothing if we are playing the crying game with God, telling him how sorry we are, but returning home to the same life we have been leading when Lent is over.
Joel helps us get into the proper mindset when he prophesies, “return to me with all your heart.” Returning is repenting, but repenting is not simply being sorry for what we’ve done. Repenting is turning from what we’ve done. Repentance includes not doing it again, and repentance starts in the heart. Missionary Gypsy Smith shares the story of the time he spent in South Africa. On one occasion, a handsome Dutchman came into his revival service, and God laid His hand on the Dutchman and convicted him of his sin. The next morning he went to the home of another Dutchman and said to the homeowner, “Do you recognize this old watch?”
“Why, yes,” answered the homeowner. “Those are my initials; that is my watch. I lost it eight years ago. How did you get it, and how long have you had it?”
“I stole it,” was the Dutchman’s reply.
“What made you bring it back now?”
“I was converted last night,” was the answer, “and I have brought it back first thing this morning. If you had been up, I would have brought it last night.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever read through the 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, but the first of those theses reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is a process that is repeated over and over throughout our life.
During Lent, as we stress our desperate need for repentance, there is a silver lining. There is time for us to come back to God. The prophet says “even now,” with our rebellious past, the Lord still wants us. We talk about doing deferred maintenance, having genuine from-the-heart repentance, and God does something awesome when we come to him on his terms. The sinner repents, and the Lord relents.
Here’s Joel 2: 13: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” We are hopelessly guilty, and we know it. We look around and see the peeling paint of our hearts. We smell the old, dirty carpet. We see the burned-out light bulbs. It’s all around us. That’s exactly why we need Lent. We come to repent because we know He is a God who relents.
Lent is a journey toward the cross of Jesus. The cross is where we learn how God can afford to relent. Our deferred maintenance begins on Ash Wednesday, but it finds its full restoration at the foot of the cross.
It’s popular thing to give up something for Lent. Considering ourselves to be more spiritual than someone who isn’t giving up something for Lent is not an appropriate start to the journey, nor is supposing that giving up something puts us in better standing with God. The proper way of beginning is to remember that Jesus gave up everything for us, so out of gratitude we give up something we love for him. It’s an offering of sorts. But, avoiding chocolate or not watching our favorite TV show for 40 days isn’t going to make us more spiritual unless we fill the time with the Word of God and prayer.
God doesn’t command that we give up something for Lent, but if we choose to do so, here is a way that will be a spiritual benefit to us—think of something you really enjoy doing: maybe it’s eating a particular food or drinking a certain beverage. Maybe it’s an activity like shopping or exercising. Maybe it’s staring at the television or computer screen for hours on end. If you chose to give something up for Jesus, then be sure to replace it with prayer, and Bible study. Maybe instead of spending 2 hours watching a basketball game, you go into your room, and read through the Bible, slowly digesting every word, considering how God is talking to you, praying that the Lord speaks to you and makes you a better disciple. Joel ends verse 14 with these words, “I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully.”
We repent, God relents. And when we go into his Word, God opens his storehouse of spiritual treasures to us and gives us gift after gift. The Lord wants to replace the trivial things in our life with real gifts. Gifts like peace in our hearts that can deal with any problem. Gifts like a greater willingness and ability to serve Jesus in our life.
So, let’s start those maintenance projects. Our lives resemble a building that needs some upkeep, and Lent is the time to get to work. Jesus won the ultimate struggle for us. He has fixed us up, and He is fixing us up to make us a glistening, beautiful building in which we will dwell forever. God has made us into a building like that, and now with the Spirit’s help, strive to keep that building up! Let’s not be satisfied with mere cosmetic improvements, but let us plead with the Lord to use His Word to change our hearts to make us a more repentant, more useful servant in God’s kingdom.