The Lentiest–A Meditation for Palm Sunday 2020

This is the lentiest Lent that I ever lented.

Today is Palm Sunday — the paradoxical day when we cry out in joy “Hosanna” but also cringe at the cross looming on Friday. It is the last Sunday of Lent, but also the beginning of Easter week.

Ash Wednesday seems like a whole other universe, that cold winter’s night when we gathered and spoke of our own mortality — ‘From ashes you came, to ashes you shall return’ and promised to follow Jesus on the lonely path of prayer and devotion. We started our fast by faith, not knowing where it would lead us.

There is nothing quite like a global pandemic to get your attention on the issues of mortality. People’s lives are in jeopardy. Medical supplies are running out. The world is shut down. People are afraid. This new reality focuses our prayers. We started praying for Wuhan. Then we prayed for Italy. Then Spain. Some of us prayed for Iran because the news looked like they got hit harder than admitted. Then we prayed for Washington State — that hit close to home. Now we pray for New York, where doctors, nurses, and all hospital personnel put their own lives at risk everyday to save others. And bodies are being stored in cooling trucks because there is no room in the morgue.

We are driven to ours knees in prayer for our communities for the virus to pass without fatalities, and that it passover us.

From ashes we came. To ashes we return.

Lentish in the extreme.

The question of Lent is how do we fill our lives with meaning between the ashes.

The quest of Lent is to live a life dedicated to God in such a way that makes the world better. This is what we will be judged on in eternity. This is the call of Lent — to draw closer to God in Christ because the world we live in, though important, is not the place where we find ultimate meaning. We are passing through. Our citizenship is elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is here in this place where we learn the secrets to the next: the fulfillment of sacrifice, the work of love, the joy of service, the power of truth, and meaning of hope.

Lent calls us to fast — depriving our body and our minds of normal, everyday comforts so we can focus upon Christ. This fasting is not a punishment but a process for controlling our appetites with discipline. Normally we do this by depriving our body of sugar, chocolate, bread, entertainment or something banal. This year, the fasting was abrupt and involuntary; fasting was hoisted upon faithful and faithless alike.

We were deprived of our social interactions and forced to face ourselves and our families. Do you think the Lord might be teaching us something spiritual here?

We were deprived of basic material goods we take for granted. No longer were people clamoring for the latest gadget but the most important thing on people’s minds was toilet paper. Is it possible there is something spiritual the Lord is teaching us?

Milk, rationed; the meat aisle was depleted. There is no flour on the baking aisle, either. So very lenty.

I don’t mean to be too over-the-top, but you’ll pardon me for thinking the Lord said to all of us, ‘Yeah, you could do without for a little while.’

The lentiest Lent that I ever lented.

The Lenten/Easter cycle is always in parallel with the Exodus/Passover narratives both theologically and temporarily, as they fall about the same time. Anyone who ever doubted God could bring the powerful Egyptian Empire to its knees by controlling the water, the livestock and the weather should observe how the world has buckled. I am not saying God brought about COVID-19 as a plague. I am saying life teaches lessons about reality.

Lent is about the power of God and spiritual strength. Though these times are hard, and this Lenten season is unique and will forever in our lives be remembered as the year without Easter, perhaps it will be the most significant and spiritually meaningful Easter. The reason is simple. Lent is that wonderful annual remembrance to prioritize what matters and to cut away those things which do not.

The lentiest Lent I ever lented will produce the easteriest Easter I ever eastered. Amen.

ASH WEDNESDAY AND LENT

Why are Lent and Ash Wednesday a good idea? 

This is a post from a previous year that I am re-posting today because, obviously, it is Ash Wednesday that, for me, helps answer some of that question.   

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This is the week that we Christians who follow a liturgical pattern of the year mark the journey through Lent and toward Easter.  It all begins on Ash Wednesday.  I consistently find that when I take the ash and observe Lent my experience of Easter is much richer and therefore more meaningful to me.  I did not grow up in a church which practiced Lent and Ash Wednesday, so when I learned about it as an adult I was skeptical.  However, as I dug around and realized that sin, prayer, confession and death with eternal judgment were all major themes, I knew I was all in.  What kind of Baptist doesn’t get excited about that!  But over the years as I have led my church to practice and observe Ash Wednesday and Lent I have encountered some objections to the practice.

1.  Lent is only for Roman Catholics.

There is a certain amount of truth to that claim.  Catholics do observe Lent and Ash Wednesday.  However, the counter is true as well.  Catholics also baptize and preach.  Does that mean I should not baptize and preach?  No, certainly not.  The best answer to this argument though, is that the roots of Lent and Ash Wednesday go way back to a time way before there were any distinctions such as Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists.  Much of Catholic history and tradition is also my tradition—we have a shared origin in Christ and the early church.  Besides, some of the greatest Christians I’ve ever met, studied, read, or learned about have been Roman Catholics.  It is time we put such prejudices and biases away.

2.  Ash Wednesday and Lent are too negative.

Yes, I suppose that is the way it might seem.  The major themes of Ash Wednesday are death, dust, mortality, sin, confession, fasting and contrition.  Lent, if done correctly, will be very uncomfortable and sometimes a downer.  People from traditions which emphasize the “Jesus makes me happy all the time” might be a little put off by such ‘negativism.’  The thing, though, is that the Scriptures call us to contemplate such.  I should be painfully aware of my own mortality.  “From dust I came and to dust I shall return” is a powerful thought.  Our culture likes to pretend death isn’t real, but it is and therefore I must confront my sin and deal with it in this life.  I should get my appetites under control and bring my body into discipline.  Ash Wednesday and Lent help us do that with a focus and the help of our community.

3.  We should always pray and fast and confess, not just one season a year.

I so agree.  I try and make prayer and confession a part of my daily routine.  Fasting is the kind of thing I’ve done in various ways throughout the year.  I especially encourage fasting before making big decisions.  It clears the mind.  But again, I bring the counter argument to this objection by saying if we should always be doing it, then how can it be wrong to be doing it now, at Lent, when millions, if not billions of people around the world are also engaged in it.  By fasting, praying, and confessing at the same time the Christian community is bound by a common experience which might have a powerful impact on the world.

I also ask, if you do not fast during Lent, then when do you fast?  The New Testament seems to expect it of Christ-followers and if you’re not going to do it now, then when do you plan on it?  Why not now?

Before I bring this to a close, I want folks to understand I am not trying to convince anyone they have to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent to be a good Christian or even for Easter to be significant.  Many good, wonderful, Jesus-loving Christ-followers never follow Lent and are great people whom I admire.  What I am arguing is that the practice of it is not inherently wrong or misguided, and that many people might actually be stirred by the practice in positive ways.  It can’t hurt and it just might change your perspective for the better.

If you’re interested, but don’t really know where to start, check out Suggested Guidelines for Lent.  It is a good place to start.

ADVICE ON THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

So I pick up with my “advice” themed blog posts.  I’ve got about four or five more in mind before I move on completely.

What exactly do we call what I am about to give advice on?  Years ago people in my faith tradition would have called it ‘holiness,’ but that whole concept I think was misguided.  Only the Lord is holy, and our holiness flows from him as an act of grace, therefore holiness is not something I can generate or nurture.  It can only be received.  The trendy phrase today is ‘spiritual formations.’  I like that phrase quite a bit but most people sitting in pews don’t understand what it means–it almost sounds like science fiction or maybe Scientology.celtic-cross-high-pictures-1la

So, I’ve decided to call it the spiritual life–the things I think each of us can do to make certain we are growing spiritually and balancing out the growing impact of materialism and power games that have taken over a great deal of what we call ‘church.’  Before you go any further, know that these are Christian spiritual concepts and the beginning and end of all genuine spirituality is Jesus Christ.

1.  Pick a community of faith and stick with it.  The greatest detriment to many people’s spiritual health is that they church hop.  We were made to live in community and we must have that in order to be healthy.  It takes time to do it right and doesn’t always come quickly.  As I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed how hard it is for us to simply ‘spend time’ together as human beings.  We are losing a lot of our social interaction skills, and this is hurting us spiritually.

2.  Submit to spiritual authority.  I am a Baptist and Baptists generally come out of the womb rejecting authority and fighting against leadership.  That is why we have earned such a reputation for ‘church splits.’  This is sinful.  Submission is the expected norm in the spiritual life and those who refuse to do so are stunting their eternal perspective.  There is one caveat to this and that is when the spiritual leader is doing something evil or heretical.  Changing what time the small group starts or the type of music in a worship service is neither evil or heretical.

3.  Make prayer a personal endeavor.  Everyone can pray, and no one doesn’t know how.  Simply set aside time to speak with the Lord.  You were made for this, and Jesus died on the cross for you to experience deeper intimacy with him.  Although there is no bad way to pray, three things will help you as you do pray.

A)  Set aside a specific time when you are alone.
B)  Use both free prayers (what’s on your heart) and written prayers (the Lord’s prayer, for example).
C)  Spend time listening.  Shut your mouth and just listen.  This will take time to develop because most of us have been trained through our church experiences to babble on mindlessly during our prayers.

4.  Read the Bible at least once a day, preferably twice or more, in a translation you comprehend.  One verse doesn’t count.  Read entire chapters or sections (you know, from heading to heading) so that you can get a feel for the context.  When you finish reading it, make certain you understand what you read.  If you don’t read it again.  If that doesn’t help, maybe consult a commentary or talk to a friend or pastor.

5.  Fast.

6.  You need two relationships to spiritually grow.  One relationship is with a mentor–someone who is guiding you into maturity.  The second one is someone you are being a mentor to.  Without both of these, you are spiritually lacking.  These relationships may not happen at the same time, but there will likely be some temporal overlapping.

7.  Accountability is vital to spiritual health.  This is especially true of leadership, but it is generally true for all of us.  There must be someone whom we speak to about the darkness in our heart, the struggles in our soul, and the pain of our longings.  We need these people to speak discipline and forgiveness into our lives.

8.  Learn to ask yourself one question:  What is God teaching me in this situation?  The more often you learn to ask this question and then seek to find an answer the deeper and more meaningful your spiritual life will become.

9.  Confess.  We need the daily ritual of bringing our sins before the Lord in an act of confession.  If you can’t remember your sins, ask him to show you and he will.  As these evil thoughts, mean words, hateful actions and so forth come to your mind and heart, confess them as wrong and ask the Lord’s forgiveness.  Know that he does forgive; and receive the strength that comes from purity.

10.  Take corporate worship seriously.  Embrace the elements of communion, the beauty of baptism, the weight of the spoken and read word as well as the necessity for giving.  Anyone who tries to be a spiritual person without worshiping with other people regularly (weekly) is an arrogant fool engaged in folly.

What I have tried to give you here are some basic pointers.  This is by no means exhaustive.  I will leave you with one final bit, though.  Stay away from mystics.  Mystics may mean well, but usually they only practice an odd form of works righteousness that breeds smugness.  Do not confuse the spiritual life with mysticism.

photo:  www.gaelicmatters.com

SUGGESTED GUIDELINES FOR LENT

Today is Ash Wednesday, and many of us are beginning a Lenten fast.  Every year I always field many questions about “how” and “what” of the fasting, so I put together this little guide.

A Quick Guide to Lenten Fasting

It is never too late to start a Lenten fast.  Although it is designed to be 40 days, it can even be shortened to include just Holy Week, or start as soon as you can once you make the decision to.  You will be glad you did.  A little fasting is better than no fasting.

1.  Fasting in its severest form is complete abstention from food with only minimal water.  However, for Lent the usual practice is to abstain from one type of food (candy, soda, flour, beer, etc…) and maintain a regular diet.

2.  Fasting from entertainment and electronic devices is also a possibility.  However, be careful.  Think through your commitment.  Don’t, for example, fast from watching television if you are a huge NCAA basketball fan (March Madness is always during Lent).

3.  Days Off:  During Lent, Sundays are “days off” from the fast.  Take a break from depriving yourself on these six days, it will help you maintain the 40 days of prayer and fasting.  You may also take special days (Valentines, birthdays, St. Patrick’s Day etc…)

4.  The goal of any fasting is to get closer to Jesus.  In its simplest terms, when you crave what you’re fasting from, take a moment to spiritually focus upon Christ and pray, “I love (or crave, need) you Jesus more than I love __________.”

5.  A person can be a wonderful and committed Christian without ever observing a Lenten fast.  However, Jesus assumed his followers would indeed fast (Matthew 6:6-18) so the legitimate question is, if you do not fast now with other Christians around the world, then when do you plan to?

6.  Unless you are following the Orthodox tradition (as in Greek Orthodox), no “Alleluias” or variations of it shall be uttered or sang in worship. The Lenten fast  is broken on Easter Sunday morning which is why most Easter hymns have abundant Alleluias.

7.  Lent is an excellent time for extra study and prayer.  Spend extra time during this season investigating a doctrine, a Bible book, or a thought as well as your prayer life.

8.  Fasting is about grace, not works.  It is a mistake to see this as “something I must do” to be a Christ-follower.  A person who does it to demonstrate or show maturity missed the point.  Don’t get caught up on the rules—that will make you a Pharisee.

9.  Do not fast from foods as a weight loss diet.  This is not about waist lines or cholesterol indexes.  If you intend a strict fast or have medical issues (like diabetes), please consult a physician.

10.  Try to keep your fast a secret but also have someone or some group of people who will hold you accountable.

More blogs about this time of year:

Ash Wednesday

Fat Tuesday

Lent (theme)

Good Friday