I never personally observed Lent until college, when I first met Christians from different denominational backgrounds where Lent was part of the rhythm of their Christian life. I was intrigued, and also compelled to try this for myself. So I distinctly remember the year as a student at Wheaton College when I gave up desserts for Lent. As a “sugaraholic,” this was difficult to say the least, and I had terrible headaches the first several days. Yet I also longed for and prepared for Easter in a way I hadn’t before.
Since college, my practice of Lent has been consistently sporadic – often depending on the season of life I was in and where we were worshiping, whether or not the congregation was being led to observe Lent as well. The years I observed Lent most consistently were when my husband was an associate pastor and often wrote the Lenten devotional for the congregation (I definitely felt some extra pressure to follow along!). During those years I blogged about my greater-or-lesser “success” with Lent. I think the post that best describes these reflections is this one: “When you break Lent (and it breaks you).”
Because here’s the thing: I never observed Lent perfectly, and I often made Lent more about my efforts to “keep it” than about preparing my heart during this season of repentance and anticipation of Resurrection Hope we celebrate on Easter. YET God was so faithful to use my failure to keep Lent as part of me learning more deeply the whole point of Lent and Easter: I need Jesus. My best efforts (at Lenten observance or righteous living) fall far short – and in fact, often blind me from my need for Christ’s righteousness on my behalf. Enter the beautiful, convicting words of Galatians 2:19-21 (NIV):
19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
So my encouragement to you, my fellow Lent-observer-aware-of-your-failures-anew: take Tsh Oxenreider’s words to heart. You are loved, not because of how well you are or aren’t observing Lent (or even whether you choose to observe Lent), but because you are HIS Beloved as a child of God. Jesus loved you and gave himself for you. Let us feast upon this beautiful truth even as we walk into the most solemn and Holy Week of the church’s calendar … and remember not only is Easter coming next Sunday, but He is already Risen!
It’s September, and change is in the air. The leaves haven’t yet begun turning, but there is a crisp coolness that invites their transformation in the coming months. School started for my daughters and my newly minted Ph.D. husband who’s now a dean at a seminary. In my counseling practice, summer clients brought their sessions to a close, and there is a new influx of fall clients.
Personally, I find September to be a good time to set new goals for health and spiritual practice. I want to read the Bible daily, journal, eat more healthily, exercise more regularly, and make time to be present with the people I love. There’s something about the pages of a new planner that invite me into a season of new beginnings. (And I love new beginnings. I usually take the opportunity for them a few times a year – January, of course, as well as my birthday, that falls in June, and September, the beginning of the school year.)
And then there are the unexpected transitions. My parents sold their home recently, and, along with my two brothers and their wives, we enjoyed reminiscing over the memories that these four walls held for 27 years of our family history. It’s the only home the grandkids (11!) have ever known for Gigi & Pops. All of us adult kids with our families have spent at least a few months living there when in transition from one home or place to another. There are stories of pranks, heartaches, joy-filled celebrations, family pets, laughter-saturated dinners around the table, tear-drenched heartbreaks, backyard adventures (a mountain biking course that caused more than a few injuries), the infamous front porch swing with Mom’s not-so-subtle interruptions, parties hosted, more than your average number of driveway collisions, and heartfelt prayers through both the joys and sorrows of our family’s life. To say there is an accompanying flood of emotions for each of us would be an understatement. Yet as Ecclesiastes reminds me, there is a time and season for everything. And just as surely as there was a time for making this home our own – when I was just starting high school and my brothers were still in middle and elementary school – this is the time for saying farewell to this home. So there have been many days of boxes (and memories) packed over the last several weeks. There has been the assurance that the memories aren’t sold along with the house – those are always ours to keep – and the happiness in knowing that a new family will get to begin making their own memories in that beloved home.
This fall is also my 20th college reunion, which I find just about impossible to believe. It can seem like only yesterday that I was a recent college graduate. Yet I remember being a senior in college, and some 20th-year-reunion-friends coming by our campus house to walk through and reminisce. We felt like they were so old. Now to think that will be us??
Another milestone recently celebrated is 15 years of marriage. Again, it feels like yesterday that I said “I do” as a 20-something young bride to a 20-something handsome young groom. We knew nothing of the adventure, challenge, and joy that marriage would bring us. We knew God, and that He was faithful, and it is to Him we have clung through the hardest times and the best of this past decade and a half. A quote I love was from a sermon by Reverend John Leonard during our formative few years at Cresheim Valley Church: “When you say ‘I do,’ God says, ‘I will.'” That truth has been an anchor for us through some stormy seasons, both storms without and storms within.
Our beloved twin daughters passed their milestone of 10 last September, and they’re days away from turning 11. Their birthday is always a time of remembering God’s faithfulness and protection, from the anxiety-ridden 10 weeks of bed rest to their premature delivery at 35 weeks and a week-long stay in the Children’s Hospital when they were but days old. To think that they are now strong, healthy, growing girls entering their “tween” years is truly a testament to God’s sustaining faithfulness in their lives and ours. We know we will be clinging to God’s grace in new ways over the next several years! And it is an amazing privilege to be parents of these two creative, smart, funny, strong and tenderhearted girls.
And then I zoom out and think of the transitions our country and world is facing. Covid-19 is spiking again, and we are all weary of fighting this battle. We are all doing our best, the best we know how. Our healthcare system is overwhelmed, and doctors like my brother are overworked and exhausted, yet carrying on in their faithful care of the patients entrusted to them. Troops withdrew from Afghanistan, and before they were fully out, the Taliban took over. It’s heartbreaking, especially considering all of the families who gave beloved sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, and parents to this years-long battle. I think we all have the question, “How long, O Lord?”
And so in this season of transitions, both big and small, welcomed and dreaded, hope-filled and grief-laced, I find myself forced to anchor into the One who is Unchanging. The One who knows there is a time and season for “everything under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 3)- and whose presence is the only unchanging constant through all of life’s transitions.
I attended our church’s Ash Wednesday service with hardly a second thought, going forward to be marked with ashes of repentance to signal the beginning of the 40-day Lenten season ending with Easter Sunday. I never imagined that would be one of the last public worship services I would attend during Lent.
I don’t think any of us would have chosen the fast we are currently practicing. Social distancing, which is a nice way of saying “forced isolation.” No parties or gatherings or dinners out or even in-person Sunday worship services. Is this how I imagined Lent?
In a word, no, never, not at all.
We are all living through a time none of us could have foreseen. We’re balancing working at home with homeschooling without any social outlets. We’ve seen the inside of our four walls much more than ever before, and we have been forced to be limited to in-person social contact within our homes and workplaces (if deemed “essential”). What will it be like when this unchosen fast is broken? What kind of grand dinner parties and back-to-school celebrations will be held? What will it be like to return to worship at our places of worship, side-by-side with the physical manifestation of the Body of Christ? To receive the elements of communion again in the Lord’s Supper? To witness a baptism? To sing with a building full of people?
I think I’m saving my true Easter celebration for then. (Oh, that it were *only* 40 days of this unchosen fast!) I think that will speak of resurrection, of life after death, more than our live-streamed service this Sunday – if I can say that without being sacrilegious. Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful for technology that makes live-streaming Sunday worship possible, and “virtual” small group meetings and friend chats. But I know I’m not alone in saying that virtual is no substitute for in-person.
How will we emerge from this fast together? I hope we will be people who cannot help but cherish our social gatherings more – who stop putting off inviting the friends for dinner and holding the “just because” party. People who will never take a coffee date or lunch meeting for granted. People who will value connection in physical spaces more than we ever did before, when we couldn’t help but take it for granted and assume that “lunch out” and “dinner dates” would always be available.
I hope we are a people who will be more appreciative of those on the frontlines right now. The delivery workers, the grocers, the nurses and doctors and healthcare workers, the teachers (oh, the teachers! let’s all vote for HUGE raises for them!), the USPS deliverers. Let us make this imposed social fast one that yields good fruit in the days when the fasting ends. For it will end one day. Coronavirus will not have the last word. No, it will not, and we will emerge stronger, more connected, more grateful. Resurrection people who cherish life after death in every sense of the word.
It’s the last day of the month, a month of new. Resolutions that fuel the libraries and gyms and health-food aisles of the grocery store. Resolutions that promise Life and that *this* will be the change, and *this year* will be the one when I’m that best version of myself, and change the world and my life and my waistline and my soul. And every year, I am right there in the mix of the resolutions, the promises to myself and to God and to my journal pages that I will be more, and better. I love the promise inherent in a new year, and I’ve written about that before.
But what about all of the unexpected hurdles and broken dreams that are going to be part of this year, too? Our pastor said that no one ever makes suffering part of the “resolution/goals” for the new year, and he wisely warned that suffering will be part of this year, even this new decade full of promises and clear vision. And already, this has been true. There are two young mom-friends battling cancer. My daughter got a concussion (!), which scared me to death. Other friends and family are carrying heavy burdens, and I hurt with them and want to take the burdens away. I’m recovering from a bout of severe depression, crawling back into the light of hope, but it’s not been easy.
Yet still, I want to think that my January resolutions can save me, can help re-create me. And they can’t. A resolution alone isn’t enough. So when I ask, how’s your January going? I am actually wanting to offer hope, that no matter how it’s going or how it went, that every day can be new because of new mercies. That’s the promise smack dab in the middle of the saddest book of the Bible – that mercies are new every morning, not just every January. So take hope, my friends, that whatever you are carrying, whatever resolutions you’ve failed, whatever “old” has crept into this “new year/new decade/new you,” that there are mercies that are still new every morning. Find real hope and real life in these promises:
Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this:
The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never case.
Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. …
The Lord is good to those who depend on him, to those who search for him. …
For no one is abandoned by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he also shows compassion, because of the greatness of his unfailing love.
Lamentations 3:21-23, 25, 31-32 – New Living Translation
I still remember the empty ache the first Christmas we spent without my grandpa, “Papa,” we called him. His recliner stood in the corner like a memorial. Laughter felt forced. I kept waiting for him to appear in all of his jovial grandfatherly-Father-Christmas fun. He loved to wear his new clothes with the tags still on them, as a way of being silly and funny. He would read the story of Christ’s birth from Luke’s account in his booming, Southern Baptist voice. He had a larger-than-life personality, yet a down-to-earth way about him. I learned only after his death how well known of a politician he had been. For me, he was always a grandfather who paid attention; who loved me; who was the life and heart of every gathering. And his absence was glaring that first Christmas after his death.
It’s been over 25 years, and I can still grow sentimental and sad to think of Christmas “before” and Christmas “after.”
I think about others I’ve lost since then, and there is always that grief that gives Christmas a blue tinge, as Elvis crooned so well. Like Beverlee, who hosted grand holiday parties with her beloved Collier for church members and neighbors in their suburban Philadelphia home. And childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Kristen, who died long before we had the chance to have joy-filled Christmas holiday reunions like we’d always thought we would. I remember close friends and family members who are grieving afresh this Christmas – a sister who died, a father who passed away, a mom whose death came too soon, miscarriages and lost hopes and loves.
And in the grief – both mine and the grief I feel with friends – I can find myself fearful of who may not be around the table next year. That grief steals the joy of the present. Yet Christmas and grief can co-exist, can’t they?
For you, and for me, who are the grieving at Christmas … I write to say you aren’t alone. I write to remind myself that I’m not alone either. Sadness is part of living. But I write to say that I don’t want it to take the joy of Life away this Christmas. I write to say that grief can be deeply comforted by the Truth of Christmas: Emmanuel, God with us. I don’t mean this to be trite … it is a truth I am fighting for every day in my own heart. Take comfort in the words of this melancholy, yet hopeful hymn:
I have been writing and thinking and praying a lot about hope this fall. There are many reasons I crave hope this season. Like the headlines flashing across our screens and calling to us from the morning paper, and the usual stress of trying to balance home, church, and family life. (And our family’s life now includes our twin daughters going to kindergarten full-day. Despite the great school they attend, it’s been an adjustment for all of us!)
We have also experienced waves of greater-than-usual overwhelming circumstances in our lives and in the lives of our family and friends. Like a hurricane that “breezed” through (pun intended) and left a ton of chaos in its wake; friends who’ve had miscarriages; a friend battling leukemia; extended family health issues requiring more care from my husband and me; the death just last week of my great-aunt Julie; and a bit more travel than usual for me this fall.
As I’ve tried to take stolen moments along the way to pause, be still, and know that God is God (Psalm 46), I feel how much I need comfort for my own heart. Not only does chaos swirl without, it also rises up from within. I need a peace that’s bigger than the messages I feel bombarded with and *wish* worked, but just haven’t – like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “look for the rainbow after the storm.” While I’m all about the rainbow and the strength needed to keep moving, I need something that lasts as long as the storm.
And the only thing I’ve found that can outlast the storm is the hope of a God who is there. A Jesus who meets us in the storm, and then rides it out with us. As I spoke to a group of beautiful women, including many family and friends, at my aunt and uncle’s church in Columbia, South Carolina, last week, I was praying hope over their hearts, and I spoke the words I myself need to hear – a few of which I’ll share below. May your heart be encouraged as well … in all the places where you find yourself in need of hope, peace, and comfort today.
It was a mother’s worst-case-scenario. My husband and I had finally made time for a much needed one-night retreat away from it all. Our children were staying with their beloved grandparents; we would be gone for a total of 24 hours, barely a few hours away. We disconnected from internet and cell phone signal was spotty. God met us right where we needed it, and when it was time to leave the next afternoon, we were aware of fresh winds of the Spirit breathing life into our hearts and our relationship.
But then there was Hurricane Matthew. We had assumed we were safe – that it was turning away from us.
Imagine our dismay when we had driven only a few feet and were practically floating through an unexpected flash flood – and this was in our SUV! We quickly switched into panic mode. For us, that meant my husband went super-calm and quiet, and I wanted to talk about it all. [We both quickly realized that this wasn’t working: lessons learned in a decade of marriage – and yes, you’re welcome.] Our focus was that we had to get home to our kids. We must. There was no other option.
One-and-a-half hours later, the situation was deteriorating quickly. More unexpected huge puddles on the road. When I checked the satellite radar, it showed us tracking right along with Hurricane Matthew’s new and unexpected path. Evening was falling and flash flood warnings were increasing.
We finally gave up and found a hotel that wasn’t yet full in which to stay. Then we had to call the grandparents and the kiddos and try to act brave and calm about the decision that had my mother’s heart trembling: we couldn’t make it back before bedtime as planned, and we were going to try again in the morning as long as Hurricane Matthew allowed.
Needless to say, it was a long night.
As we surveyed the damage the next morning, we decided that we were going to risk it and try to head back to our “babies.” So we did. And God used the prayers of many to clear a path for us back home. It was a joyous reunion and a relief to give and receive hugs, laughter, tears.
And there’s a picture there, right? How anxious I am! How anxious we are collectively as a culture/nation right now!
We look around us and want to be anywhere but *here* – whether that’s the dark side of a cancer diagnosis, the turmoil of parenting challenges, a hurricane that’s wreaking havoc in your community, on the eve of a presidential election that has us all twisted in knots inside, in the midst of racial tension, stuck in a hard family relationship, etc. We want relief. We want a way out, or a promise that we’ll make it through. Or, even better, our people with whom to ride out the storms of life – literal and metaphorical.
We have One. He fought his way through the depths of hell itself to be with us. It was costly [he died] – but miraculous [God raised him to life]. And it’s the only Hope I know that’s so sure and secure it is called, “an anchor of the soul.”
When the storms of life hit (perhaps literally), where do you turn? How have you known the peace of Jesus even in the very middle of the very worst troubles in your life?
I woke up this morning to all the alerts: not only my own alarm, but warnings about flash flooding and plans rearranged and then the burden of these headlines:
Another shooting and more riots in Charlotte, NC – Lord, when will this end? Heal us, Father.We pray for justice to prevail – for healing that is as real and as deep as the racial brokenness of our country. Give us ears to listen to one another in order to understand, not to judge. Break down all of our defenses through the strength of Love.
More info on the terrorist suspected of massive plots in NYC and NJ – Father, I’m afraid. It could be our neighborhood next – or our mall.
An apparently failed ceasefire in Syria – there was an attack on the aid convoy. – Lord, for all of those who need aid and help desperately, find a way. Give courage to the men and women risking their lives to deliver this aid. Let us who live comfortable Western lives not grow numb. Show us how we can help our neighbor, though that neighbor be halfway around the world, and keep us from being blind to the neighbor living next door to us or down the street from us.
This list could go on and on. And our response (or at least mine) is to feel the fear like a pit in my stomach and the instant tension in my shoulders. I want to find a refuge to run to with my family where no harm can touch us, and where we can bring everyone else who needs help with us, too.
I’m not alone in this desire. And there is a refuge promised One Day. Because of this Future Hope, we take comfort in Jesus’ words from over 2000 years ago, and we can serve for justice and peace now.
I want to read the promises side-by-side with the headlines. Jesus brings perspective and best of all – his presence in the promised Holy Spirit to all who find refuge by faith in Jesus.
Because of Jesus’ Presence, I can take a deep breath, go downstairs and hug my children and cook breakfast and serve in my little corner of the world.
Because of Jesus’ Presence, I can be fully involved in the here-and-now while also seeking how I can be part of the global concerns because they affect fellow human beings worthy of dignity since they’re made imago Dei.
Where do you take refuge in these troubled times? How do you balance the reality of the here-and-now demands on your life with the global concerns impacting us?
For a contemplative – which is what I am in many, many more ways than I’ve been willing to admit – Lent is a season rich with treasures. There are worship services full of meaning: Ash Wednesday to launch Lent; Good Friday to meditate on the suffering of the cross; and then the glorious climax of Easter Sunday at its end. There are thoughtful devotional resources. This year I’m reading “Journey to the Cross” which I found here at TGC, written by Kendal Haug and Will Walker out of Providence Church Austin. The church worldwide is led into a season of denial leading up to Good Friday, and then the church universal celebrates joyously on Easter Sunday.
It’s a rehearsal of the gospel story. Not only in the obvious way – the season of repentance, remembering, self-denial, that ends with a day of remembering Jesus’ suffering for our sake; and then three days later, celebrating resurrection life with the empty tomb on Easter – but also in our own hearts.
Each year I face the reality that the law cannot save me. Regardless of how low I set the bar for Lenten denial (“just” abstaining from sweets, or “just” not using non-essential phone apps) and repentant engagement (“just” loving my family better, or “just” noticing the homeless in our city and praying for them) – I can’t do it. On a “good” year I might last two weeks before I break Lent. Then I inevitably do what I try to do when I forget that Jesus did it all. I try to be better; I try harder; I invite more accountability; I set the bar lower or higher.
And my striving never works. It doesn’t produce the result of a more disciplined life. Instead, it produces a heart desperate for the rescue of grace. A heart that comes to Good Friday painfully aware of my inability to stay awake to repentance even for 40 days. A heart that cannot make itself righteous. A heart that needs resurrection hope. A heart that is rescued only by turning away from self-denial and embracing the life of the dying-now-resurrected Savior.
So this year, as I’ve been aware of my inability to sustain any sort of meaningful Lenten fast – I say, “help me, God!” And I thank God that he has. That he sent Jesus whose ministry started with the test (and the passing!) of the wilderness temptation. Jesus who followed the Spirit into this very wilderness testing, passing the test I will always fail.
True Lenten fasting uncovers the layers of our hearts where we struggle to trust this Jesus who did it all for us out of love. True Lenten fasting leaves us longing for more of Jesus and hopeful because in the Spirit through faith we have Christ within us – the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)
Every December, it surprises me. Meaning, the juxtaposition of “the most wonderful time of the year” with the reality of how far I am from being able to fully embrace the joy proclaimed to me in every Christmas song and story and glittering decoration. I know I’m not alone in this. For I hear your stories – maybe not yours specifically, but in sitting with multiple stories of suffering and disappointment and hope deferred throughout almost a decade of counseling and a few decades more of friendship and family relationships, I have a fairly good sense of the ways life breaks us.
And for some reason, I find myself each Advent/Christmas season battling to find the hope that surrounds me like no other time of year. I struggle because at the deepest part of who I am, I know that Jesus’ coming as a baby changed everything for the better (while I also see so much that doesn’t fit with a redeemed world). I find deep comfort that his incarnation – God with us – was a literal game-changer for the human race. That Jesus was “born to set Thy people free/from our sins and fears release us/let us find our rest in Thee.” That I am to “fall on [my] knees/O hear, the angels voices/O night divine/O night when Christ was born.” And I crumble inside with the best of you at the emotion of it all – of God being made like us, like a tiny baby, utterly vulnerable to the ones he created.
But then I begin to get angry and sad. For if Jesus was born to set His people free, why on earth are we so chained up to others’ expectations and our own inward voices of shame? And why do we Christians hurt each other in the church when we are all simply trying to love one another the best we know how? Why do “Christian” politicians infuriate the culture-at-large with offers to pray in the wake of tragedy and apparently no (or minimal) actions behind these prayers? Why do news headlines daily proclaim a new form of terror?
And to bring it home and make it more personal: why do I have friends still struggling with infertility?
Friends grieving parents taken too soon?
Friends who have suffered unspeakable tragedies of abuse when they were children who could not protect themselves?
Why are friends stuck in marriages that feel lifeless? (Or why are there friends who are newly divorced despite months/years of trying to reconcile?)
Why does cancer still strike in the most unexpected of ways and times to friends in the prime of their life/ministry?
And if I dare to be courageously honest, I have a few questions of my own. Like how did I get to be so battle-weary and exhausted when I thought I was fighting for the gospel of justice, truth, beauty, and light in the name of Jesus, in the strength of his grace, and for the sake of his glory?
Why does every recent December feel depressing, as a time when I am more likely to feel the weight of the world’s sorrows instead of the hope of the Savior’s joy?
Why does Christmas seem to come up short from how I remember it as a child?
I am beginning to realize anew that the only answer to these weighty, angst-filled questions is in trying to hold in my feeble hands the glittering mess of Advent.
It’s not unlike the abundant blue glitter that one of my 5-year-old daughters sprinkled with abandon around her room earlier this week. There was literally a path of blue sparkle that looked like a rug placed on our white (!) carpet. A glittering path that led to their mini-Christmas tree. As I vacuumed it up, I surprised myself by beginning to laugh instead of growing more angry and frustrated. I laughed because it was beautiful. Any of you who have ever had the *privilege* of vacuuming up large quantities of glitter know exactly what I’m talking about. It glitters and sparkles and changes in the light, and as I vacuumed clean white paths through the blue, the vacuum cleaner began to sparkle, too. (Because it has a see-through compartment.)
And that’s when it came to me.
This is a metaphor for Advent’s tension between the beauty that will be (which began to break through in the incarnational mystery of Jesus) and the mess that we continue to make with this beauty.
These broken places of grief, betrayal, loss, and deferred hope – they are real and they are tragic in an exponentially greater way than a 5-year-old glitter tantrum (oh – did I leave that part out? The reason that she created such a display was out of anger that she was in time out – it was a mess intended to annoy me.).
But this I cling to – in hope against hope – that the mess twinkles, sparkles, glitters in the light of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree that became our salvation as it became a cross. This tragedy of the tiny babe grown up and offered up willingly as the most tragic of sacrifices for the most unworthy of offenders. You and me.
The Cross stands as the epitome of evil. And God takes the greatest evil ever known to humanity and turns it into the greatest Gift you have ever known. … If God can transfigure the greatest evil into the greatest Gift, then He intends to turn whatever you’re experiencing now into a gift. You cannot be undone. Somewhere, Advent can storm and howl. And the world robed for Christmas can spin on. You, there on the edge, whispering it, defiant through the torn places: “All is grace.”