Lent as a rehearsal of the gospel

cross desert

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)

when you break Lent (and it breaks you)

This is a post from three years ago, and it’s worth reposting. Because it’s just as true for me now as it was then. The only difference is that my Lenten fast is much smaller now – but it’s still more than what I can do on my own strength!

I offer this as an encouragement to look up and out to Jesus. He is our hope, and He is the whole point of Lent. It’s the journey to the cross.

***

Lent.

The period of 40 weekdays that in the Christian Church is devoted to fasting, abstinence, and penitence.

I chose what I thought would be four hard but do-able items for my Lenten fast this year. Call me an overachiever, or more accurately, an over-estimator of my own strength. A month ago I posted about my hopes for Lent. How hard could it really be? And how refreshing and empowering could it be! In taking away many of my heart’s distractions – phone apps, Target, sweets, t.v. – I assumed that God would replace my heart’s misplaced affections with a renewed love for Christ and the people around me.

About three weeks in, I broke Lent. Fully and completely. Not just one day, but I think it was about every day of the week and I broke every single “fast” multiple times. I rationalized why for each of them.

  • Going to Target will help me stick to our family budget on some key grocery items like Kashi cereal and goldfish.
  • “Non-essential” phone app category expanded dramatically. I started Lent with 6 icons on my home screen that I deemed “non-essential.” I’m ending Lent with twice as many.
  • Television is the only way that my husband and I can really share down time together after busy days in the midst of a busy week
  • I really just “need” a quick pick-me-up. Nothing like a bite of chocolate to do that.

My response to breaking Lent? First, my typical pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps approach: “Just try harder, Heather. Get it together. You can do it!” As this failed, I descended to self-blame, punishment, guilt and shame. “This is really not that hard. There are millions of people in the world who LIVE without these things daily, and you can’t just go without for 40 days?? What is wrong with YOU?” That also got me nowhere fast.

And then I realized that maybe this is the real purpose of Lent. To reveal (again) that I cannot fulfill the Law. Any law – of God’s eternally perfect law, other people’s expectations, or my own standards. Maybe Lent is meant to show me how little I can do in my own strength, and therefore how MUCH I need Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection that we celebrate at Easter. Truth echoed in these verses from Romans 3:19-20 –

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Breaking Lent is one way that the law breaks me. It’s a beautiful breaking, for it leads me to the One who restores and makes new. If I didn’t practice a Lenten fast this year, I would be that much less aware of my helplessness to gain eternal life and a relationship with God on my own strength or efforts. And so, in an upside-down backwards way, breaking Lent has broken me of trying and pointed me in desperate hope to Jesus whose death we remember this week and whose life we celebrate next Sunday. Listen to this hope found in Romans 5:6 and 21 –

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … so that … grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

As we round the final corner of Lent, walking into Holy Week’s somber reflections, let us remember that we cannot earn Easter on our own merit. Our best trying leaves us hopeless. Let us fall in our weariness and allow Jesus to pick us up and bring us with Him to the cross and then the hope of the empty tomb this week and always.

Holy Week: Wednesday (and a repost from 2013)

Everything I wrote two years ago is still true. Not the specifics of my Lenten fast, but my heart exposed through the season of Lent. I offer it to you again as a call to repentance, an invitation to come and feast on the good news of a body broken for you and a body raised to life for you during the next concentrated days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

****

Lent.

The period of 40 weekdays that in the Christian Church is devoted to fasting, abstinence, and penitence.

I chose what I thought would be four hard but do-able items for my Lenten fast this year. Call me an overachiever, or more accurately, an over-estimator of my own strength. A month ago I posted about my hopes for Lent. How hard could it really be? And how refreshing and empowering could it be! In taking away many of my heart’s distractions – phone apps, Target, sweets, t.v. – I assumed that God would replace my heart’s misplaced affections with a renewed love for Christ and the people around me.

About three weeks in, I broke Lent. Fully and completely. Not just one day, but I think it was about every day of the week and I broke every single “fast” multiple times. I rationalized why for each of them.

  • Going to Target will help me stick to our family budget on some key grocery items like Kashi cereal and goldfish.
  • “Non-essential” phone app category expanded dramatically. I started Lent with 6 icons on my home screen that I deemed “non-essential.” I’m ending Lent with twice as many.
  • Television is the only way that my husband and I can really share down time together after busy days in the midst of a busy week
  • I really just “need” a quick pick-me-up. Nothing like a bite of chocolate to do that.

My response to breaking Lent? First, my typical pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps approach: “Just try harder, Heather. Get it together. You can do it!” As this failed, I descended to self-blame, punishment, guilt and shame. “This is really not that hard. There are millions of people in the world who LIVE without these things daily, and you can’t just go without for 40 days?? What is wrong with YOU?” That also got me nowhere fast.

And then I realized that maybe this is the real purpose of Lent. To reveal (again) that I cannot fulfill the Law. Any law – of God’s eternally perfect law, other people’s expectations, or my own standards. Maybe Lent is meant to show me how little I can do in my own strength, and therefore how MUCH I need Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection that we celebrate at Easter. Truth echoed in these verses from Romans 3:19-20 –

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Breaking Lent is one way that the law breaks me. It’s a beautiful breaking, for it leads me to the One who restores and makes new. If I didn’t practice a Lenten fast this year, I would be that much less aware of my helplessness to gain eternal life and a relationship with God on my own strength or efforts. And so, in an upside-down backwards way, breaking Lent has broken me of trying and pointed me in desperate hope to Jesus whose death we remember this week and whose life we celebrate next Sunday. Listen to this hope found in Romans 5:6 and 21 –

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … so that … grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

As we round the final corner of Lent, walking into Holy Week’s somber reflections, let us remember that we cannot earn Easter on our own merit. Our best trying leaves us hopeless. Let us fall in our weariness and allow Jesus to pick us up and bring us with Him to the cross and then the hope of the empty tomb this week and always.

Holy Week: Monday

It sits just on the other side of triumphant Palm Sunday, and days before the remembering, mourning, and celebrating of Thursday through Sunday. It can feel lost – this “Holy Monday.” (And is that an oxymoron? How can Monday ever be holy? More often “mundane” is an adjective of choice.)

I wonder if “Holy Monday” (and “Holy Tuesday” and “Holy Wednesday”) are needed so that our hearts are ready for the sobriety of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. For something shifted in the crowd who welcomed Jesus with palm branches waving, surrendering their outerwear as a pathway for their donkey-saddled King. Something shifted between this “Triumphal Entry” and the angry crowds begging for his execution on Friday. It was the overlooked days of “Holy Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday.”

The days when I overlook – or fail to look – at my king, humbled and riding on a donkey, but riding nonetheless TO ME; the days when I overlook the tears Jesus wept over this city (and symbolically, over every city in which any of us dwell); these days are the ones when my heart can go rogue. It slips out beneath my notice and goes after its old lovers. The ones promising quick satisfaction without waiting for long promises to be fulfilled. The lovers who tell me I’m beautiful (especially if I use their line of clothing and beauty products). The ones who lure my restless heart with excitement and adventure (forgetting to highlight the fine print warning of: use only at great risk to your soul). It was these false lovers who won over the hearts of the crowds in the four days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The false lovers were clothed in religious garb. They planted questions like –

“How dare he claim to be the Son of God? Who does he think he is?”

“We were promised a Messiah to rescue us. We are still under Roman oppression. Jesus cannot be the promised one.”

“This Jesus is not what we really want. He is working too slow – or not at all.”

And these same religious leaders were at work behind closed doors making deals with an insider who would betray Jesus (Judas). They were plotting his death while the crowds went about their business on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. They were stirring up the crowds, with insidious doubts at first and then with explicit commands.

Holy Monday can become “Holy” only when I first admit how similar I am to these fickle crowds. I want a king who comes on my terms, to deliver me in my way, and to make me powerful with him. A king who calls me to follow after him, deny myself, and lose my life to save it? No, thank you. I think I’ll go find someone else. Holy Monday becomes holy when I look at the God who has won me wholly. Even (especially) in the days when my heart feels prone to wander.

A Lenten prayer: prone to wander

This prayer is from a favorite book that I “happened” to be gifted with by dear friends just as Lent was beginning: Prone to Wander, by mother-son co-authors Barbara Duguid and Wayne Houk. I have found its call to worship, specific gospel-saturated prayers of confession, and then assurance of pardon to be spot on for my heart this Lenten season (and really any time!). I also love that there are suggested songs listed at the end of each entry. It’s been a personal worship guide – although written to be for a church, there are multiple uses to be sure.

And having some bit of personal interaction with both Barbara and Wayne through CCEF courses we’ve been a part of together makes the writing sing even more so. They are both tremendously gracious, and incredibly gifted at putting gospel truth to words.

 

Five Minute Friday: “gather”

Week in a summary: Had a lovely, soul-refreshing visit with Kimberly and Erick; then got hit with laryngitis; had hard-but-good conversations with two close friends (after laryngitis was over, of course …) which reminded me that working through conflict actually strengthens and deepens true friendships; and now we are looking forward to a visit from my Mom this weekend (in response to the SOS text I sent her on Monday – saying “we can’t do this anymore. Help needed from Gigi, please?!”). Oh, yes, and right in the middle of this week, I was privileged to hear the rich teaching of Ruth 2 that God provides generously and specifically for his people (and for the “outsider” – Ruth). Thank you, Sara, for teaching us this week.

And now, this Friday morning, I come to Five Minute Friday – a 5-minute unedited writing exercise – a familiar writing anchor as the weeks roll by.

***

One day we will all gather there together. From every tribe, tongue, and nation, says Revelation. We will gather at the throne room of our glorious King, and we will worship. We will be in full-soul delight, no more sin or crying or sadness or tears or injustice or frustration or brokenness or wounding. Nothing but worship. Loving and being loved perfectly. Aahh, how beautiful that Day will be!

photo from 6degreesms.wordpress.com

photo from 6degreesms.wordpress.com

But we will have to be gathered there. Which implies a scattering beforehand, and that is certainly true of our lives right now. We are scattered physically, emotionally, spiritually. We are individuals who are broken into a thousand pieces of ourselves, and we are trying to be made whole again. And we, the Church, are scattered into a thousand corners of this globe – as God sees fit – in an attempt to gather in, to bring in, those who are not yet here. We are scattered from brothers and sisters who are being persecuted today. Beheaded, hunted for their faith. And they belong to us, and we to them. (But we forget – let us gather our thoughts to be present with them through at least our prayers today.) We are scattered from our brothers and sisters who are impoverished while we complain that we can’t afford the latest in home and fashion style. We are scattered from each other in our churches by our busy lives and busy schedules and self-centered hearts. 

We have One who even now is gathering us together. He is healing the fragmented pieces of our hearts and our souls and our churches and The Church/Kingdom. Let us look to Him for Lenten repentance, and let us beg Him to continue to gather us together, until the day when we will celebrate face-to-face.gather

***

the danger of Lent from a self-professed Pharisee

Last year, I practiced Lent seriously. According to my definition of “serious,” and I gave up not just one thing, but multiple things in this 40-day season of self-denial to prepare for Easter. My Lenten fast last year included denying myself Target trips, non-essential phone apps, sweets, and TV watching. Wowzers. What was I thinking? Good thing I blogged about it … !

But what was the result of this? Yes, certainly less needless spending of money and time … but also having to confront my age-old temptation to be better on my own strength. Lent broke me last year. And I think that’s part of why I want to practice Lent differently this year. Not to avoid being broken, but to get to that broken repentance place sooner. 

For someone who too often puts my trust in my own strength and “right-ness,” Lent is dangerous. It can provide a new law for me to follow and feel alternately better about myself AND self-condemned; it can give me a false standard by which to judge others and look down on “those who don’t practice Lent like I do” (note the upturned nose and haughty air in that statement); it can stand in the way of the heart of the Lenten season: which is to find refuge in Jesus’ righteousness for me and repent of all the ways I’ve sought to establish my own rightness with God apart from Easter.

And so this Lenten season I’m not sure what I’m going to abstain from. It won’t be like last year. I’m struggling to balance the value of fasting with the danger of self-denial-for-my-own-sake. I want to practice a more godward rhythm to my days, so after our Sunday school study last week about the importance of the “Daily Office” (through our study on “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Pete Scazzero), I’ve ordered his book of “Daily Office” prayers and meditations, and I think Lent provides a natural launching point for starting the practice of turning to God often throughout a day for strength. Turning TO God, away from myself. I am praying that God will make it clear how to incorporate some type of fast as part of this practice of this unique season. And even more so, I am praying that God will give me a true fast from my attempts at establishing righteousness on my own apart from him. This passage in Isaiah 58 seems appropriate for us on this Ash Wednesday:

Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure … Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, … And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

When you break Lent (and it breaks you)

Lent.

The period of 40 weekdays that in the Christian Church is devoted to fasting, abstinence, and penitence.

I chose what I thought would be four hard but do-able items for my Lenten fast this year. Call me an overachiever, or more accurately, an over-estimator of my own strength. A month ago I posted about my hopes for Lent. How hard could it really be? And how refreshing and empowering could it be! In taking away many of my heart’s distractions – phone apps, Target, sweets, t.v. – I assumed that God would replace my heart’s misplaced affections with a renewed love for Christ and the people around me.

About three weeks in, I broke Lent. Fully and completely. Not just one day, but I think it was about every day of the week and I broke every single “fast” multiple times. I rationalized why for each of them.

  • Going to Target will help me stick to our family budget on some key grocery items like Kashi cereal and goldfish.
  • “Non-essential” phone app category expanded dramatically. I started Lent with 6 icons on my home screen that I deemed “non-essential.” I’m ending Lent with twice as many.
  • Television is the only way that my husband and I can really share down time together after busy days in the midst of a busy week
  • I really just “need” a quick pick-me-up. Nothing like a bite of chocolate to do that.

My response to breaking Lent? First, my typical pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps approach: “Just try harder, Heather. Get it together. You can do it!” As this failed, I descended to self-blame, punishment, guilt and shame. “This is really not that hard. There are millions of people in the world who LIVE without these things daily, and you can’t just go without for 40 days?? What is wrong with YOU?” That also got me nowhere fast.

And then I realized that maybe this is the real purpose of Lent. To reveal (again) that I cannot fulfill the Law. Any law – of God’s eternally perfect law, other people’s expectations, or my own standards. Maybe Lent is meant to show me how little I can do in my own strength, and therefore how MUCH I need Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection that we celebrate at Easter. Truth echoed in these verses from Romans 3:19-20 –

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Breaking Lent is one way that the law breaks me. It’s a beautiful breaking, for it leads me to the One who restores and makes new. If I didn’t practice a Lenten fast this year, I would be that much less aware of my helplessness to gain eternal life and a relationship with God on my own strength or efforts. And so, in an upside-down backwards way, breaking Lent has broken me of trying and pointed me in desperate hope to Jesus whose death we remember this week and whose life we celebrate next Sunday. Listen to this hope found in Romans 5:6 and 21 –

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … so that … grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

As we round the final corner of Lent, walking into Holy Week’s somber reflections, let us remember that we cannot earn Easter on our own merit. Our best trying leaves us hopeless. Let us fall in our weariness and allow Jesus to pick us up and bring us with Him to the cross and then the hope of the empty tomb this week and always.

Lenten fast and reading “7”

cropped-img_0363.jpgThere is a beauty to winter’s barren branches rising against the crisp blue sky. A beauty quite different from that of the branches clothed in spring’s fresh buds and blooms of life or when radiant in fall’s glorious colors. It is not unlike what’s gained from a fast. It is in what’s not there that we can see and appreciate what is, and even anticipate what will be again. Reading the book 7 by Jen Hatmaker has been good to remind me of the beauty of what is not. The beauty of less rather than more, of giving away things rather than gaining more possessions, of turning off media instead of plugging in, of growing in appreciation instead of discontentment, and of making God’s Kingdom priorities bigger than that of my own “American kingdom” of self. I don’t want to make  a new Christian law to follow, which I could so easily try to do – something that focuses on me trying harder and doing more. Yet I see its value in the way that what she does is so counter-cultural that I can’t help but begin thinking more about the eternal treasures we are to be storing up instead of earthly goods to acquire. Now if only that thinking would translate into doing … 

Enter the Lenten fast. The introduction from our church’s Lent devotional guide sets the scene:

Lent is a season of preparation and repentance during which we anticipate Good Friday and Easter,
inviting us to make our hearts ready for remembering Jesus’ passion and celebrating Jesus’ resurrection.

It is traditional to choose something to fast from for 40 days beginning on Ash Wednesday (with Sundays as “feast days”). In combination with some of what I was challenged by in the fasts, I decided to choose a few things nearest and dearest to my heart: (1) Target, naturally (2) non-essential phone apps (3) sweets/desserts and (4) tv for Seth and me

And I am here to tell you that I have kept this fast perfectly and will never be turning back again. Ahem. Not quite. I’ve been surprised by how difficult it has felt at moments, at how naturally I want to distract myself with Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, email; at how much I have longed to just escape into a good tv show at night; at the way I crave something sweet in a hard mom moment; and at how I’ve longed to run to Target with my daughters in tow just to buy something shiny. I think that without even thinking, I was using apps, reaching for sweets, and making a Target list in the first few days of Lent. Yikes! Am I really that addicted? Apparently so.

But there has also been something sweet that has crept in amidst the new “barrenness” of my life in these areas. Less budget drain and more time spent playing with my kids because of no Target; more focus on the present because of no phone apps; more rest and conversation with my husband because of no tv; more reminders to turn to Jesus in prayer instead of reaching for the nearest sweet escape (not to mention, more energy!). Every day has not been like this. I have fought these self-imposed restrictions and wiggled my way out of them occasionally. I have been angry more quickly some days because my false refuges have been taken away. What’s come to the surface of my heart is not always beautiful. But then again, with more to repent of, I am brought back to Jesus more often.

One of the Lenten passages this week was Matthew 6:1-21. I was struck by the phrase, “your Father who sees in secret.” In the context of this passage, it’s talking about doing these things in secret: giving to the needy, fasting, and praying. What do I do in secret, that only my Father sees? And how does what I do in secret reveal where my heart’s true treasure is located? Too often what’s revealed is that I am unloving towards my family, resentful of what I give, that I’m self-indulgent and prayerless. When performance for others is stripped away, what is left? Here is a place of repentance, as I seek the identity of being clothed in the righteousness of the One who perfectly obeyed – even in secret – and where I am reminded that Christ’s life in me – in the very core of who I am when all else is stripped away – is my only hope of glory. But what a very sure and certain hope it is! So fasting leads to repentance which then leads to celebration. And this is the Easter worship of a Life crucified then resurrected and now waiting for me in heaven.