Monday, February 04, 2013
Want to Break Out of the Crowd? Keep Lent.
I don’t mean fish fries. They’re charming, of course, and perfectly allowable at any time of year, but eating fish is not keeping Lent, not anymore, not in our world. And it’s not giving up chocolate, or snacks, or smoking. These are fine, too, but that’s not keeping Lent. Here’s a rule: if it’s more like Jenny Craig than Jesus Christ, it’s not Lent. I gave up talk radio last year. That was hard for me; I was better for it because I came to love the classical station. I’ll probably do it again this year to sharpen my senses. But that’s not Lent. Here’s another rule: if “I was better for it” is the goal, it’s not Lent.
Here is Lent: truly and earnestly to repent of our sins. But we live in a sentimental society in which to feel holy is a substitute for being holy and to feel generous is a substitute for being generous and to feel justified is a substitute for Christ himself. The old spiritual manuals defined sentimentality as “being satisfied with pious feelings and beautiful ceremonies without striving to obey God’s will.” They imagined church people lapping up gorgeous Ash Wednesday liturgies and beating their breasts with great solemnity and then returning next day to their everyday sins. Today, sentimentality has gone mainstream. Meaningless shout-outs to God are everywhere from inaugural addresses to locker rooms to prison cells to self-help groups.
I’m shocked that I just wrote that. Who am I to judge that these mentions of God are “meaningless”? I’m the worst offender of all, that’s who. Nobody talks more about God than the preacher does, and where is my holiness? Where is yours? We can judge others exactly the way we ourselves deserve to be judged—by our fruits. “By their fruits you shall know them,” says the Lord. To rewrite the old definition just a little, we are “satisfied with spiritual feelings and beautiful words without striving to obey God’s will.”
So here’s what I want us all to give up this Lent: self-improvement. It’s our default position, you see. It’s the simplest way for us to understand Lent. Surely, we say, God wants the best for us, so he must have set up this discipline to make us better, happier, more whole people. We’ll follow some Lenten guideline in order to become better people. And won’t God be happy for us if we succeed!
Let’s get adventuresome here and break from that self-centered assumption. Abandon the idea of God doing something for us this Lent and take up the challenge of doing something—anything—everything!—for God. Our goal is not self-improvement; our goal is to love God and to give our lives as offerings, holy, undefiled, on the altar of God’s love in communion with Jesus our Lord. Forget betterment. Seek holiness.
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O thou who camest from above the fire celestial to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love upon the altar of my heart.
There let it for thy glory burn with ever bright, undying blaze,
and trembling to its source return in humble prayer and fervent praise.
Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire to work, and speak, and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire and still stir up the gift in me.
Still let me prove thy perfect will, my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal, and make the sacrifice complete.
~Charles Wesley (hymn 704)