I had a conversation on Monday that totally slapped me in the face. It stung. It hurt for a variety of reasons, but the main one was that I got slapped in the face with my own sin. I was confronted with just how badly things can go when I decide to ignore what I know is right and do things my way. I get hurt, and I hurt others.
So now I’m left sitting in a pile of shame and regret, feeling unbelievably stupid, naïve and sad. And although I could list how I was wronged and hurt, I know that I really have no one to blame but myself.
Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent. Growing up in a church that essentially ignored the liturgical calendar, I never had much of a concept of or an appreciation for Lent. But as I became an adult and my love affair with liturgy blossomed, that changed. Is it okay for me to say that I look forward to Lent? Because I do. Lent gives me a focused time each year to reflect on what Easter really means.
If I have learned anything over the past year, it’s that the Gospel changes everything. It affects every single area of life and leaves nothing untouched. Because I believe the Gospel as presented in the Bible to be true, there’s not a part of me that I can remove from under its influence and use in a way that is contrary to its principles without negative consequences. This sometimes seems inconvenient at face value because I am not always free to do what I want, but really, it’s incredibly good news. When I attempt to be my own boss, when I start operating in a self-centered way instead of a Gospel-centered way, the resulting imbalance in my heart always wreaks havoc in my life and, unfortunately, in the lives of those around me.
I know that betraying Gospel values will always cause pain. And yet, over and over, I fail to trust that God has my best interest at heart and decide that I know better or am the exception to the rule. When that happens, I find myself standing in the middle of the mess I made, horrified that I was so foolish once again, overwhelmed by my failures and weaknesses, by my sinful brokenness. My shame and regret taunt me and it would be easy to give way to hopelessness. There are also times when the pain I experience is not of my own doing. It’s not a result of my own sin, but a result of someone else’s sin, or just a result of the brokenness of this world. There is no way to escape the death and brokenness around us. But I don’t give way to hopelessness and I am not overwhelmed by shame, and I don’t despair or become bitter, because Easter is coming.
Easter is when we celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death. Easter is when Jesus declared “It is finished” and turned the world upside-down. Easter reverses the natural order of things. Easter reminds me that God’s powerful and redeeming love is exponentially greater than my most egregious sins. Because of Easter, we no longer have to be separated from God and we have eternal glory to look forward to. Because of Easter, I can rest assured that any suffering, no matter how great, is only momentary and will be forgotten in the light of glorious eternity. And just as each Easter marks the end of our Lenten fast, it points to the day when there will be no more sin, or pain, or tears or death. It reminds us that we have a greater hope.
Easter is pretty unbelievable. It doesn’t surprise me at all that most people don’t believe it, because it’s so outrageous and fantastic. I’m thankful that God gave me the grace to believe. But even for those of us that do believe, it’s pretty difficult to wrap our minds and hearts around. Lent helps us to do that.
Lent gives me a chance to reduce distractions, to eliminate some external sources of comfort, and refocus my time and priorities in a way that will focus my attention on what the cross means. I had not originally planned to share what my Lenten sacrifices would be, but I eventually decided that it would help to illustrate what I’m trying to say and maybe even hold me accountable.
First, I’m giving up TV. I found some websites here that stream American TV online in Europe (um…. maybe a little sketchy), and I got addicted. I am watching way more TV here than I do at home. I fall asleep to it and have it on constantly for background noise. I realized that sometimes I used TV as a way to avoid being quiet and acknowledging my own thoughts and attitudes: having the TV (or in my case, computer) constantly going drowns out my thoughts. I realize that this is a common problem for people who live alone, and it’s lousy! It robs me of my time to live and explore. It also keeps me from doing more intellectually and spiritually productive things like reading, practicing effectively, studying the Bible, and praying. So no TV for me for the next 40 days. Instead, I have a fantastic booklist of theological gems to help me focus my mind during this time, and I’m committed to praying the Daily Office every morning and evening.
Second, I’m giving up desserts. How unoriginal. But I love, and I mean LOVE, sweets. Especially chocolate. To be honest, I really hate how much I love sweets and how hard it is for me to turn them down. I’m all about la joie de vivre, but moderation is hard for me and my self-control can quickly go out the window when faced with a tasty treat. What I really want is not to quit enjoying God’s gift of chocolate all together but to enjoy it for the marvelous thing that it is, and not a coping mechanism. For the next 40 days I will not have the possibility of eating chocolate to cheer me up or calm me down. Instead, I’ll have to do that by praying and exercising—both very good things to do. Hopefully that will help me to build better habits going forward.
The third thing I’m doing is both giving something up and taking something on. Recently I have been very moved by stories of oppression and martyrdom of my Christian brothers and sisters around the world. I sometimes feel persecuted because so many people despise my faith and look down on Christians intellectually, but this is such a small price to pay compared to what so many of my brothers and sisters suffer. I’m fasting one meal per week and praying for the oppressed and persecuted Church worldwide. It’s such a miniscule thing, but when the hunger pangs strike I can be reminded of how little my Christianity costs me and pray for those who risk it all to follow Jesus.
I hope that this Lenten season really helps me to get a greater sense of God’s steadfast and perfect love. Part of that will be to get a greater sense of my own sinfulness in order to see what Christ died for, and also where I would be without Him. In a Bible study I was doing recently I was asked to consider where I would be without Jesus, and the thought was so horrifying I couldn’t even write anything down. May my thankfulness and awareness of His great grace ever increase, comforting me, awing me and urging and enabling me to walk in His ways.