A Time to Weep

Ecclesiastes 3 tells us “to everything there is a season” and the current season we are in is Lent. But most of the conversations I’ve had about Lent miss the underlying meaning of this season and focus only on what’s been given up. While Lent does incorporate the practice of giving up, also called fasting, the underlying purpose of Lent is to set apart a time for the purpose of grieving. So when I’ve been asked, “What are you giving up for Lent?” I’m not upset because I know one part of Lent is the practice of fasting, but another part of me also feels the loss in failing to connect fasting to the overall purpose of entering into a time of grief.

From the conversations I’ve had about Lent, grief and fasting are not often linked together, and this is understandable. At first glance, the acts grieving and fasting seem fairly distinct; one focuses on sorrow while the other focuses on self-discipline. However, Lent does not separate these practices but intertwines them. So what is the link between grieving and fasting? One answer may be that both grief and fasting allow the believer to learn how to let go of things belonging this world and to learn how to hold on to things belonging to God

Before diving into the link of grieving and fasting, it is important to first clearly understand what each process entails. Grief is not just an emotion but the recognition of loss, and while the specific examples of loss may vary, the characteristics do not. Loss is a combination of the inevitable, painful, involuntary and disorienting, and while we can’t control loss, we can control our response. When responding with grief, change is directed by the reason for grief. If grief is centered around the self, loss causes despair since it can only focus on what has been lost and the inability of man to reclaim. But when we grieve in the context of the Christian life, loss teaches us to face our mortality, values, and fears. For the believer, this lesson from loss is possible since life is not contained only on this earth but is sustained for eternity from God. Thus for the believer, grief should not cause us to spiral inward and downward but should instead lead us outward to express, embrace and explore.

While grief involves the emotions, it is also not a short or passive experience but a strenuously active processing of loss. This is because part of the Christian life is the long-term process of learning how to acquire and how to let go. Job reflects this process when in his grief he declares,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”  Job’s cry stems from the knowledge that his life was not grounded in what he possessed or what he lost but rather founded on his relationship with God. This perspective exemplifies the Christian grief which recognizes the loss on earth but simultaneously understands our lives ultimately rely on God.

So during Lent, fasting similarly reminds us our sustenance isn’t found in what we gain or lose but in the eternal relationship we have with God. Often times, fasting is merely seen as a way to practice endurance or self-discipline. However, its deeper meaning is revealed through abstaining from one form of sustenance such as food which then points to the greater sustenance of another such as God. The remembrance of and reliance on God through fasting then allows believers to focus on the renewal of a relationship with God. It’s a self-imposed loss which similar to grief should not cause us to turn inward or despair but should instead lead us to explore and embrace the relationship we have with God.

Grieving is difficult and at times overwhelming but it is also a process which ultimately allows for growth. While growth can be found amidst loss and grief,  “we do not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Likewise, when we fast, we don’t fast eternally but in preparation for feasting. Instead, we learn how to properly give things up with the belief they will eventually be replaced with things far better. So in this season of grief, let us patiently and somberly grow in the process of loss but let us also be encouraged in the hope of what is to come.

“And When You Fast:” Thoughts on Food in Preparation for Great Lent

‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything. – 1 Corinthians 6:12

As we approach Great Lent every year, a common question pops up in online articles, during coffee hours after Sunday services, and in casual conversations among Christians and non-Christians alike:

“So, what are you giving up for Lent?”

Some may give up an activity like engaging in social media or watching television. Others may pick a single food item, such as candy, or soda, or french fries. It’s good to try and purge things from your life that are unnecessary or overly time consuming, even if only for a temporary period.

But I want to speak of my personal experience in the practice of significant dietary fasting and why I’d like to encourage evangelicals (and all Christians) to consider a somewhat larger-scale food fast this year for Lent.

(Of course, everything I say here is based on my personal experience and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice. Anyone who wants to try fasting or make any significant change in their diet should first consult with their doctor and consider their personal medical and dietary history and needs.)

I was raised in an evangelical tradition, and while I grew up accustomed to the notion of fasting, the extent of my experience with and knowledge of fasting and other Lenten practices was limited to my observations of Catholic acquaintances. I knew that people commonly gave something up for Lent, and many of my (Catholic and non-Catholic) friends talked about giving up something specific and limited, like their favorite junk food. Chocolate was a popular choice.

I didn’t try fasting until I was in college, and I went pretty large-scale, compared to the kind of fasting with which I was familiar. For Lent during my freshman year, I gave up all animal products: meat and dairy, essentially. This is the fast I have kept (not without slip-ups, of course) for Lent since then.

Fasting has taught me some important lessons about my relationship with food. I’ve learned that I use food to to self-medicate, to improve my mood, and to indulge myself when I’m having a rough day.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that when it comes to food, easily and often, I am not in control: rather, food controls me. When I suddenly can’t reach for my favorite comfort foods, I get frustrated, sometimes depressed.

The tagline of many Snickers commercials is “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” with the implication that eating a Snickers bar will help you feel more like yourself. But is it really good for us to believe that we are somehow not ourselves and out of control unless we can always immediately satisfy our cravings and fill our bellies the instant we feel the pang hunger?

An acquaintance once responded to the idea of fasting by saying, “I don’t need to fast because I’m free in Christ to eat whatever I want.” But it’s not good to always eat, or do, or say, or think whatever we want. Acting on every impulse and desire is not freedom.

I’ve also heard people balk at the notion of giving up food in any sense because they simply “love” food too much. If the only reason a person resists fasting is because they truly cannot fathom giving up certain foods, or they enjoy certain foods too much to abstain from them even temporarily, that is no mark of freedom, either. It is more like gluttony. Fasting has taught me that I far too easily turn food into an idol, something I worship and rely on in order to feel satisfied.

I never knew how much of a slave to food I was until I tried fasting.

Another benefit I’ve realized from fasting this way is that it enhances the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. Fasting, followed by feasting, enables us to celebrate with all aspects of our being. Humans are not merely intellectual or emotional creatures; we are physical as well. I think many people like to believe that our bodies are not really part of who we are, or they are at least a lesser part of who we are, but that’s simply not true. God created us spiritual and material, and He cares enough about our bodies to redeem them through Christ’s incarnation and restore them in the resurrection we are promised after death.

After all, if our bodies weren’t an important aspect of who we are, fasting would be no big deal.

Further, by indulging in certain foods out of celebration rather than out of necessity (because we “can’t” give them up), we practice mastery over our food instead of letting food master us.

Fasting also inspires thankfulness by reminding us of the true purpose of food, on its most basic level: survival. When food is no longer about what I want or what sounds good and is instead just about nourishment, I am reminded on a visceral level to be thankful for such nourishment, even when it’s as simple as a bowl of rice and beans or a piece of fruit.

It’s also crucial to keep in mind that fasting is not about maintaining perfect abstinence in order to make ourselves “worthy” to receive God’s grace. It’s about freeing ourselves from any unhealthy relationship we may have with food (or anything else) and finding our satisfaction in God alone.

Food, Faith, and Fasting, a podcast hosted by Rita Madden (a Registered Dietician who also holds a Master of Public Health degree), is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about fasting and spirituality, as well as gaining some practical tips on the topic. She has some good thoughts on the relationship between hunger and spirituality during a fasting season:

Now it’s important to mention something here, because when hunger goes up, frustration goes up. So when we feel hungry, we also get frustrated. Blood sugar goes down; irritability goes up. So be aware of that: there are going to be times when you’re going to feel frustrated more. Turn to prayer…When you’re feeling hungry, and you turn that hunger into prayer, whether it be at a service or in your prayer corner at home or just taking a five-minute break and just clocking out of your workday and having prayer, this is a good thing. This is how this tool of fasting can help us to deepen our prayer life and our walk in faith.

Again, the practice of fasting helps us master our hunger instead of being mastered by hunger. Instead of turning to food in our hunger, we can turn to God.

This year, I encourage Christians who have never practiced a Lenten fast, or who have never practiced it on a larger scale, to consider doing so by giving up something significant in your diet. Of course, one beauty of the fast is that there is no “right” way to do it; consult with your pastor or priest (and your doctor) to discern what is appropriate for you. It’s okay to start small, especially if you’ve never fasted before.

Try and choose something that will be difficult to give up, because it is largely in the daily work of the fast that the greatest blessings are revealed and that we are reminded to look to God alone for our true satisfaction and sustenance.

Salad, Sex and Lent: Abstinence for a Purpose

I’m a virgin. You may have heard of us.

My understanding of sex is based on a combination of fifth-grade conversations with my mom, accidentally running into people in the park who thought they were alone, and watching HBO. Not much on the personal experience end.

While I have no problem admitting to my current state of sexlessness, I hate the modern conception of what a “virgin” must look like. I don’t live with my parents; I don’t play World of Warcraft in a basement. I’m not overweight. (I also have a job in the film industry, which I have been told is “sexy.”)

The fact that I’m a virgin comes up, now and then, in unexpected conversations—at work, while on a camping trip, at a party. The reactions vary, but the most common is something along the lines of “Whoa…I respect that, I just didn’t know anyone could do it!”

In Christian contexts, I’m much less of a social unicorn: plenty of the people I know from church are still “doing the abstinence thing,” despite living in a city that thrives on hook-up culture. And the number of people from my alma mater whose engagements pop up on Facebook each week keeps the rest of us hopeful for a sanctioned, sexy future.

But the thing that bothers me about the church approach to chastity is that many youth groups—including my own—have felt that the only way to keep teenagers out of each other’s pants is to present abstinence as a magical money-back guarantee. “Here, put on this purity ring! It will guide your future husband right to you!”

I appreciate the sentiment of things like “true love waits,” but I’d rather be part of an abstinence that doesn’t sit around pining. Sometimes people never get married. Sometimes they do and the “plumbing” doesn’t work.

Most likely there will be someone, sometime, who finds my big blue eyes and charming wit irresistible. But if there isn’t, I will legitimately end up dying a virgin. Which, as we have learned from TV shows, is actually a fate worse than death.

So if the goal of abstinence is “better indulgence later,” then we have a problem. Which leads me to look outside the sex issue for a bit.

I’ve taken part in Lent, or at least the less-liturgical Protestant version, for a couple of years now. Each time it’s helped me to refocus things in my life that were a little out of balance: MySpace (circa 2007), chocolate, etc. This year I decided to give up alcohol—and for the first time, didn’t make it through.

I convinced myself that I could make an exception for a really big party I would be attending for work. Afterwards, I was a little unhappy, but not in a guilty “I just failed God” sense. I was mostly just bummed that I would no longer be able to brag about my perfect Lent record to all of my Christian friends. Plus, now that I had a drink once, should I just scrap the whole thing and get wasted?

And that was when I realized that I might have this “abstaining” thing all wrong.

The purpose of Lent was never to build up to a self-righteous Easter binge.

But in our society, the only thing that gets us to curb our appetites is the pursuit of another appetite. We switch from burgers to salads, for example, so we can lose weight and look good enough to get laid. Not just because it’s good for us. Not if we’re being honest. Restraint for its own sake—without some kind of physical payoff—has been branded lunacy. Because why would you not want to be happy?

Which leaves me sitting here, crying into my kale salad, asking God why he can’t just zap me and take my desire for physical intimacy away.

Fortunately (like every other modern evangelical in a dilemma), I found a C.S. Lewis sound byte to re-orient my brain:

 “If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once. But…when people say, ‘Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,’ they may mean ‘the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of’. If they mean that, I think they are wrong. I think it is everything to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.” (Mere Christianity)

If you need any further fleshing out of that metaphor, think about that friend that always Instagrams what they’re having for lunch.

I have a God who wants me to meet him outside my desires. To pause from all of the other things that I take in that are not him, and find security outside of them.

Because only then can I realize that my appetites are not what define me…nor should they be.

We are not (just) what we eat.

Repentance Songs and Easter

As many Christians in the world celebrated Easter this week, I think of the long, self-reflective days of Lent drawing to their exciting fulfillment. In my church, Lent is a period of intentional reflection and repentant prayer, hemmed together with the hope of forgiveness and deliverance from those things we find in ourselves that we wish weren’t there. Moving toward Easter in that mindset has helped me reflect on the nature of repentance.

Repentance begins in the true and beautiful, humble self-knowledge required of the Christian. This self-knowledge is not hateful, but compassionate; not despairing, but realistic; not lax, but dynamic; not aloof, but developmental. It is Dante’s Purgatory, where the creatures sing as they work on unlearning their sin, and know their sin without self-hatred, but hope.

They sing because opening the palm that clenched sin so long is a relief. They sing because finally (finally!) they get to be free of being what they were. They’re grateful for the momentous and intense gift of forgiveness, and also for the chance to learn how to be holy, to be what they always wished they were.

I can clench my fist tightly around my sin, bury it deep in my palm, and make it as invisible as possible. And I do that because I wish they weren’t there—I wish I wasn’t proud or vain or slothful or timid. Through repentance, God unclenches my fist, and there it is; sin, lying exposed and ugly in my sweaty, tired palm.

To the Christian, it’s clear that repentance is beneficial, but we still anticipate its unpleasantness, like swallowing medicine, getting the oil changed, doing taxes. Actions which must be done, which we choose, and which we drag our feet toward and get through as quickly as possible. But, the sustained effort of Lent occasions its own joy. That unattractive side of my soul that I lie to myself about can’t hide from the ongoing spotlight continual prayers of repentance and reflection cast.

Self-deception covered it, and kept me sick.

Self-knowledge—that revelation God gives me of my own weakness, that surgical blade’s kind and painful prodding—exposes everything I can stand to see.

Without Easter, that self-knowledge would have to melt into the shoulder-shrugging aloofness the world gives to sin, or else mount into hopeless self-loathing. But, Easter will not leave me at self-knowledge. Easter brings a new life. In Dante’s Purgatory, the would-be saints attend the school of repentance with their eyes on heaven: they accomplish their tasks, unlearn their vices, and teach their hands and bodies the habits of virtue. And, of course, they sing.

While he doesn’t get the afterlife correct, Dante understands the Christian life well, especially the fundamental principle that one of the worst punishments for sinning is having to be a sinner. The best thing about repentance and renewal in Christ is getting to be forgiven and holy. The repentant Christian knows the song Dante gives to the would-be saints of purgatory: it is the joyful, still song of thankful relief from burdens of being what we were never made to be.

On Evangelicals Practicing Lent

The Gospel Coalition argued this week that Lent is primarily about Jesus, and so can (and perhaps even should) be practiced by those of us who aren’t in denominations that currently practice it (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, if my counting is accurate). Personally, I stand in a place where I’m open to and eager to learn from practices like Lent, the liturgy (of which I suspect Lent is functionally an extension), church history, and the church calendar, regardless of my status as a staunch protestant evangelical. Perhaps it was my education–reading believers throughout history, particularly before the reformation, will lead anyone to be a little more open to thought that used to sound rather Catholic to my ears–or perhaps it is something in my disposition, but I think that it is likely that many of us could learn a thing or two from certain ancient practices.

My reasons for this are more complex than what I’ll offer here, but briefly, here is an outline: our lives are such that we think and pray differently depending on our posture (and I don’t mean posture simply as ‘how we sit,’ though that is a part of it; I also mean the sorts of things we do with our bodies and minds daily), and so it follows that sometimes we should seek to change our posture to encourage us to think and pray better. Christians have sought to do this for a couple thousand years now, and some of our practices are directly Scriptural (communion, or the Eucharist, comes to mind, as does fasting itself, and baptism), while others are perhaps more cultural, rather than strictly Biblical (reading your Bible daily, for instance, is probably cultural: not everyone could read in history).

My point is simply this: if protestants want to practice Lent, at least to some degree, I’m certainly not one to stand in the way. The Gospel Coalition agrees, even if the Lenten model they suggest is one that makes a few odd moves (I’m not so sure I want to advocate using Lent in the same way that people use the New Year, as a way to list things they desire to stop, and then fight them for a period of time. Likewise, suggesting that we “Do not worry about whether or not our sacrifice is a good one” strikes me as missing the point, as well). But for the most part, when done with prayer and reflection, Lent can be a reminder for us of the time Christ spent in the wilderness, suffering temptation as we do. Beyond that, participating in Lent during this season puts us in fellowship with millions of other believers, acting in ways that we believe will help us worship and glorify our God all the more. There’s something to be said for recognizing that you are not alone in this world, and that something is that fellowship is encouraging.

But many disagree with the practice of Lent for the Protestant. The comments suggest as such, saying things like “If Catholics can’t perfect themselves via Lent, why should we follow it?” and the more cheeky:

What does it matter if you use the word “lent”–words matter– they mean something and you don’t get to make up your own definition and call it “redeemed”. What’s next a devotional on redeeming Monkery? I know, I know it is probably already out there. Really, do you need Lent to get you to turn the TV off?

Where is Jenny Geddes when you need her?

As for me and my house we will be serving up a large platter of sausages.

There are good thoughts here, and I wouldn’t dare deny it. Of course, I hope we are capable of turning off our televisions and praying, even if I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with watching television. I won’t comment directly on the practices of monks, because I’m afraid of digging too deep a hole for one day.

But some go further: one pastor called the post “destructive” and suggested that TGC should offer an apology for it. His complaints, at least the ones that he voiced, are twofold: first, he argues that taking John the Baptist’s ministry leading up to the declaration of the Messiah and turning it into something we can practice is problematic, theologically, hermeneutically, and practically. The second complaint is the comparison of fasting during Lenten season to Jesus’ suffering in the wilderness, particularly the language of “…entering into the Wilderness with Jesus.”

On the first, I think too much is being made of the comparison. Of course, we all know that John’s mission was fulfilled, Jesus came in fulfillment of Isaiah, and we do not need to do so again. We also know that Jesus died and rose again, but we still celebrate those yearly on Good Friday and Easter, respectively. Preaching the cross and the resurrection may be a different sort of celebration than a Lenten fast, but I don’t think the comparison is all that far fetched. Much like we need the reminder of the Gospel, so do we sometimes need to prepare our hearts–which often look more like a desert than a garden–and perhaps Lent can function as a regular time of renewal.

On the second, my response is similar. Of course we do not need to enter into the Wilderness, in that we do not need to suffer that we may be saved, for Jesus already fulfilled that for us. But our fasting is, among other things, a denial for the sake of the glory of God. Fasting functions as a a time to set aside what would normally comfort us to pray, and so remind us where our ultimate comfort lies. In fact, we should probably partake in fasting far more often than we do, and following Lent is just one way that believers have attempted to keep the reminder in their lives.

I’m not convinced Lent is a requirement for all believers (this alone probably solidifies me as an Evangelical), but to dismiss it outright seems to ignore the way Evangelicals tend to use Lent: as a reminder during a set time of year that we rely on Christ for everything, even in times of plenty. If we can remember Jesus’ birth during Christmas and the resurrection at Easter, I have trouble seeing the problem with suggesting Christians partake in Lent.

Though we may fall, He has risen

Christ has risen. Easter has come. We have celebrated with church and feasting and games. Those of us who fasted have finished and are happily returning to our regular meals, and those other relishes that remind us of the bounty of the lives we have been given by God. As we return to normal time, it’s tempting to give up a meditative spirit as easily as we give up the privation which fostered it. Though we gladly leave behind a long dark 40 days for a renewed sense of Christ’s triumph, let us not forget the good of the fasting which whetted our appetite for the feast day.

One of the greatest gifts of Lenten fasting is that it intimately acquaints us with our limitations. I failed each one of my fasts repeatedly throughout Lent. Though I can only speak for myself, I doubt I was the only one who fell short of my own low bar. Such failure harkens back to failed New Years resolutions. Lent can make us give up trying to give up anything altogether. Lent can be another experience of inadequacy or failure. And, in a way, it’s meant to be.

The 40 days of Lent are reminiscent not only of Christ’s testing, but of Israel’s – not only of Christ’s shining moral triumph, but of the wandering tribes’ repeating moral failings. My Lenten experience was far closer to that of the faithless children of Israel than to that of the victorious Son of God, and this echo is not accidental. Where Israel failed, Christ was triumphant. Where we fall, he still stands. Lent confronts those of us who fail its rigors with our pervasive weakness, our inveterate inability to deny ourselves, to take up our cross. But even these confrontations with our own failure fit us to turn to him who denied himself unto death, even death on a cross.

Easter has come. We give up our mourning and turn to feasting. Where we fail, he has won. Where we succumb, he has overcome. Where we repeatedly fall, he has risen indeed. Glory be to God. ‘

Piped to pastures still

Lent is a time for Christians to give up what is good in order to be reminded of something better. Fasting and prayer are linked in Scripture, and it seems that fasting is a discipline which intensifies our prayers. It does so not because it makes us more holy to abstain from food, or purifies us of earthly desires, but because it creates a unique singularity of attention. Our time is not spent attending to our bodily needs in the way it is generally. This allows more time spent intentionally before the Lord. It fosters our relationship with God, because it gives we who have plenty an experience of neediness.

Our spiritual need, though undoubtedly our most dire, does not confront us with its demands the way the need for hunger or sleep will. Physical desires and needs are insistent and all-consuming when we do not attend to them; spiritual need is often experienced so subtlely as to go unfed for an entire lifetime. The God to whom we pray for our daily bread is also the God who nourishes our souls. Fasting creates a sense of dependency, a visceral experience of our own insufficiency. This fosters a felt understanding of our radical spiritual dependence on God. Fasting, like most disciplines, is a mode of self-teaching, of choosing certain behaviors and activities because they enforce to our somnolent selves the urgency and the reality of our relationship with God.

For most Protestants, “giving up” for Lent is viewed as a way to revamp forgotten New Year’s resolutions, or as an opportunity to give up what they shouldn’t be doing anyway. Fasting isn’t the same as dieting, though the two are often confused. Giving up treats or television is all very well, but Lent isn’t just an opportunity to break a habit. However much our fast may force us to attend to it – we can’t help but feel the tug of desire we are refusing – let us not forget that it is not about what we give up, but what we give it up for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Catholic priest intimately familiar with the self-denial of the Christian life, wrote a poem that movingly expresses this. “The Habit of Perfection” is a series of addresses to his senses, consoling them for their privation for the sake of greater attention to God. The life of the senses is so easily distracting. We are dazzled by data and allured by experience. Divine things are often less present and less compelling. But, as Hopkins reminds us, they are more worthy of our attention. It is often through the purposeful privation of the senses for a time that we are able to better sense our God:

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

Lenten Memory

The Lenten season begins today, though for most this is only noteworthy as a dimly remembered justification for a lot of shenanigans in New Orleans the night before. There is much good in such preparatory seasons, however, even for those of us whose lives are not shaped by the rhythms of a church calendar. Decorating the house for Christmas a month early (or three months early…) extends our enjoyment of the holiday, giving us temporal creatures more time to revel in the thing we love. The Christian calendar surrounds its major holidays with whole seasons — Christmas is traditionally twelve days long, and Easter Season lasts until Pentecost.

While it’s nice to know that advertisers were not the ones who invented long holidays, it is particularly probable that no marketing agency would ever come up with Lent. For Easter (and Passion Week as a whole), the Church has historically taken a different route of preparation than starting up the celebrations early. Lent is preparatory for the remembrance of Christ’s Resurrection because of its contrast to that fact of utmost joy, rather than its continuity with it. Lent is meant to be privative, the fast before the feast, a reminder of why we need God’s intervention in the world in the person of Jesus.

Depriving yourself of something is a good way of waking up to its importance. Skipping a meal makes you aware of your appetite far more than satisfying it would. Lent is a season that capitalizes on this principle. To return to the analogy of Christmas: it’s as if you were given one Christmas present for your entire life. Each year, rather than receiving a new one, you would re-open the old, commemorating when you first received it, and celebrating it again. There would be some counterintuitive wisdom in forgetting what it was you were going to get, or at least remembering what it was like before you received that one gift. Any anniversary is this way: we remind ourselves how glad we are for events which have occurred (births, weddings) and revel in them as if they were new again. Of course, experiences deepen over time. A fiftieth wedding anniversary should have a depth of meaning and experience that a fifth cannot — yet it is in remembering the wedding itself that we set aside time to appreciate the marriage presupposing it.

This doesn’t mean you should spend the month before your anniversary pretending to be single, or even trying to remember what life was like without your spouse. Neither should you hit your thumb with a hammer in order to reconnect with your digits. Lent is not about self-inflicted pain or forgetfulness of our security in Christ. It does recall that our salvation is not a “given,” but a free gift. It is a season of repentance, of giving up, so that we may better rejoice in and receive the fulfilled promise of Jesus’ Resurrection.

This Lenten season, spend time in the Old Testament. Remember how many promises went unfulfilled until the fullness of time. Feel for yourself, along with God’s people through history, the need for a mediator and a savior. Fast from something — remind yourself how little we deserve, and how much we have. Remember the poor. If you can, increase your giving — let your giving up be a giving toward someone who experiences want through all seasons. Lent is a season of remembrance, one brought about not by extended celebration but by protracted absence of it. Remember Proverbs 27:7: “He who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.” Don’t starve yourself this Lent, but don’t revel in the usual American over-abundance either. Allow yourself to go without the things you’ve come to expect. Don’t sate yourself so that you have no appetite for the sweetness of our celebrated salvation, when Easter comes. ‘

Lenten Reflections

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the penitential season that helps us prepare for Easter. Not all Christians choose the celebrate this season, but I think we all agree that it’s important to take time to intentionally examine ourselves, recommit ourselves to prayer, and carefully reflect on Jesus’ life and ministry.
I was reminded when I read Shane Vander Hart’s post today that Ash Wednesday also marks the beginning of the latest 40 Days for Life campaign. 40 Days for Life is an event which seeks to minister to unborn children, abortion providers, and parents through a time of focused prayer and fasting. I like that they take time to pray for all those affected by abortion, not just the mothers and children. It’s not too late for you to join them this season, and not too early to start planning for the next campaign later this year.
Lots of people are blogging their own reflections today (our own Matt Anderson is one!), but my favorite comes from Sarah, who points us to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (sorry, I don’t know offhand where this passage is from):

“That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace, on the other hand, is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must the asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.
Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

I hope you have a fruitful and blessed Lent!