BLOG – Ash Wednesday and Giving Up Something for Lent

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which starts the season of Lent leading up to Easter. Practically that means for the next 6 weeks you’ll hear lots of people complaining or humble-bragging about “giving up ____.” You’ll be at the office and offer someone a homemade chocolate chip cookie, only to hear, “I can’t I gave up chocolate for Lent.” You’ll go to lunch meeting and someone will order a salad because, “I gave up meat for Lent.” People will moan about all kinds of things from Diet Coke to cussing, but what is Lent?

Lent and Ash Wednesday are not in the Bible, but for two millennia, Christians have found it helpful to take the 40 days before Easter to focus on Jesus by starting, restarting, or emphasizing certain spiritual practices, such as Bible Study, Private Prayer, Generosity, Celebration, Meditation, Journaling, Serving, Secrecy, or Silence.

Each of these exercises, also called disciplines, is a routine built into the rhythm of life to cultivate a love for Christ, a faith in Christ, and a character like Christ. The exercise of Bible Study floods my mind with messages from Jesus teaching me how Jesus feels about me. The exercise of Secrecy, in which I do kind things or spiritual things without anyone knowing about them, teaches me humility and helps me die to my constant need for approval. The exercise of Generosity, fights my innate greed, while training me in compassion and growing my faith as I find God is faithful to take care of my needs.

Likewise, the phrase, “giving something up for Lent”, and the accompanying practice is really just the cultural remnants of an ancient spiritual exercise called Fasting. Fasting is the crossfit of spiritual disciplines. Simply put, when I fast, I don’t eat and then I use my hunger to remind me to pray because I need Jesus more than food (discipline of Prayer). When I fast, I use my meal times for Bible study to feast on God’s Word (discipline of Study), and I give the money I did not spend food to the hungry (discipline of Generosity). When I fast, I don’t tell anyone I am fasting (discipline of Secrecy), and when asked if I’m going to eat, I simply respond, “I already ate before I came,” because I feasted on Jesus’ Word.

During Lent i.e. the 6 weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter, Christians will commit to one or more of these practices to remind them to talk to Jesus and savor his resurrection. They will get up early for a devotional or they will serve one day a week at a soup kitchen or they will simplify their diet by giving up chocolate or they will abstain from all food for one day a week. Whatever their commitment, it is best if it is regular, scheduled, and quantifiable. The goal is not suffering, but increased spiritual awareness.

I strongly encourage you to practice some new or old disciplines and routine this Lent. You can learn more about spiritual disciplines and Lent on line or in my favorite book, Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. If you don’t know where to start, “Giving up something for Lent” is not a bad place. Every time you want that thing, crave that thing, or go without that thing, instead of complaining to your friend, talk to Jesus about what is going on in your day and all he has done for you.

This sermon on Fasting and the Spiritual Disciplines is one of the best things I have heard in a long time. Please take time to download it and listen to it.

 

Forget Yourself | Fasting | John Ortberg from Menlo.Church on Vimeo.

Litany of Penitence – The Rocks We Dropped

On Ash Wednesday, we dropped the rocks that keep us from accepting God’s love and being useful to God and other people. We named the hurts and habits and hang-ups that get us in the way of us receiving and giving forgiveness. Corporately (Together), we confessed many of the things we do that dishonor God, hurt ourselves, and harm others, then we laid these down on the altar as sacrifices. Individually, we named other things that keep us from particularly following Jesus.

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Here is what we said:

Litany of Penitence

Laying down the Burdens and Sacrificing the Sin that Separates

“Hebrews 12 says, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” All of us accumulate burdens that weigh us down and sin that trips us up. Each of us is “prone to wonder, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Tonight we will name these burdens, these failures, these habits, these attitudes collectively and individually, and we will lay them down on the altar, so that we can cling to Jesus as our cornerstone. When our hands are already full of stones, we are unable to take hold of any treasure. Likewise, these sinful behaviors and attitudes fill our hearts and effectively prevent us from receiving grace and enjoying forgiveness. We must first lay down useless things in order to accept Jesus’ gifts of salvation, sanctification, and transformation. We must be willing to give up our old ways of thinking and behaving, if we are to be transformed by the Holy Spirit into new creations. Together we will pray responsively, and then there will be time for individual reflection as well. A Series of readers, will lead us in communal confession and surrender. Each will finish their prayer with the line, “LORD IN YOUR MERCY,” To which we will respond collectively, “HAVE MERCY ON US, O GOD.”

 

Greatest commands

Holy and merciful God,we confess to you and to one another,and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we have sinned by our own faultin thought, word, and deed,by what we have done,and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.We have not forgiven others as we have been forgiven. Lord in your mercy,

Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Apathy and indifference

1 John 3:17 –  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

We lay down APATHY and all we do to ignore things that matter. We are often indifferent to the suffering around us in sick, poor, or lonely people. We find it too easy to ignore the pain of those fleeing terrorists in Syria or drug cartels in Central America. We give up our indifference and instead choose to love and to serve. Lord in your mercy, Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Blaming others

Matthew 6:5 – You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

We lay down BLAMING OTHERS. Too often we pass the buck, avoiding responsibility by find fault with others. Rather than blame co-workers, spouses, children, or even God for our disappointments, challenges, and failures; we will take responsibility for our part and make amends. Lord in your mercy, Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Impatience

Psalm 27:14 – Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.

We lay down IMPATIENCE with God and other people. Too often we grow angry with slow people, traffic on the highway, or unanswered prayers. Instead, we will do what we can, when we can, and trust God’s timing for the rest. Lord in your mercy, Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Impurity

Ephesians 5:3 – But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity.

We lay down IMPURITY and all that defiles the image of God in us. Our world praises the sexually liberated, but we honor you with our bodies and our sexuality, laying down pornography, lust, objectification, and lewd humor. Lord in your mercy, Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Entitlement and me first

1 Cor 4:7 –  For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

We lay down ENTITLEMENT. We lay down ME FIRST attitudes and DEMANDING personalities. We give up the lie that other people exist to serve us, and instead realize that all we have is a gift from our homes to our bodies to our jobs to the breath in our lungs, we humbly receive these gifts with the hope that we can be a servant to others. Lord in your mercy,

Have mercy on us, O God.

 

People pleasing and fear of people

Matt 10:28 – Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

We lay down PEOPLE PLEASING and FEAR OF PEOPLE. We will give into cultural standards or cave to peer pressure. We quit altering our appearance, dress and body through eating disorders, excessive shopping, and suggestive clothing. Instead we find our value in Jesus.  Lord in your mercy,

Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Overcommitment and busyness

Col 3:23 – Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord,

We lay down OVERCOMMITMENT and BUSYNESS. We give up the things we do unnecessarily to make ourselves feel important, like attending every meetings, joining too many clubs, serving on too many committees. We give up doing more with less, and instead give God and others our best by choosing to do less with more intentionality, energy, and commitment. Lord in your mercy,

Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Distractions and wasting time

Romans 6:13 – Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.

We lay down DISTRACTIONS and WASTING TIME. We give up the things we use to numb ourselves to unpleasant emotions and the things we use to procrastinate the necessary tasks. We give up TV, Video Games, Drunkenness, Comfort Eating, and anything we binge on to distract ourselves. Instead, we will make ourselves available and useful to Jesus. Lord in your mercy,

Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Destructive speech and gossip

Ephesians 4:29Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

We lay down DESTRUCTIVE SPEECH AND GOSSIP. We give up laughing at other people, retelling other’s misfortunes, and using our words to hurt others or their reputation. We give up nasty Facebook posts, Tweets, and passive-aggressive hostility towards everybody from our parents to political pundits. Instead, we will season our speech with grace to encourage the faint and to bless our enemies. Lord in your mercy,

Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Bitterness and resentment

Colossians 3:13 – Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

We lay down BITTERNESS AND RESENTMENT. We quit hating others for their sins and we give up the right to make them pay for what they have done. We lay down the burden of retaliation and everything we do to cause them pain or wish them injury. instead trust God our Avenger to execute justice for them and us. We can forgive them as Christ has forgive us. Lord in your mercy,

Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Give up and quit

2 Timothy 1:7 – For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

We lay down our desire to GIVE UP and QUIT, which stems from laziness and fear. We are often half-hearted creatures hoping for healing through half-measures and easier, softer ways. We prefer the comfort of routine and low expectations, rather than the risk of fully committing ourselves to the active surrender of following Jesus. Lord in your mercy,

Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Pride and self-promotion

1 Peter 5:5 – All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.

We lay down our PRIDE and SELF-PROMOTION. We reject the lie that we are the center of the universe, that we know best, that we are better than others, smarter than others, and so God and people need us. We quit the habits of bragging, name-dropping, exaggerating, and out-right lying in hopes others will like us more. Instead, we will celebrate others and praise God. Lord in your mercy,

Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Guilt and shame

Isaiah 54:4 – Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame.

    Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.

You will forget the shame of your youth

    and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.

We lay down our GUILT and SHAME. We lay down the lie that our sin is somehow too bad. We quit denying forgiveness to ourselves. Instead, we believe you died to cover our shame, you gave the Holy Spirit to give us power to conquer the things that make us ashamed. So, we will seek help conquering the actions that continue to bury us in guilt like habitual sin, addiction, lying, abuse, or our past. Lord in your mercy,

Have mercy on us, O God.

 

Striving and Hypocrisy

Ephesians 2:8-9 – For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

We lay down our STRIVING and LEGALISM and HYPOCRISY. We quit trying to be good enough to earn your love, to merit forgiveness, and to win heaven. We repent of judging ourselves against other’s failures, and justifying our favorite sins as “not that bad.” We lay down all we have done as filthy rags and trust wholly in Jesus’ name and his cross to save us. Lord in your mercy,

Have mercy on us, O God.

 

IMPOSITION OF ASHES

There are millions of things we need to lay down. Millions of things that we have made the cornerstone of our lives, millions of ways we have dishonored and disobeyed God, millions of ways we’ve hurt ourselves and others. There are scores of character defects, shortcomings, and failures that keep us buried in shame, guilt, and unproductive cycles. It is time to lay them down. To lay it all down.

 

Col 3 says it this way:

 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.[b] You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

 

We invite you to think about the actions, attitudes, and occurrences that keep you from fully surrendering yourself to Jesus and his way of life. We invite you to think of those things you seek to hide from others most carefully and those things you talk about most frequently. We ask you to think about what you turn to on the bad days to comfort you and the things you think about first thing in the morning. These are probably the things that keep your hands so full, you cannot enjoy the benefits of Christ. They may feel like security blankets, but they are burdens.

 

Here is a PDF of the Rocks we dropped.

Litany of Penitence – Dropping the Rocks

For those interested, an entire order for worship and script can be found here.

Recent Book Recommendations

Lately, I've recommended several books from eh pulpit. Reading has historically been one of the great tools for spiritual and theological growth in Christian lives. In fact, Christians historically supported and even provided public education to insure every child learned to read and write, so that they would have access to the incredible riches of the Scriptures and the Church's writings. While our culture is no longer the print-based society it once was, reading and meditating on that reading is still an awesome way to grow in the knowledge and faith of Christ. One of my first mentors used to ask me every time we met, "What are you reading?" Too which, he'd always follow up, "If you want to be a Spiritual Leader, you've got to always be reading." I was 18 at the time and hated reading, but slowly, I plodded through. 
So here are the recommendations, I made recently. 

Books for Lent

The Prodigal God

The Prodigal God is an extended meditation on the Parable of the Prodigal Father and Sons found in Luke. This is an incredible book for anyone looking to deepen or clarify their understanding of the Christian Gospel. Timothy Keller is clear, concise, and compelling; often swinging convicting sledgehammers of truth followed by soothing balms of gospel healing. I've read this book 4 times in the last year (3 times in 6 months). 

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Celebration of Discipline

This book is a Christian Classic designed to teach Christians the skills (disciplines) they need to grow in grace and faith. This really is a primer for the basic practices of the Christian life, including prayer, fasting, study, meditation, simplicity, solitude, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. I love how Richard Foster surveys the Biblical verses, Church history, and modern practices to show the benefits of each discipline and the ways we can apply them in our lives. If you want to grow in PRACTICING your faith, in living it out, and in your personal relationship with Jesus, this is the book. 

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January 31 – 5th Sunday Gathering – What is LENT?

Been wondering why some Christians wear ashes on their foreheads? Ever wondered what is this crazy thing called “LENT” that happens before Easter? Hear people talking about “Giving up ______ for Lent” and wondering if it might be the newest diet craze? Wonder about the history and purpose of Lent?

Us too. So we’re going to have a special joint Sunday School to explore whether Lent is Biblical or not and whether we should participate or not? Come learn the history of Lent, the purpose of Lent, and how you might practice Lent.

Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016
9:20AM in the Fellowship Hall

There will be donuts and coffee and probably some fruit for those people too good for fried sugary goodness.

A Little about Lent for the Modern Saint

Lent is the 40 days before Easter, not including Sundays, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Easter Sunday. While people will say that it dates back to the Bible or to the 1st century, to be honest, Lent was a season made up by the Church to focus on repentance and devotion through the spiritual disciplines of study, fasting, prayer, and alms-giving. The number of days, 40, is a Biblical number with echoes of Jesus’ fast in the desert after his baptism, which in turn echoes the 40-day fasts of Moses and Elijah, not to mention the 40 days of the Flood and the 40 years in the desert. Still, Lent must not be identified as the same as anyone of those things. So the simple and honest answer is that Lent is a Season invented by the Church over thousands of years. 

While not in the Bible, the origins of Lent are the easier to trace than Ash Wednesday. In the first centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection, new converts to Christianity would be trained for months in Christian doctrine and Christian practices. This process of instruction is called catechesis, and usually involved memorizing an early form of the Apostles’ Creed. The emphasis during these months of training would have been on learning more theology (the Creed), learning more Scripture (the Stories), and learning Christian practices, especially Fasting and Prayer. Often, this training occurred in the months leading up to Easter. Finally, the weekend of Easter, the whole church would fast and pray from Friday at noon to Sunday at Sunrise. Then on Resurrection Sunday, all the new believers who had completed the catechesis, would be baptized and inducted into the then secret, underground church as together they celebrated the death of Death and the Resurrection of the Body.

CathedralHow this transitioned into Lent is difficult to trace with any certainty or clarity. Somehow, over the next 500 years, these months of training transitioned from a time just for new converts to a time for the whole Church to grow in faith, knowledge, and character through fasting, prayer, study, and Alms-giving. The Council of Nicea in 325AD played a large role in establishing this 40 Day Fast. The specific number of days, the starting date and ending date, the date of Easter, and the specific fasts and Fast Days during Lent were all, for better or worse, decided by the Church to promote uniformity and unity.

None of this makes Lent emphatically bad or “unbiblical” or heretically religious. Instead, it means that over the centuries between Christ’s resurrection and now, millions of Christians have practiced a sort of Spring Training. Christians across the globe have found Lent to be a rhythmic way to insert ancient practices like Fasting, Simplicity, Giving to the Poor (Alms), Study, and Daily Prayer as practical ways to FOLLOW JESUS and prepare to FISH for people. Lent is not “about giving something up,” so much as it is about getting back to the basic Christian disciplines. Like Spiritual Three-A-Day Practices they keep us in shape or like Spiritual Spring Cleaning they expose the idols and bad habits that have crept back into our heart. 

So should we practice Lent? Well, we should fast and pray and give to the poor and study God’s Scripture, and so if you want to create extra time dedicated to these basic rhythms of Christian life by sacrificing luxuries, then yes. If you just want to lose weight ahead of Spring Break or just want to gripe about being out of touch with the world cause you gave up Facebook, then Lent will probably do more harm to your soul than good.

In the coming weeks, I’ll write more about Lent and more about Fasting and Prayer and Study and such. For right now, let me point out that Lent is about intentionally doing those things we’re talking about each week in The Way of Jesus – I am Called to… Sermon Series. I will not hammer Lent or Lenten disciplines over the next few weeks, because we’re already talking about and encouraging one another to practice such things when we proclaim, “I AM CALLED TO FOLLOW, FISH, LOVE, WORSHIP, MATURE, SERVE, GIVE, SEEK UNITY, PRAY, and DIE.” So perhaps this year, you want to cut out one bad habit that keeps you from following, fishing, loving, worshiping, maturing, serving, giving, forgiving, praying, or dying. Instead, take one a specific task, such as daily Bible reading or nightly prayers or giving to the food bank that leads you further down these Ways of Jesus.

Celebration of DisciplineLastly, if you’re dying for ways to practice Lent, I cannot recommend Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline highly enough. Instead of reading all those Facebook posts about “40 Things to Give Up for Lent” or the “Reverse Lent Challenge” or some other pop-Lent, spiritual cotton candy, go out and buy this book and dig into some Filet Mignon.