Monday, April 1, 2013

My First Lent

Until this year, Lent never had any meaning to me. The environment and culture that has shaped me has never given any importance to Lent, so neither have I. It just simply hasn't been something that has ever been on my radar. I had always assumed that Lent was just something people did because some "religious authority" told them it was time to do it. I always thought Lent was a totally man-made idea and that it was kinda silly to give up something that wasn't sinful per se just to be giving it up. I always thought it was a self-righteous look-at-me-and-how-humble-I-am kind of thing. I simply couldn't imagine how Lent could have any real spiritual value.

Boy, was I wrong. And self-righteous.

Last year, I was on business travel during the Lenten season. A man that I was working with was observing Lent. His brother is a Catholic priest and he is a devout Catholic. I had a zillion questions for him. He graciously took the time to explain Lent to me. Mind you, I have not verified any of his explanation with a google or independent research. I just took him at his word and I'm going from a year old memory. So, what I say here may be an inaccurate restatement of an inaccurate description. But I don't think it really matters.

This is the gist of what I remember from him.
  1. Lent isn't supposed to be easy. (That, in and of itself probably gives it some value. Most things worth doing are not easy, so if it's nothing more than an exercise in doing something difficult, it probably still has value.) Giving up meat except for fish doesn't mean that you get fish and chips and sushi every day. The rules are not hard, fast rules. As a result, there are no loopholes. Sure, there is the Friday fish fry, but it's not quite that specific that you must give up meat and you must eat fish. You're supposed to overcome desires. It is a spiritual exercise in self-control.
  2. The 40 days comes from the 40 days that Jesus was in the wilderness fasting. And 40 days is more or  less 40 days, not exact. Some people take Sundays off from lent. But the idea is to remind us of the fasting Jesus did for 40 days.
  3. The main point of Lent is to make you more humble. It is NOT "look at me fasting, praying, and giving." It is a deeply personal thing designed to humble you and draw you nearer to God. Humility is the key to Lent.
That totally re-framed my thinking on the subject. Instead of broadened phylacteries as I had thought, Lent is an exercise in self-control to obtain humility and closeness to God.
So, this year, I decided to give it a try. Now, some with a similar faith-heritage (American Restoration Movement) may think my trying this is odd, but please allow me to defend myself. Fasting is something that has been pretty much ignored in our heritage. I have heard rare mention in Bible classes and private studies. I have maybe heard a couple of mentions out of literally thousands of sermons over the years. That avoidance of this command seems odd for a group that claims to follow the New Testament pattern and claims to do exactly what the Bible says. Jesus said (paraphrasing Matt. 9:15; Mark 2:19; and Luke 5:34-35) that when He leaves the earth, His disciples will fast. We see the early Christians fasting in Acts (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23) and Paul encouraging it for the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7:5; 2 Cor. 6:5). If I don't fast, I have to ask myself, "Am I a disciple of Christ?" Fasting is a characteristic of Christ's post-ascension disciples clearly set forth in the New Testament. No specific time or procedure is set forth in the New Testament for fasting, so I do not criticize or condemn anyone for not observing Lent or any other specific fast. However, speaking for myself, fasting is something that I had never given any serious consideration. I believe I was missing something good for me, given from God. Lent seemed as good an opportunity as any to begin to obey God in this.

Since the rules for Lent are not specific, you can choose what you will give up, but it shouldn't be easy. So, in choosing what to give up, I was looking for something that was not easy for me and something that would have a physical and spiritual benefit. I chose three fairly common things to give up: meat (except fish), chocolate, and ice cream. Sound easy? It was and it wasn't.

First, giving up meat is something that I have been working on for over a year now. I haven't completely given it up, mainly because I live in the South and it's sometimes just plain rude to be a vegetarian. Also, I do enjoy eating meat. Those two things combine to make it difficult for me to give up meat. But I want to abstain from meat as much as possible.

I believe that the meat we consume today makes its way to our table in extremely unethical and unnatural ways. It is not good for us physically because of the antibiotics and steroids and GMO corn based diet of the animals. Also, modern factory farms are inhumane. Finally, and most important to me is the mental health of the employees in factory farms and modern slaughter houses. Those people suffer greatly and my conscience disturbs me when I eat factory farmed flesh. Sometimes, though, I'm in a situation of choosing the lesser of two evils. Eating meat that would likely be thrown away otherwise seems less evil than directly insulting someone's loving and thoughtful effort to serve me. And sometimes, I just want a steak or a cheeseburger, so I order one. I don't judge you for eating meat. (Ok, I'll end my meat rant now and leave it at saying I wish there were something more I could do to improve the process of supplying meat to American consumers.)

So, a big spiritual benefit of giving up meat is that I daily prayed for workers in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Their plight was often on my mind and I prayed for them. I prayed for wisdom and opportunity to help. I prayed that more humane ways of beef, pork, and poultry farming would emerge. While I did eat meat twice during Lent, I did become more conscious of the life and freedom that was lost for my own pleasure.

Chocolate and ice cream were exercises in self-control that I needed. As I was tempted to partake, I reminded myself that this life is not about pleasure for myself. Depriving myself of pleasure is necessary to accomplish any worthy goal. I had become a daily consumer of ice cream and/or chocolate, and I was a slave to its pleasure more than I realized. Lent helped me to break those chains. Also, I cheated, three times during the six weeks. That's not a good record. It reminded me of Jesus in His 40 days and how infinitely more difficult it was for Him to resist making stones to bread. It made me appreciate His lifetime of self-control in a way that I hadn't before.

There were a few unexpected consequences of observing Lent. One was that I felt a connection to Christians throughout the world with other cultural and traditional backgrounds. Also, I felt a connection to history and sensed the value of church traditions that is sometimes lost in modern American evangelicalism.

The biggest unexpected consequence was that I longed to celebrate Easter. That seemed to me to naturally grow from the Lenten season. I gave special attention to the stories on each day of holy week. I read and meditated upon the accounts of the last week of Jesus' life. It was a very special time of study, meditation, and prayer for me. And I was rewarded and surprised with an outstanding telling of the resurrection story and an amazing sermon on the importance of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday morning.

Now, here again, this may seem odd to those in my tribe (American Restoration Movement). We are more accustomed to viewing Easter something like this... "Easter is not mentioned in the New Testament. Remembering the resurrection should not be just an annual event. We're commanded to remember the death of our Lord every first day of the week by observing the Lord's Supper." To that I respond this way... First, it is true that remembering the resurrection should not just be done annually. The resurrection should be ever present in our minds. Second, we're not commanded to take the Lord's Supper every week. There is an example of one church intending to observe the Lord's Supper one Sunday (Acts 20:7), but they didn't actually observe it on Sunday (Acts 20:11). Also, there's nothing that makes that mandatory for all churches everywhere. And the resurrection isn't really the emphasis of the Lord's Supper anyway. Third, if every Sunday is special, then no Sunday is special. Fourth, why would we miss an opportunity to talk about the resurrection? Paul sought every opportunity to talk about the resurrection. If people are already thinking about the resurrection of Jesus on a specific Sunday, why would we NOT talk about it? When is a good time to talk about the resurrection of Jesus? ANY TIME. ALL THE TIME. Finally, Easter is not like Christmas. In America, Christmas has become so commercialized that I can't imagine it ever overcoming the consumerism, avarice, and indulgence. Also, we don't know when Jesus was born. Easter, on the other hand, is not nearly as commercialized. And though there is some dispute between Eastern and Western churches about exactly which Sunday, we have a very good idea of which Sunday Jesus arose in relation to the Jewish calendar. While I never would insist that anyone observe any holiday, I totally reject the notion that it is a sin to observe Easter as a holiday. I am 100% opposed to condemning someone for observing Easter.

So, what's the point of all of this? What is the take-away? It's not, "Observe Lent," though you can and I'd recommend it at least once. It's not "We need to fast," though we do and I need to do it more. It's not "Easter is okay," though Easter is okay and is a great opportunity to talk about resurrection. It's not "Become a vegetarian," though that is a healthier and more sustainable choice. Those are all things that I learned through observing Lent, but none of those are the main point.

Here's the main point I learned. Do not assume that someone else's chosen way to honor God is less spiritual than your chosen way to honor God. Do not assume that others' traditions and customs have no value because they are not your traditions and customs. God can use a variety of actions to draw a pure heart closer to Him. I'm glad He used Lent this year to draw me closer to Him. I pray that I learned lasting lessons about self-control, prayer, and love so that I can be more like Him.

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