Monday, February 27, 2012

I Gave It Up for Lent

Okay, I admit it: I don’t know a whole heck of a lot about Lent. I’m a fairly non-liturgical Baptist. And even though I grew up in a Presbyterian church I don’t remember hearing much about Lent. I do know a little, however. I know it begins with Ash Wednesday, a day to reflect on our own mortality. You know, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” All of us are going to die. We should think about that and live a life and find the faith that prepares us for our eventual appointment with death. Lent then proceeds for 40 days (excluding Sundays) until Holy Saturday the day before Easter. Lent is a time to reflect on the sufferings of Jesus and all that He sacrificed for us. It’s somber time, a reflective time, a holy time. And somewhere along the way, this idea of giving up something for Lent was introduced to the church.

So every year I hear some of the things people are giving up for Lent. My experience with such things indicates that most of the giving up tends to be either dietary or media-based. People give up chocolate or sweets or Cokes or booze or fried food. Others give up certain television shows or going to the movies. A few determine to give up something like smoking or cussing or another bad habit that may or may not even be a sin. And it seems like the popular give-up this Lenten season is Facebook. I read some posts from my Facebook friends last Wednesday that said something to the effect of, “If you need to contact me, call or email because I’m giving up Facebook for Lent. I’ll be back on in 40 days.”

This whole thing has always intrigued me. It’s like a 40-day attempt to do something Jesus calls us to do 365 days a year. You remember when He said, “If anyone comes after me let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). I guess Lent is a way of trying to do the first of these three actions: self-denial. And if it is, it seems to me that folks ought to consider giving up something important enough that they don’t plan on taking it right back up again when the 40 days are past. Shouldn’t self-denial run a bit deeper than that?

Self-denial is one of the most difficult things Jesus calls us to do. It’s not natural. We learn from birth to exalt the self. A baby’s wet or hungry and what does she do? Does she say, “Oh mother, pardon my intrusion. How selfish of me! You get your sleep first, then I’ll get mine.” Is that what a baby does? Yeah, right. The baby’s going to scream her lungs out until somebody tends to her needs.

Or take a toddler. Suppose your toddler wants something. It doesn’t matter what it is—it could be anything—a little attention, some crackers and juice, his sister’s toy, or to get up from his nap too early—anything. And suppose you’re busy. Does the toddler say, “I’m sorry, mother. I didn’t know you were busy. Please take your time in tending to my wants. Finish your phone call. Wait till your program is over. Finish the chapter. I’m really in no hurry.” Is that what toddlers do? No way! They’ll fuss and whine until you either make them quit or give them what they want.

We tend to be self-centered by nature. It shows up in our lives from birth to death. We want what we want when we want it. Age and reality usually tempers our ability to get it, but it doesn’t stop many of us from trying. Look at credit card debt. Look at chronic overeating. Look at all the addictions. Look at the number of divorces caused by self-centeredness. Look at parents who neglect their kids to satisfy their own wants. Even adults have a hard time saying no to themselves. When Jesus calls us to deny self, He is asking us to go against the flow, to cut across the grain of human nature. So we resist.

And our culture doesn’t make it any easier. Put a drop of self-centeredness in the Petri dish of American culture and it will grow like a fungus. American culture does not treat us as persons but as consumers. Thus, ad after ad to whet our appetite for more, people counseling us to go get ours, and all the “I deserve it” and “I’m entitled” mantras that shout to us through a megaphone of selfishness. And as if that’s not enough, even many of today’s churches treat us as consumers too: “Come check out our programs tailored just for you. We're the home of only seven commandments—you choose. Home of the 3% tithe.” It’s tough to say no to oneself. Even the church isn’t always a lot of help. And yet Jesus calls us to do it: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself ….”

I wonder if the key is not just learning to say no to self but yes to Christ. In Matthew 12 Jesus tells a story about a man who swept his life clean from one evil spirit. But because he didn’t fill the void with Christ, seven spirits worse than the first came back and moved right in. See what I mean: denying self is more than saying no to self, it’s saying yes to Christ. And if we can get that in perspective, it might make giving up something for Lent more meaningful than a 40-day change in one’s eating habits or Facebook usage. What if we picked on bigger things? What if we determined to say no to old grudges and yes to offering forgiveness to those who have hurt us? What if we say no to a certain level of media addiction and say yes to filling up that time reading God’s word or a good Christian book or a little time in prayer and reflection? What if we say no to a relationship that is moving us away from Christ and say yes to relationships that draw us toward Him? What if we said no to spending so much on ourselves and said yes to giving more to the things that are close to God’s heart: things like the church or charities that serve the poor and the wounded? No to self doesn’t mean all that much unless we say yes to Christ.

But then again, what do I know about Lent? I’m a Baptist for crying out loud. I’ll be the first to admit that Lent is a bit of foreign ground for me. But at the same time, I do know this: Jesus didn’t just say, “If anyone come after me, let him deny himself for forty days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday.” The full verse says, “If anyone come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” That looks like no to self and yes to Christ to me—a no and a yes that Jesus will give you the strength to accomplish as you lean into Him.

Oh, and one other thing: taking this path might help us make for some significant change that lasts a lot longer than forty measly days.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Valentine Story

So, it’s Valentine’s Day—that holiday has never been at the top of my favorite holiday list. Labor and Memorial Day—good, relaxing, do-nothing, chill out days. Thanksgiving—good food, get to see the kids, Cowboys football, nice. Christmas—a lot like Thanksgiving without the Cowboys football, and you get to add seasonal music, presents, and a Christmas Eve service. But Valentine’s Day—a lot risk there, a lot of chances to mess things up. What if I don’t get Dayna the right present or what if Walmart sells out of flowers before I get there? There’s a lot on the line. Just never much liked Valentine’s Day.

It probably stems from my childhood. You remember those days in grammar school when you exchanged Valentines with your classmates. Your mom bought you a box of those little bitty Valentines to sign and give away. You took an old shoe box in art class, decorated it with construction paper and crayons, and cut a slit in the top so that the rest of the class could slip a Valentine in your box. I hated that day in art class. Did you know that one of the chief differences between monkeys and humans is that monkeys do not have opposable thumbs? Well, when it comes to art projects, I don’t have opposable thumbs either—never did—so my Valentine box looked like a monkey made it.

But hey, we all have our gifts, and I could pop my armpit better than anybody in my class. So what if I stunk at classic art projects; is there not a certain artistry to popping one’s pit in ways that could make all the classic sounds of flatulence? But I digress.

Anyway, in spite of my pathetic Valentine’s box, my fifth-grade Valentine’s Day held the potential to be a big day for me. And here’s why: Anne Wilcox. I was some kind of sweet on Anne Wilcox—this pretty little blue-eyed, blonde-haired cutie. When I first saw her, Cupid didn’t just shoot me with one arrow; he emptied the whole quiver right into my heart. You see, I’d recently moved to Branson from Arkansas; she’d just moved to Branson from Mississippi; we were the only two in class that had yet to learn that the Civil War was over and that the North had won. She was a fifth-grade southern belle. And you know what the Beach Boys were singing about southern girls: “And the southern girls with the way they kiss / they keep their boyfriends warm at night.” I was in love, smitten. She was Juliet to my Romeo, Cleopatra to my Antony, Bonnie to my Clyde. There was just one problem. According to fifth-grade etiquette in that day, I dare not tell her. At best I could tell only a couple of my people who would talk to a couple of her people and see if she liked me back. That process was still in the works. I had yet to receive word back from my spies. It was all quiet on the Southern front. So I was banking on Valentine’s Day to give me my answer.

It was zero hour. Kids went around the room dropping their Valentine’s into the slots on the other kids’ boxes. And then it was time to open the Valentines. I tore the lid off my box, shuffling through those Valentine envelopes with the speed and dexterity of a 100-word-a-minute typist, looking for the one that said “Anne.” What? Huh? None of them said “Anne.” Then it dawned on me: all of them said “John.” Duh! What was I thinking? Fifth-graders don’t put return addresses on classroom Valentines, you moron. But I shook it off and got my head back in the game. I took the first Valentine from the box, then the next, and the next, picking up speed like a racehorse on the home stretch, searching, searching, searching, for the Valentine from Anne. And then, pay-dirt! I pulled just enough of that Valentine from the envelope to see Anne’s name. So I just stopped right there to enjoy the moment. I held it to my nose to see if she had laced the envelope with perfume. She had not. I retrieved the Valentine from the envelope, careful not to tear it. Wow! It was a great Valentine, a cut out of some flop-eared dog, as I recall, and a message that was sheer poetry—so simple, yet so profound and so personal I’m a little embarrassed to share it even after all these years. You want to hear what it said? “Happy Valentine's Day!” There was only one conclusion to draw: she loves me! She really loves me!

I dared not make eye contact with her in that tender moment, however. But I had to tell someone. So I leaned over to one of my spies, “Look at the Valentine Anne gave me.” He took it from me, looked at it. I was desperate for a second opinion, to see if he saw in it what I saw in it. “What do you think?” I said.

And he said, “I think she gave me the same one.” Wah, wah, wah, wahhhhh. That wasn’t glass my classmates heard breaking in that moment; it was my heart. There would be no Anne for me.

Okay, I admit it: the crush was real; I made up the story. It would be a few more years before I would find my true Valentine, and I’m still holding on to her today. Her name is Dayna and for almost 35 years her last name has been McCallum. And when I give her a valentine, I don’t give the same one to anyone else.

So let me go on record and say, “Thank you, God, for my valentine, Dayna—just one more indication that you treat me better than I deserve. Help me to treat her heart the way you treat ours—with love, understanding, respect, patience, and grace. And no matter how many years you give us together, may I love her even more at the end than I did at the beginning. Amen.”

Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody!

Monday, February 6, 2012

This Is the Day

I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, said it, or sung it, but I still have problems getting its truth from my head to my heart, from my worries to my faith, from tomorrow to today. It’s Psalm 118:24 — “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” In our “get-on-to-the-next-thing” culture that is dominated more by the watch than the calendar, more by “next” than “now,” this truth is hard to practice.

For some reason God wants us to pay attention to today. It’s okay to look back, and it's okay to look forward but not if it costs us today. That’s too high a price to pay. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The psalmist is not the only one to shine the spotlight on “today.” Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”? Didn’t the apostle Paul tell the Ephesians and us to “redeem the time,” that is, make the most of every opportunity we have? And that always begins with today.

Though I’m better at doing this now than I was in my younger years, it’s still a struggle for me. That’s why every now and then I pull a little story from my files to remind me to claim the day. The story, parable, or whatever you want to call it was written by Robert Hastings a number of years ago. It’s called The Station.

Tucked away in our subconscious minds is a vision—an idyllic vision in which we see ourselves on a long journey that spans an entire continent. We’re traveling by train and, from our windows, we drink in the passing scenes of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at crossings, of cattle grazing in distant pastures, of smoke pouring from power plants, of row upon row of cotton and corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of city skylines and village halls.

But uppermost in our conscious minds is our final destination—for on a certain hour and on a given day, our train will pull into the station with bells ringing, flags waving, and bands playing. And once that day comes, so many wonderful dreams will come true, and all the jagged pieces of our lives will fit together like a completed jigsaw puzzle. So restlessly, we pace the aisles and count the miles, peering ahead, cursing the minutes for loitering, waiting, waiting, waiting for the station …

“Yes, when we reach the station, that will be it,” we cry. “When we’re eighteen! When we buy that new Mercedes Benz! When we put the last kid through college! When we earn that promotion! When we pay off the mortgage! When we retire!” Yes, from that day on … we will all live happily ever after.

Sooner or later, however, we must realize that there is no station, no one place to arrive once and for all. The joy is in the journey.

The station is an illusion—it constantly outdistances us. Yesterday’s a memory; tomorrow’s a dream. Yesterday’s a fading sunset; tomorrow’s a faint sunrise. So, shut the door on yesterday and throw the key away, for only today is there light enough to live and love. It isn’t the burdens of today that drive men mad. Rather, it’s regrets over yesterday and fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are the twin thieves who would rob us of that golden treasure we call today, this tiny strip of light between two nights.

“Relish the moment,” is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 118:24, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, swim more rivers, climb more mountains, kiss more babies, count more stars. Laugh more and cry less. Go barefoot oftener. Eat more ice cream. Ride more merry-go-rounds. Watch more sunsets. Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough.

Yes it will. So in the meantime enjoy, survive, endure, and/or relish the moments day by day. There’s God’s wisdom in that. But don’t miss this important distinction. It is not, “Live for today”—as if there were no tomorrow. It is simply: “Live today.” As someone once put it so well, “The past is history; the future is mystery; today is a gift—that’s why we call it the present.”

Do yourself a favor and open that present today.