If we are friends on Facebook, then you probably know I received a pretty amazing gift last Saturday from a member of the congregation…for Lent. Yes, that’s right, I got a gift…for Lent.
If you’re wondering if you missed the memo because you’re new to church or just really new to the whole idea of Lent, don’t you worry. You haven’t missed a thing.
We don’t usually give one another or our pastors gifts for Lent. Christmas? Sure! Birthdays, anniversaries, why not? Pastor appreciation day - whoa Nellie! That was an awesome surprise and I say we keep that one on the books! Sometimes, I even get Valentines and Halloween cards from Harriet and Greg which are so sweet and just melt my heart!
But gifts for Lent? Other than the occasional devotional to help me double down on my prayer life… not so much.
And yet here was this gift basket on my front stoop, full of thoughtfully curated items to ease my body and calm my soul: candles and an avocado face mask and bath bombs and one of those really awesome sea sponges that I’ve always wanted, along with a card that acknowledged just how strenuous this season can be for pastors.
“May these items… help you stay rested and refreshed,” said the card. And they will, because the box wasn’t just full of fun little things, it was full of love and care and…dare I say it….delight! I mean friends, there was even a bar of dark chocolate in there nestled right next to a tiny little bottle of Prosecco.
Chocolate! That most beloved indulgence that has helped children of all ages observe Lent since 1828, simply by giving it up.
And yet there it was, a whole bar, in my Lenten Survival Kit, along with a bunch of other items guaranteed to spark such joy and peace that honestly, the whole thing has me re-thinking the purpose of this most holy season.
Re-thinking, because in my mind words like “joy,” “indulgence,” “delight,” and, well, “Chocolate,” are somewhat antithetical to the whole concept of Lent. You see, traditionally, Lent has been viewed as a solemn time of penitence and fasting. In honor of Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness, Christians set aside these six weeks before Easter as a time to examine our lives and repent of behaviors we know are dragging us down or distracting us from God.
For millennia, Christians have used this season to get themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually back on track by either fasting from something - like meat or sugar - or taking on a new spiritual practice for their own good - like morning prayer or a daily walk. And although those changes often feel good in the sense of right and healthy, I’ve always had the sense that they’re not supposed to feel too good; that a little suffering and sacrifice need to be mixed in there as well for it to really count. You know; “No pain, no gain,” that sort of thing?
And I gotta tell you, I love that sort of thing. I love this season and I love using it well. I think Lent offers all of us a tremendous opportunity to make some good, healthy, positive changes. But like any good thing, it is amazing how easy it is to twist it to serve ourselves rather than God, and as I looked down at my incongruously lovely Lenten Survival Kit, I was struck by a pretty powerful realization:
I think I might like Lent a little too much and maybe not in a good way.
Stay with me here.
For some people, the opportunity to buckle down and get serious about curbing a bad behavior or disciplined enough to take on a good one, can offer a much needed corrective. But for other people - and I’ll just say it, for people like me - who are already pretty disciplined about a lot of things, Lent can offer us spiritual cover for pushing ourselves even harder, restricting ourselves even more, berating ourselves even worse, when what we really need to do for the sake of our bodies and our souls and a closer walk with God is actually relax and release and maybe give ourselves a break.
There have been some powerful think pieces written over the years cautioning churches to watch our language around fasting and other spiritual disciplines because of the way it can trigger folks who struggle with dis-ordered eating or over exercising, O.C.D. or low self-esteem.
For example: we’ve come to realize that for a lot of people it’s all but impossible to disentangle dieting from fasting, disentangle our desire to draw closer to our culture’s ideal of beauty from our desire to draw closer to God. And let me tell you, you mix those two together - you fill people with the idea that they can do both at the same time, starve themselves for Jesus and look good while doing it - and you’ve got yourself a perfect storm of harmful.
Because, you see, for many of us there is a fine line between self-control and self-flagellation, wanting to care for ourselves and wanting to control ourselves; a fine line between a healthy desire to improve ourselves vs. an unhealthy desire to perfect ourselves.
Lent doesn’t just give us permission to smudge that line, it gives us its blessing…and that can be dangerous.
But that’s the exact opposite of what I saw in the gift I received. As I looked at all the little items in that box, I saw an invitation to relax and release that felt at odds with what I not only thought Lent was about, but also actually kind of liked that Lent was about.
The truth is, I love pushing myself just a little bit harder because if I’m addicted to anything it’s stress and the adrenaline that comes from over-functioning. I’ve done a lot of work around this so you don’t need to worry about me, but that’s the juice for me, the stuff that makes me feel useful and alive and worthwhile as a human being.
And yet there, in that box, what I saw very clearly was an invitation to give up stressing for Lent, give up working so hard to make everything come out right and instead take time for myself and release the ultimate outcome to God.
Boy did that sound good. But would that be cheating, I wondered? Would taking time to set down my work and gently care for myself constitute some sort of reverse Lent? Wouldn’t I be missing my annual church sanctioned opportunity to better myself just a little bit more. I honestly felt a little confused inside. So I went back to our scripture for today, the scripture that sets the tone for this whole season - and found there something I had not seen before.
Like many of you, I was taught to look at this season, at least on some level, as a time of trial and testing because of how Jesus was tried and tested in the wilderness. Here in the church we have traditionally lifted him up, in the context of this story, as a model of self-restraint, self-discipline, and self-reliance. Through sheer force of will our boy endured 40 days of hunger, thirst, isolation, and cold. And then at the end of that time, worn down and weary, he still managed to contend with the devil. Satan himself was brought in to tempt him and Jesus didn’t even flinch. In spite of it all, Jesus dug deep. He resisted temptation and he won.
Lent, therefore, was presented as an opportunity to fast in some little way in honor of Jesus who fasted in such a big way. Jesus toughed it out. He stayed true to his goals. And in imitation of him, ordinary people like you and me could too.
But the more I think about it now, the more I realize that this particular way of reading the story runs a great risk; the risk of turning Lent into nothing more than an opportunity to prove our selves to God. Framing it this way turns Lent into a test you can pass or a game you can win, and as much as I love that stuff- actually precisely because I love that stuff - I’m pretty sure that’s not the point.
I’m starting to think that maybe Jesus wasn’t led out there to prove himself, prove that he could do it all on his own. I’m starting to think that he was maybe led out there to learn the exact opposite, learn that he didn’t need to prove himself at all. I’m beginning to see that the temptations weren’t so much a test of his self-control, his self-reliance, his self-discipline, but an exercise in giving up control and learning that God would love him no matter what.
Because you see, Jesus could absolutely have done any of things Satan tempted him to do. Just as he could have magic-ed up bread or wine or anything else he might have wanted while he was out there in the wilderness. And if Satan had appeared and offered him a bite to eat before they’d gotten started, he could have eaten some bread without compromising the mission.
But Satan didn’t just tempt Jesus to eat bread. He said: “If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread.”
“If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from here”
“Look at this world, if you are the son of God then it is all yours anyway: take it, control it, make it love you the way it ought to.”
Satan isn’t tempting Jesus to eat or fly or increase his power, he’s tempting Jesus to prove himself. “If you are the son of God….” “If!”
He’s not really calling Jesus’ abilities into question but his identity.
Look at you out here all alone; cold and hungry.
Do you feel like God’s beloved child now?
Do you really think God’s going to come through for you?
Or would now be a good time to grow up and take matters into your own hands;
learn that God helps those who help themselves?
(Which is no where in the Bible by the way).
Come on Jesus, who’s going to feed you if you don’t learn to feed yourself?
Who’s going to show up for you in your time of need?
You really think God will? Then throw yourself down from here and let’s see what happens.
You honestly think God put you here for a reason - for some higher purpose - put you here to save the world? Well then, you better let me show you how things really work down here, because if you fail, what will God think of you then?
Satan tempts Jesus to prove himself: prove his worth by using his power to take control and not only make himself better… but make all of us better. And yet, Jesus doesn’t take this as an opportunity to prove himself to God or Satan or anyone else. Instead, he takes this as an opportunity to double down on the truth that God loves him for who he is - God’s beloved child - not what he can do, and God will continue to love him no matter what.
Because God’s love is not something we can win.
This life is not a test for us to pass or fail.
This life, this love… what it is… is a gift…a gift you’ve already been given.
You don’t need to do anything more to earn it because it’s already yours.
There is no “if” when it comes to your status as a beloved child of God.
Nothing you can do or fail to do can take that away; cause God to love you any more or any less than God loves you right now.
Your identity is secure.
Jesus got really clear on that out there in the wilderness and maybe Lent can be a time for us to get really clear on that too.
I have a dear, wise friend by the name of Kathy Speas, who figured this out a long time ago, which is why she actually gives up self-improvement for Lent year after year after year. She writes:
There is great spiritual value in realizing that it is not acts of abstinence that gets me closer to the Divine, that it is not a couple of dress sizes keeping me from grace, but that what I need to turn from is the idea that spiritual growth is a self-improvement program, that it is my efforts that really lead me forward. My self-improvement (and there has been quite a bit over the years, you'll be happy to hear) is a fruit, not a root. SomeThing has worked on me, SomeThing has swept much useless trash out of my spirit, SomeThing has changed me. And for that I am humbly grateful. Keep workin on me! And let me get outta the way!
I love that, and friends, I love all of you too. I pray that this Lent, no matter what you decide to do or not do, that you would know deep down in your heart that you and everyone around you is a beloved child of God.
If giving up Facebook or Twitter or reading the news helps you know that more - and really how could it not - then give it up.
If walking everyday or praying or keeping a gratitude journal helps you know that more - and really how could it not - then go for it.
And if taking the time to not just do but learn instead how to simply be - be still, be known, be loved - is what your soul needs most right now… well…I have a Lenten Survival Kit you might find useful, and I’m happy to share.