Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lent - Important Lessons from a Misunderstood Season

As a Christian from a non-liturgical background, which means one that doesn't emphasize the more scripted and ritualized aspects of Christian Tradition, I generally tend to ignore the Lenten Season or de-emphasize it's relevance. Many believers who celebrate my style of Christianity, often view Lent as rather superstitious at worst, or superficial at best. It is further viewed by many from "my side of the Christian House" as a time where people try to bribe God to overlook the bad they enjoy doing by immersing themselves into a concentrated period of sacrificial living, giving up their treasured vices for a time to impress God with their ability to "take one for the Gipper" for an extended duration.

While this view of Lent is certainly a distortion, there is often significant and troubling misapplication of the principles of Lent. Why is Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras - Tuesday Fat in French) celebrated with such recklessness and abandon as the culmination of Carnaval (or Carnival)? Frankly, it is an attempt by many to sew all of their wild oats the day before they enter into the Lenten season of austere and sacrificial, though self-absorbed, living. It's much like overloading on your favorite unhealthy, cholesterol-laden delicacies on Tuesday, and attempting to correct that misstep with a dose of Lipitor on Wednesday - it misses the point, doesn't accomplish the goal and ultimately does more harm than good.

This misguided behavior has led many to ask, "If this the result, why celebrate Lent? If it can be misunderstood and lead to misguided patronage so easily, why not just forget it?" For the same reason we don't throw babies out with bath water - there's something precious inside all that dirt that we need to retain! A few years ago, I had the blessing of serving as a Chaplain Intern for Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan - a major hospital in a major suburb of Detroit. In that service, I had the pleasure of fellowshipping with fellow Chaplains from many different faith backgrounds. Though there were important differences in some of our beliefs which are respected and protected, there were also common and practical principles that inspired us to be more excellent in our service to the Lord and to humanity.

An unyielding demand that was part of our spiritual service in the Clinical Pastoral Education Program (CPE) was the discipline of self-reflection. The thought behind the persistent call to self-reflect can be boiled down to this - You can't give away what you don't own for yourself! When a person is consistently engaged in reflecting on what God is doing in their own life, day by day, and making the adjustments as they serve, they are much more likely to minister with passion, energy and effectiveness. I've found over the years that this is an essential element of Christian service for any believer who wishes to be useful to the Lord, regardless of denominational background. For those who embrace this kind of discipline, I have observed that there is often a more ready ability to "Be still and know that [The Lord] is God." There is also a corresponding ability to hear from God and to aggressively and courageously move forward in obedience. This discipline helped me to remember that I need the Lord to work in my life in a deep and dynamic way if I'm going to make people aware of His ability to do His amazing and transforming work in their lives as well.

All of which brings us back to "Why Lent?" Starting with Ash Wednesday, a reminder of our mortality and the finite nature of our present life, Lent calls us to reflect on the Via Dolorosa, the painful road Jesus traveled to the Cross. Though our salvation is a free gift from God, it was not purchased cheaply. It cost Jesus the stress of temptation in the barren wilderness, the toil of a life of selfless service all throughout Israel, the anguish and burden of the bitter cup at Gethsemane and the pain and suffering of the Cross of Calvary. With the sacrifices of Jesus in mind, we can calibrate our observations in a Biblical and meaningful fashion and transform Lent observance from a selfish and superficial ritual into a meaningful and challenging spiritual discipline. From this foundation, Lent can serve as a thundering call to return to the nitty-gritty essentials of the Christian faith - Christ-focused, self sacrificing service, performed out of a deep and faithful love of God and a compassionate and committed love of all humanity.

My call to you as a friend and brother is this - If you're going to observe Lent, don't focus on what you're going to give up. That's just a smokescreen for more self-indulgence and self-centered living. Focus instead on what Christ gave up - Philippians 2; how Jesus walked - the Gospels; and how this is supposed to impact you and how you live - the entirety of the Scriptures; not just during Lent, but each and every day. This is particularly important on "Fat Tuesday" and its heavyweight offspring sprinkled throughout the year. If you don't celebrate Lent, you're not off the hook. In Luke 9,Jesus issued this challenge to all Christians "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." That sounds a lot like Lent doesn't it? The difference is it isn't a call to a list of do's or don'ts, or table of foods to avoid or activities to exclude. It is the adoption of a lifestyle that models what Jesus did day in and day out, every day of His ministry from His baptism to His resurrection! It's the way we the People of Jesus should live everyday whether we have ashes on our foreheads or not. So let's endeavor to live a Lenten lifestyle. One that looks to Jesus for our strength, inspiration and example so that others can see our good work and glorify our Father in Heaven.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Manhood Test! An Early Valentine Story

A dear friend who was a witness to my total and utter immersion into the cavernous and unrelenting love that has characterized my feelings for Luz since the moment I met her, asked me to recount an event at our wedding that went unseen by most, but was very much felt by me.

The Veil and Cord Ceremony conducted at Filipino weddings serves as a wonderful illustration of the presence and blessing of the Lord in the purity of marriage and symbol of the loving unity that marriage was meant to produce. Luz and I were blessed to have experienced this tradition as a part of our wedding. One slight miscalculation on the part of those who placed the veil and cord around us, gave me a strong but unintended illustration of endurance and perseverance marriage requires as well.

As the veil was placed around my shoulders and Luz’s head, the sponsors were very conscientious to do their very best to make sure that neither symbol slipped off. As they fulfilled their duties, I suddenly noticed a great deal of discomfort in my shoulder as If I had been stung by a bee or wasp. As I made a hasty appraisal of my situation, I quickly realized that the veil had actually been pinned to the trapezius muscle of my shoulder itself, not just my Barong Tagalog, or traditional Filipino shirt! In my desire to be a real man for my bride, I then surmised that my sticking was one last test, designed to try my love in a way that wasn’t visible to the congregation and family, but was all too obvious to me. This test would be seen by the wedding party and a few insiders, and would prove beyond a doubt I was willing to pay any price and face unplanned obstacles and discomfort as a husband and father. In my mind, I couldn’t just pass this test, I had to max it! So, I smiled, put on a thoughtful face and avoided giving even a clue that I was at all fazed by this trial of manhood.

When the ceremony was over, and the veil and cord had been removed, I whispered to Luz and asked if she was proud of my performance in passing the test? She looked at me curiously and asked “What test?” “You know.” I replied, and explained what had just happened and how I had endured it all with distinction and honor! Luz almost bent over double laughing. “That was no test!” She chuckled. “They were probably really nervous and just stuck the pin too deep so that the veil wouldn't come off! Manhood Test! You are SOOO funny!” It seemed that though I had failed impressed my new bride with my masculinity, I had succeeded in entertaining her with my stupidity. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but laugh myself. Looking back on that day, amidst many ups and downs and trials and victories, I have still continued to find myself laughing with joy some 20 years later. I have also learned a few lessons, among them being this bit of truth - while you may make a fool of yourself thinking you’re doing something noble, manly and brave to prove your love, in your failure you may achieve something much sweeter and more enduring – bringing the one you love incredible joy and exposing a heart that is faithful, devoted, and willing to face any obstacle for the sake of a love that is beyond measure and without shame. When you really consider it, what could be manlier than that? Lots of love and Happy Valentine's Day! Until next time...