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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lent: Giving Up or Letting Go?

     Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter, considered by Christians to be a time of sacrifice for Jesus, in preparation of the believer for the annual commemoration of His crucifixion and resurrection.

     Some of the ways that Christians observe Lent are through prayer, penitence, charitable giving, and sacrifice by way of self-denial. These actions are supposed to draw us closer to God, to remove obstacles to our communion with Him. I wanted to look at each of those and how we might effectively implement them in our modern lives.

     Prayer: Instead of praying for our own gain, let's try praying for our enemies. Truthfully, most of our personal enemies are actually just people with different opinions than ours, not true threats. Sometimes, looking into ourselves, we realize we are simply jealous, and that's why we feel threatened. Sometimes our pride was dented. Sometimes we truly were wronged, but we survived. If someone has hurt you, pray for them. If someone has more than you, get over it. If someone is a danger to you, or is abusive to you in any way, please distance yourself and get to a safe place. I’m just pointing out that many of our grudges are petty in the grand scheme of things, and only serve to hold us back from our true potential and from fully worshipping and honoring God.

     Penitence: Wow this is a tough one. We are all sinners. We know when we do wrong, but sometimes we don't care! If it feels good, do it, right? I’ll do it just this once, and then I’ll ask for forgiveness. Maybe we don't think our sins are "that bad." The fact of the matter is that sin is sin, and sin is anything that separates us from God. True penitence means feeling genuine sorrow and remorse for our wrongdoings. This requires much introspection. What have you done to harm others, yourself, or God? I always tell my kids that “sorry” means you feel bad and you don't want to do it again. That is penitence.

     Charitable giving: Face it; you’ve got it pretty good. Sure bad stuff happens to all of us. We get sick, injured, robbed, lose our jobs, go through divorce....all kinds of bad stuff. However, if you are reading this blog, you have got it better than most of the world. Millions of people don't even have electricity. Millions don't have enough food to eat each day. Find a good cause and share your blessings. It’s amazing how helping others helps us. It’s good for our souls. It’s good for our world!

     Self-denial: There's that "giving up" part! Many people "give something up" for Lent. Some put much thought and prayer into this practice, choosing to deprive themselves of something they enjoy or value greatly until Easter as a sacrifice to Christ, and atonement of their sins. Others just flippantly choose something relatively easy, perhaps giving up chocolate, knowing that the Pagan Easter Bunny will provide a chocolaty feast in a basket on Easter morning. It’s not really a sacrifice, it’s just a ritual.

     I personally have a problem with relying too heavily on ritual. Rituals will not get you to Heaven any more than doing good deeds will. The sacrifice one makes must be prayerfully and thoughtfully chosen. It must be done in order to remove that which comes before God one’s life. A sacrifice made for the sake of ritual does not honor God.
1 Samuel 15:22 But Samuel replied: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
Psalm 51:17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
Isaiah 1:11  “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
     Basically I interpret these to mean that God doesn’t need the offering (it’s all His anyway), he needs a contrite heart from us. He needs our time, our attention, our worship and prayer from our heart, not rote prayers and mechanical actions. He knows what we offer, and our motives, and does not need us to advertise it to others.

     Some of the rituals we may practice do serve a purpose as reminders. The ashes upon the forehead are to remind us that we are from dust and to dust we shall return. Life here is fleeting.  I’m not against such rituals, but only mean to stress that prayer and thanksgiving need to accompany them and they should not be performed by unthinking robots, but by humble and prayerful souls. 

     If you are one of those people participating in a Lenten sacrifice this year, please look inside yourself and ask why you are doing it. Really put some prayer into your decision of what to sacrifice. When you make that sacrifice each day remember why you are doing it and give praise and thanks to the One you are doing it for.
I propose something less materialistic for the Lenten sacrifice this year. I thought of a few ways other than just giving up something we can easily live without.

     What if we all give up those grudges we're holding on to or that unforgiveness that rots our souls or those stinkeye glares that pierce the souls of others? Once we've released them, let's make it permanent, not just for 40 days. Letting go of hatred, grudges, and bitterness glorifies The Lord more than a temporary abstinence of a favorite food or activity. I think that holding grudges and trash-talking others is a favorite activity for some people!

     What if we pray for the success of the guy that got promoted ahead of us? Would that make our company stronger? What if we offer assistance to that lady that cut ahead of us in line? Would her bad mood soften? What if we stopped gossiping and rehashing that rude thing that one person did last year? Could we move forward and maybe even work together again? What if we stopped generalizing about a certain type of people and what kind of beliefs or behaviors “they” have? Maybe we could find something we both have in common and gain a new friend?

     Can you imagine how productive society would be without the grudge matches that are held each and every day in government, business, community groups, and even churches? Is it so important to win the arguments? Do we need to be right all the time? Since when is compromise a dirty word?

     I think that the bottom line is that Jesus came and gave the ultimate sacrifice for PEOPLE. God loves people. Shouldn't we love PEOPLE, too? Isn't that what glorifies God the most?
Mark 12:31 ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
John 15:13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 
Does God care more about a ritual or something given from the heart, something that REALLY cost you? 

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