My life, and yours, fills up with the important and trivial. Today I must finish preparation to teach a session tonight, answer some email inquiries, get an emergency lighting system working, pray for the congregation, schedule a plumber for some clogged drains among other things. If I forget ‘why’ I exist the ‘what’ of life will dim the glory of God for which I was made. He desires that we will know and love Him – even as we cope with disappointments and celebrate victories. That is why we need reset points and reminders.
One of those seasons is called Lent by the church. Lent comes from an old word “lencten” which meant “spring.” It is a 40 day season, (not counting Sundays) that prepares Christians for the celebration of the Resurrection. Historically, the season is marked by repentance and includes fasting, self-examination, and reflection.
Traditionally the opening of Lent is called “Ash Wednesday” because ashes made from palm fronds from the previous year’s celebration of Palm Sunday traditionally are used by some churches to mark the forehead- a sign of our humility and a stark reminder of our inevitable encounter with death; that ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ thing we say at gravesides.
The discipline of fasting is most encouraged during this time of year. Fasting, in the most narrow meaning, is about abstaining from food. Actually, there are many ways to practice the renewal of fasting. We can enter the joy of fasting by setting aside some pleasurable pursuit, time on social media, or some special food. We can fast by generously giving away our time in service, setting aside Self. Whatever our choice, it is done as a reminder that we are subject to the Spirit. Fasting is an act of obedience, offered in faith to God, that opens us to a new experience of the Holy Spirit’s Presence!
God made us with a spirit-body connection! What we do in our physical body has an effect on our spiritual state- both positively and negatively. Paul starkly says “So I run straight to the goal with purpose in every step. I am not like a boxer who misses his punches. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27, NLT) A literal translation of the NT Greek would read “I pound my body into submission!” God does not ask us to abuse ourselves. We need not actually beat ourselves bloody, but there is maturity in reminding ourselves that life is more than food, clothes, or comfort.
Remember this – religious ritual, done for the purpose of impressing God and/or other people, is worse than useless! It is a expression of sinful pride. That is why Jesus urged us to practice spiritual disciplines like fasting, giving, and prayer without telling anyone. Such choices, because they are acts of faith, must be very personal. Jesus told us to keep our fasting a private matter! Jesus said, “when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, who try to look pale and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I assure you, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will suspect you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in secret. And your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18 NLT)
If we ‘show off’ or if we judge those who do not practice a discipline as we do, we rob the disciplines of any value. They become nothing more than the display of religion and empty traditions or worse, a means of making ourselves feel better than someone who does not share our conviction.
Will you give up ice cream for Lent? If you do, do it for the purpose of seeking the Lord. (I think we might be better served by giving up some TV time for prayer, meditation or reading Scripture.) Don’t do it just because I said to. Rather, pray about it. Ask the Lord if you need to discipline your body to provide freedom for the Spirit, to allow for a reset.
Here’s a word from the Word about living in the Spirit. Think deeply and prayerfully on the promise of this passage. “My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence? …
What happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way.” (Galatians 5:16-18, 22-23, The Message)
(a beautiful prayer of worship and hope)
Worthy of ev’ry song we could ever sing
Worthy of all the praise we could ever bring
Worthy of ev’ry breath we could ever breathe
We live for You
Jesus the name above ev’ry other name
Jesus the only one who could ever save
Worthy of ev’ry breath we could ever breathe
We live for You We live for You
Holy there is no one like You
There is none besides You
Open up my eyes in wonder and show me who You are
And fill me with Your heart
And lead me in Your love to those around me
I will build my life upon Your love
It is a firm foundation
I will put my trust in You alone
And I will not be shaken
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