Lenten Failure, Easter Faith, and a Loving Father

It’s over; it’s time. I’m officially calling it.

This Lenten experiment is dead.

It was a slow death, but the process began almost instantly. If you were here roughly 6 weeks ago, you know that I gave up coffee entirely and made three commitments to put in its place: read through the Bible in 40 days, spend time in reflection and prayer each day using one-word prompts, and (of course) write down those reflections here to share with you.

The writing burned brightly, but briefly: I made it through Day 1 successfully…and then the wheels fell off. I missed writing on Day 2, so I dutifully combined Day 2 and 3 together to recover some semblance of discipline and routine. I wouldn’t be back again until I wrote these words you are reading now.

Reading and reflecting were real fighters; I stayed on track with those for almost 2 weeks. Ventured all the way through Ruth and into the first part of Samuel in my reading, and made time to sit and meditate on the daily Word with my daily word. But in the end, these too were swallowed up in the routine of daily life.

The coffee-fast was the last to go. In a fun bit of irony, the very thing I said I didn’t want Lent to be all about was what survived nearly to the end. When I realized this (and got done having a good laugh at my own expense), I mercifully pulled the plug on it as well. RIP 40 Days in the Land of No Coffee.

I don’t know what I expected to happen, but I know it wasn’t this. I like to see myself as someone who loves Jesus and has a fair amount of will power. This was going to be fun! I was really going to commit and do something this year that was transformational! It was time to level-up spiritually, and I was just the guy to make it happen! Let’s GOOOOOO!

Yeah…not so much.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my approach to this whole thing was (at its root) all about me proving something to God, or maybe to the rest of the world: my worthiness, my devotion, my faith. Or possibly, by demonstrating my own faithfulness, I could win some kind of special favor with God. Maybe all of the above. But whatever it was, it was all about me. It began and ended with me, and I had found myself to be woefully more lacking than I had anticipated.

In my zeal to do something different this year in preparation for Easter, I made the classic mistake of putting the focus on what I can do for God instead of what God has already done for me. What I had set out to avoid became the snare that tripped me up. Along with the Apostle Paul, I (re)discovered “this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.” (Romans 7:21, NLT)

As so often happens, just as I was feeling pretty miserable and wretched…God hit me with a much-needed boomtown. I thought to myself, “I have absolutely nothing to bring to the table here.”

And a still, small Voice whispered to my soul, “You’re right. That’s the point. And I love you anyway.”

Anytime I hear that Voice, my mind begins to flood with Scripture that hammers home whatever point God wants to make. I thought of Psalm 51, written by David in the aftermath of an affair with and subsequent humbling by a trusted friend, where he writes of God: “You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” (51:16-17)

Here David was, at his worst, and yet not rejected by God. Here I was, feeling worthless (albeit on a much smaller scale!), and yet not condemned. Both of us had been met in our woeful state with loving mercy rather than cold judgment.

It is a wonderful, powerful, paradoxical truth that when we feel least acceptable to God is when we are most welcomed by God. The humility that comes with the empty brokenness we feel at our lowest is what brings God the nearest.

This truth is claimed by the wisdom of Proverbs: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34) That same wisdom shows up again in James, who quotes it in order to exhort his audience to “Come close to God, and God will come close to you.” (James 4:8)

This truth was declared by Jesus in his story of a pristine religious teacher and a despised tax collector who went before God in the Temple. The teacher extolled his own virtues and service to God, while the tax collector merely hung his head and prayed, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus says that the humbled ‘sinner’ and not the arrogant Pharisee went home right with God. (Luke 18:9-14)

God’s attitude towards us is always one of loving embrace, regardless of what we think we are bringing with us; we only need to turn to God to see it.

This truth was illustrated by Jesus again in a story about a wasteful son, whose father ran to welcome him back even while “he was still a long way off.” (Luke 15:20) And it was put on full display when Jesus cried out to God from the cross to forgive the very people who tortured and killed him in their ignorance (Luke 23:34).

This is the real power of Easter: that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is evident in Jesus.

Not our own brokenness, or ignorance, or arrogance.

Not our wealth, or poverty, or pre-occupation with either.

Nothing in our own lives, or in all creation will tear us away from that love.

This is what transforms us: not our own efforts or holiness or determination, but a humbling, jaw-dropping, pretense-shattering confrontation with the unimaginable love of the King of Kings. Not even death can stop the perfect love that God has for you. For me. For us. Whether we are ready to receive it or not, it just is.

“We are not ready. And still He comes.

“This is our God. While we were yet sinners—while we were enemies of God who would rather nail him to a Roman cross than be forced to change—Christ died for us—once for all—the innocent for the guilty. The one who knew no sin became sin for our sake. When we were not ready—when we are still not ready now—Jesus comes.

“Please hear the Gospel: No one is ready. No one was ready then and no one is ready now. And still Jesus comes. The truth is, you are a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine, and you are more loved than you ever dared hope. This the good news. ‘While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.’

“Holy Week is here. And Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt, his gaze fixed on Golgotha. Whatever the state of our heart, whatever the faithfulness of our Lent, he is coming to save us. This is the good news. This is the mercy of God. This is the gift of God. You have nothing left to do but believe it. Trust it. You aren’t ready; but Jesus is coming. Amen.”

—Emily McGowin

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

Day 2/3 – “Hurry”/ “Impatient”

Daily Reading: Genesis 28-50; Exodus 1-34

And the hot start to my 40 Day Challenge continues! Not even a week in, and I’m already having to combine days to catch up on my writing. I’m still coffee-free, I’ve been reading and reflecting on a different word each day…but the writing part has been first up to be left out when I get to the end of my day. What’s funny is, the writing is the part I was most looking forward to since I haven’t done it regularly in a really long time.

What’s even funnier is, my reflection time the past two days has been what has kept me from forcing myself to crank out the “mandatory” post-a-day.

Day 2’s word was “Hurry”, and so I spent some time thinking about how much of a hurry we all seem to be in on a daily basis. If we want info, we don’t need to head to a library and research it, or call up someone who knows about the subject…we push a button and ask Alexa or Siri, and we get our answer now. If I want to find out what my out-of-state family is up to, I don’t need to write a letter or even call and have a conversation…I can text them, or (better yet!) I can just scroll social media for 10 minutes and get the latest news. Thanks to the hi-res pictures splattered on my feed, most of the time I don’t even have to read about it!

I’m so used to things happening for me quickly in this world that I’ve noticed I don’t have anywhere near the patience I used to for the little things. If a website takes more than two seconds to come up on my screen, I can feel my blood pressure rise just a bit. Anytime I get the little spinning red circle on Netflix when a show is loading, I reflexively roll my eyes. I remember one time last winter I was walking to my car and I was trying to use the remote start to get things warmed up a little before I got there, and it wasn’t cooperating. I had to walk all the way to my car before I could even turn it on! FML, right?

Ain’t nobody got time for that. At least, it doesn’t seem so anymore.

Our culture is hardwired for instant access, whether it’s by wi-fi or drive-thru or on-demand, and the decades of increasing instant gratification have taken their toll. We might have the whole world at our fingertips, but our ability to wait has wasted away.

Hurry…Impatient. The subtext of a digital world. This is what I reflected on the past two days, and this is what kept me from writing until now. I remember getting ready for bed on Thursday night (day 2) and thinking “Oh crap! I better hurry up and write something for today!” (Because otherwise I fail the test and self-destruct, apparently…at least that’s the impression I got from my internal sense of urgency.) Fortunately, I stopped to think for a minute: what was the whole point of this challenge anyway? To intentionally carve out time to connect with God and listen for God’s leading in my life. I had just finished a pretty good day: great conversations at work, an afternoon of playing “Animals in the Jungle” with my daughter (I was a monkey and a giraffe), some solid quiet time with just me and Jesus that hasn’t happened regularly in a long time. Good stuff; fruitful stuff.

Even last night I had to do the calculus, and the answer was so obvious it was embarrassing. I thought, if I hurry to my computer and write something down just to keep up a random obligation that doesn’t really mean anything, what am I gaining? Sure, I get to check off another box on a list of imaginary importance. But what could I lose? Peace of mind as I stress over the “right” words, presence with my wife at the end of our day, enjoyment of the good things from the day, rest. When I thought about it, it just wasn’t worth it. The blog could wait; this moment here and now was for winding down, not ramping up.

Whether you are in a 40-day challenge or not, my hope for you is that as you find yourself in a hurry, or growing impatient with whatever is in front of you, that you would be reminded to take a breath and “do the math.” Ask yourself, “What do I gain by pushing forward here, and what do I stand to lose?”

A wiser man than myself once described this process as “counting the cost”, and even though he was applying it in a much different context, I think the principle remains the same. In our hustle to get in and get out as quick as possible so that we can move to the next thing and check off the next box, are we gaining anything that really matters? Or are we losing so much more?

 

Day 1(ish) – “Busy”

Daily Reading: Genesis 1-27

So this Lenten challenge isn’t off to a hot start. I didn’t exactly get around to writing yesterday, but I did manage to get to my Bible reading and reflection time. Life is busy, right? Nobody bats 1.000; I’m not going to beat myself up about it. So I pulled up my graphic with the list of one-word prompts to see what I’d be mulling over, and lo and behold:

“Busy.”

Oh, the irony…but it keeps getting better.

The first day of Lent is called “Ash Wednesday,” and the big highlight of an Ash Wednesday service is “that moment when” you go up front and the priest/reverend/pastor/deacon/etc. smears ashes on your forehead while saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a somber moment, a sign of repentance, and designed for reflection at the deepest levels on our mortality and the common destiny of all people regardless of social standing.

No matter who you are, what you do, or how much you succeed, your body is headed back to the dust. Welcome to Lent, everybody!

If I’m honest, I spend almost zero time consciously thinking about how brief my life will be in the grand scheme of things. In fact, most of the busy-ness that I preoccupy myself with is more or less intended to keep me from thinking about that. If I’m moving, I’m producing…if I’m producing, I’m valuable…if I’m valuable, then I matter. And so I spin my wheels and bounce from one activity to the next, a little work then a little play, but the wheels don’t stop by themselves. None of ours do. You might call it the “curse of being human” in the world which we find ourselves.

Oddly enough, a “curse” is exactly the way the Bible describes our current state of endless toil. In fact, you barely get 3 chapters into the whole thing before everything goes haywire and people have thoroughly screwed the pooch by doing things their own way rather than God’s. Actions have consequences, and so God gives his first two people a stern talking-to as he lays out what those consequences are:

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life…By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” -Genesis 3:17, 19 (emphasis added)

Sound familiar? Painful toil, sweat of the brow, endlessly busy life, and heading back to the dust: all part of a curse that we bring onto ourselves. Certainly not part of the original design. If you flip back in the story a bit, you see that even God engages in work in the ordering of creation for six days…but then on the seventh God rests. And when God made people, he gave them work to do in tending to the garden…but you also see that God had a habit of taking relaxing strolls with his humans “in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8).

From God’s perspective, endless striving and eternal busy-ness was never Plan A. A life that begins and ends in dust and ashes is a glitch, not a feature. It is simply what happens when we indulge in our broken self-reliance. We were meant to work, yes; but we were also meant to regularly enter into rest with God for the wholeness of our souls.

This is why the season of Lent (in general), and Ash Wednesday in particular, is so important. It is a day we can all come together with our community and collectively hit the brakes on our “busy” together to do some necessary soul-searching.

It’s a time for us to turn away from unhealthy habits and rhythms in our lives and spend some intentional time in some peace and quiet, and we make space to listen for a still, small Voice with something to tell us that will give us rest from the curse. 

My prayer for myself and for you is that we will continue to create space in our days to let off the gas and hit the brakes on our busy, and enter into the rest that God has for us together.

40 Days in the Land of No Coffee

In case you hadn’t heard yet, today is Fat Tuesday…or Paczki Day (pronounced pownch-key), if you are a Michigander like me. It’s one last day of indulgence before the 40-days long season of Lent begins, which is a centuries-old Church tradition centered on reflection, confession, and repentance leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.

I grew up in the Lutheran church, so Lent has always been part of the fabric of my life. Even as I have wandered away from intentionally observing it in my adulthood, it lingers like a distant relative in the back of my mind. Many people decided to give up something during these 40 days (really 46, since Sundays don’t count because #churchmath), and usually it’s something they count as a “guilty pleasure”: chocolate, candy, Netflix…that sort of thing. The 40 days is in honor of the biblical story of Jesus being tested for 40 days in the wilderness right before he started his 3-year ministry around Israel nearly 2,000 years ago. The basic premise is that you decide to “give up” something that would be tempting for you to do, and so you “suffer” like Jesus did. (Because clearly going without chocolate or Black Mirror for 6 weeks is exactly like a hardcore desert-fast/duel with the Devil. Humans are weird.)

In case you didn’t notice, the whole “give something up for Lent” thing never really sat well with me; it always rang a little hollow when I compared it to what Jesus actually experienced. I mean I get it, but at the same time I don’t. Yes, self-denial is a crucial part of what it means to follow Jesus, but not simply for self-denial’s sake. In my understanding, whenever Jesus asks us to give something up in life it is always because he wants to lead us into a newer and better way of being alive.

It’s not just a removal, it’s a replacement. An upgrade. It’s finding more with less.

A few years ago, I came across the idea that instead of simply removing something you enjoy from your life, you could replace something that is part of your daily routine with time intentionally connecting with God. So if you are a Netflix junkie like me, during that time you’d be binging on Parks & Rec for the 7th time, instead you could:

  • read the Bible (especially sections from the life of Jesus, found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament)
  • talk to God and then make space to listen for what God might put in your head and heart, or
  • simply create a quiet and peaceful space to go and be still.

Now that feels like a practice with value. And it’s one that been on my mind more often as we’ve been getting closer and closer to Lent this year, so I was thinking, “What is it that I do just about every day that isn’t necessary, but it takes some time and is something I really enjoy?”

Almost immediately I felt the word “COFFEE” resonate somewhere deep in my soul. And I shuddered, because I knew I had been boomtowned yet again.

My first reaction was, “but I don’t wanna”…and 99% of the time, whenever I ask myself a question like that and feel like I get a random answer that I don’t like, it’s something God wants me to do. And there is no way that came from me. So now I have a choice: am I going to ignore it and keep doing whatever want, or am I going to trust that God is leading me somewhere I need to go and follow along wherever that is?

I have a real love/hate relationship with that choice. I love it because I’m always glad when I say “yes”, but I hate it because it always costs me something.

So this year, I’m going to say “yes” to the Lenten Challenge, and I want to invite you along with me if you feel so moved. Here’s what I felt like God was leading me to do, and I’m putting it out there to you so that you can hold my feet to the fire and keep me accountable:

  1. No coffee until Easter Sunday (April 21). That hurt just typing it.
  2. Every time I would normally grab a coffee at work or I feel the urge to make one at home, I am going to spend my coffee-time intentionally connecting with God by reading the Bible, talking with God and listening, or just being still and reflecting. I’ve got a plan in place to make it through the whole Bible in 40 days, and as much as I drink coffee it might not even take that long!
  3. I am going to write about the experience right here in Boomtown every day (except Sundays), using these great one-word prompts to guide my quiet times with God (h/t April Fiet).

That’s the plan! Of course, you are invited to join with me however you see fit. If you’ve never tried anything like this, there is no time like the present! Let me know what your plan looks like in the comments, and we’ll hold each other accountable. Let’s do this together and see where God leads us…I can promise you won’t regret it!