Please join us for Ash Wednesday Worship with Holy Communion and the Imposition of Ashes at 5:30.
Here we begin our Lenten journey, the 40 days of preparation for Easter. It is the beginning of our journey to the cross. Seems like just yesterday we were celebrating the coming of the wise men to see the new born king. We are barely beyond the start of the new calendar and Lent is upon us.
It really is an odd season. I’ve heard some people compare it to off season training for an athletic sport. Like baseball players who go away to spring training to work on the fundamentals of the game, we take time during our Lenten spring training to work on the fundamentals of our faith; the skills of what it means to be a Christian. Many take Lent to be a somber, serious time intended for self-reflection, repentance and returning to God humbly to ask for forgiveness. Some fast during Lent and some add a practice like additional daily prayer or bible study. Some might perceive Lent as that time when we determine which addictions we may still have some sort of control over. And some Christian denominations find it too problematic and skip Lent altogether, opting to begin the celebration of the resurrection as early as possible, well before Easter Sunday actually arrives.
A friend of mine seriously questions the practice of giving up something for Lent and said, “I don’t get what fasting is going to do for you. God gave us good things! God does not want us to suffer and we can’t earn God’s love by doing anything like that, so what’s the point? Makes no sense to me!” Well, he has a point. No amount of sacrifice could ever earn us God’s love that is already freely given to us. So, what IS the point of Lent?
In many ways, Lent is about losing. I know that is not a popular idea; losing. We avoid it desperately. But Lent won’t let us forget it. The big symbol of the beginning of Lent is a cross made of ashes, an unmistakable image of loss. But it isn’t that we are supposed to make a sacrifice or perform an act to appease God during Lent. We cannot out-sacrifice God. Lent teaches us that regardless of what we lose, give up, or give away, God has given us all that we need. No matter how much of a loser we are, in God all our needs are fulfilled.
It seems like we panic when we think we can’t have something. It can sometimes even make us think that God wants to punish us when something is taken away. Our culture is very good at teaching us how to win, acquire, obtain, maintain, and horde, but not so good at teaching us how to lose graciously, how to give up, release, surrender, or grieve.
Several years ago, there was a good example of losing and the difficulty of facing it. Cam Newton this week, a quarterback for the Carolina Panthers (at that time) was the major topic of conversation. He was labeled as a poor sport for abruptly leaving a post game interview, calling him a pouting adolescent. He and his team had just experienced a hard loss. Some pointed out the loud conversation going on behind him, which included the boasting words of a player of the opposing team as mitigating his behavior. Regardless of the hows and whys, Cam Newton had lost the Superbowl. A really big, really public loss, perhaps the most public of losses possible these days, and did not know what to do or how to escape this loss. It was a struggle we all saw.
He has no doubt spent his career focusing on winning. Professional athletes do not get paid to lose, they get paid to win. That is really all there is. But he and his fellow celebrity athletes are not alone. We in this constant consumption, moderation-is-for-idiots, “winning”, desperately searching for a perfect hero to worship, shame driven American culture are just like this. Even if we have a stoic and less emotional response, most of us do not know how to stand in the presence of loss and still know it is well with our souls.
Even though it is.
For most of us at best, the practice of being a good loser is nostalgic, a remnant of a bygone era and while we expect our heroes to know how to lose gracefully and be a good sport, the truth of it is that none of us know how to do it.* We don’t know how to do it because it is a practice and when we are faced with losing, the suffocating shame of losing, we too will do nearly everything to avoid it.
We blame others. We get angry; angry with them, angry with those people who did this to us, angry with God. We resist it. We fill the holes in our soul with anything we can to staunch the emotional bleeding, usually with things that make us feel like winners anyway, illusions that make us feel like we were wronged or new ways to win at any cost.
Think about the last time you lost. Not a loss with millions of witnesses with critical eyes ready to pass their judgment from the cheap seats, just an ordinary every day loss. Losing something, someone, pride or dignity, a moment, an opportunity, a business, your faith, your way in life. Losing is hard and knowing how to do it well requires practice (which we probably have opportunities for in abundance), attention (which we desperately try to not give), and a sense that somehow we will be ok anyway. Not that it didn’t matter or that there’ll be another day to try again but, in the face of loss, having the sense that we will be ok anyway. That’s the really hard part. Thankfully, the practice and attention is our part. The rest is God’s.
We are often focused on getting our share, taking care of ourselves, not being left out. A few hours watching television can really reveal our gluttony. You need. It’s all about you. You deserve it. So much to choose from. Why wait? Get what you want. Have it all. I want it now. It’s mine. Mine Mine Mine!! Get all you deserve!
With all this input, it seems like we are always on the verge of losing something if we don’t have EVERYTHING and it is easy to forget that we have so much! Even from a purely materialistic perspective, we are unbelievably blessed. If you have coins in your pocket at the end of the day you are wealthier than over 80% of the world’s population. And we have many opportunities to spend our extra money on all kinds trinkets. When we give money we are often hyper vigilant against being “taken” by people who do not really “need” our extra money.
It’s not just money. Time is another thing we have far more of than we might imagine. My mother used to talk about the unbelievable luxury of the dishwasher and the free time such a thing gave her. That’s just one of our many time and labor saving devices. Yet how many times we may say: I just do not have time to read scripture on a daily basis. I didn’t have time to call (or text or email) this or that person who needed my support. My day is so busy that there is not an extra block of time to just sit and pray because I have so much to do. I could recount the statistics of how much time we spend watching TV and on the internet but suffice to say it is a whole lot of time. There are times when we are all genuinely busy, but not nearly as much as we might think. We panic so readily at even the suggestion of loss or sacrifice that we are afraid to give up our extras, even our extra time.
In the Lord’s prayer we ask for our daily bread, forgiveness of our sins and help in staying away from trouble. That is all we really need. Oh, sure there are a lot of things we want, but from a certain point of view, they are tiny and cheap looking next to the luxurious and endless love God has for us in Christ. We go to the foot of the cross and are reminded that we have been given the Son of God. What could be left out in a love so generous and all consuming that it willingly lost every single drop of blood in order to give it? Martin Luther said it well a verse of A Mighty Fortress: If they should take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse; though life be wrenched away, they shall not win the day, for the kingdom is ours forever.
The everlasting, overflowing, healing, gracious love of God is ours forever.
As we start this Lenten season, I invite us to enter into a new discipline. I invite us to lose. We won’t need to look for ways we lose, we simply have to stop running from it. I invite us to give up when we feel desperate for something. With the world our need is magnified. Our wants are twisted into a distorted thing that only appears to be need and becomes insatiable. With God, our cup overflows. In a practical sense, I invite us to find a way to keep ourselves daily mindful of our reliance upon God and God’s reliability in providing for our every need. That can be through giving up something extra to show ourselves, through small losses, that such things are nothing compared to God. Or perhaps daily scripture reading, separate time set aside for prayer, a new Lenten devotional reading, or just intentional time every day watching for the places God shows up in our lives simply out of pure grace and love of us.
I said earlier that Lent is about losing. It’s ultimately not even about our losing, but God’s losing; Jesus’ choice to willingly lose his life. It is in losing his life that he destroys death. If God transforms the greatest of losses into the greatest of love, then perhaps, if we can be willing to face our own loses too, God may do some equally amazing transformation in us as well.
*It may be from a bygone era, but not too far gone. Gracious and purposeful loss is still somewhere in our cultural DNA. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”-Theodore Roosevelt