Archive for February, 2010

Rediscovering Lent

Lent begins today or as our friends north of the border at the Olympics might say, “So it’s Lent, eh?” What do we Presbyterians know or care about Lent? We’re pretty sure it’s a Christian thing, right? There’s something about suffering for Jesus before we celebrate Easter and oh yeah, we need to give up something we enjoy to celebrate Lent. That’s pretty much Lent wouldn’t you say?

So who among us is giving something up for Lent? Reading my blog feeds I see that the traditional Lenten sacrifices are once again at the forefront – chocolate, soda, caffeine and drive-thru fast food top the list. A few have even dared to suggest that they may give up Facebook for Lent. I’ll believe that when I see it! One interesting ideas was suggested by a fellow minister. He proposed giving up pronouns. That’s an interesting thought.

That’s what Lent is about, right? We stop doing something we really enjoy. Is that all there is to Lent? Stop drinking coffee for 40 days and we can check off that we’ve observed Lent. Can Lent really only be about denying ourselves of something we like? Our tradition instructs us that Lent is for us to remember the 40 days of fasting and prayer that Jesus experienced in the wilderness prior to beginning his public ministry. But of what spiritual value is avoiding chocolate, caffeine and Mickey Ds? Will those things call to mind the forty day suffering of Jesus while he was being tempted by the Devil? The odd chocolate bar, skinny latte or Whopper avoided seems benign when compared to excruciating denial faced by our Lord. It almost seems trite and silly to give up something so meaningless as Starbucks. It would be if that was the entirety of Lent.

There is a deeper side to Lent. The deeper side of Lent is what happens when we give up chocolate cake or that double tall non-fat no foam latte. Abstinence from these things create in us a longing and thus discomfort. But what do we do from there? At the intersection of longing and discomfort we change the question from “Why did I give this up?” to “What do I do now that I am longing for that thing I have given up?” Here’s a suggestion, take time to be thankful.

Think of these moments like Thanksgiving only with fasting instead of feasting. Abstinence allows our thankfulness to be both conscious and experiential. It’s easy to say we are thankful when our appetite is satiated and our thirst is quenched. It’s another thing to feel and understand thankfulness when our belly is empty. That is how we re-discover Lent.

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Clairvaux’s Degrees of Love

The 12th century monk Bernard is considered one of the great leaders in the history of the church. He founded the monastery at Clarivaux and remained there until his death. His works profoundly influenced the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin whose reading of Clarivaux helped spark the Reformation. In his most well-known work, On the Love of God, Bernard outlines four degrees of love.

The first degree of love is love of self for self’s sake. Though love is a natural human affection given us by God, human nature is compelled to love itself first. There is no sin in self love. It is only when our self love overflows its naturally boundaries that we become slaves to lust. It is for that reason that our self love is held in check by the command to meet our neighbor’s needs.

Love’s second degree is love of God for self’s sake. God made himself to be loved and blesses mankind with his protection. When we live lives of freedom and security we are happy. When calamity comes our way, we turn to God for deliverance. We love God chiefly because he has provided for us and delivered us from calamity.

The third degree of love is love of God for God’s sake. This love develops over time as God brings us through both the blessed times and the times of trial. Our hard hearts become softened by the grace of God. We then begin to love God not merely for our own sakes, but because we have tasted of his goodness and it is sweet to our lips.

Love’s fourth degree is love of self for God’s sake. It is within the realm of this fourth degree of love that Clarivaux believes that our mind and our will is in one accord with God. This is the perfect love commanded by Jesus that encompasses our heart, soul, mind and strength.

That fourth degree of love, writes Bernard, is a powerful moment in which we are “entirely transfused into the will of God.” How does one pass from one degree to the next? How is it that we can finally love God for God’s sake and ourselves for God’s sake? Have you ever been blessed by a moment like that? I’m not sure I’ve ever been.

Undiscipled Disciples

I spent much of my free time during a recent mission trip to Africa immersed in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic Meditations on the Cross. Meditations, along with The Cost of Discipleship are two of the greatest gifts given to 20th century Protestant Christianity. The former draws our attention to the cost of our redemption; the latter is a masterful attack on cheap grace and easy believe-ism. Both are reminders that we cannot be a disciple of Christ without giving up much of what is commonly sought after in human life. Unfortunately, many Protestant churches today have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. It seems oxymoronic but one may claim Christianity without any signs of progress in discipleship. As Jess Moody has said, our churches are filled with “undiscipled disciples.”

What is the cost to individuals and to the Church of undiscipled disciples? Dallas Willard contends that the cost of non-discipleship is far greater than the price paid to walk with Jesus. Non-discipleship costs us abiding peace – the calmness of soul even when everything around us is in turmoil. It causes us to miss out on the sacred echoes of God’s penetrating love. We fail to see everything in light of God’s overriding plan of restoration. It costs us the hopefulness that stands solid in the midst of the most discouraging of circumstances. We lose the power to do what is right and withstand the forces of darkness all around us. In short, it costs us the very abundant life Jesus said that he came to bring (John 10:10).

So what is the correct perspective on discipleship? The correct perspective is to see following Christ not just as the necessary journey that it is, but as the fulfillment of, as Bonhoeffer states, “the highest human possibilities and as life on the highest plane.