My Lenten Journey

Ravi takes the cake with self-obsession (R)2

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. Historically, it was used as the final time of fasting and preparation for baptism by new converts to Christianity. Many of these new believers had been in catechism (instruction and preparation for new Christians) for one to three years! Their preparation climaxed in the Saturday night prayer vigil and the baptismal service just before dawn, and the new Christians would join the rest of the church for the service just in time to throw open the doors and let the first light of day flood in as they proclaimed “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”
Today many Christians engage with Lent by fasting from certain things like foods or activities, or by adding new disciplines such as silence or solitude into their routine. This is done to help us enter once again a time of preparation to enter into the story of Christ’s suffering and death, to renew our baptismal vows and to hear once again the glorious news that he is risen.
This Lent sort of crept up on me. I think it was a day or two before Ash Wednesday when I realized Lent was about to start and I had no idea what discipline I would engage in. I think that most of the time as Christians we hesitate to engage with spiritual disciplines because we are waiting for some sort of extra…something to tell us what to do. If we are honest we will probably only fast if we feel a strong sense that we are supposed to fast, that there is something we need to get out of it. Well, I didn’t have any sense of what I was supposed to do during Lent so I almost did nothing. But, at the last minute, I decided to take a lenten sabbath (take a break) from social media. Seemed easy enough. Shut off the notifications for Twitter and Instagram and away you go.
Like I said, this wasn’t the result of some strong conviction that I was being ruled by social media (although most of us are probably more ruled by it than we think). This was just a discipline that I (somewhat randomly) decided to engage with. You know what I found? The results have impacted me dramatically, just as much as if I had been told by thunder in the sky to get off social media. (This is an important lesson. The disciplines are their for us to engage with and gain from. They are opportunities that we can take advantage of. If we don’t choose to engage, we don’t get the benefits. But that’s another post.)
The thing about social media is that it is often self-promotion. We say to the world, “Look at my witty 140-character statement about so-and-so” or “Look at my food I’m about to eat” (side note: next time you go to a restaurant look around at how many people take pictures of their food when it arrives. It’s shocking.). Basically the message is, “Look at ME! Notice ME! Affirm (or “Like”) ME!”
You would think that giving this up would be a healthy way to notice myself less. But you know what I found? I noticed myself more, but not in the ways I expected. See, social media kept me distracted with little surface things like the sunsets I saw or the sound bites from my books. It never allowed me to see the depth of my real obsession with self. When you remove your options to self-promote (or read/see other people self-promoting), you start to realize the problem is actually deeper than you think.
Our problem is not that we are obsessed with instant photo filters or status updates, our problem is that our sinful hearts are backwards. We are hard-wired to put self and its needs right at the top of our priority list. Even though as Christians we have a new heart, I find that old habits die hard. It’s a constant battle to live into the change that God has already accomplished in me. To take my heart problem a step further, I will often use God as a means to glorify self. This is seen most clearly in prayer, as Tim Keller recently helped me see in his book on prayer. We pray most often when we are in trouble and when we want stuff. What is clear from this is that we are —I am, bought into the lie that if we had things we would be happy, or that if we were just out of this little mess we would be satisfied.
But isn’t it obvious that it doesn’t work? I wish my heart would see that it is. God in his gracious love so often will give me the things I ask for or help me out of the problem I have. No sooner does that happen than I find another thing to ask for or another problem that needs fixing. And on and on it goes. This Lent I have realized once again that what I need is to draw near to God himself, because it is only God himself that will satisfy my longing soul (Ps. 107:9). When I try to get away from myself, I run right into the depth of my own problem. I run into myself.
The glorious news of Lent is that Easter is coming, that Jesus has come. It is never fun to see yourself, especially when you realize that you are your biggest problem. But Jesus showed us that the way to life is through death. When Jesus shows me that I have made myself lord, I see quickly that I need his help to die to self. I need him to be Lord —in fact he must be Lord of all of me. It’s not pleasant, but it’s absolutely essential.
So regardless of if you have engaged in any “serious” lenten disciplines, draw near to God this Holy Week. Remember once again the vastness of Christ’s work to bring life out of death. I promise you that drawing near to God will be ugly at first. Not because God is ugly but because ugliness stands out in the presence of beauty. God’s perfection will always first make us see our flaws. But don’t give up. God has made a way for you and for me to stand in his presence with perfection. Jesus not only makes us perfect in God’s eyes, but his power changes us from the inside out to be what he has made us to be: imitators of Christ, who is the Lord of all.

Advent 4: How To Get What You Want

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In this Advent series of posts, we have been exploring the various themes of the season and looking ahead to the coming of Christ -his birth as a baby and his return as King. Today, on this eve of Christmas Eve, we will wrap up by looking once more at the value of waiting.

There is a paradox in waiting. We tend to view waiting as an inherently negative thing because waiting implies the absence of something. We don’t have that thing we are saving our money for so we have to wait; we aren’t sitting on the beach on vacation so we have to wait through weeks and months of winter; we aren’t yet at home in God’s presence in a world free of sin or grief or pain. So we wait. Waiting isn’t the most fun we’ve ever had. We think if we could snap our fingers and get what we want, all of our problems would be over.

But would that really solve our problems? Is waiting really all that bad? I think there is something to desire for a thing that contributes to its joy; the joy of anticipation contributes to the satisfaction of realizing that which we have waited for. If you take away the anticipation you take away from the joy. This is really hard for us to see because we are impatient, entitled and spoiled. But getting what you want all the time actually makes you less happy. Waiting sets us up for the win of getting what we want and need.

And that’s what makes Advent special. Instead of running from waiting or complaining about how it’s “just the worst,” Advent invites us to embrace the waiting as part of the process of becoming who God is calling us to be. Nicky Gumble said,

“Who you become while you are waiting is as important as what you are waiting for.”

Things that shape our character are often uncomfortable. But there are no shortcuts to strong character. Often the things that are the most rewarding require the hardest work (and are hard to work for). But the payoff is worth it.

So I encourage you to have joy as you wait. Savor the anticipation. It helps to consider the unlikely nature of the Christmas story. Jesus, the only Son of God, being born of a virgin in a stable, growing up to be revealed as the Messiah, crucified, buried, resurrected, now the reigning King awaiting the perfect moment to return and establish his throne on the earth. I don’t have math complicated enough for the likelihood that all those events would line up (those kinds of equations are well beyond my understanding). If, after all the waiting for the Messiah,  God cares enough to send him to be born in Bethlehem, it means that he also cares about you and me and our predicament. He cares for us while we wait and is forming us in the process.

Don’t forget that waiting is part of the joy. Anticipation makes realization even sweeter, even if what we are anticipating will only come when Jesus’ second Advent arrives and he makes all things new. The invitation to us is to experience the moments of the present in light of tomorrow’s bright future. For he will surely remember his mercy to those who fear him (Luke 1:50).

Merry Christmas.

JV

Advent 3: What ARE We Waiting For?

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Welcome to week three of Advent. In this series of posts I’ve been exploring some of the themes of this short season of Christian year that is designed to prepare our hearts once again for the celebration of Christmas. Hopefully these thoughts will stir you to some deeper reflection this Advent season.

In the last post, we talked about Advent being an invitation to put ourselves into the place of the people of God just before Jesus was born. Think of all the years of nothing from God but silence. There must have been some people anxiously waiting, some confidently expecting, and I’m sure many who had lost all hope.

That sounds like it could be true of us today don’t you think? Many people are anxiously waiting in what feels like endless darkness for a light to shine in. Some are confidently expecting deliverance. Many are hopeless and wandering.

Even though we don’t talk much about it, Advent is a season to expect the two aspects of Christ’s coming – both his first coming as a baby in Bethlehem and his second coming (or “second advent”) to rule and reign as the conquering King of all kings. Most of the time we neglect the second in light of the first. But the fact is that we are still waiting, that Christ will come again. And this is really good news for waiting people.

It sounds a little strange, but the pre-Christmas season is a time to remember once again that judgement is coming. It’s east to think only of the first coming of Jesus, but we need to let our hearts be arrested once again by the sobering reality that he will come to reign once again as the righteous Judge. This life as we know it is only temporary, and true life is still to come.

I think judgement gets misunderstood quite a bit in our time because it is seen as predominantly negative. But God’s judgment will be a good and glorious thing because it means the restoration of all things, liberation from the curse of sin forever, the institution of God’s righteous rule every sphere of life. Evil will not have the last word. Judgement won’t be all about casting evil into fiery depths (although that is part of it).
The King will come to reign and there will be peace and joy an safety and no more death.

Yes, judgement is terrifying to those with no hope, with no robes of righteousness to cover their rags (Is. 61:10, Matt. 22:12). But for those in Christ judgement is a glorious thing. Why? Because we have been judged already in Christ. Christ has taken our punishment and our judgment upon himself. We don’t have to fear judgement because for us it has already taken place on the cross. All that’s left for us is to welcome God’s coming because we know we stand beneath the righteousness of the Perfect One who was judged on our behalf.

The second advent of Christ stands in such a contrast to the first, and yet it will be the culmination of what began in Bethlehem. St. Augustine of Hippo wrote:

The first coming of Christ the Lord, God’s son and our God, was in obscurity; the second will be in the sight of the whole world. When he came in obscurity no one recognized him but his own servants; when he comes openly he will be known by both good people and bad. When he came in obscurity, it was to be judged; when he comes openly it will be to judge. 

The first advent of Christ was in a lonely corner of the world and was known to few. His second advent will be in the sight of all the world, and there will be no question about his kingship.

So in this season, I invite you to take time not only to look back to the stable and the anticipation of the Messiah’s birth, but to look forward with anticipation for the restoration of all things, the Great Wedding Feast, and the reign of the King of Righteousness. It gives his first coming a whole new meaning when we remember that the Baby born in a manger isn’t just a cute story that we tell every year. He was born for a purpose, born to live and die and rise victorious over sin and death… But that is not the end. He will return with radiance and glory to reclaim his bride and his whole creation. We stand in the in-between of the two Advents, and every year at this time we remember we have much to look forward to. God’s story is unfolding –and the best is yet to come. The birth of the Christ-child is beautiful, but it is just the beginning of his plan of redemption.