An Ash Wednesday Challenge For Those Who Didn’t Know It Was Ash Wednesday

You may not care a lick about Ash Wednesday and think people that would put ashes on their forehead or go without chocolate for 6 weeks are strange but let me challenge you anyway.

There are six weeks until Easter. There are six weeks to get to know Christ, to understand who he is, why he came, and what the cross means. Open up the Gospels and consume the information and the good news of Christ.

There are six weeks until Easter. Six weeks to bury your wrongs and mishaps and high propensity to mess things up. Bury these things with Christ in that tomb so you can fully understand the power of his resurrection and your own.

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There are six weeks until Easter. Six weeks to share in Christ’s suffering. Because he suffered for you, what would it look like for you to suffer with Christ? Why would that be important? This sharing in suffering will cleanse you and refine you for obtaining resurrection.

There are six weeks until Easter. Six week to become like Christ in his death. We need to die to self and crucify our old self so our new self can emerge.

For when that day comes, when Easter arrives, we can celebrate the resurrection that puts death to death. That turns the world upside down. This resurrection that we can obtain and will obtain.

 

Spiritual Growth Is Not A Hobby

I have a proclivity towards self improvement plans. I gravitate towards contemplation. I embrace silence. I am fascinated by anything spiritual. The phrase spiritual disciplines does not scare me.

But there have been times when I have been slightly embarrassed by my interests in spiritual formation and discipleship. I can be cynical about these tendencies.

Was this just a personal preference of mine that didn’t really mean much except giving me something to do, like a hobby? Was I just tinkering around with Growing Up like others like to tinker around in a wood shop or with an old car or playing guitar?

In other words, I was unsure if all of these books I read, all of these spiritual practices, all of these conferences and retreats I desire to attend had any real bearing on my life other than personal enjoyment? Was I truly being shaped and transformed by these things or were they just some things I liked to do?

Soon, though, life started to present me with real, truly difficult obstacles. I was handed a leadership position that I didn’t want in the midst of one of the most troubling times of transition, challenge, and loss our organization had ever seen. My dad suffered with cancer for more than two years and eventually died. Plus, I faced some dark, personal struggles that ripped me a part and tested every aspect of my being.

I have not been done in by these things. I have not lost my faith, in fact, it has become stronger. I have been able to minister to those around me in the midst of their own struggles, grief, and loss. At my best, I have been driven by things like love, grace, joy, forgiveness and surrender to God. At my worst, I have acted out of fear, resentment, and pain but have not been destroyed by these things and remain rooted to hope and the promise that this is just a season and that perseverance is an essential part of the Christian struggle. I have not lost myself, my God, or my love for others. I may be torn, defeated, and bruised but I still look to God and I still make Jesus my Lord. I am going to be okay.

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It took trials and hardships to realize that all of my interests, tinkering, study, writing, and practicing of Growing Up has actually shaped me. I have actually matured and have tools to counter the challenges and I have built up the capacity to face deep, dark, overwhelming times. I am not some kind of mystic that is floating through life in a spiritual cloud. I bleed, I cry, I rage, and I lash out at God and others in ways that I am not proud of but I am not broken. I sometimes say more than I know and behave better than I am not as an act but because Christ is working through me in grace filled ways. He is changing me and growing me. I can feel it and am gaining strength from it.

So, if you think your Bible reading is a waste of time or that your prayers are barely reaching the ceiling or you can’t bear one more day of service. Maybe you want to just give up on Growing Up because there is little hope in change let me tell you to keep going because these things ARE shaping you. You ARE meeting Jesus in these practices, you ARE giving grace a chance to work in your life to accomplish what you cannot accomplish on your own.

You may not see it now but every effort at becoming Christlike is honored by God and essential to your transformation. Don’t lose heart, there will come a time when you too will know that you are okay, God is love, change is possible, and joy and peace are right around the corner.

 

 

You Have Nothing To Fear

Followers of Christ should not be fearful people.

What is it about the gift of the Holy Spirit, life in the Kingdom, the promise of eternal life with Christ, and the deepening of God’s love would indicate that fear should be a characteristic of our current existence? Yet, so many Christians seem to live in fear and constantly have their guard up, ready to respond out of fear. This response usually manifest itself in anger, a characteristic that we are commanded not to indulge in.

Fear may be a way to protect our self and keep us safe but it also forms us in specific ways, usually in negative ways. James Bryan Smith states in the Good and Beautiful Life, “I certainly have many unmet expectations each day, but when fear is not present, anger does not arise.”

If not fear, what should be our overriding characteristic? How about love? Stanley Haurwas says, “This love that is characteristic of God’s kingdom is possible only for a forgiven people—a people who have learned not to fear one another. . . . Only when my self—my character—has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other.”

Emily P. Freeman tells the story of a decision she had to make concerning a trip to the Philippines. She was weighing all sorts of factors to help make her decision when she talked with the trip leader. The leader told her, “There may be many reasons why you shouldn’t go on this trip but don’t make fear one of them.” This changed Freeman’s entire outlook and she instead made her decision based on love rather than fear.

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The only way to overcome our tendency to fear is to recognize our identity as a child of God. In that identity we know that we are forgiven, we know that we are loved, and we know that the kingdom we belong to is strong and unshakable.

Remember, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”

Personally, I could fear all of the wayward choices our kids could make; I could fear the shaky ground my current industry seems to be in; I could fear the loss of a relationship; I could fear the hurt and disappointment that seems to be on the horizon; I could fear and blame people that I disagree with. But, all that fear just feeds things that I want no part of  such as anger, prejudice, a sense of scarcity, and a desire to hurt others before they hurt me.

I have lived in fear before and largely suffered emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. I want to choose love instead.

So, if you are being formed by the love of God then fear has been pushed to the periphery of your existence. Let’s not give in to fear,“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

How To Complete A Fast

Here are some things to keep in mind so that you can complete a fast and reap the spiritual benefits that I mapped out in my last post. I have made some mistakes in my efforts at fasting and this is what I have learned.

  1. Check your motivation. If you are more interested in the health benefits and the possibility of weight loss then you are not fasting in the spiritual sense. In fact, that mindset might be counterproductive. One of the reason that you participate in a fast is to take the focus off yourself and put it onto God. Instead, pray before you start that nothing will come out of the fast except what God wants. My problem was not with focusing on the physical benefits but trying to mark something off my spiritual achievement list. I saw completing a fast like I saw completing a Half Marathon or Marathon, it was a mountain to climb, something difficult that some never do and I was going to be a guy who got it done. “Kudos to me. Aren’t I special.” Again, the focus was on anything but God.
  2. Batch your fast. As I discussed last week, the fasting we find in the Bible is almost always centered around a sacred moment – some heavy repentance, mourning, a deep request for God to intervene and was always fasting from food. When my dad died, I took a day and fasted to work through some of my grief and remember his life and God’s gift to me through him. As you are first beginning to take up fasting, find a day or event that has some sacred meaning to it or combine it with a deep prayer need. Choosing a random Tuesday to fast just to fast will not give you the intentionality you need to make it work as you starting out.
  3. Add an activity. Similar to the one above. Combine your fast with an activity. One of the reasons fasting is so difficult is because we can get bored. Eating, thinking about eating, and preparing to eat take up a lot of our day. To eliminate that is to bring on a lot of time where it seems we are just sitting on our hands doing nothing. This can make a challenging thing even harder. I like to walk during my fasts. This is a good way for me to combine prayer with my fasting and to be present in nature where it seems we are often better able to reflect and hear from God. Warning: don’t make your activity too strenuous on your weakened fasting state. Other activities that might be good with a fast: worship, playing or listening to music, writing, watching an inspiring and moving film, or sleep.

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    Photo by Anna Tukhfatullina Food Photographer/Stylist on Pexels.com

  4. Start small. With anything we start a new, we have a tendency to plan for more than we can actually carry out. Or, we get through the first time but at such a cost physically and emotionally that we have zero motivation to do it again. With fasting, I would just start with one meal and then work your way to a 24 hour fast. You may think you are such a wimp to just fast one meal at a time but again, we aren’t interested in spiritual achievement but giving God a chance to work and dedicating ourselves to the practice to begin to reap the spiritual benefits.
  5. Don’t gorge yourself at the end of the fast. I have learned this one the hard way. I may be so famished that I think that my next meal has got to be some big taco plate or that BBQ sandwich. After living off of water for a day, dropping a big fatty meal into your stomach is a shock to your system and your body will probably react negatively. I like to make my next meal breakfast (a meal that is smaller anyway) and include some small protein and some fruit. If I respond well to that, I might add something a little more substantial an hour later. Resist the urge to feast.
  6. Give yourself a break. This may be cheating but I will stick with water throughout the day but will give myself a little tea with a little milk or honey in the afternoon of my fast. This is usually just enough of a pick me up to take the edge off of my sluggishness and gives me some motivation to stick it out the rest of the fast.
  7. Listen for God. Remember that you are doing this to place yourself in front of God and to learn to rely on him for everything. He is with you and you will learn from him as you make fasting a regular practice. If your first time is nothing but a challenge, that is normal. You and God will begin to find each other during your times of fasting and you will have sweet moments together.