Giving Up Something Bad For Good - 2nd Corinthians 13:5-9 (Wednesday Night Reflection)
It may have been the toughest forty-six day stretch in my entire life. I was either twenty or twenty-one years old, a student at Methodist University (Methodist College back then), and a member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. I lived on campus in one of the residential halls. I think it was the night of the fraternity bon fire that it hit me the hardest. It was the middle of ritual week as we were bringing new brothers into the fraternity. It was then that I was confronted and had to decide between faithfulness and fitting-in (and enjoying myself). We were going to have a pizza party. What is the problem, you may wonder. Well, the trouble for me was that I had given up pizza and soda for Lent. I’m not sure what I was thinking at the time, but yes, I was a college student and chose to give up the two things that I almost literally lived off of while in school. I didn’t think that Easter was ever going to arrive, and forget about your Easter dinner with ham, veggies, macaroni and cheese, and assorted desserts…the only pie I wanted was a pizza pie with pepperoni and extra cheese served with Mountain Dew or Dr. Pepper on the side.
Many folks observe the tradition of giving up something they enjoy during the season of Lent—some will give up desserts or sweets in general, others very specific items like chocolate, ice cream, or peanut butter; some will give up activities such as spending time using social media like Facebook or Twitter or maybe playing video games or playing golf or maybe going out to eat; still others joke around about giving up something they don’t like—I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard kids say they want to give up going to school or doing homework, or adults say they want to give up going to work or doing housework, or give up foods they don’t like such as Brussel sprouts or liver (though when I hear that I quickly point out that you don’t use Lent as an excuse to not do things you don’t like doing).
Where did the idea of giving something up for Lent originate? It began as a period of fasting and preparation for those preparing to be baptized on Easter Day as they surrendered their lives to Christ, later on it would become a season in which all Christians would enter a time of self-reflection and do penance for their sins. The tradition of giving something that we enjoy for Lent grew out of the tradition of fasting and was to be a small sacrifice that would cause us to reflect on the great sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. The purpose of this season was that this sacrifice would in some way draw us closer in our relationship with God, and if we had strayed, we would be drawn back into a right relationship with our Savior.
Sometimes, though, the fasting leading us to a closer relationship with God loses out. I have heard folks say, “I need to lose some weight, so I am giving up sweets for Lent.” I may have even said that myself in the past. Unfortunately, though, that takes what was supposed to be an action of self-denial and self-sacrifice and turns it into a self-improvement diet plan, so it still remains “about me” rather than about Christ. In other instances, where we go through the ritual of giving something up, but all we focus on is “I can’t wait for Easter to get here so I can have (whatever we have given up).” (Some folks don’t wait until Easter, they celebrate weekly the fact that every Sunday is considered a “Little Easter” and not actually part of Lent and they are “legally” allowed to indulge in what they have sacrificed—and I’ve been there and done that as well.) Each of these, though, misses the point of “giving something up” because they allow us to stay focused on ourselves rather than on the intention of fasting, which is for us to focus on the cross of Christ.
The purpose of any sacrifice should be to focus less on ourselves and more on the worship of God and allowing God to make us more Christlike…a transformation that is more than a forty day fast from something we enjoy that leaves us unchanged and come Eater back to the same old us. That is one reason that a few years back, Dr. James Moore’s book, Giving Up Something Bad For Lent, caught my eye as I was looking Lenten resources. Don’t get excited, it is not about giving up homework or eating liver—things we don’t like, but about giving up those things about ourselves that are not reflective of Christ—things that we “enjoy” or consider “too painful” to try to change about ourselves—things like regret, addiction, fears, bitterness, judgment, and envy. These are all things that Christ came to free us from, but that too often we hold on to. This year, I would like us to take up the challenge of examining our lives and find something in our lives that we need God’s grace to change about us, some part of us that is not Christ-like in the way it should be. Are we living stuck in the past—living each day in sorrow or depressed, focused on mistakes we have made or missed opportunities rather than living in the hope that God has promised us a future of blessing and prosperity? Are we bound by our addictions—to drugs, to alcohol, to tobacco, to overeating, to overspending, to gossiping—rather than enjoying the freedom that Christ has won for us over anything that would try to control us? Are we afraid to do anything, living as if any action or risk will automatically result in the worst-case scenario playing out—rather than trusting that in everything God will work for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose? Does bitterness haunt us, causing the acidity of unforgiveness fill our lives with the bile of hatred, anger, or a desire for vengeance rather than being able to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Do we sit in judgment of others, readily condemning them for their sins, rather than having our hearts break for them because we have forgotten the log that was (or is) in our own eyes because we are so focused on the speck in theirs and rather than offering to come alongside them and together, in community, supporting one another in an effort to live holy lives? Do we look at what others have, their possessions, their reputations, their status, their abilities and wish that we had it ourselves, always thinking we need more—rather than being content and thankful for the blessings that God has placed in our lives? There may be others—other dark spots that mar our lives—those things that we either revel in or simply make excuses for—maybe even saying, “God just made me this way.” God did not create us to have dark spots, but to live in perfect relationship with Him—He desires our growth and our transformation—not a temporary absence of some pleasure in our lives. Through our weekly Lenten reflections we will examine the need for us each to give up some of these places of darkness that we so readily hold on to…and the need to give them up and be changed.
Will giving up something bad…not just for Lent…but for good be easy? No. It is not something we can do on our own, but only with the grace of God, the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, transforming us and changing us as we live into the freedom that Christ won for us on the cross. There is nothing wrong with giving up something you enjoy for the sake of Lenten Sacrifice in an effort focus in on the sacrifice of Christ—in fact it is commendable when done for the sake of growing closer to God. So if you have decided to give up chocolate, watching television, social media, or something else you enjoy, by all means, offer that sacrifice up to God as part of this seasons transformational time. However, I challenge each of us to consider what we need transformed out of our lives this Lent, a permanent change we need to experience to become more like Christ—to take that that darkness, write it on the index card in your bulletin, fold the card, and as you come forward to receive your ashes, place it on the altar, leave it there, and begin allowing Christ to free you from it and this Lent be transformed into something new come Easter!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.