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Here we are again in the season of Lent – what has become one of my favorite liturgical observances. Since I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, I was always mystified by my catholic friend’s religious practice of ordering fishwiches from McDonald’s on Fridays. “I can’t eat meat on Fridays for Lent,” they would explain, whatever that meant. I didn’t get it.
But as I grew older and learned more about this sacred season leading up to Easter, I fell in love with it. If you happen to be uninitiated as I was, one of the basic ideas of Lent as I understand it is to give something up during the 40 days leading up to Easter in order to help you identify with the sacrifice and sufferings of Christ. As goofy as it may have sounded to me at the time to give up cheeseburgers in favor of fishwiches on Fridays for Lent, if that kind of thing brings the sacrifice of Christ to the forefront of our conscience, then I suppose that it served its purpose.
However, for me personally as I discovered the beauty of the Lenten fast, I felt like I wanted to sacrifice something more personal than a cheeseburger, something that cost me more on a deeper level, and so I committed myself to praying about what my sacrifice could be. I believe the Spirit led me down a slightly less conventional path and my Lenten fasts have taken on a different shape than the traditional model that I’d seen growing up. At the time I don’t believe I’d ever heard or read of anybody observing it the way we now do in the Gray household, and I don’t think I’m clever enough to have conjured it up on my own. It felt like it came by grace, like some songs do, or a rainy afternoon, or good dreams. I’ve since learned that who our observance of Lent is not unique – there are many others who share our mode of observance – but the point is that I’d never heard of this before and so I have reason to believe that it was inspired, in the truest sense of what that word means, by the Holy Spirit.
What we did that first Lent and have been doing since is pray that the Lord would reveal to us anything that has some kind of lordship or mastery over us, anything that is competing with the supremacy of Christ for our attention and affection. As the Spirit convicts and reveals what that particular thing is, then that is what we give up for lent.
It is usually some sin, addiction, or lesser appetite that I can’t seem to beat or that occupies too much space in my life. The idea is that it’s difficult – for me at least – to quit a stubborn sin cold turkey once and for all and expect that I’ll never stumble in that area again. Ever. It’s quite daunting and in most cases unrealistic. I think of Bill Murray in “What About Bob” and his mantra of “baby steps…” I believe the season of Lent can provide baby steps to freedom, an attainable goal of 40 days to give up that sin or habit you can’t seem to beat, to see what freedom feels like, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Over the years I’ve given up things such as fear, anxiety, certain eating habits, or other more private sins that stick to the walls of my heart. I’ve also done things like commit to rekindling my affection for God’s word. My wife gave up speeding one year, and it changed her life. In the process she realized how much of life she lives constantly on the run, driven. I introduced a friend of mine to this idea and he found much needed hope as he gave up a pornography addiction for the Lenten season. Again, giving it up forever seemed an unattainable feat, but 40 days seemed manageable and it was like entering his heart into a detox program. In that time he started to get hooked on something else: the glorious freedom of the children of God.
With the traditional Lenten fast, at the end of the 40 days you would get to enjoy whatever it is you gave up on Easter morning as a way of entering into the celebration of the resurrection, meaning you could swing by McDonald’s for that cheeseburger on your way to church. Of course my proposed observance of Lent breaks down here, as it would be a bit of a buzzkill (to put it mildly) to go binge on porn or push the speed limit or give yourself over to anxiety, or (insert your sin here_______________) on Easter morning. Some of my friends have repeatedly pointed this flawed aspect of our Lenten fast out to me, as well as their disapproval of the idea of giving up a sin for Lent to identify with the sufferings of Christ. Some of them wonder if the Gray Lenten observance might even be mildly blasphemous.
Who can say? I get what they’re saying, I really do, and yet I can’t help but feel that ours is a fast that pleases the Lord. Especially when it is a favorite sin that we fast. I am, in fact, giving up something precious to me – a desire of my flesh, and usually a potent one that is trying to usurp my heart’s affections. In this way, it is not only a very real, focused, and significant sacrifice but also one that acknowledges what Christ suffered for in the first place: my sin. In giving this up I identify not only with Christ’s sufferings, but the bondage of my own misery as well – a misery that Christ came to deliver me from. And when Easter rolls around, though I’m not at McDonald’s scarfing down cheeseburgers, whispering Hallelujah between bites, My celebration comes in a newfound sense of the reality of the freedom that the resurrected life of Christ offers.
Not to mention that on Easter morning I‘ve never rushed back to my old bondage. 40 days of freedom is enough to whet your appetite for more of the same.