Lent: Theology for Ash Wednesday & Bobby VAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bobby's World, Easter, Grace, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Lent, Ministry, Mission, Prayer, Salvation, Spiritual Disciplines, Worship
Yesterday I preached a “long” sermon at PaLO VErde called “Seasons of Repentance” following the Seven Penitential Psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) as a pattern for Lent. I have for years incorporated these Psalms into my practice of Spiritual discipline during the what is traditionally called “Lent.” See my blog Repentance and Seasons of Refreshment …
No one is obligated to follow the rhythm of Lent in their walk with the Lord, but we are also free to do so. In my own life I have found great wisdom in the practice. See Romans 14.5-6.
So today’s blog is a short rational, an apology if you will, of why Bobby Valentine has chosen to keep Lent though it is certainly way beyond my upbringing.
First, growing up in the Churches of Christ, like other “free church” traditions like the Baptists, I had no clue what “lent” was. I, in fact, can recall actually mocking it as the stuff you filter out in the dryer. After all it was Roman Catholic and therefore obviously wrong. Little did I know just how ignorant I really was.
Second, after much reading (and I continue to do so) in the 1990s on worship in the early church, and later co-authoring a book with that theme, I recognized that most traditions long predate any notion of a Roman Catholic Church. Lent is part of the church calendar long before there was a Roman Catholic Church being part of almost ever Christian tradition around the world except English and American Evangelical types. Thus the Orthodox (Greek, Russian), Coptic, Syrian, Nestorian and other ancient branches of the church that have no connection to “Rome” at all practice the season of Lent. True there is often development (such as how many days for Lent) but the actual practice is often found in that shadowy area of the first century and the second. Lent is such a practice. When you read the Fathers (or Eusebius) they are certain the season was apostolic. So the first time I participated in “Lent” was 1997. I did not fast, or put a mark on my forehead (I have since fasted but avoid the ashes). I bought Walter Wangerin’s little book Reliving the Passion: Meditations on the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. It was an important lesson to me: lent focused upon the Gospel of Jesus. I have read it numerous times since.
Third, I realized that just because something was not commanded, did not imply that it was of no value at all or that that we have no freedom in Christ. Free will offerings – worship – is deeply embedded in the biblical narrative. This realization began to sink in when I discovered that my Restoration tradition, which shaped me in the rhetoric of “Calling Bible Things by Bible Names and Doing Bible Things in Bible Ways!,” did LOTS of things that do not remotely meet this criteria.
We used the word “Bible.” We had song books. We had church buildings. We had Sunday schools. We had Vacation Bible School. We had invitation songs. Not a single one of these traditions (and many more) have “Bible” authority as we used the term. We even invented theology to justify them, we called them expedients.
Then I learned that Jesus himself participated in worship traditions that had no more “biblical” authority than song books, VBS, invitation songs and the like. Some Restorationists deny it, but Jesus participated in Hanukkah, he worshiped in the synagogue, he used a cup in the Passover none of which he could give a book, chapter and verse for. I learned that Paul and the early church continued to worship in the Temple and even offered sacrifices and used the Hebrew Bible calendar to “keep time” like Pentecost and such. It took a long time for the significance of these truths to sink in. Some will never get this point.
Fourth, I realized how pervasive the religious calendar was in the life of our ancestors, the Saints of Israel. This calendar provided a “rhythm” for living in the fallen world. It is a concept of TIME.
Modern secularists think “time” is simply seconds and hours. But in the early church there was a massive difference between “chronos” time (seconds & hours) and “kairos” time. A notion in my ignorance I had never heard of before the late 1990s and whose significance is still sinking in. The Bible seems to take the position that we humans will either fill our “time” with the presence of God or with ourselves and our secular agenda.
In the Hebrew Bible, from the very first page, we learn that time is given to reflect on God’s rhythm of grace. The “lights” in the sky, according to Genesis 1, are given specifically to mark religious festivals. Now frequently modern disciples do not know this because they are familiar with the KJV tradition which uses the word “seasons” in Genesis 1.14. But “seasons” is not a word for winter, spring, summer and fall. As the Good News Bible renders the text quite accurately,
“then God commanded, “Let lights appear in the sky to separate day from night and to show the time when days, years, and religious festivals.”
You may want to consult the Today’s English Version, New English Bible, Revised English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, etc. The lights are to help Israel keep track of the “seasons” of grace! The festivals are kept because the “lights” show what “time” it is. Thus the Hebrew Bible, the calendar constantly reminds the Saints of the Gospel of God’s Grace:
God’s gracious Salvation from slavery (Passover);
God’s gracious Care in the Wilderness and Giving of Sustenance (Tabernacles);
God’s gracious Care in Providing Food for the Whole Person in the Harvest and the Word (Pentecost);
God’s gracious Deliverance from Destruction (Purim);
God’s gracious Deliverance and Protection of his Temple and People (Hanukkah).
I learned, from studying the Gospel of John that Jesus structured his life – as the Saints of old had – on this rhythmic concept of time that is filled with the presence of God in ancient Israel.
Fifth, as I studied, and tried more to listen without prejudice, I saw the great Spiritual aid (as had the Saints of Israel) to having a Gospel centered concept of time. Not just in Lent but all year. That it helped to center my vision on Christ as the focal point of all time. It grounded my day in the Bible. And it called me to worship privately and publicly.
Sixth, with Lent, I came to see was a period of conscious self reflection in the light of the “mission of God in Christ.” This means examination and bringing to light areas of my life that are either denied or hidden from myself. Now this is, in fact, something we should do all year, I confess. Just like we are to love our wives and children all year but birthdays and anniversaries still have a valid function. So looking at myself, in light of God’s Mission, helps me lose myself in the rhythm of God’s grace. To become part of the same story that the Saints of Israel, Jesus, and Peter, Paul and Mary were.
Seventh, with Lent, I learn and practice self discipline with the help of God’s Holy Spirit. This for me has been a great blessing. Yes we need to practice this all year. But Lent gives me a specific period of time to focus on the reality that the world does not exist simply for my self gratification. Jesus himself, denied himself and went into the wilderness like the Saints of Israel to PREPARE for his task and mission. Jesus had to deny himself in the rest of ministry too but he still had a “season” in which he consciously submitted to this time of discipline. I think the Triune God is not displeased with our doing the same.
Eight, as I see it, Lent has specific blessings that have accrued in my life that have been hinted at already. The whole concept of time (the biblical calendar) filled with God is an antidote to Gnostic, Dualistic, and Narcissistic approaches to Spirituality and worship. Spirituality is not reduced to a fuzzy “feeling” but has actual content. God is certainly “experienced” and powerfully so. But it is an experience that is mediated through reflection on what God has concretely done in history through his Christ. It pulls me away from the narcissistic preoccupation with self that is so prevalent in much American style worship. It puts a total check on “McSpirituality.” This Spirituality is dirty, gritty, flesh, blood, and new creation – but it is not flights of fancy.
Ninth, as I see it, Lent and the “calendar” focusing on God’s Time is a major antidote to legalism, which in my view is nothing but a form of spiritual narcissism. As the calendar reviewed above shows, if we orient our lives with God’s rhythm then we are practically forced to return over and over and over again to what God has done as opposed to be obsessed with what we do. Thus Time is not the ticking of seconds to be filled with human effort (chronos) but God moments filled with divine reality and grace (kairos).
My life in chronos is therefore a response to what God has done in kairos! We focus on his Gift. We focus on his grace. We focus on his Mission. For the Christian, this includes the grace of Creation, the Call of Abraham, the Deliverance of Israel, the Promise to David, the Incarnation of the Word, the Jubilee Ministry of the Son of Man, the Crucifixion of God’s Son, the Resurrection, the beginning of the New Creation, the Ascension as our Man in Heaven. The calendar reminds me over and over and over that this is about God and his Steadfast Love. It delivers from legalism.
Tenth, finally, Lent should become the “pattern” for my life all year long. When my identity has been lost in God’s Story then living as the aroma of Christ in my time and place should come natural. But because I fail miserably at all of this the attitude of submission and repentance is planted as a seed in my life and bears fruit … it is God’s ticking time bomb to reorient me toward him and his agenda. Lent calls us to surrender, to repentant examination, to patiently listening to the Lord to open our eyes to what is out of sorts with the will of God.
So with these few thoughts on the value that I find in this season, some will disagree with me and that is their privilege, but I have been blessed greatly in the past and I anticipate the same seasons of refreshment from the Presence of the Lord as I seek to let his Time overlap with my time.