Friday, February 27, 2009

Ashes, Ashes

Lent is upon us. In the church I grew up in, we didn't celebrate Lent. We celebrated Easter, and it didn't involve the Easter bunny or baskets of treats. As I look back, I remember always having a new dress (and sometimes matching hat) and singing Easter hymns. We'd come home from church and feast on roasted leg of lamb, mashed potatoes and other various sides. As it is with many holidays, the food was one of my favorite parts. But I do distinctly and fondly remember the overall spiritual reverence and rejoicing on that day. I got it - I got the celebration of His resurrection and what it meant for me personally. In fact, at one point, Easter was my favorite holiday. It was not only a time of rejoicing, but it also meant Spring was here...and a new dress. :-)

With no Lent though, I missed out on the mourning or fasting period beforehand. Without Lent, Easter was more about me and my salvation (hallelujah!) than it was about simply and gloriously HIM. These days as I come up against the worst parts of me, I believe Lent and its somber observance is a vital key in my celebrating Easter. In a sense, I'm new to Lent. I'm not familiar with the intentional practices of self-sacrifice for the sake of a time-honored religious tradition. Don't get me wrong, as a wife and mother, I know all too well that sacrifice is a part of life. In the sacrifices of everyday life though, it's far too easy to cling ever more tightly to those things in our lives which bring us fulfillment, satisfaction, downtime, pleasure. The little pleasures in life are not necessarily wrong in and of themselves, but they can rob us of time, energy and/or focus and make us "miss the mark" of excellence in our day - things like TV, internet, books, poor diet, bad habits, time-wasters, distractions. So to willingly give up something we deem good for ourselves is not only countercultural but counter to the very fabric of our nature.

Erin blogged about Lent and its three-level approach of prayer, fasting and charity. She challenged us to share the way in which we each have chosen to observe Lent in these three ways. In that same spirit, I've decided to share here what are my plans for Lent and what we are doing as a family to observe Lent.

Ash Wednesday happened to fall on our "Family Night", and so my husband and I took the opportunity to explain to the kids in a general manner what the day was about and teach them a bit about Lent. We each had ashes applied to our foreheads and then started reading one story each night from the kids' Family Bible. Our plan is to reach the story of Christ's resurrection by Easter (give or take a few days). There were many good ideas online about Lenten trees, charts or calendars, even a Lenten ark constructed like an Advent calendar. We decided to loosely follow one family's example of their Lenten calendar (they also provide a blank one for you to fill in with your own ideas or theirs). The children chose one thing to give up for one day each week (yes, I know it's supposed to be 40 days, but I thought we could ease into it as they're still so young and brand new to Lent.) My husband and I announced what we would be giving up for the full 40 days, and then we all proceeded to choose 5 things each to give away to those less fortunate. I'm hoping to create an awareness even in the youngest member of our family of the idea of self-sacrifice and generosity. And being grateful for all that Christ gave up for us.

My own intentions for Lenten prayer, fasting and charity include:

  • Participating in the Liturgy of the Hours as best I can. This goes back to my New Year's resolution of being more diligent in prayer and scheduling my day around prayer. I haven't been very successful at it, but I continue to try.
  • Going on a spending fast. I will reject any form of shopping, online or otherwise, as well as giving all bill-paying duties over to my husband. This is a big deal as I'm the CFO of our family, and with the occasional input, my husband has entrusted our finances to me over the years. Coincidentally, we are taking a financial class over the next 13 weeks, and I think it will be good for my husband to take stock and see the big picture of where we are and where we're going financially. It will be very hard for me to let go of this control as well as not impulsively taking advantage of some good shopping deals. More than anything, it makes me accountable to my husband which is always a good thing.
  • Giving away one possession of mine for each day of Lent. I think this is going to be a lot harder than I think it will be, but I am hoping my house will be 40 items lighter by Easter. Through this, my hope is materialism will loosen its hold on me a bit more, and my soul will also be 40 items lighter by Easter.

As I reflect on the traditions of Lent and struggle to practice my own Lenten vows, I come to a better understanding of its meaning - to bring us closer to Christ and become more like Him. For He gave up everything in order to give us everything. The things we give up and give away during these 40 days is but infinitesimal compared to Christ's sacrifice. Just imagine our world if we lived our 40-day Lenten life all year round...

Nothing, how little so ever it be, if it is suffered for God's sake, can pass without merit in the sight of God.

~Thomas a Kempis

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Self-Help, Self-Schmelp

We are like children reaching for the stars,
and when we catch a firefly, we say we've caught a comet.

The other night when I was thinking about my resolutions, my prayer life, etc., I came to a certain realization. It dawned on me that all of this "stuff" I was trying to accomplish, all of those things that are to help make me a better Christian, better wife, better mom, all of whatever I'm trying to "work on" in my life really amounts to nothing if my focus is on me. I got to the point in all of my pondering when I realized sometimes I just get sick of myself. You know the feeling? When you just think about yourself and where you've been and where you're going, and you simply throw your hands up in the air and groan because you are who you are, and there's not much you can do to change that fact. It doesn't matter how many self-help books you read, how many advisors/friends you happen to have in your life, how many sermons you listen to - if your focus is on yourself and what needs to be changed, it will amount to nothing.

We all know in our heads that our focus should be on God. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that statement. But we add piles of "shoulds and shouldn'ts" to our focus, "change this and change that" to our central thinking, be more like Jesus in "this way and that way" that we completely cover up the one pinpoint Truth - IT'S NOT ABOUT ME, IT'S ALL ABOUT HIM!! If we could take one second from every minute we're beating ourselves up over something bad we've done or when we're proud of ourselves over something "good" we've done, and redirect our focus on Jesus, we'd have many more positive minutes and holy moments in our days.

Getting out of our own way and allowing Jesus to do - just do - would result in a much shorter list of our own version of "do's and don'ts." Our whole life would be changed just by redirecting our minds toward Him. Worshiping and praising God throughout my day would automatically result in me being a better and kinder wife, mother, friend, organizer, teacher...person. Everything I did in the spirit of praise would be done to the best of my ability for the glory of God. I'm not saying that one must go through their day singing hymns to God in order to be focused on Him though that would be nice. And I'm not saying that resolutions are for naught and life would be so easy, bright and happy if we just let go and let God though that too would be refreshing. We've never been told the Christian life is an easy one - it requires action on our part and hard work. But how does self-improvement have a place in the Christian life when we are to die to self? Improvement can only come from one Source, and it's not to be found innately within us. We are told we are born into sin, live a life of sin and die in sin. How can improvement or self-help come from that kind of primordial ooze? How can we possibly help ourselves?

Resolutions are great when we see the power behind achieving them resides not in ourselves, but only in God. We are encouraged to reach for perfection, but only Jesus can hand it to us. So enough about what I want to be like, want to look like, or just simply want...what does God want? Not my will, but Yours, Lord. That will be my new mantra: Lord, what do You want today? Then maybe, just maybe, my life would look more like Perfection than I ever dreamed possible.

** For a good article about self-help and Christianity, read The Half-Truths of Self-Help.
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