Giving up for Lent…?

“I’m giving up [blank] for Lent.”

It’s a phrase you hear quite often around this time of year. Given that we here at the Orchard just celebrated an Ash Wednesday service last night (as of this posting) I thought it appropriate to write just a small piece on the purpose of the Lenten Season in the life of the church. If you attended the service last night you would have heard some of these same things, but I also wanted to add my own particular twist. [ed. That’s one of the benefits of having this job… 😉 ]

Most of us are familiar with the practice of self-denial, shown in the ‘things we give up’ as was mentioned above, but this is not the whole of what the Lenten season means for the church. Traditionally there have been three parts to Lenten observation: prayer, alms giving, and fasting. We Protestants have grabbed hold of the fasting bit, whether it be from food or some other item, activity, etc. But what of the other two activities?

How would our lives look differently if we were to actively pursue all three of these activities? What if during this time of the year we spent focused time in prayer, delving into the depths of God’s promises to meet us there? What if during this time of year we gave over and above what we usually do (do you?) to those less fortunate than us? What if that involved your whole body rather than just your money? And what if, out of giving in those two areas, your self-denial in the form of fasting would actually transform your life?

We live lives of functional materialism. We confess to believe in a supernatural god who works in and through us to effect change in the world. And we confess that he does these sorts of things through the means of spiritual disciplines. And then we reject those disciplines. Or perhaps simply pay them lip-service and then move on.

I stand just as guilty as the next person.

I think I’ll take this time and live it patterned by the rhythms of the kingdom of God rather than the hectic patterns of the blind-led world.

A Character Grabs the Author’s Pen

There’s something compelling about a good story. Whether it be in a book, on a screen (large or small), or on a stage, there is something about a good story that draws you in and envelopes you. Some people are drawn to epic stories in scale, some to epic stories in length. Others, perhaps, are drawn in by the minutiae of life and see worlds opened up in a single glance.

I like the small things.

This is not to say that I don’t care for stories such as the classics The Iliad and The Odyssey, nor even for neo-classics such as The Lord of the Rings or even, in its own way, the Harry Potter saga. There is something to be said for a story with a scope so large as to create a reality all unto its own. But I still prefer the small things.

It’s the sparkle in the lover’s eye, wordlessly full of meaning.

It’s the contented sigh after a struggled fight.

It’s the single tear quickly wiped that betrays the emotional maelstrom inside.

Strip away the special effects, the soundtrack, the talents and abilities of the author and/or actors and a good story will still draw you in. It will still whisper a siren song to your soul, to your psyche that irresistibly engages you. God does something similar with his grace, but that is for another post, where we’re going is far deeper.

Shakespeare famously wrote, in As You Like It, ‘All the world’s a stage.’ But how many know the rest of it?

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Upon the lips of Jacques Shakespeare expounds a futile view of life. From birth to death life seems to be a battle against world and self. The closest one gets to ‘the good life’ is as judge against others. Yet, even here, life is a façade kept in appearances.

This fear of life drives people mad.

We all know a good story when we see one. And we often feel the tension between a good story and the story we live in. Something tells us that the story we are living is not good. Donald Miller once wrote, ‘Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend our lives living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful.’ We instinctively know that there is something more to life than living day in and day out. We know that if our daily experiences are nothing more than going to school, doing homework, going to work, and waking up the next day to do it all over again we’ve missed the point.

Those kinds of characters are tragic.

In an instinctual reaction against living a life of tedium and meaninglessness we frenetically grab the pen out of our Author’s hand and try our own at the page. We write plots filled with love and fortunes, power and intrigue. We become the cool kids, those whom everyone else wants to be. We become the beautiful ones, those whom everyone else wants to look like.

And somehow, in these counterfeit autobiographies, our stories always degenerate into battles for power and control. This shouldn’t surprise us, however, for those two things were the impetus for our usurpation in the first place. In the reading of God’s storyline for our lives we judged that plot to be deficient and desired the power and control to be our own authors. Wasn’t this the root of humanity’s fall into sin? ‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God’ (Gen 3.4) We desire to be equal with God in power and control, which manifested itself as a desire for God’s knowledge and wisdom in our first parents.

The ancient Greeks had a word for this: hubris. Hubris is an excess of ambition or pride, and in literary terms hubris ultimately would cause the character’s downfall. Sound familiar? Human history is a hubristic tragedy.

Or is it?

Tolkien had a term that he liked to use, eucatastrophe. A catastrophe being a sudden turn of events in a story, typically of a complete failure, Tolkien appended the Greek preposition eu, meaning ‘good’, and in doing so turned an idea of failure into one of unforeseen salvation. He called the Incarnation the eucatastrophe of human history and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. Far from being deus ex machina, the God from the machine, a literary device to remove the story’s characters from danger in a way that is entirely out of sync with the rest of the narrative, a eucatastrophe is unforeseen, but in harmony with the narrative arc.

In the Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus God, as it were, takes back the pen from humanity as a whole and begins to write the conclusion of all stories.

As we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10.9) God, as it were, takes back the pen we have personally stolen and begins to write the conclusion to our story.

God’s literary brilliance is shown, as well, in that he does not erase what we have, unauthorized, written. He takes up where we have left off, broken lives, failed storylines and all and supernaturally brings them all to a wonderful conclusion.

If only from the eucatastrophic moment it were a smooth narrative decline to the end of the story.

God’s promise to us is not one of immediate joy and comfort once he retakes authorship. Just as in so many other stories, the deciding moment, the turning point is not necessarily the end or even close to the end. Whether it be catastrophic moment of Mercutio and Tybalt’s duel in Romeo and Juliet, or the eucatastrophe of Gollum’s attack on Frodo in the heart of Mt. Doom (here the recent movie adaptation departs from the book, where after the destruction of the ring there is an whole other storyline of the destruction and redemption of the Shire), quite often characters find themselves still deep in the plot when the turning point comes.

A more fleshy example of this may be of D-day, the storming of the beaches of Normandy. There is a real sense in which, though the war was not won on that day, the battle was over. The year which past between D-day and VE-Day, from 6 June 1944 to 8 May 1945, was simply a working out of the victory at Normandy. The decisive battle of the war had been won and the remainder of the war was the outworking of that singular victory.

In the same way, the eucatastrophic victory of Jesus has initiated the beginning of the end of all stories. But it has not ended all stories.

Yet.

In the intervening time our great Author is in the process of working in us and through us to bring all things to right. His story arc from Garden to Garden City, from Genesis to Revelation, involves with it the necessary purging and honing crucible fire which produces faith. Any, even cursory, reading of the New Testament will show that one thing which is promised, perhaps more than just about anything else, is suffering and trials. ‘In this world you will have trouble,’ Jesus said. But thankfully he concludes the statement with, ‘But take heart! I have overcome the world.’

God’s story of Life, Death, and New Life is a sad, but hopeful story. We know that in the end ‘all shall be well.’ Whatever plot he has chosen for our lives we can be assured that the Author is good and knows just where he is taking us. Though it may seem in the moment like the world is falling apart, sometimes a little unraveling is necessary to re-sew a cloth.

The beauty is in the details.

The littlest things in life can communicate the most profound truths. The small things, like the looks, the sighs, and the lonely tear can reveal more about who we are and who those around us are the often the most boisterous sermonizing.

Andrew Peterson, a singer/songwriter, once penned these words. Each simple line opens up oceans of lifestories. Enter in. What would your line be?

After the last tear falls
After the last secret’s told
After the last bullet tears through flesh and bone
After the last child starves
And the last girl walks the boulevard
After the last year that’s just too hard
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love

After the last disgrace
After the last lie to save some face
After the last brutal jab from a poison tongue
After the last dirty politician
After the last meal down at the mission
After the last lonely night in prison
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love

And in the end, the end is
Oceans and oceans
Of love and love again
We’ll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms
Of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we’ll look back on these tears as old tales

‘Cause after the last plan fails
After the last siren wails
After the last young husband sails off to join the war
After the last “this marriage is over”
After the last young girl’s innocence is stolen
After the last years of silence that won’t let a heart open
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love

And in the end, the end is
Oceans and oceans
Of love and love again
We’ll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms
Of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we’ll look back on these tears as old tales
‘Cause after the last tear falls
There is love