Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Why I Do Not Celebrate Lent

It has become somewhat fashionable for evangelical Christians to observe Lent. Lent is the season between Ash Wednesday and Easter in which some Christians have voluntarily given up some things in their life in preparation for Easter. The act of “giving up” some things is intended to make us mindful of the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, which will ultimately culminate in his victory (and our return to enjoying that which we have given up).

As described, it does not seem that observing Lent is a bad idea. After all, there are plenty of American(ized) believers who could do with a little sacrifice in the name of Christ. What is the harm in making some commitments, rejecting some pleasures, or fasting from those things that we enjoy in order to help us focus on the season? Maybe none. Maybe plenty.

In the interest of full disclosure, I come from a staunchly Catholic background. My mother’s side of the family is Catholic, indeed, many are practicing Catholics. I have three great aunts who are nuns and a great uncle who is a priest. My mother went to Catholic school. You get the picture. So, while I cast no aspersions on my brothers and sisters who choose to celebrate the Lenten season, there are a few reasons I do not.

1. Our hearts crave glory. 
Human beings have an innate desire to want credit. Indeed, we crave glory. The gospel is explicitly anti-human glory. The gospel is a perpetual reminder that we can’t, but Jesus can. Because my own heart wants to take some credit, wants to share some of God’s glory in my salvation, I want to avoid those things that seem to scream out “look at what I am sacrificing!” If you think they don’t, ask a traditional practicing Catholic to join you for a burger next Friday. You will hear, “I gave that up for Lent.” Whatever I give up for Lent will undoubtedly require some kind of explanation. Our human hearts love that explanation because it places us in prime position for a little glory. Overstated? Perhaps. But, Jeremiah reminded us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jer 17:9).”

2. Jesus’ death was a great sacrifice. 
In one sense, the death of Christ was the most horrific thing in all of human history. The perfect, sinless Son of God was brutally executed by Roman soldiers who collaborated with Jewish religious leaders. At the same time, it was the most glorious of all deaths. In the death of Jesus, God reconciled the world to himself (2 Cor 5:18-19). As the old saying goes, his love made the payment for sin that his holiness demanded.
It might do us well to remember that Jesus’ death cost him something; that it really was a great sacrifice.  How exactly can I try to memorialize that? By giving up hamburgers? By turning off the TV? By choosing to not eat dessert? It seems to me that any attempt I may make does not memorialize the death of Christ as much as it trivializes it. When I visited the Grand Canyon, I stood on the south rim in awe of God’s creation. Now how could I try to approximate that for someone who has not seen it? In a sense I see our attempts at Lent the way Clark Griswold treated the Grand Canyon; a hurried, quick glance that reflected more on his shallowness than the grandeur of the Canyon.

3. Jesus’ sacrifice brought us freedom!  
The final reason I do not observe Lent is because the death of Christ won me freedom. Freedom from the Law. Freedom from attempting to please God with my good behavior, or sacrifices, or any other meritorious act. The kind of freedom that is found in the Sabbath rest of God provided by Christ alone. I am certainly not suggesting that all those who engage in Lenten observances are trying to earn favor with God or engage in meritorious acts. Yet, because of the deceitfulness of the heart, we must tread very carefully in seeking to engage in sacrifices that God has not specifically called us to make.

It seems to me that the best way we can prepare for the Easter season is to live in the full light of God’s grace. In a sense, Fat Tuesday (minus the sinful behavior!) is a better picture of the Christian who is saved by (and lives by) grace alone than Ash Wednesday is. The reasons I do not observe Lent are just that: my reasons. Fortunately, we have some freedom in this matter. Paul reminded the church at Rome that the freedom Christ won extends to whether we observe certain days or whether we choose to abstain from certain foods (Rom 14:1-8). So, whether you choose to observe Lent or not, do so with a clear conscience because of Christ’s great sacrifice.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Preaching Lessons from the Brian Williams Story

On February 4, 2015 Managing Editor and NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams admitted to embellishing an incident that occurred while covering the Iraq War in 2003. Within days of his apology, he announced he was taking a temporary leave of absence. NBC News announced on February 10, 2015 that Williams was being suspended for six months without pay. The fallout from Williams’ exaggerations provides several lessons for pastors that are worth considering, particularly as it relates to sermon content and delivery.

The Story is bigger than you. In reflecting on Williams exaggerations, it seems that he forgot the most fundamental principle of journalism: seek truth and report it. This principle is a reminder that the story is bigger than the one reporting it. For pastors this is critical to remember, as we are entrusted with sharing THE Story: the gospel. The story of the gospel is bigger than anyone who is sharing it. We must be mindful of that fact. And we must remember that as heralds of the truth our responsibility is to report it, to preach it, to all who will listen. It is the story – the gospel story – that has the power to change lives, not our attempts to “improve” it.

You are not central to the story. As the story of Williams’ exaggerations continued to unfold, it quickly became clear that he had engaged in a fairly regular practice of making himself part of the story. Whether it was pretending to have been in a Chinook when it was shot down or seeing dead bodies floating outside his hotel during Hurricane Katrina, Williams made himself part of the story he was supposed to be reporting. Pastors are often tempted to do the same thing. When we make ourselves the heroes of illustrations, we take the focus away from the true Hero of the gospel story.

Trust is always held in a delicate balance. According to the New York Times, after his announcement, Williams fell from the 23rd most trusted person in America to 835th. That is a significant tumble that is directly tied to breaking trust by not being completely truthful. In a church setting, most pastors could not afford that kind of free fall. Indeed, the lead pastor must be one of (if not the most) trusted person in the church. Failing to recognize that such trust is held in a delicate balance can lead to one taking it for granted. Doing so can be disastrous. This is why it is vital for pastors to make sure that the stories they are telling, the illustrations they are using, the statistics they are quoting are accurate and true. There is simply no excuse for marrying the glorious story of the gospel to embellished illustrations or make up statistics.

My hope is that these lessons will be helpful to pastors, teachers, and church leaders. We are entrusted with the greatest story ever told. Let’s make sure we do not try to embellish it, insert ourselves into it as the hero, or try to pump it up with falsehoods. The gospel really is enough.