Lenten Winter

 

Lenten Winter Spring

Yes, I know.  We did get a few more inches of snow last night. But it’s a spring snow.  It’s light and fluffy – not your typical slushy spring snow, I’ll admit – but it’s quiet as cotton to walk on. Gone is the winter crunch I love so much.  I don’t expect to hear it again this year.

Already long stretches of pavement are exposed where the snow has melted off.  I can touch my dog’s collar bare-handed and my fingers don’t stick to the metal buckle.  The snow still catches against her muzzle when she shoves it, snorting happily, into the drifts.  But frost no longer coats her eyelashes.  Her breath no longer spouts a smoky halo as she runs.  Icicles no longer drip from in her whiskers.

My face still flushes with cold.  I still wear a windbreaker and a heavy fleece and my winter boots.  The wind is strong and from the north, but the sting is gone.  Winter may deliver another cold snap, but deep down I know, even as I walk through freshly fallen snow, that winter is over.

Victory belongs to spring.

It doesn’t matter, now, what else winter tries.  Time is on spring’s side.  The days are getting longer.  Yesterday I saw robins in the bushes and tree buds pregnant with expectancy. New life is there, even today, sitting quietly in the snow. It will come.  It always does. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay (Habakkuk 2:3).

We enter this week into the season of Lent.  Much like winter, Lent is a season of preparation and remembrance.  We anticipate the new life – our new life – that is celebrated on Easter Sunday. But first, we need to prepare.

Liturgically, Christmas and Easter are only separated by a few months.  But historically, these two events were separated by several decades.  Lent reminds us that Jesus grew up human, like us.  He felt anger (John 2:13-17). He felt sadness (John 11:35). He felt compassion (Mark 6:34).  He was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11).  He was afraid (Luke 22:41-44).  You might say that Jesus went through a winter unlike anything you or I will ever have to experience.

Lent also offers us an opportunity to reflect on our own winter struggles. Who among us has never walked in some fashion through our own valley of the shadow of death? Lent allows us to stare darkness in the face and say, “Time is on our side!”  It doesn’t matter, now, what else the darkness throws our way.  The days are getting longer. The victory has already been won.

Once and for all, Jesus nailed sin to the tree.  He took it with Him to the grave, and He left it there when He came back. Jesus carried our sins as far away from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). This doesn’t mean we never sin; we live in a world still choked with sin.  It also doesn’t mean we never feel pain, or sorrow, or fear. Even Jesus himself felt those things. What it does mean is that none of those things will matter in the end. Or perhaps more accurately, those things are what make the ending matter even more.

Sometimes life is a bit like tromping through spring snow.  It’s cold, it’s dark, and the wind is hard and from the north. But do not let appearances deceive you.  Deep down, we can know that victory belongs not to darkness, but to light; not to winter, but to spring.

Lent reminds us that even the darkest winter will not last forever.

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “Oh death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

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Remember the Enemy

If you haven’t read The Hunger Games trilogy but plan to, you may wish to skip over this post.  But if you’ve already read through book two, or don’t mind reading it after a spoiler, then come along.  I think you’ll find this interesting.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is a young adult series set in the territory of a post-United States.  A dictatorial government has taken control, and one of its severest forms of suppression is to choose through a lottery each year a group of adolescents who must fight to the death in a televised arena.  One winner emerges victorious and is provided with a house and a lifetime supply of food for them and their family.  It’s a bit of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Roman gladiators, and Survivor reality t.v. all rolled into one.

In book two, just before she goes into the arena for the second time, Katniss Everdeen is given a very important piece of advice from her mentor: “Remember who the real enemy is.”

Katniss knows who the real enemy is, alright.  It isn’t the people in the arena with her; it’s the governmental powers who put them there in the first place.  In the heat of the arena, however, it isn’t always easy to focus on the real enemy when a much more pressing enemy is at hand.  Towards the end of the book, Katniss is watching another player stalk her through the trees.  She has her bow and arrow cocked and aimed at him when she suddenly remembers her mentor’s words.  Even though this person moves towards her with every intent to kill her, he is not the real enemy.  Fighting him, in fact, just plays into the real enemy’s game.  She pivots her arrow away and fires it instead at a weakness in the arena wall.

Katniss Everdeen The Hunger Games

We may never find ourselves physically staring down an arrow at another person, but how often do we point our mental arrows at those around us?  How often is he to blame or is she at fault?  We are not so unlike the players in the hunger games.  We are thrown, every one of us, into this arena known as life.  From the minor inconveniences to the major calamities – shootings, genocide, war, famine – the immediate enemy may be in the arena with us, but the real Enemy is much more insidious.  Be sober-minded; be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world (1 Peter 5:8).

The devil loves nothing more than to pitch us against each other.  But we must be sober-minded.  We must remember who the real Enemy is.  We are, in fact, all in this together.  And just like the weakness discovered in the arena wall of the hunger games, there is a weakness in our Enemy.  The barrier that separates us from God is a bit like that televised arena.  We look around and see only ourselves, but on the other side of the barrier, God is watching us.  We cannot reach through the barrier to Him, but He can – and did – come to us.  After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you (1 Peter 5:10).

Like the helicopter that rushed through the weakened arena wall to scoop Katniss from the ground, so our Savior rushes through the weakness in life’s barrier to scoop us into His arms.  Jesus Christ destroyed, once and for all, the power of the devil.  Satan may still prowl around like a roaring lion, but we can resist him, firm in our faith, when we remember that God himself will restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish us.  We can resist him when we turn from our internal fighting… when we remember who the real enemy is.

Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.  But I will warn you who to fear: fear Him who after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell.  Yes, I tell you, fear Him! (Luke 12:4-5)

Cracking, Part II

Click to read Part I.

It paints an interesting word picture to think of ourselves as shells of dust with the Spirit of God shining through the cracks.  But what does this actually mean?  What does this look like in the tangible?

As I think about this image, I think about Paul, who suffered a great deal during his ministry.  2 Corinthians 11 lists some of the afflictions he faced: beatings, stoning, imprisonment, shipwrecks, hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, pressures from the church, constant threat of danger and death.  If anyone had a reason to feel as though he were “cracking up,” Paul certainly did.  And yet he says, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness… For Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 11:30; 12:10).

How is this possible?  What does he mean, “When I am weak, then I am strong?”

The answer, of course, is that the weakness Paul experiences in his mortal body is an opportunity for the spirit of God to shine through.  Paul tells how he pleaded three times with God to take away a particular affliction.  But God answered: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8).

God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.  As long as we (wrongly) think we can handle something ourselves, we will distance ourselves from God and rely on our own fallible thoughts and feelings and actions.   It is in our weaknesses that we go scurrying back to God.  It is when our bodies are in pain, our minds are in turmoil, our situations look bleak – it is when we look in the mirror and realize how utterly weak we are – that is when we relinquish control and let God work in our lives.

Perhaps it is something we are afraid of that God pushes us to face.  Perhaps it is an overwhelming schedule that forces us to draw on reserves we did not know we had.  Perhaps it is the start of something new and we’re not sure what the next step is supposed to be or even what exactly the itinerary is that we have just signed up for.  As we admit – to ourselves and to others – that we are afraid and overwhelmed and uncertain, we are showing the cracks in our human shell.  And when we still manage to keep going despite these things, there is no other explanation except that God has taken over.  That his power is shining through our weaknesses.  Under our shattered surface there is an inhuman core of strength that can only come from God.

We may not feel strong.  We may not think strong. That’s okay.  The fact that we are still going, way out beyond what we feel and think we can go, is the very proof that we are relying on God.  The miracle is not that we are strong, but that God is strong in us.

I love a quote from Cindy Davis who wrote: “The most amazing thing about a miracle is that it can’t happen until all else has failed.  That’s God’s favorite time to work.”

In some of my darkest times, this thought was a comfort to me: all hope is never lost.  By its very definition, every other possibility has to be eliminated before a miracle can occur. As you scratch out solution after solution, you are coming closer to God.  As it seems in the natural world that you have long since passed the point of despairing, you are getting closer to God.  God’s power is shown most perfectly when we are weakest, when 100% of the credit goes to Him, when we look and see no other answer: just God.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8)

Click to jump to Cracking, Part III.

Lest We Forget

Not too long ago I read Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.  It was perhaps the most horrible book I have ever read.  I highly recommend it.

If you think that is a contradiction, it is not.

The book sat on my bookshelf for several months before I raised the gumption to open it.  I knew instinctively what kind of horrors it would hold.  Of course, as one friend commented, “It’s not that hard to figure out.  It says right on the back ‘a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality, and fear…endurance tested beyond their worst imagining.’” 

I honestly didn’t know if I would ever read it, but one night almost on a whim I pulled it off the shelf and read the first page.  And once the cover was cracked, the story would not let me go.  Two nights of staying up way too late and it was done.  There were parts I’d squeeze my eyes shut only to peek back through one eyelid to keep on reading. I didn’t want to read the book.  I read it anyway.  Perhaps it was like the proverbial car wreck that you don’t want to see but somehow can’t keep from staring.  I likened it to something vaster: The Holocaust. 

Surrounding the dark periods of our history we often hear the phrase, “Lest We Forget.”  The phrase is used to remind us of the importance of remembering our history, in part to pay tribute to those who have gone before us and in part to be on guard against repeating the cataclysmic horrors that our history contains. During this Lenten season, the phrase should also remind us of something else.

There are certain things in the world so horrifying that I really don’t want to know about them.  I don’t want to read about them, I don’t want to talk about them, I don’t want to think about them.  And yet, I have an indescribable need to do all of those things.  The Holocaust is one example; the tale of Mariam and Laila in Hosseini’s novel is another.  It is as though by acknowledging the deep and unyielding suffering of another, I somehow share some small part in it.  As though by sharing in the suffering in even this small way – the tears, the sickening of the stomach, the pure and vile nausea at the hell of it – as though by acknowledging its existence, by staring it in the face and being duly horrified, I become a little more… human.

Paul explained this phenomenon another way.  We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body…if one part suffers, every part suffers with it (1 Corinthians 12:13;26). He also said, Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).

We are the Body of Christ.  Perhaps the greatest manifestation of this tenet is seen when we bear witness to the suffering of another.  It is in sharing each others suffering that we enact Christ’s trip to Calvary.  It is in bearing one another’s burdens that we are reminded of Jesus Christ, who carried the ultimate burden when he bore all of our sins to the cross.  When we are faced with the horrors of this world, we are reminded how desperately we need a Savior, and how graciously God provided one.

Through our suffering, God reminds us to lean on Him and to have faith in Jesus Christ and the salvation that He brings.  There are times we must stare the horrors of this world in the face and remember how human we are and how desperately we must cling to our Savior.  During these times we must join together as the Body of Christ and look to the cross.  Lest we forget.

For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17).

 

Suffering

You may have noticed from my previous notes that I like analogies.  I think a study of our world can be instructive, and analogies help me think about spiritual principles in a more concrete way.  But as we close out the Lenten season, my thoughts go to those times for which no cute little analogy will ever suffice.  Times, in short, of suffering.

I heard a story the other day of an adoptive family who had raised a boy from infancy, when at age 9 the biological father claimed custody, and this little boy was taken away from his adoptive parents to live with the father he did not know.  I can think of nothing more gut wrenching – not even murder – than having your child taken away and having to simultaneously experience both your own pain and the pain endured by your child.

What does one say to anguish like that?

Mother Teresa once said that we can learn a great lesson about suffering from the women who stayed at the cross of Jesus as he was dying.  I was struck by this thought, having always focused on the suffering of Jesus rather than the suffering of those who witnessed his agony.  The response to suffering, Mother Teresa says, is to be present.  And to share in the other person’s suffering just by being present. Just like the women who stayed at the cross of Jesus.

Think about that.

In this world, we are blessed not because we have no suffering, but because we do not suffer alone.  God is present.  And He is tough.  He can take our anger, our fear, and our anguish.  Like Jacob wrestling with the angel we can cry out again and again for his blessing (Genesis 32:22-31).  We can beat our hand against the door asking for it to be opened unto us (Matthew 7:7).  We can weep like Rachel (Matthew 2:17-18), argue like Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33), plead for rescue like David (Psalm 22), suffer like Job.  We can even cry out like Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Matthew 27:46)?

The truth is, because of Jesus, God will never forsake us, even when it feels like He has. As Jesus bore our sins on the cross, the Father turned away so that He would never have to turn away from us.  At Jesus’ death, the temple curtain tore in two, signifying the barrier between us and God was removed.  Suffering was not removed, but God’s presence in our lives was restored.

Even when we don’t see him, even when we don’t feel him, even when we don’t believe in him, even when we suffer, God is present.  God is I AM.  Our anger, our suffering, our disbelief does not make him disappear.  In fact, engaging with him will only draw him nearer.

In times of suffering, this may not make us feel better, but it is still true.  Just as the presence of a friend does not actually remove our suffering, so the presence of God does not remove our suffering.  Instead, it helps us endure.  Rodney Atkins has a song called “If You’re Going Through Hell” that states: “If you’re going through hell, keep on moving.  Face that fire.  Walk right through it. You might get out ‘fore the devil even knows you’re there.”  So too is our passage through suffering.  In times of pain we need to reach out to God, to our church, to others – and we need to keep pushing forward.  As dark as suffering can be, God has demonstrated to us that it will eventually dawn onto an Easter morning.

I will never leave you nor forsake you (Joshua 1:5).  In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).