The Lenten season has begun. For those who might not be familiar with Lent, it is the 40 weekday period between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday. It marks a time of humility, repentance, self-denial, and soul searching as one draws closer to the passion of Christ.
Do you observe Lent?
And if so, are you giving something up for Lent? What and why?
I appreciate the Lenten season for a variety of reasons. This year, I'm choosing -- along with some other things -- to give up coffee during the season of Lent. Trust me, as someone who runs a cafe, has his offices in a cafe, and has access to free Stumptown Coffee whenever I want, this will certainly be a test of self-denial.
But even after acknowledging that I myself am giving up coffee during Lent, I'm ambivalent about how vogue or easy it is to give something up during Lent, especially when it's something like chocolate, sodas, sugar, Facebook, Twitter, television -- or coffee. [But, it's ... Stumptown coffee!]
I don't want to knock those who give stuff up. In fact, I understand the significance of self-denial, but if we're not careful, we can so easily just fall into religious practice for the sake of religious practice. If the goal is merely to give up of something without taking up of something more significant, the focus is merely on the stuff which we give up or really, the focus is on the practice of giving up something.
That is religion gone bad.
Anything that produces rituals, expressions, and practices -- without ultimately inviting us to a deeper understanding and worship of the living God lends itself to religion.
And, we do not need more religion; we need gospel.
And by gospel, I'm not speaking of self-help, pop spiritual psychology, but a gospel that cuts into the heart of humanity with a grace that compels us to not merely salvation but a life committed to justice, reconciliation, and redemption.
Isaiah 58 speaks of fasting but fasting that God is not pleased with. It's a fasting that caters to our own eyes, flesh, and pleasure but not the kind of fasting that God invites us to a life broken and transformed by the things of God:
"I will tell you why!" I respond.
"It's because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?
"No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
"Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
'Yes, I am here,' he will quickly reply.
"Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.
Or in other words, I wonder if God might have these words for me: "Umm, I didn't ask you to give up coffee. I asked you to give up your life to me."
So here's the question:
In what way does the self-denial of something make you more mindful of Christ and the kingdom of God?
For me, I don't want to think of Lent of a season of giving up things but rather a season of more deeply giving in or giving to:
- In what way am I more compelled to give in to the ways of God?
- How am I more deeply giving in and giving to -- to my neighbors, wife, children, church, strangers, etc.?
- How am I more deeply giving or growing in stewardship, generosity, my convictions, etc.?
- How am I more giving in to the ways of Christ? How am I more giving in to mercy, justice, and humility?
Here's an alternative invitation for Lent -- whether you give up something or not:
Give yourself more fully to Jesus and the kingdom of God.
Here's my sermon from last Sunday explaining the significance of Lent:
Eugene Cho, a second-generation Korean-American, is the founder and lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle and the executive director of Q Cafe, an innovative nonprofit neighborhood café and music venue. You can stalk him at his blog or follow him on Twitter. He and his wife are also launching a grassroots movement, One Day's Wages, to fight extreme global poverty. This blog post originally appeared on Eugene Cho's blog.