Pastor’s Column for February: The Intentions of the Season

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Pastor’s Column:  The Intentions of the Season 

A tradition for the Murphy children at Christmas has been the creation of gingerbread houses.  Walls and roof of hard gingerbread decorated with icing and candies ranging from M&Ms and licorice ropes to sprinkles and sour patch kids.  In the end each of our three children produce their own sugar masterpiece of seasonal art… which they are then strictly forbidden to eat. “It’s for display,” they are told… or so has been our tradition.

Our children’s stance being that this misses the point: a gingerbread house is made for eating.  All those sweets. About a pound of icing for the faux snow. They drool over them every year.

Yet Mom holds fast. And the confectionary structures sit on a shelf, pretty if slowly going stale, until they are unceremoniously tossed with the withered greenery come about January 3rd.

All of which, at the risk of mixing ecclesiastical seasons, reminds me a great deal of the season of Lent now before us, and the journey toward Holy Week to be traveled here in 2018.

Lent is a season of purpose: much like the aforementioned Advent it is a season rooted in acts of preparation – to get ourselves ready (heart, mind, soul and personal planner) to witness, receive and celebrate both the death of Jesus upon the Cross on Good Friday, and the enormous joy of His resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. Again, the purpose of highlighting this time is to prepare ourselves – to be mindful, intentional, and to produce good fruits (outward or inward) over these six weeks.

However, just as often – if not moreso – Lent can also be something ignored or misunderstood or just missed all together – a misuse of the weeks before us. An outcome which, to me, looks a lot like an uneaten gingerbread house… something pretty, sure, but also stale and empty and missing its purpose.

The traditions behind Lent being rooted in themes of repentance, spiritual discipline, self-denial and a deep gratitude to Jesus for all He undertook to reconcile us back to God. The forty days of Lent are most commonly celebrated via “giving something up” — something you deny yourself as a modest reflection of the many ways Jesus denied Himself in putting us first, leaving the thrones of heaven, emptying Himself of His glory, being born in human flesh, and of course suffering the passion, crucifixion and bitterness of death for us and for all the world. When you deny yourself something, and you miss that thing, the invitation is to consider how much more Jesus gave up for you – and to be grateful. That is why some people give up a modest form of pleasure during Lent – they give up television, or chocolate, or desserts, or their morning run through Starbucks – maybe even paying the proceeds forward to a charity or ministry. But when they do, the idea is to turn heart and mind to Jesus – and be thankful for His much-greater sacrifice.

Others take the practice a step further, “giving up” their time and talents through acts of service during the season – if not daily acts, then weekly volunteerism, that sort of approach.  And so Lent becomes a time of increased and intentional service – often among the less fortunate and marginalized.

Still others take a modern approach of “adding something in,” often among the spiritual disciplines.  If not a regular practice already, Lent is a great season for daily “TAG” time – that is, “Time Alone with God.”  That can be prayer.  Reading a Scripture. Studying a devotional. That prayer walk in God’s creation. Many forms – but the point being, to add more focus and time with God than had been your routine.

Still others mix the two – say, they fast from a specific meal each week, and take that extra time and use it for extra devotional focus, or extra volunteerism and service.  So it becomes a practice of both “giving up” and “adding in.”

Each of which represents a form of intentional change. There’s a season coming, there’s space for something new, and all it takes is a little organization of self and the desire to stretch and grow.

But what can make Lent empty and meaningless, like those dusty, untouched gingerbread houses on my shelf, is when we fail to engage it at all.  If Lent is just a word we use to describe a few dates, then that misses the purpose. Or if it involves giving something up without connecting that practice to gratitude to Jesus – that can miss the purpose too.  If it only adds in busyness for the sake of busyness, or cuts something out without a purpose for that change – that misses the reason for the season.  You get the idea. And ultimately, if that change is not about cherishing and prioritizing our own relationships with God in Christ… then that misses Lent all together.

Friends, my purpose here is to encourage you to be intentional in your purpose when it comes to this season:  our Christian tradition is gifting us with 40 days (plus Sundays) between now and Easter, all beginning so appropriately on Ash Wednesday, February 14th – also known as Valentine’s Day.  Valentine’s Day is supposed to be about love – and God’s love is at the heart of Ash Wednesday, and this Lenten season.  The love of God we witness in Jesus – who becomes incarnate, is born, lives, teaches, heals, includes, suffers, dies, rises and reigns all to forgive sin, beat death and sow life. And He does it all for you. And me. And this world.

That’s the kind of love no valentine can convey.

So sisters and brothers be encouraged – take action this Lent.  Cut something out, or add something in. Use it for why we have it: to prepare ourselves. To prioritize Jesus.  To make more space in our lives for God. And to be “methodical” (denominational pun!) in how we approach the work of growing in God’s Spirit.

Grateful to be on this Lenten journey together,

Pastor James Murphy