Tag Archives: Lent

The Lent Project

I’ve been very honored to be a part of the initiatives coming out of the new Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts, which launched at Biola back in September. In December the CCCA produced a wonderful online devotional series for Advent called “The Advent Project,” which offered daily liturgical reflections on art, music and Scripture. Last week we launched “The Lent Project,” which will mirror the style of the Advent Project.

I wrote the first devotional for Ash Wednesday, which you can read here. Here’s an excerpt:

For me Ash Wednesday symbolizes, rather neatly, what it means to be a Christian. It’s not about being beautiful or powerful or triumphant; it’s about being scarred and humble and sacrificial. This is not to say it’s about defeat, despair or self-flagellation. On the contrary, to “give up” or “sacrifice” in the name of Christ is (or should be) the height of our joy. Suffering is not something to shrink from. Giving ourselves away to others is our calling. Dying to ourselves is our glorious inheritance.

“Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” said Jesus (Matt. 16:25). “To live is Christ and to die is gain,” wrote Paul (Phil. 1:21).

We should strive to be like Christ, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame…” (Hebrews 12:2).

For the joy set before him… That should be why we endure suffering and embrace self-denial. It’s paradoxical and mysterious and counterintuitive — certainly. But when I feel the cold ashes spread across my forehead on Ash Wednesday, it makes some sort of wonderful sense.

Check out the full Lent Project at http://ccca.biola.edu/lent/ and click on the RSS button at the bottom if you’d like to subscribe to the daily devotionals.

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Ash Wednesday Prayer Requests

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Lord, bring us to our knees. Quiet our hearts.

Away from the onslaught of screens and tweets and texts, focus our eyes on you.

Abide in our perceptions, as we taste and see and hear that you are good.

In the stillness of dusk, on ever lengthening days; serenaded by car horns, engines, buzzing iPhones, birds, distant planes, and the mystical fugues of February vespers… speak to us oh God.

Remove us from ourselves. Help us to dismiss our notions of grandeur and relinquish our litany of self-appointed rights: that we deserve jobs, freedom and low gas prices; that our social updates deserve to be paid attention to; that the world revolves around us; that we can do with our bodies what we fancy; that the chief end of life is our own individual happiness.

Remove us from ourselves Lord, and draw us closer to You. Bring us to a distance–a desert, a depth, a hunger, Sehnsucht–so that what we see of ourselves isn’t glamour and greatness, but only your grace. Only your righteousness.

Only you, in fact, for it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Ashes to ashes, let us deny ourselves. Let us give ourselves away rather than grab what’s ours. Let us be crucified with Christ. Let us seek the cinders, Oh God, to be crushed as you were, refined to a new fragrance.

In the darkness, in the desert, in the endless debates, let us look to resurrection. The morning is coming.

Into debt we further go. Under avalanches of paperwork, tasks, and to-dos we further sink. Against our arthritic, cancerous, flaking-away bodies we further fight. The nations wage war and the blizzards take their toll.

But Easter looms.

(Originally published in 2012)

Lenten Prayer Requests

Lord, bring us to our knees. Quiet our hearts.

Away from the onslaught of screens and tweets and texts, focus our eyes on you.

Abide in our perceptions, as we taste and see and hear that you are good.

In the stillness of dusk, on ever lengthening days; serenaded by car horns, engines, buzzing iPhones, birds, distant planes, and the mystical fugues of February vespers… speak to us oh God.

Remove us from ourselves. Help us to dismiss our notions of grandeur and relinquish our litany of self-appointed rights: that we deserve jobs, freedom and low gas prices; that our social updates deserve to be paid attention to; that the world revolves around us; that we can do with our bodies what we fancy; that the chief end of life is our own individual happiness.

Remove us from ourselves Lord, and draw us closer to You. Bring us to a distance–a desert, a depth, a hunger, Sehnsucht–so that what we see of ourselves isn’t glamour and greatness, but only your grace. Only your righteousness.

Only you, in fact, for it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Ashes to ashes, let us deny ourselves. Let us give ourselves away rather than grab what’s ours. Let us be crucified with Christ. Let us seek the cinders, Oh God, to be crushed as you were, refined to a new fragrance.

In the darkness, in the desert, in the endless debates, let us look to resurrection. The morning is coming.

Into debt we further go. Under avalanches of paperwork, tasks, and to-dos we further sink. Against our arthritic, cancerous, flaking-away bodies we further fight. The nations wage war and the blizzards take their toll. The groundhog saw his shadow.

But Easter looms.

Lenten Promises to Keep

The middle of Lent. 17 more days until Easter. It’s a time of waiting, anticipation, sadness and hope. It’s wearying and rejuvenating in awkward intervals. It’s Psalm 88 one minute and 89 the next.

It’s life.

My life has been crazy busy lately, though it’s nothing really new, and it’s not like everyone else in the world doesn’t feel the same way. We’re all busy. Life is always on the brink of being too much to handle. For everyone everywhere at every time in history, it’s been a struggle.

Today I was thinking about how grandiose and overwhelming existence is. There is so much wonder and beauty to be experienced, so many roses to be smelled, so many puppies to be pet, so many interesting variations on earth and sky to be seen. It’s downright daunting. Just when you think you’ve seen the best thing— Boom! There’s something better. Around every corner and at nearly ever turn, there are new adventures and new experiences to have. New lessons to learn. People to meet.

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep

So wrote Robert Frost in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It’s a poem about the alluring beauty of a forest during a snowstorm. A rider is passing through it, entranced by its splendor, tempted to linger. But he’s got places to be, obligations to keep. Miles to go before he sleeps.

So often I feel like life is a snowstorm and I’m just passing through, unable to really stop and play in it or experience it for what it really is. There’s too much to do. The business of life doesn’t allow for much lingering. There’s just not enough time to do all that the world beckons me to do.

There’s not enough time.

Those are numbing words. No one wants to hear those words, but we all know they’re true. And oh is it painful to admit: there are places I will not get to see, people I will not get to know, books I will not get to read. There are songs I won’t sing, paintings I won’t paint, films I won’t film. There are things I will only ever be on the outside of, looking in. And it’s not just the lofty “life goals” stuff that gets consumed by the breakneck tempo of life. It’s a day-to-day thing. Every morning we rise, with a list of things we must do and hopes for what we might do. Every night we go to sleep with a few things left undone, a few things that might have happened differently.

I think this tension—this ability to have vision, desire, ambition, and longing for so much more than our temporal faculties could permit us—is one of the most significant tensions of life. It’s painful, but unavoidable. As much as we might try to aim lower or dream smaller, it’s an inevitability of life that we will always be plagued by the ceaseless handicap of “miles to go.” We’re always looking towards an end—a sun that is forever racing away from us, as the world turns.

I suppose it’s a Lenten comfort though—that even if the sun sets far too soon everyday, it also rises.

Coffee and Easter

I gave up coffee for Lent. That’s coffee as in drip coffee, cappuccinos, lattes, and anything of the sort—both caffeinated and decaf. It’s been horrible. I mean, I must have been addicted to coffee or something, because it has been a struggle everyday these past few weeks to not drink it. One major problem is that my office is right outside the department’s coffee machine, so I smell it wafting in every morning, like one of those vintage “Peter comes home for Christmas” Folgers commercials. And it doesn’t help that I spend many of my weeknights writing at various coffeeshops, where variations on tea or chai can only go so far to filling that “keep me awake and vibrant” need…

It’s like the feeling of being outside of some circle, of looking in on a world of pleasantness and pleasure and not being able to participate. But I guess this is the point of giving something up for Lent. It’s supposed to help us identify with the 40-day period in which Jesus retreated to the wilderness and fasted—eating nothing and praying constantly. Next to that, my giving up coffee seems terribly insignificant.

The amazing upside to the whole “no coffee” tragedy is that during Lent, Sundays don’t count. Because it is the day of Resurrection—the day death was conquered—it is a “free” day from our wanting. The forty days of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Easter do not include Sundays, thanks be to God.

It makes coffee taste all the more magnificent on Sundays.

To lack a beautiful pleasure like coffee for six out of seven days is actually not the worst thing in life. Having six days of missing goodness is always better than six days full of heartbreak or sadness. I’d rather be without a good than with a bad. But in life there’s always a mix.

All I know is that coffee tastes great on Sunday mornings. Also, mountain forests smells divine after an afternoon rainstorm. And doesn’t the sun seems to shine brighter on the day classes let out for summer break? And sleeping in on a day when you have nothing to get up for. Don’t even get me started.

The N.T. Wright Stuff

Things feel rather hopeless these days for a lot of people. The economy is horrific, many are out of work, the weight of existence bears down in customary fashion… And yet in this period of Lent–as Christians quietly prepare themselves for the remembrances that are Good Friday and Easter, hope seems to break through the bleak landscape. Christ is hope; Christianity is, if it is anything, a belief in hope. So often we Christians get sidetracked and come across as dour, judgmental, “get me out of this earth and take me to heaven” downers… which is why more and more people (especially young people) just tune it all out. Why believe in a religion that forsakes this world and looks forward to its demise and an otherworldly heaven? Is not this world worth anything? Why was it even created?

Thankfully, more and more Christians are realizing, preaching, and speaking a Bible-based theology about a more hopeful, Gospel-is-good-news-for-the-world Christianity. And the charge is being led by people like N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, author of countless books, and all around brilliant man of God.

I recently decided that N.T. Wright is my favorite living preacher/theologian. I had held Bishop Wright in high regard for several years, read several of his books, even remixed some of his sermons with Thom Yorke songs. But until a few Saturdays ago, I had not heard N.T. preach in person. Wow. After seeing him speak off-the-cuff about Paul for three hours at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, seeing the energy of the packed-out congregation of a diverse array of Christians, and busily nodding in agreement at nearly every turn, I became convinced that no other contemporary voice of Christianity speaks as much truth as eloquently and humbly and purposefully as this man does.

One of the most refreshing things about N.T. Wright–and perhaps his biggest, most revolutionary contribution to Baptist-bred evangelicals like myself–is his emphasis on the fact that the final end toward which Christianity points is not heaven but actually the new earth–the new creation which rights all the wrongs and injustices of the fallen creation and brings God’s plans for the world to final, perfect culmination. Heaven exists, and is important, but it is not the end of the world. As Wright points out, the Bible doesn’t really talk much about “going to heaven when we die,” but spends plenty of time talking about the kingdom of God and his designs on renewal and restoration which the resurrection of Christ foretells.

Wright believes the resurrection of Christ is the beginning, end, and everything of the Christian faith. He talks about this beautifully in his book, Surprised by Hope, which I highly recommend (and which he plugged on The Colbert Report last year). The New Testament (particularly Paul’s stuff) outlines clearly a theology of resurrection (passages like I Corinthians 15) which Wright believes has been somewhat lost on many contemporary evangelicals.

Another thing I like about Wright is his insistence that this whole great story is not primarily about us. It’s about God’s world and his purposes for it (of which we are a part, but not the center). Christianity is not about our individual “decisions” to do this or that, or to be “saved” as one individual hoping to escape hell. Rather, it is about how we participate as the church FOR the world, reflecting like mirrors the goodness and glory of God’s future kingdom (which is both “now and not yet”). God saves us so that he can use us to bring the world to rights; he wants us to be his image-bearers in the world, for his glory. Thus, as noted in I Cor. 15:58, we can’t just sit back and relax in the hope we have in Christ. We have to labor in the work of the Lord, and it will not be in vain.

I also like how N.T. Wright emphasizes the relationship between earth and heaven. So often Christians err on emphasizing one over the other. But Wright takes very seriously the Lord’s Prayer when it says “Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” Not “in heaven as it is in heaven.” Heaven and earth are not poles apart, some sort of Gnostic separation in which the physical and spiritual, earth and heaven are forever fated to be in conflict and war. Heaven and earth are different, says Wright, but they are made for each other in the way that male and female are made for each other. “And when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God’s project is going forward; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation.” God’s sovereignty in the world, Wright suggests, is that of a creator reclaiming his creation. He is going to return to set the world to rights–a job already begun in the resurrection and continued by us, the church, who have work to do to embody this future hope which the resurrection has already exclaimed to all creation.

It’s all about hope. It’s all about Easter. The church must take up the task of fostering hope at any and every level, born out of the reality of the resurrection and the “surprising hope of the gospel, the hope for life after life after death.”

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

I was in Panera one night last week—which is where I am a lot of nights these days—writing on my laptop and listening to music in my headphones. Panera is not the hippest place to be writing a book about hipsters, but I like it because 1) it has free wifi, 2) it is about a block from my house, and 3) there are no pretentious people there. Just a lot of soccer moms, knitting groups, retirees and college students.

Anyway, as I was sitting there this night, I had this moment where all I could think about was the end of “The Weight of Glory,” when C.S. Lewis is talking about the “glory” of our neighbor, and how we should feel the burden of the fact that all people are either going to be glory-filled in heaven or gloriously hideous in hell, and that “all day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

I was looking around Panera, listening to The Books / Jose Gonzalez’ cover of “Cello Song,” and I had one of those moments where something sort of obvious just hits you.

“There are no ordinary people,” Lewis says. “You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

The stakes are high. We cannot look flippantly on a human life—even strangers or enemies or the annoying people who sing too loudly and demonstratively in church. Whether we like it or not, all of these people are holy beings. As Lewis reminds us, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Why is it so hard for us to remember this? It made me sad in Panera, looking around at all these people, recognizing that each one is a miracle, someone God created, and yet I so often live my life in the opposite way—caring little about strangers and actively avoiding the burden of my neighbor’s immortality. It’s certainly easier to find reasons to be annoyed by people, to avoid contact with those who are not like us. It’s definitely not the easiest thing in the world to look past the failings of people and love them in spite of it all.

But that’s exactly what we must do. We have to realize that we are all frail, hurting humans, in need of the same grace.

It’s a thought that seems especially appropriate today, on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the 40-day Lenten period in which we quiet ourselves in repentance, renewal and reflection in advance of Easter.

I love Ash Wednesday, because it is a day that is so much about the universal frailty and fallen-ness of man. We are all in this together, all in need of the humbling salvation of the cross. At my church and at many churches worldwide today, Christians will come together for worship, prayer, and the imposition of ashes. This part I love. An ash-marked cross on one’s forehead is a very strange thing to see (especially in a town as vain and airbrushed as L.A.), but it is beautiful. What a fantastic symbol of what Lent is all about: our coming into a focused, reverential meditation upon and solidarity with the suffering of Christ.

Ash Wednesday is a day that reminds us that while we all are physically finite, deteriorating creatures, we are also beautiful, immortal beings created for a greatness and glory we can hardly even fathom. All humans have this in common. We all fall down; We all fall sort. We are all in need of God’s grace. Every single one of us.