Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Roy and Helen Approach to the Observance of Lent

The Apostle John wrote these words: 

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not from the Father but from the world. The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God remains forever. (1 John 2:15-17 BSB) 

As well as any words ever spoken or written, these words encapsulate the meaning of Ash Wednesday and of Lent.

Ash Wednesday, as you know, marks the beginning of Lent, and Lent commemorates the forty days of fasting that Jesus took upon himself in the wilderness. He did this just before Satan came to tempt him with every sort of temptation. Jesus put himself through these tests in order that we can know that he is able to sympathize with what we go through in our own lives in the world.

The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but rather, we have a priest who has been tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

As Jesus sought to identify with what we go through in living in the world, Lent is the period of time during the calendar year of the church when many Christians seek to identify also with what Jesus went through when he was here, at least in some small way.

Fasting is an especially significant way to do this, because it commemorates closely the fasting of Jesus. Because of this, it is common for Christians to fast during this time of Lent, not for the entire forty days of course, but to at least abstain from a meal on occasion. Or it may be that a Christian will decide to forgo eating a certain food that they particularly enjoy or eat every day.

Some church denominations give suggestions for fasting to their parishioners, and other churches even dictate rules that the members are to follow. It may or may not be helpful to do this, but whatever the case, we do not do it here at the Log Church. 

The point of Lent is not ultimately in the fasting itself. The fasting is merely the means by which we learn to put a correct perspective on the matters of our daily lives. When we go without food, we may learn that food may indeed be important to us, but of even more importance is our lives with Christ.

Thus, because the end of what we are striving for is our lives with Christ, there also may be ways other than fasting by which we can commemorate this time. Fasting is good, of course, but there may be another way that is even more significant to you personally, and by which you can identify with this period that Jesus endured.

Remember that at the end of the fasting of Jesus were the temptations that Satan placed upon him. These are the more significant aspects of this period. It was in these temptations that Jesus showed us that he was willing to identify with us.

Jesus showed us through enduring the temptations that as attractive and important all other things of the world may seem to us at the moment, what is truly important is what he told Satan and the end of the testings: “For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only’” (Matthew 4:10).

It may be beneficial for each of us to ask ourselves the question of what it is in our own lives that would best enable us to remember that the things of the world are completely unimportant and even irrelevant in comparison with our lives in Christ.

It is different for every person. For you, it may be something in your life that would require a deep and philosophical explanation, and which someone else could never understand. Or, it may even be something that someone else would look at as being rather trivial.

It is not important what others may think. It is a personal matter.

What is significant to you may even be abstaining from something that you particularly enjoy in your life that in all ways is harmless and even good, but that in abstaining from it, it helps you identify with Christ and learn the lesson of Lent. 

The Roy and Helen Approach of Observing Lent

Do you remember the television series The Little House on the Prairie? It was a show about a pioneer family name Ingalls, living in Walnut Grove, Minnesota and breaking ground on some farmland to begin a homestead. I am sure that you can still find old episodes on some TV channels in these days, but when Vivian and I were newly married, it was only on once a week on network analogue TV (We didn't even know it was called analogue TV, but that's what it was).

In those days, there were no such things as DVRs or even VCRs. There was no HD TV or recording device of any kind, and there was no Netflix. If you missed a program for the week: you missed it. If you were lucky, perhaps you could see it months later on summer reruns, but probably not.

Some of our neighbors and friends of ours at the time, and who lived just down the road from our house, were an elderly couple named Roy and Helen. Roy and Helen loved to watch Little House on the Prairie. I think that everyone in our area liked watching that program, but Roy and Helen especially so. It was actually a very good show and quite popular even to this day, which I am sure you can now find on any digital format you want.

However, in those days of Roy and Helen, the program was only on Wednesday nights (if memory serves me correctly). If you would go over to their house for coffee on any Thursday, the entire conversation would revolve around what happened to Pa and Ma Ingalls, and their daughters Mary, Laura, and the baby, whose name escapes me at the moment.

Roy and Helen attended a church that had services one night of every week during Lent. Wouldn’t you know it, the church services were on Wednesday nights and began at 7:00 in the evening? And when did Little House on the Prairie start? You guessed it: 7:00 every Wednesday night.

That year, Roy told me many times, “For Lent this year, Helen and I are giving up watching Little House on the Prairie.”

Vivian and I chuckled a little about it at the time, but actually, Roy and Helen understood well what it meant to give something up for Lent. The show was a highlight of their week. They loved watching the farming and homesteading adventures of the Ingalls family. Roy and Helen loved that period of American history, and they were even nostalgic for it because it reminded them of how it was for them when they were young. It was almost like they knew the Ingalls family personally.

Nevertheless, despite their closeness to this family, every Wednesday night that year, during the seven weeks of Lent, they sacrificed that joy of their week in order to turn their attention to more important matters. Every Wednesday night, it hurt them just a little bit to miss finding out what adventures the Ingalls family went through. Every week, it was a new commitment for Roy and Helen to something that they saw as more valuable.

That matter went beyond merely attending a church service on Wednesday nights. Compulsory church attendance (or compulsory anything) could be put down merely as a rule imposed upon them. The matter that was important to them was their lives with Christ.

They gave up something important in their lives for something even more important. 

I Want It Now!

Our culture has largely forgotten how it is to give something up. We are more accustomed to having what we want always available to us at any time.

Lent is a good time to remember that it may be even more important to learn to give something up—to learn to sacrifice. As I said earlier, in our Log Church, we do not dictate guidelines on what you should give up. We do not say, for instance, “You must not eat this particular food” on certain days during Lent, or make some other rule.

It is not that it is wrong to do this, and it is possible that it is even helpful. But it also might turn into another rather meaningless rule or tradition that is dictated to the people without any real understanding why they are doing it.

I actually prefer the “Roy and Helen” approach to commemorating Lent. Every Wednesday night during Lent of that year, they made a conscious decision to not see their favorite show, and instead turn their attention to their lives with Christ. Every week, it was a little painful for them to do this, yet they did it. They did it because they knew that, as important as this TV show was for their week, there were yet more important matters about their lives.

They did not do it to “gain points” with God. Nor did they do it to gain points with the church. Rather, they gave up the show for Lent because it was the way that was significant for them to keep their priorities straight in their lives.

This example of Roy and Helen may be a little humorous to think about, but consider it again as I repeat a portion of the verses that I quoted at the beginning: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him…The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God remains forever” (1 John 2:15, 17). 

Why the Ashes?

Today is Ash Wednesday. It is in the afternoon when we have this service, so in case “Little House” is on tonight, you will not have to miss it. Nevertheless, I will ask you to pray about giving up one thing for Lent. This thing might be something that is actually detrimental to your life, so by any measure, it is good to give it up anyway.

But it does not necessarily need to be something like that. It may be something that is not bad in any way, but will just as well help you learn the lesson of Lent.

Let your personal decision only be something that you will miss; something that every time you go without it, it will hurt a little. Let it be something that every time you deny yourself of your desire, you can be reminded of the words, “The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God remains forever.”

Our ashes on this day are a good reminder of this, because ashes are what is left of the things of the world after they pass through the judgment. They are valueless. They are nothing.

Even so, without God, we are also nothing.

When I apply the ashes in the shape of a cross on your forehead this afternoon, I will not be saying to you the words that we may usually hear in relation to this day. Rather, I will be saying to you these words: “Without God, you are nothing. But with God, you remain forever.”

These ashes on our foreheads are another reminder to us that without God, we are nothing. However, if we place our trust in God through the provision he made for us through Jesus Christ, he promises that we will remain forever.

I don’t expect that the ashes that I place on your foreheads will remain after today, but at least for the remainder of this day, leave them on and look at your image in the mirror from time to time.

Then tell yourself this, “Without God, I am nothing. But with God, I remain forever.”

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