~ Freedom from Our Desires ~
“The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
Dear Members and Friends,
Lent begins neatly on the very first day of March this year, meaning that Easter will be fairly late. I love a late Easter because it means that the earth itself echoes the joyful message of resurrection—the fresh smell of damp soil, and all the buds, and the birds, and the flowers lending a kind of emotional power to the mystery of new life that we proclaim. (Of course, as of this writing, in mid-February, we’ve already got daffodils coming up just outside my office window at the church.) According to the ancient plan of the church, Lent begins in the cold and dark, then journeys slowly toward warmth and light.
Oh, I know, it all sounds so medieval to ask people to torment themselves with deprivations and to feel guilty about their shortcomings just because Easter is coming. I’ve never been much of one to promote self-flagellation, hair shirts, cats-of-nine-tails, or even fasting. The old traditions of Lent include a lot of penitential acts that were meant to tame the willful flesh of its sinful desires. I was a little bit amused to come across a Protestant publication from the 1880s that suggested the following rules for Lent: “Eat nothing sweet. Do not put salt, pepper, or mustard on your food. Put no sugar or cream in your coffee or tea. Read nothing amusing, including novels, poetry, or humorous nonfiction. Eat no meat one or two days a week, and give the money you would have spent on meat to the church. Get up five minutes early each day to pray or read devotional literature.”
My first reaction to this list was, “Mustard? What about ketchup? Horseradish sauce? Salsa?” If we were to extend the spirit of these rules to the 21st century, we might include: Watch nothing on TV but the news. Stay off Facebook. Don’t play Candy Crunch—or whatever. In fact, get off the electronic devices altogether. It’s just 40 days, not counting Sundays, for Sundays are never “fast days.”
No, I don’t often ask people to “give things up for Lent.” As a pastor, I’m much more likely to ask you to take up a good cause for Lent, or a good habit, or a productive activity. And yet…I’ve got to admit that there’s something powerful about occasionally saying no to our desires. There’s something compelling, perhaps even something wise, about practicing resistance against the constant urge to indulge ourselves.
When we deny ourselves the luxuries that we’re used to, we learn a liberating thing: we need very little in life. And though denying ourselves mustard doesn’t teach us what it’s like to be poor, it does remind us that there are those in the world who struggle to survive, who cannot afford even the smallest indulgences. When we deny ourselves the excesses of life, we learn a new appreciation for things we once took for granted. Most importantly, perhaps, when we say no to our desires, we become their master. And in a society that is largely ruled by its empty wishes and desires, how peace-giving and empowering it is to become their master. And all those abstract indulgences like gossip, self-pity, jealousy, rage… You’ll never regret giving those up for forty days, for after Lent is over, you’ll have learned that you have it in your power to give them up for life, just by consistently refusing them.
Lent is a holy time, a joyful time to discover anew what it means to be spiritual beings, following after the way of the Christ. I hope you’ll use this time intentionally and well.
In Christ’s Peace,
PS: If you still don’t know what to give up for Lent, allow me to suggest an hour each Wednesday evening from 7:00—8:00 p.m.! Our evening Lenten services will follow the beautiful liturgy of the 1946 Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, and will make use of music and art to focus on the Scriptural Stations of the Cross.