I once had a supervisor in the Army who had an interesting thing happen to him. When he found out that I worked in the operating rooms, he told me about the fact that he recently had a three-vessel bypass surgery, more commonly called a ‘triple bypass’. He said had the surgery done because his cardiologist noticed, during his annual check up, that his heart’s rhythm was off. In fact, his EKG revealed that he had actually had a heart attack, which he had been largely unaware of.
It turns out, that a few months prior to the surgery, my supervisor thought he had a bout with the flu that laid him up for a while. While the symptoms are gone away, he never really felt like he recovered 100%, because in fact he hadn’t. He had thought that what he was going through was a run of the mill flu, when it turns out his body was recovering from a minor heart attack.
Lent is beginning tomorrow night (I suppose that depends on when you actually read this though). It is a period of time largely associated with giving up chocolate, Netflix, or Facebook (or whatever you’re giving up). My time as a pastor has shown me that Lent has become season where most of us (myself including) have just a vague notion of what we’re really doing. I mean, we know what we’re doing (giving something up) but we can struggle to remember or stay focused on what we’re actually doing (attempting to draw nearer to Christ through self denial and reflection).
The story most commonly associated with Lent and Ash Wednesday is the story of Jesus’ spending forty days in the wilderness. It was a period of isolation, loneliness, and hardship. In addition to being alone for forty days, Jesus fasted from food as well. (Or maybe Jesus just knew He’d get hangry and decided it best to avoid people).
The thing is, we often miss the bigger picture here. We get so focused on giving up candy, coffee, or something else that we can easily miss one of the biggest benefits we can get from this period: an honest look at ourselves.
A lot is (rightfully) made of the fact that Jesus was and is fully God. It’s easy for us to actually begin to hold that against Him during this story. “Of course Jesus could fast for forty days, He’s God”. But when we do that, we ignore Christ’s humanity. We seem to forget that Jesus got tired, hungry, lonely, and cranky. We forget that Jesus had the same needs and urges that you and I have.
Christ’s humanity, not Christ’s divinity, is what this story is all about (found in Matthew 4 and Luke 4). This is a story about Jesus taking a period of time to reflect on whatever frailties and weaknesses his humanity has within it.
Similarly, it’s a season when you and I are called to do the same. We use this period of time, not simply to see if we can go 40 days without Facebook – we do it to examine why we spend so much time looking at other peoples lives instead of spending that time with God. We don’t give up chocolate/coffee/candy/etc so that we can lose some weight – we do it see just how much we use those things to comfort ourselves, rather than asking God to do so. In those quiet moments of desire and temptation in Lent, we see that our weaknesses are often more significant than we originally thought.
We thought we had the flu when it turns out we had a heart attack.
This isn’t meant to be a season of gloom and low self-esteem. It’s a season where we see the areas we need God in more. We find the cracks in our “earthen vessels” or clay pots (2 Corinthians 4:7), so that God can repair them.
There’s a Japanese art form that is a beautiful representation of this. The art form uses only broken pots, with cracks and chips and everything else that would make us throw the pottery out. The reform and recast the pottery, put instead of using clay to hold the broken pieces in place, they use gold. The gold shows the growth, character, and uniqueness of each piece.
God doesn’t call us to self-denial out of spite or frustration. God calls us to self-denial so that we can see, honestly, the situation you and I find ourselves in. It’s the proverbial gut check for our spirits, the EKG that shows us it’s a heart attack and not the flu.
I hope you have a blessed Lent, and that God is able to show you not just the frailties and cracks in your clay pot, but the gold He wants to cast into those cracks, and reform you into something more beautiful than you are.
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PPS. I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it…