On The Road

“Broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”(Matthew 7:13-14)

In July, 2017, an Episcopal priest was charged with two counts of aggressive assault with a deadly weapon when he pulled alongside a pickup truck near Palm City, Florida and waved his Glock 22 handgun at the occupants.  There are differing accounts as to what led up to this incident – the priest claims that someone in the pickup threw a soda bottle at his sports car; those in the pickup claim the priest cut them off in traffic and slammed on his brakes before pulling his gun.  Either way, it is yet one more unfortunate example of how road rage has infused the souls of so many people.  Indeed, it is believed that at least 8 million drivers in the United States engage in some form of road rage each year, with a scary 66% of traffic deaths being caused by aggressive driving.

When I hit my early 50’s I hated to drive.  The morning commute was particularly nerve-racking with heavy traffic, seasonal darkness, and crazy drivers (like myself).  I came to dread this daily ritual.  It seemed that someone would always cut me off or delay me or otherwise irritate me on the road.  There were many mornings when I arrived at the office fuming over one encounter or another and literally sweating from the commute.  The frustrations grew until I was on the road to an emotional crisis.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this would turn out to be an inflection point in my spiritual journey.

I had developed a number of bad driving habits over the years.  Sometimes I was aggressive behind the wheel, and often passive aggressive. I never pulled a gun on anyone, but there were times when I fanaticized about what I might do if I had one. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised at what was happening to me.  My impatience had been unchecked for so long that my soul was fracturing.  I was reaping the consequences in the form of daily distress and anxiety on the road.  NT Wright succinctly explains my situation, “Anybody can learn a vice – all you have to do is to go into neutral, slide along the way life is going and before long the habits of life will have you in their grip or vice.” (Interview)  He goes on to write, That’s the point of the word ‘vice’: once the habits settle down, they will have you in a grip which you won’t be able to loosen.” (After You Believe – Why Christian Character Matters)

Wright is correct, bad habits are hard to break, very hard.  In my case, the road back has been difficult and slow.  Indeed, I still struggle at times when I am driving, but I have made substantial progress – enough so that I am able to reflect on the process, and how it relates to change and spiritual growth.  That said, I do not offer my experience as the definitive way in which one changes or grows spiritually, or even that it is necessarily normative. The inner workings of the human soul are known only to God, and it is only by his grace that growth is possible. God’s ways are inscrutable so caution is forever the byword in universalizing personal experiences.  Still, I went through several distinct movements as I sought to overcome my road rage: Resolve; Revelation; and Reformation.

Resolve
Despite my emotional state (and possibly because of it), I was unable to admit responsibility for my road rage.  I could only blame other drivers.  My mind told me that they were the ones at fault, and I was suffering as a result of their selfishness and carelessness.  But since driving was a necessity, and quitting was not an option, I knew that I would have to make some changes.  Although unaware of it at the time, my resolve to change is a fundamental principle of spiritual growth.  Waiting for circumstances or other people to change is generally futile.  And while internal change is not easy, with the help of the Lord all things are possible.

My first steps were tentative, if not somewhat effective.  Before heading out each morning, I would visualize what might happen during the commute and rehearse my response – a response that involved staying mostly in the slow lane.  My belief that other drivers were at fault did not change, I simply resolved to assume a defensive posture.  I did not do this with a forgiving heart.  To the contrary, I prepared myself by thinking that everyone is out to get me, and I needed to expect the unexpected.  This way when someone cut me off, I would simply say to myself, “Oh yes, there goes another fool.”  This is hardly the stuff of spiritual maturity, and yet it served a useful function in that I started to have far fewer “incidents” on the road.  I had long believed that if I was aggressive when other drivers annoyed me, I would somehow teach them a lesson. Fortunately, the Lord showed me that this was a stupid belief because there were too many other drivers on the road to expect that my actions could achieve anything.

Revelation
Even as I experienced some initial success, the Lord was removing scales from my eyes that had prevented me from seeing that I had a spiritual problem.  Although there were other drivers who did crazy things on the road, their actions were just a trigger for deeper things going on inside my heart.  And when I began to understand that the problem was me, the Lord started to peal back the layers of my sin.  I became increasingly aware of the depth of my impatience.  I had allowed fear and worry about driving to feed a deep anger in my soul.  And this led to a revelation that at the root of my distress was my pride.  All of my impatience and anger towards other drivers was as a result of my ego being hurt. In effect, my self-importance was leading to self-destruction.

CS Lewis wrote, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride.  Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”  (Mere Christianity)  Because pride is the antithesis of virtue, this is no doubt why pride is so difficult to overcome.  Jesus went so far as to say that overcoming one’s self is a death-like experience.  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26)

I don’t believe pride can be overcome in the abstract.  Although study, reflection and prayer are helpful, if not essential, progress must occur in the rough and tumble of everyday commerce. And for me, driving became the perfect classroom to experiment, which led to the third significant movement – reformation of the soul.

Reformation
I use the term reformation advisedly, because attacking pride involves a significant re-forming of the will.  It is a re-forming of how I view the world, and, critically, of how I think about myself vis-à-vis others.  It is nothing less than a re-forming of the soul.  Paul put it this way, Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

It is a daunting task, valuing others above myself.  I have invested a lifetime in selfish ambition and vain conceit.  This road called Pride is a very wide road indeed. I swerve to the left and blame other people, I swerve to the right and blame my circumstances, I gesticulate out of anger, I speedup out of impatience, I slow down out of defensiveness, and I careen out of fear.  Is it any wonder that my soul was fractured?  The road to recovery has been difficult, as many reformed addicts can attest to.  The reordering of my soul has involved yielding to others; when I am cut off, thanking God that no one was hurt; and sometimes praying for the other driver.  The goal of practicing appropriate responses is that they will become more or less automatic.  And as I reorder my practices, God reforms my soul.

Jesus spoke about two roads – one broad and the other narrow,“Broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But … narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)  I think many of us Christians think we are on the narrow road, yet Jesus says only a few find it.  I thought I was on the narrow road but I was blind.  I had become so habituated to anger when driving that I could only blame other drivers.  The broad road winds its way through the actions of other people and external events. The narrow road, in contrast, drives straight through the human heart, through my heart.  The narrow road is the way of the cross – the death of my ego, my pride.  The narrow road is forever the straight road for those who are humble.  For on this road God is our guide.

O fair and gracious is the Lord, His righteousness is great;
He teaches sinners how to go along a road that’s straight.
He guides the humble in His way, He offers them His hand;
He leads them into what is true so they will understand. 
(Psalm 25:8-9)

S

Entanglements

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33)

Two weeks ago the United States Attorney General cited the Bible for the proposition that separating children from their immigrant parents was OK because it was just obeying the law of the land.  Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1)  The practice he was referring to was the use of detention centers where children of immigrants who enter the United States illegally (and some requesting asylum) were sent after their parents were arrested.  In the face of intense public outrage, the administration reversed itself and now detains children with their parents.

Despite the change in policy, the present immigration system in the United States is not working as most Americans would have it.  Wherever one falls on the ideological spectrum – from a welcoming, Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,as inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, to a protective, “We’re going to build a wall,” there is no doubt that we are at a political impasse in this country over the issue.

The images from the detention centers rightly caused an uproar among many Christians.  Even many who would strictly limit immigration found the practice abhorrent. But what caused me to reflect on the Attorney General’s remarks were two matters that are as ancient as they are modern. These relate to the proper use of Scripture, and the relationship of Christians to the state.  Obviously, these are longstanding concerns for people of faith and more complicated than can be covered in a short post.  Yet, for those who would pursue Christian virtue we must not lose sight of two principles.  First, the pursuit of virtue requires a balanced view of Scripture.  And second, the pursuit of virtue means our first loyalty must always be to Jesus and the kingdom of God.

Balanced View of Scripture
Regrettably, the Bible has been used throughout history by the powerful to justify mistreatment of the powerless. For example, apartheid was justified with Acts 17:26 (God separated the world into regions [insert races]); slavery with Colossians 3:22 (slaves obey your masters); and misogyny with Ephesians 5:22 (wives submit to your husbands). In all of these cases, the result has been suppression and repression of basic human rights – which goes against the warp and woof of Scripture that we are to love one another even as Christ has loved us.  If the Bible teaches nothing else, it is that our highest calling is to love others.  And those radical fringe elements in our world today who would support racism or sexism with the Bible would do well to consider the words of Isaiah, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)

Romans 13:1, cited by the Attorney General, is another Bible verse that at times has been selectively used to support immoral laws and suppress dissent.  Is it really true that we have no response when the government takes extreme action other than to “be subject to [their] authority?”  What about the founding of our “Christian” nation – did our forbearers violate the Bible because they rebelled against the king of England?  And what about the days before the Civil Rights movement – was it a Biblical mandate to obey Jim Crow laws because they were the law of a given state?  One could also inquire about some of the great Christian martyrs such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer – should he have submitted to the Third Reich?

But the real issue is whether a single verse or Biblical principle is absolute.  For example, honesty is a fundamental Christian virtue supported by many verses.  Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no, no.” (Matthew 5:37)  But while all Christians would agree that lying is wrong, what if by telling the truth another person is going to be murdered?  In such circumstances shouldn’t the Biblical principle about telling the truth be outweighed by the Biblical principles of loving, caring, and protecting others?

And thus, even assuming separating children from their parents is the law of the land (which apparently it is not given its reversal by administrative decree), there are certainly countervailing Biblical principles.  For example, what about the great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself?” (Matthew 22:39) Or verses that tell us to provide special treatment of strangers. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it?” (Hebrews 13:2)  Or what about Jesus telling us, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me?” (Matthew 25:35-36).

We need discernment in applying Biblical verses to real-life situations.  Particularly verses like Romans 13:1 that don’t have a lot of support elsewhere in Scripture. As Christians we need to take our role as law abiding citizens seriously, and should understand Romans 13:1 in that light.  But not, I would argue, by forsaking the weight of Scripture.  If there is a conflict of principles in whether to separate children from their parents, isn’t Paul’s command to “Clothe yourselves with compassion …” (Colossians 3:12) closer to the heart of God than being “subject to the governing authorities?”

First Loyalty Is To Jesus and the Kingdom of God
What also surprised me about the Attorney General’s assertion that separating children from their immigrant parents is the law of the land, was that he found it appropriate to speak so directly to those he referred to as his “church friends.”  No doubt he was addressing the 75% of evangelicals who consistently and unfailing support the present governing party in our country.  Because they make up the largest single voting block for the current administration, it was necessary for the “governing authority” to appeal to them on their own terms.  I am guessing that most Christians did not see this as strange.  Yet, the mere fact that it occurred speaks volumes about how the governing authorities continue to nurture their relationship with the church. This is a danger for the church because as soon as our loyalties are pulled towards a secular entity we are on the slippery slope away from our first love, the kingdom of God.

Fortunately, some evangelical churches and leaders found separating families to be a bridge too far, and they protested the policy.  Even evangelical spokesperson Franklin Graham, a prominent administration supporter and defender, told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “It’s disgraceful, and it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit.” I don’t know if his comments had any affect on changing the policy, but it certainly had the feeling of being too little, too late.  For after two years of unwavering support in the face of a staggering array of ethical and moral failings, whatever policy gains evangelicals have made has more than been offset by the loss of our moral voice.  And herein lies the danger of the church becoming too cozy with the state – it is good for the state, but bad for the church.

The church must always stand as a moral counterweight to the state. We must never let our loyalties to a particular individual or political party override our loyalties to God. This is not to say that political involvement is wrong, because Christians need to be involved in running our government and various institutions.  Nor is it to say that our individual vote needs to be dictated to by others.  In most major elections in our country, the choice is binary – and we have to make a choice between two candidates, which can sometimes feel like we are voting for the lesser of two evils.  But regardless of whom we vote for, we must never get so identified with that politician or political party that we turn a blind eye towards immoral or unethical actions. For when we do, we compromise our values, our witness, and even our soul.

Politics is a difficult topic for me to write about because I love and respect people on both sides of the political divide.  Moreover, I struggle with feelings of anger and self-righteousness because I am unable to square my understanding of Christian virtue with what I perceive as acquiescence by so many Christians to the unrighteousness that abounds in today’s political environment.  I sense that we Christians are increasingly finding our identity in politics.  And the more we draw our life from a political party or politician, the more we are diverted from seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

The Rev. Dr. Billy Graham learned this lesson the hard way. As a pastor who personally knew every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, Graham got seduced by his unique relationship with Richard Nixon.  The story is a good reminder of how power can corrupt our witness. Graham’s support for Nixon has many echoes in our current day.  For example, Graham’s prayer at Nixon’s inauguration included, “We recognize, O Lord, that in Thy sovereignty Thou has permitted Richard Nixon to lead us at this momentous hour of our history”– a prayer that sounded like an assertion that Nixon was God’s blessing to our nation.  However, Graham’s entanglement with political power would drag him much lower.  In 1969, the U.S. was involved in peace talks with North Vietnam.  Graham wrote to Nixon that, if the negotiations failed, the dikes in North Vietnam should be bombed.  This action would have released floodwaters, wiping out villages and killing as many as a million civilians!  And there were other unchristian actions such as disparaging remarks Graham made to Nixon that Jews had a stranglehold on our country and were putting out pornographic material.  Graham later denied making these comments until secret Nixon tapes were released by the National Archive in 2002 revealing the truth about what Graham had said.

Billy Graham subsequently apologized to Jews for his comments even as he came to see his choices differently later in his life.  In a 2011 interview with Christianity Today, Graham stated, I … would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”

Graham’s experience is wisdom for all of us regardless of our station in life.  God’s kingdom is not an earthly kingdom.  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”(John 18:36)  Those of us who would be loyal to Jesus, would do well to avoid entanglements with politics or indeed any purely secular matter.  Loyalty to Jesus means that the narrow path we walk in the political realm should avoid idolatry of those we support as well as self-righteousness toward those we oppose.

S

Rainbows

 

“I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.” (Genesis 9:13-15)

Science can explain quite a lot about the physics of a rainbow.  When sunlight enters a drop of water in the air, it is bent slightly, a phenomenon known as refraction.  Sunlight is made up of many different wavelengths (colors), which bend at slightly different angles when refracted.  So when sunlight enters a drop of water and is refracted, colors are separated.  Some of this refracted light is reflected off of the back wall of the water drop, and then bent a little more when it exits the front of the drop causing the colors to separate even farther.  The following drawing is illustrative.

When we look upon a rainbow we are seeing the aggregate interaction of sunlight with billions of water droplets. The atmospheric conditions must of course be just right.  There need to be plenty of water drops in the air, which is why most often we see a rainbow after a storm.  In addition, the sun must be out and positioned behind our back because it is the refracted light reflecting off the raindrops that we perceive as a rainbow.

While science can accurately describe what is happening when a rainbow appears in the sky, it struggles to explain foundational issues, such as, why does light exist and why is all not simply darkness?  To say that light comes from stars, such as our sun, only pushes the question back one level – where did the stars come from?  This is not a criticism of science, rather a recognition that science has its limits.  And it is not only foundational issues of reality that science struggles to explain, but the metaphysical issues of everyday life.  For example, what scientific instrument can record the transcendent beauty of a rainbow?  Or decipher its meaning?  For, while science is really good at measuring and explaining the physical attributes of a rainbow such as refraction, reflection and wavelength, it cannot interpret or predict our response.  Rather, it is our soul that understands the aesthetic and spiritual meaning of the natural world, and perceives and responds when God supernaturally reveals himself through natural events such as rainbows.

The Biblical record tells us that God created the heavens and the earth, that He created light, and that He created life.  Indeed, all of creation is itself a significant way that God makes himself known to people. As the author of Psalm 19 puts it, “The heavens show the work of God, His glory they proclaim; the skies disclose His handiwork through starry host aflame.  From day to day they make God known to those who dwell below; while night to night revealing Him so all the world can know.  Although no speech or words are used to spread this through the land, there is no nation, tribe, or soul that does not understand.  Their message goes to all the world, it’s seen by everyone; the heavens are God’s handiwork, it’s there He placed the sun.”(Psalm 19:1-4)  The natural world all around us – the stars, the sun, even rainbows – are part of God’s general revelation to all people.

Rainbows command a storied position in time and legend because of their beautiful but ephemeral nature.  In many ways rainbows are a bridge between the secular and sacred, which is reflected in a song such as, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Although the scientist doesn’t believe in a mythical land beyond a rainbow, and the Christian doesn’t believe in wishing upon a star, yet the song inspires believer and non-believer alike because it speaks to the universal longing in the human heart for a special place of completeness and joy.   [The following is worth viewing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nflIf8BhMVs]  Still, skeptic or believer, reality keeps us grounded in the moment unable to fly with bluebirds over a rainbow.  Indeed, the term “chasing rainbows” has come to mean pursuing things that are unrealistic or unlikely to happen.  While some people chase storms to experience tornados close-up, no one thinks seriously about pursuing rainbows.  But what about God using rainbows to pursue us?  Seem impossible?  Well, maybe not.  I believe the Lord has done precisely that three times in my life.

First Rainbow
The first was on August 17, 1989, more than a decade before I committed my life to Christ.  I was on a business trip to Colorado Springs, CO, and after a day in the office, I decided to explore the area by heading west out of town on Route 24. This is the main east-west road, which winds its way up and into the Rocky Mountains.  As the car climbed into the hills, clouds gathered over the top of the mountains darkening the sky.  Minutes later a thunderstorm struck with a ferocity that is common in the Rockies, with lightening strikes bouncing horizontally between the higher peaks.  The rain passed as quickly as it came, and a few minutes later I turned the rental car back toward the city.  Now with a sweeping vista over the eastern plains, a magnificent rainbow appeared in the sky.  Perhaps it was the clean air, or possibly the altitude, but the overall effect was stunning.  At the time I was an avowed skeptic with no belief, let alone interest, in God.  And yet, I remember something quickening in my spirit as the extreme beauty touched a place deep in my soul.  Years later I would recall this as one of several small turning points in my spiritual life.  It was God in pursuit of me – reaching out with this glorious rainbow, as he has no doubt done for millions of others throughout history.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)  The covenant that God made with Noah and sealed with the rainbow was an affirmation that God cares about people – all people, even me. God made his covenant even though “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” (Genesis 8:21)  And so, despite the fact that I was a functional atheist with an unredeemed heart, God was in pursuit.

Second Rainbow
The second and arguably most supernatural appearance was more than a decade later on September 18, 2002, just two years after I had placed my faith in Jesus.  It was late afternoon, the end of the workday, and I was walking out of my office in Dayton, OH after a rainstorm had passed.  I don’t recall the reason that I was feeling spiritually low that afternoon, but I distinctly remember crossing the parking lot and thinking about rainbows and how the Bible teaches that God put the rainbow in the sky as a promise. But I also knew that science pretty well explains how rainbows are formed. I could not reconcile the two thoughts, but honestly leaned more toward a purely scientific explanation.  As I started the drive home, I turned onto South Patterson Boulevard, which twists and turns south and east as it rises into Hills and Dales Park.  The visibility was low with a bit of ground fog, when suddenly as I rounded a bend, a rainbow appeared out of the fog in front of the car and landed on the right hand side of the road.  And there it was – the end of the rainbow!  Yes, I saw the actual end of a rainbow where it sparkled on the ground next to my slow moving car.  It was only a few seconds, but I had no doubt about what I had seen.

I barely had time to absorb all of this, when a second rainbow appeared – again out of the fog in front of the car. This one “landed” on the hood, directly in front of my windshield.  Once again, I saw the end of a rainbow, which lingered for several seconds before disappearing.  I was stunned by these two appearances without any sense of an appropriate response.  I had twice seen the end of a rainbow!  Over the years I have done some research but never have I found an account similar to this. To the contrary, what I read is that it is impossible to reach the end of a rainbow.  I believe God provided this double miracle to encourage me in my faith and breakup lingering doubts about the reality of the supernatural. It was of course not just the fact of the miracle itself, but the timing of when it occurred.  One moment I was doubting that God controls rainbows and minutes later he gives me a demonstration of his power over them.

Third Rainbow
The third was yet a decade later on December 30, 2011.  The backstory is that I had experienced more than a dozen nosebleeds over a four day period before finally seeking medical help.  The doctor diagnosed a bleeding blood vessel inside my nose, which he cauterized by activating a caustic chemical on the end of a long stick and then touching it to the site.  No doubt it was the right treatment, but I discovered afterwards that he should have anesthetized the site first.  Basically the procedure was just as barbaric it sounds – getting a hot poker rammed up the nose.  The only good news was that it did stop the bleeding.  At least until later that afternoon at home when I bent down and my nose started to bleed again.  The fear of potentially needing a second procedure was overwhelming.  Less than an hour later a rain squall passed over our house and a rainbow appeared.  Pat immediately recognized the significance – that God sent that rainbow to encourage me. Rainbows in December are very rare in Dayton, and it appeared only for a minute or so – I could have easily have missed it.  Oh yes, the bleeding from my nose finally stopped.

An interesting scientific fact is that no two people ever see exactly the same rainbow.  The light that one person sees bouncing off of distant raindrops is bouncing off at a completely different angle for someone else, which means the rainbow they are seeing is light reflecting off of different raindrops. Because no two people can stand at the same spot at the same time, everyone who sees a rainbow is in a sense having a unique experience.  This is equally true for our spiritual journeys.  Since no two faith walks are exactly the same, God reaches out uniquely to every individual.  Perhaps through rainbows, perhaps not.  But one thing is certain – God is forever the pursuer of us – He is forever the Hound of Heaven.  And because God pursues us, we are enabled to pursue love, which is the pursuit of virtue.  As the apostle John put it, We love because he first loved us.”(1 John 4:19)

Is there a place that I can go where You won’t follow me?
Can I escape Your Spirit, Lord, or from Your presence flee?
If I climb to the heavens, Lord, upon the highest stair,
Or if I plunge the lowest depths, I know that You are there.
If I should rise on wings of dawn to find a place to dwell,
And settle down across the sea, I’ll find You there as well.
For even there Your hand will guide and show me how to grow;
And with Your right hand holding fast, You will not let me go.
O I could say, “I’ll hide from You when darkness fills the night,
When all that shines has left the sky and blackness veils the light.
But there’s no darkness dark enough, no night where You can’t see,
No blackness that’s so black, O Lord, where You can’t follow me.

(Psalm 139:7-12)

S

 

Walking The Dog

Let’s praise the Lord that May is here; a warming earth now brings us cheer;
The flowers in their showy bloom, prepare to strike the winter’s gloom;
For spring that pushes cold away, gains strength with every passing day;
But though it’s now a fading threat, the artic chill I can’t forget.

My memory of this past winter will not be dispelled by a few warm days and a cheerful show of spring blossoms.  It isn’t just the gloomy weather that’s hard to forget, but the endless days of bone-chilling cold that started in early December and extended well into April.  Although we did not have a lot of snow, the winds were unrelenting as they easily drove the cold through multiple layers of clothing. Our local snowbirds headed south at the first sign of frost last fall.  No deep winter freeze for them as they fled the coming onslaught by sheltering in the far southern reaches of the Sunshine State.  I confess to feeling a bit jealous at times when seeing social media posts of walks on sandy beaches in wide-brimmed hats and Bermuda shorts.  But pity us not, because it was Pat’s and my choice to once again ride out the winter here in the north.  This would have been unremarkable except for a new activity that compelled me to go outside every day.  Walking the dog.

Winter is normally a time when I hunker down.  Falling temperatures and rising winds signal a time for covering with a blanket and reading a good book.  Certainly not for venturing outside for a walk.  But not this year.  For we now have a puppy!  And Daisy needs to go outside every day.  No excuses allowed.  When she needs to go out, she needs to go out; and because our yard is not fenced, a person must always be on the far end of her leash.  It is critical that dogs are exercised daily to keep them healthy and to avoid bad habits born of lethargy.  [A principle that is also true for people.]  Although Pat often takes her out for a short morning walk, I have become the Exerciser-in-Chief. For the most part, I am very happy to have this role, notwithstanding that for too many days this past winter the weather was dreadful.  Still, there was no reprieve from the daily chore.  Walking the dog.

The decision to get a puppy last year was based on Pat’s and my mutual desire to raise a therapy dog – for visiting hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities to cheer and encourage the lonely and the sick. Although our decision was intentional, the scope of the effort was masked by our exuberance when we looked at the first litter of Cavachon puppies.  These being pretty much the embodiment of cuteness!  So in our enthusiasm we took the plunge – like stepping off a high dive – and suddenly we were faced with the care of this new life.  One thing I did not completely consider before the “adoption” was that I was the logical, indeed only choice to handle the bulk of Daisy’s demanding exercise routine.  To be honest, going out in cold, windy, and often wet winter weather is not the path I would choose if I followed my natural leanings.  But I do it out of my love for Pat, a vision for training a therapy dog, and an expanding understanding of spiritual growth. Born of love was this commitment. Walking the dog.

Consider this composite vignette of a typical winter’s outing.  It is a frosty morning as Daisy and I leave the house for our first walk of the day.  I brace myself against the cold as I step out of the warm garage and into a cold wind that strikes my face like a swarm of angry bees.  Daisy seems oddly unaffected by the conditions and eagerly trots forward, nose to the ground.  I, on the other hand, hunch my shoulders and pull my hood tighter as we start our trek heading east up the street.  Despite the cold, I am struck by the physical environment of our neighborhood and by all that I miss when living indoors.  From the inside, it is a two-dimensional world looking out through a window.  But outside all is 3-D with the added dimensions of sound, touch and smell.  And today there is much of the natural world to experience.  Walking the dog.

We pause at the upper pond to consider an unusual flock of ducks that are wintering there.  These are our resident Mallards with a single white duck in their fold, which is no doubt an escapee from domesticated stock.  How strange it seems to see this large white duck living in easy harmony with the Mallards. No fighting or ostracism that I observe as they waddle together across the ice and drop effortlessly into an open hole of frigid water.  It occurs to me that we humans could learn something from this flock of ducks, particularly amid deepening political divisions in our country.  How easily we judge those of different religions, cultures, and ethnicities.  And how fearful many of us have become as a result.  Lord, forgive me where I have judged others wrongly; renew in me a desire for peace and unity; and lead me to live by Your word, How wonderful and good to live in unity and peace, To dwell in perfect harmony where joy and love increase.”(Psalm 133:1) Meditating, reflecting, praying.  Walking the dog.

We cross over onto the main path and after several minutes meet a couple walking closely arm-in-arm, a long-haired spaniel at their side.  They are neighbors who have lived in our development for several years, but I have never met.  The dogs sniff each other, as we people exchange our own brief greetings.  Not a long or deep conversation, but enough to establish a first connection.  I have met more neighbors in the past ten months while walking Daisy than in the preceding ten years.  I reflect on this with regret.  How isolated I have become.  I have probably read the parable of the Good Samaritan a hundred times, and yet I barely know most of my neighbors.  “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”(Philippians 2:4)  How can I look out for the interests of neighbors whom I’ve never met?  Walking the dog.

Daisy and I make our turn for home at the edge of a woodlot where a Red-bellied Woodpecker has established its territory. Some days I hear it pecking for insects in the trunks of dead trees, and occasionally I catch a glimpse of it as it flits from tree to tree.  Today, however, I hear its shrill call, sort of a rolling churrr that echoes in the forest.  As we quicken our pace against the cold, the call stops and only the gusting wind breaks the silence of the day.  In a month or so there will be cardinals, robins, and Tufted Titmice to serenade us; but for now we hear only the wind and our footsteps.  Yet the day has one more surprise for us as again we pass the pond that feeds the stream running behind our house.  For in a Mountain pine on a ledge above the pond, a Song Sparrow is stirring in its winter’s nest.  And here on this coldest of days we hear it sing out with a few tentative notes of its beautiful lyrical trill.  Not the full song, but enough of its joyous call to remind me that, The birds are safe in trees that thrive where rivers rush along; they nest among the verdant leaves and sing a happy song.”(Psalm 104:12)  I am never alone when I hear the sounds of nature, like getting a top-off for my soul. Walking the dog.

Coming to the end of our walk, I feel physically invigorated from the outing.  Walking thus twice a day, the distance adds up – perhaps as many as twenty miles per week. But the greater benefit is spiritual. “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”(1 Timothy 4:8)  For me, the discipline of walking the dog daily has become a spiritual discipline.  As I reflect on the benefits, I see opportunities for spiritual health – finding God in the natural world, getting to know my neighbors, and experiencing periods of solitude for thinking and praying.  I have seen many lists of traditional (and nontraditional) spiritual disciplines, but this is one I have never seen.  Walking a dog.

Jesus said we are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. We do this by seeking the sacred in the secular, by seeing the costly in the commonplace, and by securing the everlasting in the everyday events of life. There is virtually no activity so prosaic that it cannot be redeemed for the kingdom of God.  Brother Lawrence famously practiced the presence of God in the scullery where he was scrubbing dishes.  Jesus said “the kingdom of God is in your midst,” (Luke 17:21) which tells me it can be discovered wherever it is sought.  Even walking a dog.

How happy those who know God’s word and from it won’t depart,
And who are ever seeking Him with all their mind and heart.  
(Psalm 119:2)

S

Soul Care

“You do not know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:14-15)

An antique mantle clock rests comfortably on a shelf of the cherry bookcase in our study. It is a plain old clock with a rough wooden case and glass door for viewing the clock face and pendulum. No chime or bells for this ancient timepiece, only a single movement that resonates with a sonorous, almost melodic tock, tick, tock, tick. What makes it special to me is that it once tolled time in the walk-in pantry of my parents’ house in Maine. Whenever we visited, there was its familiar beat marking the passage of time; its pendulum forever counting out the seconds in a soul-soothing cadence. To this day I find its sound highly evocative as it effortlessly takes me back to that earlier time and place.

The old clock has little to recommend itself as a functional timepiece. I don’t know that anyone in recent years ever relied on it to provide the precise time because it is notoriously difficult to regulate. And yet, the clock has a beauty in the deeply reassuring beat of its pendulum. These days, I hear it gently sounding in the still of the morning when I am walking in the hallway; I hear it during the day when I am reading in the study; and I hear it in the evening when I am retiring the house. Its only demand is a daily winding, which I usually do in a mid-afternoon ritual by opening the glass door, inserting a brass key in the winding mechanism and giving the key about eight half-turns. If it is running fast, I will sometimes lengthen the pendulum ever so slightly. If it is slow, just the opposite, I shorten the pendulum. But the critical thing is the winding because if I miss a day the clock stops and has to be both rewound and reset.

The clock is driven by a mechanical world hidden behind its face. It is a perfectly lovely world of springs, escapement and assorted gears that are precisely mounted one to the other to drive the clock hands. One gear turns another, which turns another, which moves the minute and hour hands in faultless synchronization. When all parts are properly aligned and oiled, the pendulum mounted, and the mainspring wound, the clock functions as its designer intended.

In a way, the inner world of a clock is very similar to the hidden world behind the façade of our visible self – a world that we know as the soul. The soul too can be a perfectly lovely world, except that instead of springs and gears, the soul is made up of the mind, heart, emotions, relationships, and habits. When these are properly aligned, then what we think, feel, speak, and do are united to the will of God. And our life functions as our Designer intended.

Yet, neither the clock nor our soul is naturally sustaining – each needs daily care and attention. In the case of the clock, its mainspring must be wound every day or else it runs down. In the case of our soul, it must be attended to every day or it too will run down. This is why the pursuit of virtue is an everyday affair. For as Jesus says, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) The alternative is to have days where we don’t pick up our cross. These are days where anger and lust have free reign; days of self-absorption and ignoring others; days of criticizing and complaining. As daily spiritual inputs decrease, days like this increase.

So what is soul care? Soul care is nurturing our mind, heart, emotions, relationships, and habits in a way that draws us closer to the kingdom of God and His righteousness. It is renewing our mind by meditating on Scripture, reading good books, and viewing appropriate media. It is softening our heart by listening to great music, serving those in need, and enjoying nature. It is healing our emotions by controlling our thoughts, praying through our fears, and receiving godly counsel. It is pursuing our relationships by building friendships, forgiving those who have hurt us, and persevering in fellowship. And finally, it is developing the habits of holiness by turning from our besetting sins such as anger, lust, and greed, and learning the way of humility, faithfulness, and love.

Above all, soul care is intentionally following Jesus every day of our life. Famed pianist Jan Paderewski once said, “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.” There is no doubt in my mind that God notices it when I go one day without spiritual input. How many days I wonder until I notice it? How many days until others notice it? The soul’s need for daily care is disregarded at one’s peril. For this surely is a way to give sin a foothold. A danger that the Lord expressed to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6)

The reality of sin crouching at my door is one that I take seriously because it is empirically verifiable in my life. Whenever I let down my guard, when I put my life on cruise control, inevitably I coast right into sin – I say hurtful things, repeat mistakes, forsake those I love, become ungrateful, and am increasingly anxious. NT Wright states it thus, “The difference between vices and virtues is this: Anybody can learn a vice – all you have to do is to go into neutral, slide along the way life is going and before long the habits of life will have you in their grip or vice. But virtue you have to think about – you need to make a decision to be this sort of person now.” (Interview with NT Wright)

My old clock does more than simply beat out a soothing rhythm. It is a constant reminder that my days are limited. For as the psalmist laments, “Oh we are but a moment, Lord, who soon will pass away; since dust we were and dust we’ll be and will forever stay. For in Your eyes a thousand years are like a day gone by, a watch that passes in the dark more swiftly than a sigh. You sweep us off as in a flood that rises in the night; for we are fragile like the grass that sprouts at dawn’s first light. We start our day as tender plants that spring up with the dew, but fade away by eventide when dry and withered through.” (Psalm 90:3-6)

Only the Lord knows the number of my days, so I don’t dwell on such things. However, I do think about what kind of person I am becoming in the time I have. I am convinced that the care I give my soul (or not) day in and day out will determine the answer. It will determine whether my soul will disintegrate under the slow poison of selfishness and pride; or, like the steady beating of my clock, all will be well with my soul.

S

The Good Life

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24)

Pat and I built a stone house in Palmyra, Maine in the late 1970’s. This was not ornamental rock veneer as in many upscale homes these days. Rather, it was self-supporting masonry with natural uncut fieldstone walls nearly a foot thick, resting on massive concrete/stone foundation walls. Roughly 100 tons of stone went into the construction, each stone lovingly harvested from rocky fields and overgrown walls throughout our rural town. The house site was carefully selected to command a sweeping view of grass fields bordered by woods, all gently descending towards the Sebasticook River. The house itself was to have a single level with full basement. Our initial plan called for massive footings to support the weight of the walls. But when the site was dug out, a solid but sloping rock ledge was uncovered that could not be penetrated by excavating equipment. The ledge dropped from about one foot below ground level on one end of the house site to about nine feet below ground at the other end. This meant that the house would have a crawl space on one end, increasing to a stand-up cellar on the other.

The inspiration for building a stone house came from a book entitled “Living The Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing. The Nearings were pioneers of the back-to-the-land movement in the late 1960’s, advocating a self-sufficient lifestyle that involved growing organic vegetables and living in houses built with local materials, which in their native New England meant fieldstone. Their book was part how to build a stone house, part how to raise an organic garden, and part how to live intentionally within a community. For a baby boomer depressed by the war in Vietnam and trying to “find himself,” what they preached was intoxicating. And what they taught about how to build with stone, though labor intensive, seemed straight forward enough.

Although the rock ledge meant we would not have a full basement, it also meant that there would be no need for an enormous footing to support the foundation and house walls. The solid rock ledge was stronger than the stoutest constructed footing, and thus we decided to build fourteen inch thick foundation walls directly on the ledge. And so, ever so slowly, over the summer of 1976, with the use of slip forms, the walls were laid up one stone and one shovelful of concrete at a time – over two hundred linear feet, average height about five feet. It was the hardest physical work I have ever done, yet it was never drudgery. Watching piles of sand and gravel and stones slowly transformed into perfectly formed walls was magical. It would be yet another summer before the stone walls of the house would rise up another eight feet from the foundation walls. Massive stone walls for a house literally built on a rock. To have put up a house of this weight on anything less would have been folly. The old-timers were well aware of this practice, and many early Maine farmhouses, whose lines are true to this day, were constructed on gigantic granite blocks. Houses built on less can shift and crack when the underlying soil conditions are affected by heavy rains and repeated freeze/thaw cycles.

The principle of building on a good foundation is obvious even to those with no building experience. The picture of a house built on rock has a feeling of permanence that few other images can evoke. No doubt this is why Jesus uses it as a metaphor in concluding his Sermon on the Mount. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

To understand the metaphor, it is helpful to remember that in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus is teaching about life in the kingdom of God and inviting us into that life. It is a life that is pleasing to God and therefore the only really good life of human existence. This is a life of self-sacrifice with abundant spiritual and physical benefits. Jesus promises blessings for the humble and those who pursue its defining qualities of holiness, mercy, purity, and peacemaking. He pronounces judgment on the angry, lustful, dishonest, critical, and hypocritical. He proclaims the virtues of generosity, prayer, and compassion. And through it all, he teaches about the nature of a kingdom heart – a heart that is unworried and confident of the future even as it is filled with love for others. This is Jesus’ vision of the good life – a decent human existence that is radically different than the norm of his time, and indeed, that is radically different than the cultural norm of our modern world.

When building the house in the 1970’s, I was not thinking about the Sermon on the Mount, I did not know Jesus, nor did I have any interest in matters spiritual. I was following a dream – a dream of living a “good life” – marked principally by a vision of self-sufficiency. To this day, I still appreciate many of the ideas advocated by the Nearings. Building one’s own house and living off the land in harmony with the natural environment still stir my emotions, even if it all seems more distant and remote than when I was in my 20s. What I failed to understand at the time was that happiness is not found in a house, or a garden, or even community. Not that these are bad things, just that without a spiritual foundation they are unable to deliver a good life because when the storms of life hit they collapse like a house built on sand. For what good is a house if it is not filled with love? What good is a garden if the soul is starving? What good is a community if it is not infused with grace? If we are to believe Jesus, the only “good life” is life in the kingdom of God, built on the rock of obedience to his teaching.

Eventually Pat and I left the homestead – the garden went fallow and the land and stone house sold. We had achieved much of what we had set out to do; yet, I had not experienced the contentment of a “good life.” Nearly thirty years later I took up and read another Book about living a good life. This one spoke of a King with an everlasting Kingdom who gives the assurance of a truly good life for all who trust and obey him. And so, in 2000, I accepted his offer. These days I find myself in a kind of building project once again. Not a stone house with fieldstones from the rocky soil of Maine, but an eternal house with “spiritual stones” having names like patience, kindness, purity, humility, etc. Some are small, and some I can barely lift. Like the first house, it is slow going, one stone at a time. Sometimes one of them slips and I have to rebuild part of the wall. But with Jesus as the cornerstone, the burden is light.

My prayer is that all who obey the Lord will one day experience the good life so beautifully described by the prophet Isaiah. “The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:11-12)

S

 

Lent

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“What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:10)

The Christian life is not a halfhearted affair. It is not like a cardigan that we put on when it is cold and take off when it gets hot. The Lord asks for our devotion in good times and bad, regardless of external circumstances or internal feelings. Jesus describes it this way, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) It is a great step forward in our spiritual journey when Jesus’ words have sunk so deeply into our soul that we are moved from a “Sunday only” kind of faith to an everyday, all-in discipleship. This is a dynamic life of faith that seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. A life where acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God are the desires of the heart. A thoughtful, active, and growing life marked by righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

And yet all of us, even the most ardent followers of Jesus, have times of stagnation or wandering. Unless there are robust rhythms in our spiritual lives, we can stumble and fall. This is why the church holds weekly services for ongoing equipping and renewal. It is also why the church has set aside yearly commemorations for specific attention and spiritual practices. One of these is the season of Lent – a period of forty days commencing on Ash Wednesday and ending the day before Easter (Sundays are not counted in the forty days). Lent is one of the oldest extra-biblical observations in Christendom. Its formal roots go back to the Council of Nicaea in 325, which drew from practices from the earliest days of the church – days that involved preparation for Easter. This year Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, commences two weeks from now, on February 14.

Lent is a time for reflection on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which should lead his disciples into self-reflection, repentance, and renewal. Traditionally, this has been through prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor – actions intended to disrupt the normal patterns of living and focus our attention on Jesus. While these practices are not the exclusive province of Lent, there is much to be gained by an annual remembrance.

There is no single way to observe Lent. Some Christians will take on a new discipline such as daily prayer or quiet time. Some will give to the poor or volunteer. But the most common practice is a fast from food and increasingly from technology. According to a 2014 study, roughly 17% of adults in the U.S. plan to actively participate in some form of physical fasting during Lent. The breakdown is described as follows: “Among those who plan to celebrate Lent this year, the most common abstentions include food or drink, such as chocolate (30%), meat (28%), sugar (28%), soda drinks (26%), alcohol (24%), fruit (14%) and butter or cream (11%). Although less common, many Americans who fast for Lent are planning to abstain from technology or entertainment. This includes curtailing use of social networks (16%), smartphones (13%), television (11%), video games (10%), movies (9%) and the Internet (9%). Activities that were mentioned by fewer than 2% of respondents include sex, smoking and swearing.” (The Barna Group)

Fasting from food can be an important spiritual discipline. I know several people who do it as a regular practice to great benefit. Yet, we must not forget that the purpose of all fasting is to draw us closer to God and His kingdom. God spoke very clearly on this (through the prophet Isaiah) by criticizing those who physically fasted, even as their hearts were hardened to the people in their family and community. “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? … If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:5-10)

While the concept of an external fast from food is well established, the passage in Isaiah reveals God’s desire that we should also fast from the evil in our heart – things such as injustice, oppression, greed, selfishness, gossip, and anger. What good is a fast from externals when internals are ignored? God does not say that physical fasting from food is wrong, just that it is subordinate to the deeper internal matters of the heart. Indeed, this is precisely the reason Jesus chastised the Pharisees – their fasting was accompanied by pride and self-righteousness. (Matthew 6:16-18) Fasting from food does not avail when there is sin in the soul. This isn’t about the merits of an external fast from what we eat, rather the importance of an internal fast from what we have in our heart. God, it seems, would have us fast from the sin that arises from our inside, which manifests itself in our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. For as Jesus declared, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:10). Clearly, we need to attend to the things in our heart and not only what we put in our stomach.

The idea of an internal fast first came to me when I read Catherine Marshall’s experiment in fasting from criticism. She writes, “The Lord continues to deal with me about my critical spirit, convicting me that I have been wrong to judge any person or situation. … One morning last week He gave me the assignment for one day I was to go on a “fast” from criticism. I was not to criticize anybody about anything. Into my mind crowded the usual objections. ‘But then what happens to value judgments? You Yourself, Lord, spoke of ‘righteous judgment.’ How could society operate without standards and limits?’ All such resistance was brushed aside. ‘Just obey Me without questioning.’” Her journal continues, “For the first half of the day, I simply felt a void, almost as if I had been wiped out as a person. This was especially true at lunch [with some family members]. Several topics came up (school prayer, abortion, the ERA amendment) about which I had definite opinions. I listened to the others and kept silent. Barbed comments on the tip of my tongue about certain world leaders were suppressed. In our talkative family no one seemed to notice.” (A Closer Walk) She goes on to write that her fast revealed the degree to which her critical spirit had hurt herself and others.

Experiment

And so, I would challenge those of you who are inclined to observe Lent this year to experiment with an internal fast. Fasting from something in your heart – a character trait that is in opposition to the kingdom of God, something that inhibits your spiritual walk. It could be, like Catherine Marshall, you sometimes have a critical spirit – in which case why not use this Lenten season to fast from criticism? Or maybe you have a lot of anxiety, in which case why not resolve to fast from worrying? The possibilities are really endless. Perhaps something in the following list touches your conscience? Anger, bitterness, complaining, criticism, cynicism, defensiveness, despair, dishonesty, dissatisfaction, envy, gluttony, gossip, greed, impatience, indifference, laziness, lust, negativity, passivity, pride, quarreling, resentment, stinginess, selfishness, unforgiveness, worrying.

One could usefully spend the days leading up to Ash Wednesday praying for the Holy Spirit to reveal one thing about your character that is holding you back in your spiritual walk. It may be a deeply rooted sin like an anger or lust, or it may be something that you are barely aware of like defensiveness or pride – perhaps even something you don’t think is a problem but that someone close to you has commented on about your character. The challenge is to identify one area of sin in your soul and resolve that by God’s strength you will make every effort to abstain from it during Lent.

Guidance

1) Focus on Christ. We fast during Lent to remind ourselves of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. He is the one who has invited us into the kingdom of God, and whatever we do it is to follow him. It is the Lord who leads us into self-reflection, repentance, and renewal. An internal fast is a practical way of keeping in step with the Spirit to draw us closer to God.

2) Read and Write. Look for Bible references and other writings about the matter you have selected. I can pretty much guarantee that even a simple Internet search will turn up material that you can read and incorporate into your quiet times. Also, consider journaling, or at least keeping a few notes about your experience. Even if you are not a writer, you may be surprised at what emerges when you start recording your thoughts.

3) Don’t Quit. You will likely fail many times during your fast. I base this on my own experience and on empirical evidence from friends who have attempted this in the past. Happily, we often learn more from our failures than successes. So when you slip, confess it to the Lord and then resume your fast.

The word “Lent” was originally the word for springtime, the season of renewal when out of the dead of winter we are born anew, fully alive to the joy and hope of new life in the kingdom of God. Lent is a time for remembering that the way to Easter and the Resurrection is through Good Friday and the Cross, that the way to life is through death. When we fast from the evil within, we are taking up our cross and dying to that which separates us from experiencing Christ and the abundant life he promises. May this Lent be for us a time of renewal where we can once again feel the joy of a new life through the cleansing blood of our Savior.

S

PS The photo is the Monastery of St. Naum, overlooking Lake Ohrid, Macedonia