Tuesday, March 4, 2014

40 Days of Easter - Using Lent to Re-Focus the Greatest Season

I grew up in the church early on but our family stopped attending while I was still in elementary school.  Because of this, I have very few memories of Easter as a “spiritual” holiday.  It was a day for Easter dresses and bonnets, crochet handbags and baskets filled with chocolate bunnies and brightly colored jelly beans.  We would decorate eggs and hunt for them in the backyard, and we would eat ham and scalloped potatoes for our mid-day meal. 

Truth is, that is very similar to the way we do Easter now in our home.  Trade in the girly stuff (I had two sisters) for pastel plaid button-ups and cargo shorts worn by by my three boys and the rest is pretty darn close.  The difference is that I am married to a pastor, and we should know better. 

At Christmas, it is easy to associate that day with Jesus – even for those who don’t believe in Him at all.  Despite the over-materialism of Black Friday and the hustle and bustle in the malls, and the Christmas lights and Santa Claus on every corner, despite what some might call the “war on Christmas,” the Christmas season is still fairly rooted in the manger.  We decorate with nativity scenes that portray the story, we see Christmas cards with shining stars leading men on camel-back.  Here in the States, one can still hear the faint sound of songs like “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” while shopping the produce aisle at the local grocery store. 

As a mom of three sons, ages ranging from kindergarten to 8th grade, I find that I sort of have Christmas down.  We have our advent calendars and the “Best Christmas Pageant Ever” book and the songs and the Christmas story to read out of the bible.  I don’t feel as prepared to teach Easter to my kids.  The Christmas season is a month of fun and contemplation but Easter is often relegated to one weekend. 

This year, I hope to bring Easter back.  I plan to do a modified Lent with my kids.  

Lent at it’s worst can be part of a legalistic and works based means of following Christ.  It can be a motivator to diet or to overcome a vice, with no real desire to grow nearer to God or to reflect on His goodness.  It can be an excuse to head to New Orleans for some muffaletta and “all bets are off” partying for Mardi Gras. 

At it’s best, it is can provide a season of anticipation.   It is a time to fast, to pray and to give alms.  It follows the rich tradition of 40.  Forty days of Christ’s temptation and fast in the wilderness to focus his heart on the truth of Scripture and the power of God before his ministry began on earth.  Forty years of wandering by the Israelites as they learned and re-learned the power, the provision and the almighty Kingship of Yahweh.  Forty days on the mountain for Moses, as he sat in the presence of God and received the commands that would set the Jewish people apart as a nation belonging to Him. 

Lent sets aside 40 days in which we can focus on spiritual disciplines that will ultimately prepare our hearts for Easter, the most pivotal moment in human history and the cornerstone of the Christian faith.  Without Easter we are all lost.  If Christ died on the cross and never rose, we are to be “pitied” more than any other as we worship a dead God.  But we don’t. 

Here are some spiritual disciplines our family will exercise , which will hopefully help bring the Easter season into focus in our home and hearts:

1.     Fasting– there are many examples of fasting in scripture.  Fasting sometimes worked for me and sometimes didn’t.  When I was young and in college I fasted more – mostly because I could do it in secret – as a mom of three it is harder to fast.  It also gets my blood sugar low and I can be a cranky mom which isn’t always honoring to God.  Hunger pangs would remind me that I was weak, and I would pray every time I felt hungry.  As a first-world American, hunger pangs would also remind me of the blessing and gift that food is.  It would remind me of my humanness and in contrast, God’s bigness and His might.  

Fasting doesn’t just have to be giving up food.  It can be sacrificing or giving something up that is important to you.  Examples might be: sweets, video games, smoking, television or time surfing the Internet.  I know people who gave up 10 minutes of sleep each day of lent, waking earlier and spending that extra time in prayer and thanks to God.  Last year I asked my boys what they wanted to give up for lent.  The oldest said “homework.”  The middle said “vegetables.”  And my youngest (a sugar addict) said “candy!”  At least one out of three understood the concept of sacrifice that I was getting at!  I laughed, but when we give things up with selfish motives (because we don’t actually like those things or we want to lose weight…) we miss the point.  When we give something up we also experience the abundance that is in our lives and the gifts that God pours out. This season, we will give opportunities to our kids to learn the importance of sacrifice and fasting and to participate in those things. 

2.     Prayer– Prayer might be a no-brainer, but it is so hard for some of us to talk with God and listen for His voice on a regular basis!    I believe God is honored and blessed when we come before him and expect him to listen.  In John 10:27, scripture tells us that his sheep (that’s us!) hear his voice.  It may come in a burning bush (like Moses) or a whisper in the wind (like Elijah) or in a sign (like Gideon).  It could be a still small voice in your spirit or through godly counsel of a friend.  It could be through nature.  God does speak to us and when we pray, we often become more receptive to His voice and more aware of it when it comes.  I find that when I spend time in prayer and then look out at the stars, I will recognize his majesty and perhaps his voice saying (as in the Rich Mullens song paraphrased) “one star has been lit for you.”  If I am not praying and my focus is on human things, human endeavors, lifting myself up by my bootstraps and running the treadmill that can be life, I might miss those moments. 
      The bible also tells us that God hears us.  (1 John 5:14) We can go to him with confidence and trust that He loves us and is interested in us.  He might not answer every prayer with a resounding yes (although our football team DID win the superbowl this year….) but he hears us.  God is not a genie in a bottle that will grant our every wish, but he does hear us.  And I believe as we trust him and share with him and even (gasp!) wrestle with him when we disagree with the way things unfold in life, we can grow nearer to Him and begin to resemble the kind of people he calls us to be. 
      Here is what I want to teach my kids:  Prayer is talking with and hearing from God.  During Lent, taking time to pray will bring the God of the Universe into better focus.  It can remind us of His glory, His might, His goodness and mercy.  It can remind us that we are small in His shadow, and yet still He loves us.  It can bring Him nearer to us and make him more personal – then when we look at the life of Christ and His mission on earth, and his ultimate sacrifice played out in the Easter story, it has more gravity and more dimension.  Our kids are growing up in an age where every movie comes out in a 3D version.  Every instagram photo and video upload using a GoPro shows them the big world is REAL and allows them to experience it beyond simple words on a page.  Prayer brings God to life.   And a living, active, engaging, personal and real God is crucial to helping set the stage for your kids of the greatest story ever told.

3.     Alms giving – Our culture has no problem associating gift giving and helping the poor with Christmas.  In order to prevent spoiled children, we often have them clean out their toy bin in preparation for “Santa’s” arrival (if you let “Santa” in your home!).  We donate those toys to the toy drive.  The schools collect canned goods and the local soup kitchen serves ham and turkey dinners.  As Christian parents, we tell our kids that we give gifts at Christmas time because God first gave the gift of his son, baby Jesus, to us.  We celebrate that gift by in turn, giving to others.  In order to balance out the materialism of Black Friday through the week-after Christmas clearance sales, we make sure we are donating our time and belongings to those who are less fortunate.  This helps our kids, and us, keep some perspective and gratitude. 

When I was online researching Lent (I did not grow up Catholic so was starting from scratch in the research department) and found “alms-giving” to be a common element of the 40-day spiritual preparation for Easter, I sort of had a “duh” moment.   I mean, isn’t Easter part 2 of the best gift ever?  Baby Jesus is actually a terrible gift all on his own.  It would be like giving my kid a remote-control helicopter but not giving him the remote.  For the gift of “God becomes flesh” to be the best gift ever, first we have to wait 30 plus years for him to finish living out his life here on earth and then die and raise to life again.  Until the Easter story happens we are all just caught in a cycle of sin and death and Christianity isn’t even a legitimate faith.  The deity of Christ is central to our faith and His death and resurrection gives credibility to His claims of it.  The greatest gift ever is that Christ came (Christmas)….to die (Good Friday) and conquer sin and death (Easter) that we now might also have fullness of life here on Earth and later in heaven.  We all really needed that of God, and He gave it.   Wouldn’t Easter season be the perfect time to give gifts to others, and especially to the neediest of us all? 

Putting emphasis on giving to others during the lent season sheds a greater light on the gift that is Easter.  It helps us tell the story to our kids in the same way that it helps us tell the Christmas story to them.  It makes the story complete.  If my son opened up the remote-control helicopter and asked what was so cool about it, I would have to also give him the remote.  On it’s own it is okay but with the remote, it can fly!  In the next 40 days our family will look for ways to help others.  Again, the purpose of lent isn’t to add more “spiritual stuff” to our already full plate.  It is to bring clarity and sharper focus to the Easter story. 

By the time our 40 days are up, my prayer is that our family knows God more, feels grateful for Christ’s act on the cross (and maybe even feel the sacrifice more acutely), and then on Easter morning, we can celebrate with more enthusiasm and a greater understanding of why and what and WHO we celebrate. 

Happy Lent, everyone!

**I am in the process of writing an actual devotional for families on the Lent/Easter Season.  Please be kind, and do not borrow from this post for any officially published works!  I kindly thank you!