Giving Up “Being On Fire” for Lent

In the Lenten season we identify with Jesus in his time in the wilderness by engaging in repentance and reflection.  For many who observe Lent, this includes giving up something that is important to them (such as cookies, chocolate, wine, or other such things).

This year I am giving up being “on fire for Jesus”.

Truth be told, I probably gave that up long ago.

To an evangelical, the phrase “on fire for Jesus” or just “on fire” makes sense because it is drawn from Biblical imagery that speaks of God as “a consuming fire”.  But to a non-evangelical, this is downright weird.  What exactly is happening here?  Are we dousing ourselves with kerosene and lighting ourselves with matches?  Didn’t that go out with Nero?  And why are we doing it to ourselves?

katnissThere are times when being “on fire” can be quite sexy and glamorous.  In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen was a smashing sensation as “the girl on fire” as she made her grand entrance to the arena.

But most of the time, there is nothing sexy or glamorous about it.  In fact it can be quite painful.  A coworker at a previous job once told me about going to see the Morehouse homecoming parade one year.  He was a young boy then, and the civil rights movement was in full swing.  He saw a man walk by in the parade, pour liquid all over himself, light a match, and next thing you know he was in full blaze.  At first he was walking comfortably, but then he started running faster and faster.

As it turned out, the man who set himself on fire was involved in the civil rights movement.  He wanted an audience with Hosea Williams for some reason or other, but did not get it.  So he set himself on fire.  I don’t know how it ended for this man; neither does my former coworker who told me the story.

onfireAs a matter of fact, being on fire can be deadly.  Most of the time, it is.  Jeff Dunn at internetmonk.com tells the story of two young Tibetans who set themselves on fire last week to protest Chinese rule of Tibet.  This is a very popular form of protest; 104 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009.  104 people dead or badly wounded, and China still rules Tibet.

No, being “on fire for Jesus” has nothing to do with anything like that.  Within evangelicalism, this phrase has a specific meaning.  It means that you are so strongly passionate about making God’s glory and greatness known to all the world, it is as if you are on fire.  You read your Bible more.  You have longer prayer times during which you experience God much more intensely.  You worship much more intensely.  You begin to feel a sense of calling on your life.  You may go out and start a megachurch and become the next John Piper.  Or you may go out and be a missionary to Africa.

coyote

But the reality is that at the end of the day, being “on fire for Jesus” can leave you feeling burned out.  Kinda like Wile E. Coyote when one of his infinitely many clever schemes for catching the Road Runner goes awry and leaves him charred beyond all possible recognition while the Road Runner gets away.

I have been through seasons of life like this.  When I was younger I actually believed that I had it in me to know and follow hard after Jesus.  I heard stories of people who were called to ministry or missions after encountering God and having their lives turned upside down.  I hoped and prayed that God would do the same for me.  But now things are different.  I am different.  Changes of professional status, loss of relationship opportunities, coming to terms with certain developmental issues in my life, and certain nagging doubts and questions that just won’t go away–all of these have stretched me into a different shape from what I was when I was younger.  It has left me looking and feeling–on the inside, at least–very much like Wile E. Coyote in the above photo.  And the Road Runner got away.  Or, to put it in terms of my context in life, I now find it quite hard to carry on with loving God or living the Christian life.  And there are lots of people out there in my world who don’t know Christ or have any concern for spiritual matters.  Burned out though I may be, they are just as unconcerned about spiritual matters as ever.

At any rate, I can no longer summon up the enthusiasm I once felt at the prospect of being “on fire for Jesus”.  Even if I could, I am not sure I would want to.  I once prayed that God would rock my world, light me up and send me out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory.  I had visions of myself as potentially the next Chris Tomlin or John Piper.  But now I don’t think that will happen.  And if the only thing I ever do for God is show up at work every day, do my job, do it well, and do it faithfully, God had better be satisfied with that.  Somehow, I have a sneaking suspicion He will be.  I once struggled with the fact that, because of certain developmental issues, sharing the Gospel with others through one-on-one personal conversations (as if that is the only way the Gospel ever gets shared) is hard for me.  Now, I’m okay with that.  And I have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps God is okay with that too.

Sure, there are verses in the Bible that talk about God as a “consuming fire”.  But how much play does the idea of being “on fire for Jesus” really get in the Bible?  Not a whole lot.  Even Jesus himself was not very “on fire for Jesus”.  He spent the first thirty years of his life as a carpenter living in the backwoods of Palestine.  And when he launched his public ministry and Satan offered him the opportunity to make a huge public splash, he passed.  Of course there was Elijah, who called down fire from heaven and was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.  But in between he discovered that the voice of God does not come in fire but in a whisper.

So I am done with being “on fire for Jesus”.  Anybody else out there feel the same way?

Lent Week 1: Jesus in the Wilderness

lent04During this year’s Lenten season we are going to look at some key scenes from the Gospel of Mark that are part of Jesus’ journey to the cross.  Last week we started with Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ.  This is the halfway point in Mark’s Gospel, and it marks a shift in emphasis where Mark is trying to bring out the fact that Jesus is headed to Jerusalem to die.

But before we can go forward, we must go back.

Today we look at Jesus’ journey into the wilderness at the beginning of his public ministry.  Here is how Mark renders it:

At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan.  He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.  (Mark 1:12-13)

For a more detailed rendering, we turn to Matthew:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.  For it is written:

‘He will command his angels
concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their
hands,
so that you will not strike your foot
against a stone.’ ”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan!  For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.  (Matthew 4:1-11)

And to Luke:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.  He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’ ”

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.  So if you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’ ”

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here.  For it is written:

‘He will command his angels
concerning you
to guard you carefully;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot
against a stone.’ ”

Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.  (Luke 4:1-13)

This scene is the heart of what the Lenten season is all about.  In it we have Jesus in the desert for forty days.  During this time he fasted and was tempted by the devil.  The forty days of Lent correspond to the forty days of Jesus’ time in the desert.  While we don’t do an all-out fast for forty days, we identify with Jesus during this time by engaging in intentional spiritual practice which includes repentance, reflection, and in some Christian traditions, fasting on certain days.

There is a connection between the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, and the forty years Israel spent in the desert.  God provided bread for them throughout their time in the desert, but still they grumbled on numerous occasions, even wanting to go back to Egypt under the mistaken belief that they were better off as slaves there.  Contrast this with Jesus, who ate nothing during his forty days in the desert, and at no point grumbled against his Father.  When the devil first appeared to him, he tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, in a sort-of reproduction of God’s providing bread for the Israelites in the desert.  But he wouldn’t do it.  He did not budge at any point in the process, though the temptations grew progressively more intense.

John Milton sees a contrast between Jesus and Adam.  Paradise was lost when Adam and Eve yielded to the devil’s temptation and ate the forbidden fruit.  Paradise Regained, the lesser known follow-up to Paradise Lost, looks at Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  This regained Paradise, because Jesus, the new Adam, succeeded where the old Adam failed by resisting the devil’s temptations.

Mark is very minimalist in his depiction of Jesus’ time in the desert, compared to Matthew and Luke.  The announcement of the kingdom of God is the decisive theme in the first half of Mark’s Gospel, and Mark wanted to get right to it.

In his brief account of Jesus’ time in the desert, Mark hits on the fact that he spent forty days there, he was tempted by Satan, he was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.  Mark’s Gospel was written to a community of believers who were undergoing heavy persecution.  As such, the fact that Jesus was with the wild animals, who were much more numerous in first-century Israel than today (Mark is the only Gospel writer who points this out), and that angels attended him and kept him safe, would have been highly significant.

One more point about the wild animals:  The Christian community Mark was writing to is believed to be in Rome and the surrounding area.  This observation would have had significance to a community that was seeing many of its number taken by Rome and fed to the lions.  Knowing that Jesus also spent time among the wild animals would have been huge for them.

Mark Galli: Lent as a Death March

Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece from Mark Galli at Christianity Today.

Many Christians who observe Lent do so by giving up one thing that is important to them, or by focusing on one aspect of their personality that needs improvement, for the duration of the Lenten season.  This is the context in which Galli writes.

From this perspective it is possible to see Lent as a season where you get to try living under the Law for 40 days and see how well that works out for you.  Easter is the perfect day to end it because we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who put an end to the Law.

To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.

What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march.

Easter is the perfect day to end Lent because it’s the day when we recall that the chains of law and death have been broken by Jesus, the one who fulfilled the law and conquered death for us. We recall it in worship, with trumpets blaring and choirs singing and (in my church, sans yours truly) dancing in the aisles. We do it after church by gathering with friends and family and eating and drinking as if gluttony were a virtue.

So for me Easter doesn’t become a day when I thank God that he has made me more disciplined, not like those non-liturgical folks who don’t even observe Lent. Instead, it becomes an occasion to celebrate the fact that my self-respect does not hinge on my self-discipline, and that my very lack of discipline is the paradoxical sign of the gospel. Indeed, while we were gluttons and prayerless, while we didn’t give a rip about the poor, Christ died for us. It’s not for the spiritually fit and healthy that he came, but for the unfit and unhealthy. We may be faithless in areas small and large, but he remains faithful through and through.

Read Mark Galli: Giving Up Self-Discipline for Lent

Donny B: Quiet Desperation

423529_10150586640952700_404624921_nHenry David Thoreau once said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.  The first thing we think of here is the middle-aged man with a houseful of screaming kids, an oppressive mortgage, a soul-numbing white-collar job, and a nagging, aging wife who isn’t quite as beautiful as she was back in the day.  But what about those of a younger generation who would kill to have such problems?

Evangelical men are told to marry young and get busy raising kids.  But in today’s economic climate, that option is simply unrealistic for the vast majority of men.  Many cannot provide for a wife and/or kids at even the most basic level for many years.  So what to do?  Unlike their nonbelieving counterparts, they cannot just go out and shack up with some pretty young thing–theoretically, at least.  Many do it just the same.  But for the rest of us who try to play it straight and play by the rules, what to do?  What is the church to do?

Read Donny B:  Quiet Desperation

Welcome to Lent

lent04Welcome to Lent.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season.  Lent is the 40 days before Easter.  Start at Easter Sunday, back up six weeks, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before.  This is Ash Wednesday.  It is actually 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter.  Back out the six Sundays, which don’t count as part of the Lenten season (well, they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated to one who is not familiar to the workings of liturgical churches), and that gets you to 40 days.

Historically, Lent has been the time during which the Church has prepared catechumens (those seeking to join the Church via baptism) for Easter.  For all of us, it is a time of preparation as well.  We prepare for Easter during this season by focusing on Christ and his journey to the cross.  The 40 days of Lent tie in with the 40 days Jesus spent out in the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry (and in a lesser way, with the 40 years that the nation of Israel spent in the wilderness en route to the Promised Land, though this connection is not played up as strongly).  Not all of us will go out into the wilderness by ourselves for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with repentance.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this journey.  Many churches have Ash Wednesday services where ashes are placed on your forehead in order to symbolize repentance from sin.  Ashes appear throughout the Bible as a symbol for repentance–the classic expression of repentance in Old Testament times was to go around in sackcloth and ashes.  Ashes also symbolize our mortality–dust we are and unto dust we shall return.  We die to ourselves and all that we are in this world in order that we may rise again with Christ.

ChurchYear.net has this to say about the purpose and practices of Lent:

The purpose of Lent is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, spiritual growth, conversion, and simplicity. Lent, which comes from the Teutonic (Germanic) word for springtime, can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him. Thus it is fitting that the season of Lent begin with a symbol of repentance: placing ashes mixed with oil on one’s head or forehead. However, we must remember that our Lenten disciplines are supposed to ultimately transform our entire person: body, soul, and spirit, and help us become more like Christ. Eastern Christians call this process theosis, which St. Athanasius describes as “becoming by grace what God is by nature.”

Since Lent is a time to focus upon Jesus and his journey to the cross, we shall spend the next few weeks in the Gospel of Mark, focusing upon a few episodes from Peter’s crucial confession of Jesus as the Christ (Mark 8:29) all the way up to the cross.

One of the first things to notice in the Gospel of Mark is that there is a drastic shift from the front half, in which we see Jesus teaching and working miracles, and the back half, in which Jesus is focused on his upcoming death and moving intentionally toward Jerusalem to meet it head on.  This shift occurs right smack in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, in a passage where Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30)

One thing to note about this passage:  They are in Caesarea Philippi.  This city was built by the Roman tetrarch Philip II and named by him in honor of Caesar Augustus.  Caesar was widely worshiped as a god by the Romans.  Mark is setting up a contrast between Jesus and Caesar here, and his original first-century readers would not have missed it.

In the very next passage one can see the shift:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”  (Mark 8:31-38)

Prior to this episode, there was no mention of Jesus speaking of his upcoming death.  He may have, but Mark did not include it prior to this episode because it did not fit with his purpose in writing his gospel.  His intention was to show Jesus teaching, preaching, working miracles, in short doing all the things that Israel’s long-promised Messiah was expected to do, and then show him heading for the cross.  So what we have here is a complete change of direction for Jesus.

This should set the table for where we will be going in the weeks to come.

Allow me to close today with this reflection from Bobby Gross on the Lenten sojourn and journey, from his book Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God:

We can think of Lent as both a sojourn and a journey. We have two opportunities to identify with Jesus, one at the start of his public ministry and one near the end. The sojourn occurs in the desert as Jesus spends forty days alone in self-reflection and discernment of God’s way. The journey takes place on the road to Jerusalem as Jesus moves toward his dark destiny. The sojourn causes us to look inward and acknowledge our human and spiritual vulnerabilities; the journey bids us look outward and weigh the costs of discipleship. Both involve turning.

In the solitary sojourn, we turn away from our sins and temptations and toward God and his great mercy. This is otherwise known as repentance. And while we usually don’t put ourselves in a desolate environment for forty days, we can choose a posture of humility and undertake practices that sharpen our spiritual awareness….

…”When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). Resolutely Jesus turns toward death in fulfillment of his mission, and he asks his followers to go with him. This is the pivot from self-gratification to self-denial, from seeking acclaim to risking scorn, from the seduction of power to the prospect of suffering. In so turning we plunge into the paradox of the cross-and-empty-tomb gospel.

All-Skate: B16 Is Out. What Say You?

b16Try to imagine what it would be like for Georgia fans if Mark Richt were to suddenly announce his resignation the week before fall practice is supposed to start.  That is exactly where 1.2 billion Catholics are right now.

In a surprise move, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation earlier today, saying that he no longer had the strength to carry on as leader of the Catholic Church.  He becomes the first pope to resign since the Middle Ages.  There is debate over whether or not a pope can even resign (he can), and concern over the possibility of schism with a pope serving while his predecessor is still alive (not likely, I think).  Of course there will be conspiracy theories about this; some will say that there just has to be more to this than meets the eye.

B16 leaves behind a mixed legacy.  His outspoken stand against the secularization of society was hailed by conservatives in the Catholic Church while derided by those of a more liberal bent.  He was praised by some for his handling of the clergy sex abuse crisis which he inherited and which grew to engulf most of Europe on his watch, but some say his response was too little, too late.  And just this past year his butler leaked sensitive documents at a time when there was an investigation into the Vatican’s business dealings.

So what say you?  Do you think there is more to this than meets the eye?  How will it feel to have a new Pope while the old Pope is still alive?  Will that work out OK, or will it just be weird?  Who would you like to see as the next Pope?  B16 will not have a vote in choosing his successor, but over half the cardinals who will choose his successor were appointed by him.  How do you feel about that?  Are you OK with B16 resigning if he felt he was too frail to carry on, or do you think he should have carried on to the end?

Scot McKnight on Zealotry

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Scot McKnight over at Jesus Creed.  In this post he discusses what zealotry looks like in the Christian world today.  The big idea is that zealotry goes beyond what the Bible says, and finds in this zeal an immunity from being wrong.  Zealotry betrays a lack of trust in God’s Word, is motivated by a fear of freedom, and is damaging to the unity of Christian community.  Scot McKnight gives some specific examples of what zealotry looks like, i. e. when real fellowship is confused with such things as church attendance, church membership, and tithing, and encourages people to share examples of zealotry that they have seen.

Read Scot McKnight:  Zealotry’s Environment