“Consider the things that bring you joy; then do those things.” It’s great advice until you realize that it doesn’t take into account the whole picture. The good news is that joy is an inside job; it’s still ours for the taking regardless of what Christmas looks like on the outside.
My inner control freak learned a few Advent lessons this past week. It turns out that one key to managing expectations during the holiday season is “holding the reins loosely.” Do you feel like you’re hanging on as tight as you can, letting the season drag you along at warp speed? Maybe there’s something in here for you today?
It’s December, which means we tend to start racing the clock and the calendar to the finish line. Christmas Day. What if we simply paused each day of Advent to take a deep breath?
What would it look like to focus on preparing our hearts instead of our homes, and anticipating the Gift, instead of the gifts? Read on…
I’m giving up Donald Trump for Lent
Let me explain.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season, which for churchgoers—or anyone with a little history of the church—means the 40-day period leading up to Easter.
For those of you who don’t have the benefit of a lifetime of church attendance, allow me to give you just a bit of background. It’s important. Consider this your Reader’s Digest Condensed version.
The history of Lent can be traced as far back at 325 AD when the Council of Nicaea made it a thing. The Council issued 20 some statements or canons for practical faith, one of which included the mention of Lent. Although there had been recognition and celebration of Holy week and Easter in the Christian church long before, it was the council which declared the 40 days beforehand to be of significance.
The background features the Israelites—God’s chosen people according to the Bible—who were given a litany of instructions regarding sacrifice as atonement for their sins. The first five books of the bible (but really Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) read like a detailed instruction manual straight from God to his people. Do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that. Stay in God’s good books. It’s a bit dry. I totally get why people view the church as legalistic.
Today, many churches still observe the Lenten traditions, but it likely looks a little different than it did some 1700 years ago. The idea behind it is this: it’s the life and death of Christ that forever transforms the Christian church. You see, in his death (which is written in the gospels of the New Testament) resides the ultimate sacrifice, which effectively sets mankind free from all the Old Testament rituals that bound them. One sacrifice pays for all the sin. Freedom!
And so, in observing the 40 days leading up to that period of sacrifice, the modern churchgoer attempts to put themselves in the shoes of Christ himself, when he uttered the words “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Luke 22:42 NLT)
In Christian jargon, we choose to die to self. Live according to God’s will, not our own.
For practical purposes during Lent, that looks a lot like sacrificing something we enjoy or cherish. Something that will make us uncomfortable. Some people give up chocolate. Others forego social media for 40 days. I recently heard about a woman who gave up the comfort of her bed for 40 days and slept on the floor. (That’s sacrifice!)
About a decade ago, I tried giving up coffee; it was then—after two straight days of headache and withdrawal symptoms—that I realized how utterly addicted I am. That “sacrifice” ended pretty quickly and although I think about Lent every year, I’ve yet to come up with something I’m willing to give up for that length of time.
But I digress. The actual benefit of Lent is that every time we think about or crave that thing we’ve chosen to sacrifice, it drives us into God’s arms.
To remember that Christ’s ultimate sacrifice was his life. After all, what’s a bit of chocolate compared to a life? It is to cause us to draw near to God, to depend on his strength to get us through the discomfort, whatever that looks like.
I do think there is merit in the perspective that making some sort of sacrifice can offer. I live in a city and country and during a period of time that is pretty affluent and comfortable. My daily life is generally not characterized by sacrifice or going without. When my cupboards are empty, I can go to the grocery store to fill them. When I want to go to that grocery store, I can take one of the two vehicles I have at my disposal. I can load those groceries into my oversized fridge in my gas-heated home with low E argon windows and energy efficient furnace. My life is pretty good. There are lots of things I could give up for 40 days that will cause me a little discomfort; but only a little in the grand scheme of things. (And no, I’m not willing to try caffeine again.)
Recently, I’ve heard people talk about the notion of adding something TO their lives for 40 days, instead of taking away. Things like setting aside daily latte money for 40 days and making donation to a worthy cause instead, or 40 days of random acts of kindness. These are great ideas! They require one to be deliberate in thought and action for a period of time. Over the years, I’ve considered this approach too. But I’m not a super disciplined person, so I would likely buy the latte because I need caffeine, and at the end of 40 days, send a lump sum cheque to some organization, without doing the actual work of sacrifice and reflection and prayer.
And so, as with all the years, this year is no different for me. In the lead up to Lent, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the significance of personal sacrifice and what I could potentially give. Plus, I’ve spent a bit of time reading about the history of it. Probably because I feel moderately guilty that I don’t actually observe it in any traditional manner and I’m trying to justify that the practice is a creation of the church, not actually biblical instruction.
And then, today I had an epiphany.
This year for Lent, I’m giving up Donald Trump.
What could be better for me spiritually than to determine that for the next 40 days, I will not read one news article or click bait that contains the man’s name?
No Jimmy Kimmel or Alec Baldwin, no SNL, New York Times, or Huffington Post.
Instead, every time I see his name in my newsfeed, I will pray for America. (Though I fear this will keep me on my knees more often than not–which is maybe the point.) I think most would agree that they need our prayers more than ever these days.
You don’t have to look far to see the tremendous fallout in that country on the heels of his election. From the outside looking in, America appears to be a country that has never been more divided. And regardless of what I personally think of the man or his agenda, there are some 320 million people south of my border who are now living in a dramatic resurgence of racism, intimidation, intolerance, disrespect, fear, and violence. And that’s not right. Or good.
While Lent is a manmade way of reflecting on Christ’s sacrifice for us, Scripture does tell us to pray for those in authority over us (1 Timothy 2:1-2). And so, that is what I’m going to do for these next 40 days.
Wish me luck.
Or, if you’re so inclined, pray for me.
Better yet, join me.
Between you and me, I think this might actually be more difficult than giving up caffeine.
I visited an exhibition of some works of the Dutch and Flemish Masters a few years ago, during a short visit to Amsterdam. There were works by Van Gogh, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Rubens, to name a few. These are considered priceless pieces of art, held under lock and key, deemed museum-worthy by someone’s standard.
Crowds line up to see these masterpieces, and though some of these meticulously painted canvases are breathtaking in their detail and portrayal of subject, occasionally, I fail to see what all the fuss is about.
I am the beholder and I don’t see beauty. My eyes see crude brushstrokes and muddy colour, lack of depth, distorted faces and shapes.
I guess that’s why I’m not curating any museum collections.
One of the pieces I had the pleasure of viewing was a little known work by Dutch artist Egon Schiele, called Portrait of Edith. Edith is the artist’s wife.
By earthly standards, as Schiele depicts her, she could hardly be described as beautiful. Her hair is a little askew, she is oddly shaped, her pale face is mottled and she holds only the faintest hint of a smile. Her husband has painted her on an empty background, in which she almost appears to be hanging. Her hands dangle uselessly.
But her eyes tell a different story. They are warm and inviting. Her dress is vivid, stripes of exuberant colour that jump off the neutral canvas.
All I could think as I looked at this woman was her husband’s love for her. The adoration that is so evident in this painting of a plain-looking, flawed, ordinary woman, elevated to radiance through the eyes of her husband.
It causes me to consider God’s role in art. After all, He is the original master artist, creator of everything in and of this earth. Including me.
Have you ever stopped for a moment and considered that? You are a masterpiece.
But, whose eyes do you see yourself through? Are you a reflection of the artist who made you? Or are you looking through a different lens?
The media tells us how we should look, how we should dress, how we should act, and that age is simply a thing to defy. Do you measure up to society’s standard?
So many women are dissatisfied with themselves. Their bodies. Their hair. Their clothes. And the only people that benefit are the industries that feed our dissatisfaction. Those marketing gurus that tell us if we wear this makeup, or those clothes, or lose that weight, then everything will be better. Our life will be brighter.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not advocating that all women just start letting themselves go. I’m all for mascara, lip gloss and cover up; heaven knows that sometimes the dark circles beneath my eyes need a little help!
And despite my general disdain for exercise, I know the importance of being healthy and fit.
I certainly don’t want to be defined by how I look–because by society’s standard, my grey hair and plain face already miss the mark. Edith and I have that in common.
Instead, I want to embrace all the wonderful things that age brings with it: wisdom, perspective, authenticity, security, contentment. These things are true beauty.
Look at Psalm 139:13- 18
“You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand!”
What a picture of how God, the master artist, sees the author!
We live in a world filled with plain-looking, flawed and broken people. We are all brushed with different strokes; our colours are muddy and our faces and shapes distorted. This is who we are.
And God thinks you are beautiful!
By His standard you are museum-worthy.