“Faith Journey” – Stephanie Wing, 3.20.11
I was reading an article in a magazine last week about Lent. A college student was driving somewhere and thinking about her Lenten disciplines. She had decided to give up skipping classes for Lent. That's a good start! And she promised to take time each Sunday to bring her grandmother to church. As she was reflecting on these disciplines and thinking about how better to integrate prayer into her life, she didn't see the black ice in the road ahead. The next thing she knew, she was suspended upside-down by her seat belt. Her car had spun out, and came to rest on the roof. Thankfully, she didn't have any broken bones or major injuries, but she was quite sore, and it took her a long time to get back up to speed. She missed some classes because of the accident, and having totaled her car, she wasn't even able to take her grandmother to church like she had wanted to do. She felt frustrated that, just when she was excited about deepening her discipleship, this accident came along and her plans seemed to be ruined.
The accident slowed her down. She had to rely more on others for help. She became more aware of the gift of accepting help, and more appreciative of encouraging words and other acts of kindness. She developed a newfound appreciation for those who lived daily with mobility challenges. Though she wasn't able to fulfill the Lenten disciplines that she chose, this young college student received a much different gift. During the Lent that she got, she learned more about walking closely with God than she would have if she had simply followed the Lent of her own choosing.
The author of this article observed that often, the Lent that we get is more difficult than the Lent we choose. In some ways, following a Lenten discipline is about self-control. Can we really resist chocolate, or coffee, or soft drinks, for six weeks? Can we really get up early for devotions every morning? It is a test of discipline, and a test of self-control. But Lent is also about relinquishing control, or more accurately, relinquishing the illusion of control that we fight so hard to keep. It is about recognizing that God is ultimately in control, and it is about giving ourselves over to God completely. Lent calls us to learn the discipline of following God's direction for our lives rather than our own.
This is not an easy task. So much of what we do is really trying to exert control over our lives. We create rules, and plans, and structures, to keep everything nice and neat. As Presbyterians, we can certainly appreciate the human desire for everything to be done decently and in order, but the fact is, when life seems to happen to us, the results are a far cry from the order we seek.
Our reading from Romans comes from a larger part of Paul's letter to the church in Rome in which he talks about the relationship of the Jewish law to the free grace of Jesus Christ. Jewish Christians were wondering if they needed to continue to observe the Jewish law. The question of what was required of Gentile converts was an issue here and elsewhere. Paul argues that living by the letter of the law is not what brings righteousness or salvation. After all, look at Abraham. Before the law was even given, his faith was the only sign needed of his righteousness.
This isn't to say that following Jesus is easier because there is no longer obligation to follow the law. In fact, it is much easier to follow a set of rules than it is to follow Jesus wherever he goes, to go wherever God calls us. It is easier to create our own checklists for righteous behavior than it is to step out in faith, as Abraham did.
Let's look again at that passage. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are a kind of ancient history with epic tales of creation, exile, and flood, but in chapter 12, the focus narrows to this particular person, Abram, and the people that God will call as God's own. We read, "Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you." God calls Abram to leave his home, to leave his extended family, to leave all that is familiar and safe, and to start walking. Where? Who knows? Just keep walking until God says "Stop!"
Maybe if I were Abram I would have made a counter-offer. "How about, instead of me picking up and moving, perhaps I can just go into the wilderness for a few days and then come back? Or maybe I can give away some of what I own - heck, maybe half of it or more! Or perhaps I can offer some kind of sacrifice. Every day. You know, first thing in the morning, before I do anything else." Abram didn't choose his Lent. He didn't choose his fast, or how to be faithful to God. He simply had faith, and accepted the journey that God gave him.
God desires, more than anything, our love, and our response to God's love in our faithfulness. Our faithfulness isn't about God playing mind games, trying to see just how far we will go to follow. God doesn't send us out into unknown lands, into wilderness journeys, just to test us. God desires our faithfulness for a purpose. As he says to Abram, "I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing...and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
In following God, even through times of wilderness, to places where we would rather not go, in Lents that we do not choose, we can find God's blessing. We don't know what that blessing will look like until God shows us. It might not feel like a blessing at the time. The blessing might be brought through tears and pain. It might not be the blessing that we want. But in following God's call, we will be blessed.
But it isn't just about us and our blessing, either. God's call to us is part of a greater plan, that through God's call, in the ways that God wants to work in and through us, all families of the earth will be blessed. There are many families, many individuals, and entire countries that desperately need to feel God's blessing. As I have been praying for Japan, I have prayed that the people would know that God is with them, that God has not forsaken them. There are spiritual comforts and ways that they might feel God's presence with them, but they also need to feel God's presence through us.
God uses us to be a blessing to others. When we give our money, our time, and our talents, those gifts can be used to bless the families of the earth. When we live more simply, in order to have more to share, we can experience God's abundance in new and more meaningful ways.
In Lent, God does invite us to practice self-control and self-discipline. But more importantly, God invites us to a faith journey, to step out and go to a place that God will show us. God invites us to follow in ways that we had not planned and could not foresee, so that we can receive a blessing beyond our imagination, and so that all families of the earth can be blessed, knowing that God is with them in a very real way.
Where is God calling you to go? What is the Lent that you are receiving, whether you want it or not? I invite you to embrace the journey, wherever it takes you, to step out in faith, and to follow God. Amen.