Epic times with an epic God…or, why Lent matters

A special treat for you all for today, the first day of Lent – my friend Practicing Human has written a guest post on the topic. I’ve decided to do Lent this year in the form of giving up coffee (1 Cor 6:12 – “…I will not be mastered by anything”, etc etc) and making a concerted effort to read about 10 chapters of the Bible a day. Would be interested to hear your thoughts/experiences in the comments. Say a great big welcome to my second guest blogger!

Greetings folks! This post represents my first ever guest-post. I’m quite excited that it is about such a fantastic and wonderful topic: Lent.

It can be an odd thing to find Lent wonderful. And so, perhaps it is worth saying a bit of how I discovered Lent and why I’ve kept with it over the years. I didn’t encounter Lent until my freshman year of high school. On one hand, I knew my Catholic friends occasionally talked about giving things, generally chocolate, up for Lent; on the other hand, I was clueless. My journey with Jesus started in a Lutheran community as I played electric bass on the worship team. That first year, my encounter with Lent was that it was a time for more. We gathered for more services, enjoyed more fellowship, and shared more authentically about our life journeys than any other time of year. I still remember the theme of my first Lenten journey: “Can you drink of this cup?” and I still have the clay pot that held the weekly reminder give-away of the core themes that members in our community discussed. I remember going to that same community on Maudy Thursday, watching the youth group perform the Passion Play, and leaving a darkened sanctuary shattered and confused about the 40-ft black drape that now covered the cross at the back of our sanctuary. On Sunday morning, our congregation was unexpectedly quiet as they entered this darkened sanctuary, the strains from the choir filled the air, and at the first proclamation of “He’s Alive! He’s Alive! He’s Alive and I’m forgiven! Heaven’s gates are opened wide! He’s ALIVE!!!!” the curtain fell, the lights came on, and the trumpets blared.

Not a bad recollection if you consider these events happened 14 years ago.

But, it seems so many people who have been in churches that put Lent on the calendar rarely encounter any joy during this time. And they certainly don’t encounter the sort of kid-in-a-candy-story kind of excitement that I generally associate with the Lenten season. What might be the difference?

It is much easier to reflect on these matters from my own experience and allow you to come to your own conclusions. So that’s my plan.

Reason 1 I love Lent:
In many ways, Lent has become my time to push myself spiritually. Lent carries with it a lot of suggestions about how to explore one’s spiritual life. We find the trinity of teachers: prayer, fasting, and service… or if you feel comfortable with less “churchy” language: Lent means getting connected with God, turning down the station that broadcasts your own needs, and tuning into the needs of others. Ironically, one of my more profound experiences with Lent occurred in the Cambridge Vineyard (in Massachusetts, not the university town in the UK). We were too cool to call our journey “Lent” but we called it “The 40 Days of Faith.” As I remember, one of the big drivers of that journey is that we were gearing up to try to buy property in Boston. The BIG and important thing though is that this 40 Days of Faith season invited our congregation to have faith. Moreover, we evidenced our faith in some pretty neat ways. We spent time trying to discern God’s work in our lives, asking Him to reveal to us the question behind the question: What do you want Jesus to do for you? We spent time fasting because the Bible tells us that the persistent junk present in humanity can only be cleared out by prayer and fasting. And we spent time praying for people we knew who didn’t come to our church that they would encounter God’s blessings on their lives. Not a bad way to go when you really think about it. But then we had a 40 Days of Faith Year 2. What were we aiming for this year? When we looked at where we were after doing this for the first year, we realised that we were not in the same place. At all. That made the goal setting that much harder… and that much more expectant.

So Lent offers me a yardstick because for 40 days, I actually try to follow a rule for practising my faith. A rule, for the uninitiated to the terminology, is a guiding framework and a way to measure how you’re doing. Drawing the parallel to New Years Resolutions, it is mucheasier “to get in shape” if you commit to “go to the gym 3 times a week.” Going to the gym 3 times a week is a rule. It works like a rulerand helps you measure progress. And a good Lenten rule is one that puts your focus on God and the people around you rather than yourself.

Reason 2 I love Lent:
But the real joy in Lent is not so much that I make this personal commitment to this growth season in Christ; the real joy in Lent is that myentire community makes commitment to grow towards Christ. Lent actually came into the life of the Church to remind us that being Christians is not a solo sport.

Many Protestants rightly observe that any discussion of Lent involves talking about something that is not in the Bible. But the Bible really only offers a window into the first 70 or so years of Christians. Revelation, the “youngest” book of the Bible, is ostensibly written between AD90 and 96. At this time, the Roman Empire was still doing a rather bang-up job at totally suppressing the Church. It really wasn’t until after the Edict of Milan in AD318 (when Constantine legalised Christianity) that it was even okay to be a Christian. The Church could now finally start shining Her light from a stable lighthouse rather than having to duck-and-cover everywhere She went. She stood tall, and She shone bright. She shone SO brightly during this time that one of Her biggest mouthpieces was nick-named the Golden-mouthed. If you do a web search for “John Chrysotom” and “Paschal homily,” then you will likely figure out why this guy rocked.

So what does this random Church history lesson have to do with Lent? Everything. Lent emerged because people started coming to Jesus in droves. Lent is the original Alpha Course. Lent is the original seeker-sensitive ministry. Lent is the original small group Bible study investigation. Lest you get on the early Church for a bad name for such dynamic and innovative programme, Lent actually comes from the word “Spring” as in the season of the year that buds forth new life. And what the Church was doing with all of these people coming to Christ during the Lenten season was preparing them for baptism at Easter.

But what happened next is not at all surprising: the people who had encountered the power of God so radically during their preparations for their baptism wanted to keep remembering what they had learned. They wanted to stand alongside the others who were preparing for their baptism. They wanted to do Lent as a whole group, a whole community, a whole family preparing to encounter the risen Christ at Easter.

Within the Orthodox Church, we have a huge emphasis on doing Lent together. We even have a whole series of Sundays before Lent to alert us all to the reality that Lent is coming. When you stand in an Orthodox Church and you hear the story of Zacchaeus, Lent is a mere 4 weeks away! The Church shouts, “Lent is coming! Lent is coming! Prepare yourselves for the season of repentance!” Preparations begin! And it is really important that these preparations begin early in the Orthodox Church because the Church observes a common rule of fasting, abstaining from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and olive oil. That list is also super odd, but it comes form the experience of the first Christians to observe Lent so it is rooted around a Mediterranean diet. And that observation brings me to….

Reason 3 I love Lent:
Lent is not so much about what happens externally as much as it is what happens internally. I entered the Orthodox Church fully in 2009, but I’ve been with Her to observe Lent since 2007. When I first encountered the list of what Orthodox Christians are expected to abstain from, I thought “GAH! What is there left to eat?” But fasting is not about the food.

Orthograph by Steve Robinson at Pithless Thoughts

We can all too easily miss the point of Lent, which is to show us our desperate need for a loving God. Lent is a season to be mindful of our ability to forgive, to be people of peace, to control our urges, to honour our neighbours as ourselves, to seek after the face of God… And if we make an earnest attempt at these goals, then we realise how easily we fall. We realise just how much we can do nothing without God’s help and His mercy. And we come to rejoice in God’s power and might.

Lent has always been before Easter as a way to offer to God our lives, celebrating His absolute victory over death. We enter into Lent to come out just that much more fully human when we proclaim the glad tidings of the Resurrection. And the grace of God transforms our humble offerings of an attempt to steward our stomachs into a mouth full of praise. We hope that we approach the Fast with a spirit that allows us to soften our hearts so that Christ Himself can come and dwell more fully at the very central part of our being.

Thanks so much for reading! And thank you so much Aideen for hosting these thoughts! A blessed Lenten journey to all.

Process and breakthrough

So, as quick a catch-up as is humanly possible: over the summer I finished my MA (I got a distinction, by the way!), moved into a beautiful new house with two awesome girls, acquired a whole bunch of new jobs (currently at four) and had the prospect of doing a fully-funded PhD waved tantalisingly before me. So, I’m at a rather interesting stage in my life at the moment. And by interesting, I mean actually rather tough. I thought finishing my masters would equal lots of free time – definitely not. I have to work every hour God sends to keep my head above water financially, having racked up five years’ worth of student overdraft and debt, one of my jobs in particular is stress-a-licious, then when I get home from work I feel like all I do is clean or sort more stuff out. I have a whole list of people I need to catch up with, and no time to get around to actually doing so.  Yet, I have a funny feeling God is doing something very significant with me – something to do with refining, strengthening and character-building. For a start, I’m doing some repentance for the way I treated my parents’ house like a hotel – I feel like I suddenly understand mum and dad when they say it feels like all they ever do is housework, and on the odd occasion when I have to pick up after one of my housemates I am reminded of how my parents had to pick up after me constantly throughout the day, every day I lived in their house!

Anyway I had to share this video from Kris Vallotton as it pretty much sums up what God’s doing with me at the moment. I’m chipping away at my workplace – kingdom-wise – and chipping away at lots of other things God’s having me pray into, and I’m in limbo at the moment waiting for breakthrough. Meanwhile I’m learning a lot and getting stronger every day. I feel like a completely different person than I was a mere few months ago, and I’m going deeper with God…watch this space…

God kicks ass.

I was in the Boiler Room last night with a bunch of others from the community and we had a proper good ole’ fashioned revival meeting.

We’ve been praying daily for his presence to go with us, and he hasn’t failed us. Last night the atmosphere was thick with it. But I’m still hungry for more.

Unlike most of what following Jesus entails, which I find rather challenging to explain to outsiders at times, I find it very easy to describe God’s presence. Usually for me it’s like a very strong tingling feeling in my hands and wrists (I think this has very strong links with why we lay hands on people when we pray for them or raise our hands in the air when we sing to God). Other times it’s like your whole body is buzzing – I’ve only experienced this in small doses, but it’s a little like being stoned I guess, except good for you. I have friends who have experienced what we call being “drunk in the spirit”, where your experience of God’s love pouring down on you is so immediate that it feels like you’re hammered drunk. My friend Lewwy describes it as “like getting a big hug from Jesus, a big alcoholic hug”. Another friend of mine, who used to be something of a junkie before she became a Christian, has at times got a bigger high off God’s love than she did off drugs, but afterwards she felt amazing, renewed and transformed (hardly surprising; God’s presence is transformational).

I’m looking forward to the day that I’m intimate enough with God to walk in this stuff. I was having a debate with a friend the other week where he was basically questioning the efficacy of chasing God’s presence. He brought up a good point – that it might be a cultural thing, as all this culture wants is new and bigger and better experiences (hence why we go off and do drugs or screw loads of people in order to distract ourselves from our inner numbness).

I think there’s no point chasing this stuff for its own sake – if you’re not really after Jesus but just want a big spiritual high, it’s dead in the water. And then what happens when the fun times are over and you experience the dreaded “dark night of the soul”? But, clearly, amazing experiences are part of what God, by his grace, grants to his people. Clearly, then, they glorify God, and are part of what he wants to give to his people. So, why not seek it out?

The cleft in the rock

So you may have noticed by the thin-ness on the ground of my blogposts that I have been internet-less for the past while. My not-so-trusty Acer laptop decided to pack it in, and although I have now acquired a Macbook Pro (!), it’s having a few teething problems connecting to the dodgy internet connection at my house. I’m currently using the WiFi at McDonalds (what a friggin capitalist), and while I may not be able to crank out anything of any particular substance at the moment, I can at least put up a quick photo blog. I paid a visit on Monday morning (with the wonderful Lyndall and Vicki) to the building that Canterbury 24-7 Prayer Community has acquired to use as a boiler room, and it’s lovely. And yes, we are above an estate agents where we have to go through their offices to access it. Those guys are gonna have an interesting year…

We’ve been thinking of the place a little like the cleft in the rock that God hides Moses in in Exodus 33, as we are in a slightly obscure part of the city but God’s glory can pass alongside us and go into the city. Every day at 5.15pm we align ourselves with the evensong at the Cathedral and pray the prayer Moses prays in that chapter (adapted slightly to refer to us), so here it is if you ever feel like joining in:

“Father you have said that you know me by name and that I have found favour with you. if you are pleased with me, teach me your ways, so that I may know you and continue to find favour with you. Remember that we are your people.  If your presence is not with us, then don’t send us from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with us unless you go with us? Lord show us your glory.”

Something’s in the air.

This afternoon me and my small group (who are interested starting a boiler room Canterbury) met the lovely Phil Togwell from 24-7 Prayer, who came down from Romford to discuss what a prayer-based community would look like in our city. We have all been very much energised by his visit and input, and I’m still processing the stuff we talked about.

This weekend we take our first little foray into 24-7 prayer – inspired by Phil’s community’s 24-1 prayer event, and too wimpy and resource-less to pray for a full week or month, we decided to try praying for 24 hours as a community from Saturday morning until Sunday morning. We have gotten our hands on just about the coolest prayer space available – a caravan called ‘Grace’ – courtesy of the mum of one of the newer Vineyarders, Joe. Vicki suggested this afternoon that we rename Grace ‘The Prayeravan’; we looked at her with a mixture of disgust and amusement. Still, maybe it would bode well for the event? I am sure Sunday will bring lots to write about, plus photos and possibly a short film if I can book me a HD camera from uni…

If this weekend goes well we will surely do more of this in the future, especially once Vineyard actually moves into its brand new warehouse. If you are the praying sort, please keep this event in your prayers this weekend.


A prayer…

Hi there Jesus!

Here are some things I think are insanely cool:

– My family give me the warm fuzzies. I just love spending time with them. Eamonn makes me laugh more than anyone else I know.

Some of my favourite music sends shivers down my spine.

– Good electro, preferably French. I just have to dance.

– South Park – it’s so pee-your-pants funny, one episode is enough to put me in a good mood for the rest of the day.

– Well-written books engage me like nothing else.

– Cookie dough ice-cream is yummy, although you can have too much of a good thing…

– Being in love makes my insides go tingly, like I’m going to throw up, but in a good way.

– I have some really freakin amazing friends who I love spending time with.

– Funky coffee shops. Thanks for putting me in Canterbury, I have everything I need!

– Some films I just can’t get out of my head; and being able to study film rocks my socks off.

So, first of all, thanks! Thanks for putting all this good stuff in my life. I don’t deserve it. And thanks for giving me the wisdom to know it comes from you.

But, Jesus, I want to love you more than I love all of these things combined. I want to get more of a buzz out of you than any of these things.

I’ve felt what it’s like to love you, sort of, but I haven’t felt that achey, pining feeling you get when you’re hopelessly in love and want to spend every waking moment just wrapped in that person’s arms.

I’ve felt what it’s like to want to be in your presence but not the same way as I’m dying to hang out with a good friend or my little brother because they’re just so much fun to be around.

I’ve felt a smidgen of your joy, but not in the same way as a good comedy gives me visceral, tangible, side-splitting joy.

I’ve tasted your kingdom, but at the moment Ben & Jerry’s tastes better.

I know the importance of worship, but The Prodigy is more likely to make me wanna dance and sing and jump around.

You’re so real to me now, but i get bogged down in the more immediate “real” of the world. How can I take you for granted like this? Why does it take so much for me to seek your face? You’re all around me! Wake me up, Lord! Become the centre of my being in ways I can’t even imagine. Help me fall helplessly, devotedly, passionately in love with you.