By Eugene C. Scott
Several months after God first grabbed me by the heart (I was fifteen years old), I attended an Easter sunrise service at Red Rocks Amphitheater in the foothills west of Denver. Suddenly colored eggs, chocolate bunnies, and new Easter outfits paled as symbols of a holiday that affirms the resurrection and forgiving power of Jesus Christ. I remember–still–how guilt and shame, self hate and fear slid off my heart like a winter crust slides off a blade of spring grass. With Jesus living in me, my life switched from an old, grainy, black and white movie to full living color. Everything–sight, sound, joy, pain–reverberated with an edge, a flavor, that jolted me. As a musician who was popular back then, Phil Keaggy, sings, I felt
“Like waking up from the longest dream,
how real it seemed,
Until Your love broke through
I was lost in a fantasy
That blinded me,
Until Your love broke through.”
That Easter in 1973 I realized the reality of God’s love breaking into my life and beginning a revolution. Freedom reigned. My heart danced as my life became a whirlwind of much-needed change. Tragically, my list of sins to abandon was quite impressive for a mere fifteen-year-old, especially since I abandoned the same sins multiple times. Slowly my struggle against sin transformed my Christian life from a joyous explosion of forgiveness into a smoldering list of forbidden actions I never fully managed to avoid. Christianity lost its life and became an oppressive duty.
Don’t get me wrong. The Bible clearly communicates that sin makes us incompatible with God and the banquet he has planned for us. Drug abuse, lying, gossip, skipping school, and the like were good things to give up. But when Christianity degenerates into a constant striving against life, it loses its power for life. My freedom in Christ was swallowed by guilt and fear and dos and don’ts.
There’s a story about a Presbyterian who moved into a Catholic neighborhood. Each Friday he grilled himself a steak. His neighbors were sorely tempted as they dined on their traditional fish. Soon the Catholics took matters into their own hands and converted the Presbyterian to their flavor of Christianity. That following Sunday the Priest sprinkled water on the man saying, “You were born a Presbyterian, raised a Presbyterian, but now you are a Catholic.” His neighbors welcomed him into the fold warmly.
But that next Friday they were drawn to the new convert’s deck by the aroma of a tantalizing steak. As they stepped onto his deck, they saw him sprinkling a slab of meat with A1 saying, “You were born a cow, raised a cow, but now you are a fish.”
That joke betrays an all too common belief among Christians–Presbyterian, Catholic, Independent, whatever–that Christianity is comprised of rites, rituals, traditions, and laws. Therefore our faith becomes that which Jesus died to save it from: outward expressions of inward emptiness: legalism.
Next week millions of Christians worldwide will begin looking toward Easter and remembering the resurrection of Jesus by participating in the season of Lent. Unfortunately, as beautiful and meaningful as Lent can be, for many it teeters on becoming the modern poster child for an empty legalistic faith. On Ash Wednesday thousands will begin a fast in which they will give up chocolate, soda, TV, or something similar.
The prophet Samuel confronted Israel’s first king, Saul, with these words: “To obey is better than sacrifice.”
What’s the difference between obedience and sacrifice? Obedience stipulates an inward desire to do what God has commanded not outward acquiescence. Jesus said, if we love him we will obey his words. Obedience is a response of love to God’s love. Further, obedience is taking God’s word in and then living it out. Jesus illustrated this with the story of a house that has been swept clean of its demons. But then, because the house remained empty, many more demons rushed back in. Obedience then is an outward expression of an inward fullness. Sacrifice often is an outward expression of an inward emptiness.
Fasting has its purpose: to remind us of our need for God. But be honest. Did giving up sweets last Lent really fill you with a deeper love for our Savior? My daughter once wondered why we don’t instead add something to our lives during Lent. In other words, embrace–take in–the good things God has for each of us. And if you choose to fast, give something up, that is not healthy for you, replace it with something that is. This Easter add the fullness of the Holy Spirit to your life. Instead of fasting, feast. Dine on the simple presence of God. Read the Bible to know God not just to wrest his will from its pages. Give yourself to God in worship. Be with God.
The Apostle Paul said the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He did not intend this as a legalistic list, but an illustration of a life with the Holy Spirit permeating the soil of the soul. Like a crop in rich earth, the fruit of the Spirit thrives in a life filled with God. Fruit withers when disconnected from the branch. If your faith is a series of outward responses based on an inward emptiness, hanging fruit on yourself will only weigh you down.
As Lent leads us toward Easter, feast on outward expressions of inward fullness; fast from outward expressions of inward emptiness. Is your life a feast or a famine? God desires it to be a banquet of freedom, forgiveness, and his very presence.
Beginning on March 13–the Sunday following Ash Wednesday–we will begin a Lenten series at The Neighborhood Church titled
“Embrace: Discover, Desire . . . Jesus”
During worship we will explore those things of God we can embrace and add to our lives as a response of love to Jesus. These worship gatherings will also include hands-on opportunities to practice these things God asks us to add to our lives. Join us. See tnc3.org for worship times.
Eugene C. Scott writes this blog. Eugene co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, CO