Many Christians are now observing the season of Lent, the commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness right after his baptism by John the Baptist and the temptations he faced before he began his public ministry.
For some, Lent is a time of giving up something we enjoy a lot to focus more on God. For others, it’s a time of taking on something extra that focuses our thoughts more on our relationship with the Father through Jesus.
But for all of us who follow Jesus, Lent should be a time of self-examination to consider where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.
To put it simply, it’s a time to focus on the foundation of our lives. When we follow Jesus, he is the foundation.
But what does it mean to say Jesus is the foundation?
Every mother has a pet saying that drives her kids crazy…until they grow up and see the truth in it. Mine was “Patience is a virtue; cultivate it.”
That statement drew more than its share of eyerolls when they reached their teens, but my favorite response came from my daughter when she was eight. We were running a little late getting out the door for the 35-minute drive to school from our house in the country. As I was trying to get my kids to hustle, my daughter turned to me as we were about to rush out the door.
I knew I’d made real progress toward teaching her what was important when she said, “Patience is a virtue, Mommy.”
And she was right. Hearing my own wise words in that sweet little-girl voice helped me remember how important it is that what we say and the way we act are consistent.
Patience doesn’t come easily to me. I’m a type-A sort of woman, and that’s both a strength and a weakness.
By nature and by training, I see a goal and work hard and fast to reach it. But sometimes that can come at the cost of not treating people the way God wants me to.
Do you ever stop and ask yourself why you do what you do?
I haven’t always asked myself that question as often as I should. When I did, sometimes I didn’t like the answer.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the flow of a typical day. So many things in life simply must be done as part of living.
Get out of bed. Get everyone fed. Get each one launched to school or work or whatever.
There’s housework and homework and work that comes home from work because there wasn’t enough time to finish it.
But the events of the day and the demands on my time are not why I’m on this earth.
I need to pause, take a deep breath, and ask, “Why am I here?”
I can phrase that as a more fundamental question, “What is the will of God for my life?”
As I prepare to do battle with Schedule C and Form 4562 for my taxes, the story of the agents of the Jewish rulers who were trying to trap Jesus popped into my head. Their question: was it allowed under Jewish law to pay taxes to Caesar?
That was a rock-and-a-hard-place question if there ever was one. To answer yes would anger the Jewish people who hated the Roman overlords. It was salt in the wound that those taxes paid for the Roman troops that occupied their land. To say no was to commit treason in Roman eyes and invite execution.
Jesus’s response was brilliant. He asked for a denarius, the Roman coin that was used to pay taxes to Rome. The head of the emperor was stamped on one side of every denarius. When Jesus asked his questioners whose portrait and inscription was on the coin, they had to say, ”Caesar’s.”
I can imagine a smile on Jesus’s face as he replied, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21 (KJV))
But the question of how we divide what we have between God and Caesar goes way beyond taxes.
I’m glad I don’t live under an imperial dictator. But if I think of Caesar as all the demands placed on me over which I have little or no control, Jesus’s words take on a broader meaning.
Do we reluctantly “render to God” the things we should want to give him gladly?
It’s almost time to file tax forms again. As I gathered the information about the charitable donations we made in 2016, I started thinking about “good deeds” and what Jesus said about them.
I think most of us can agree that good deeds are desirable things to do. That’s why they’re called “good” deeds (duh!). There’s a real need for us to share our material wealth and our time with others who haven’t been as fortunate. It’s good for the folks who need some help, regardless of why we give.
But is it always good for us? The answer is…it depends.
Every one of us has a purpose.
It’s easy to forget that sometimes. We get so caught up in the demands of daily living that we sometimes lose sight of the longer timeline, the broader view, the deeper perspective.
Time is precious. There’s a set limit to how much I have, whether it’s the 24 hours of a day or the total years of my life.
If I was 20, I might think I had another 60 years, give or take a few months. However, average life expectancy is a probability, not a promise. I could live to 100, or I could die tomorrow. No matter how much time I have left, the problem remains the same.
There are too many options for how to spend my time. Will I simply spend it, or will I invest it in something worthwhile?
It was a small plate, gilded with gold and silver in the ancient Japanese art of Chokin. A Japanese pagoda sat in front of Mount Fuji with cherry blossoms on one side. I bought it in an antique shop for a few dollars on a trip to visit family in Texas. Not what most would consider a treasure, but I loved looking at it where it hung for years on the bathroom wall.
Then one misdirected flip of a shirt, and it hit the floor. It didn’t shatter, but a crack ran across it. The two pieces were held together only by the metal picture in the center, and an inch of the gold rim lay in chips and flakes across the floor. I cleaned it up, keeping all the pieces. I might be able to glue it back together, but it will never be the same.
But in the greater scheme of life, does it really matter that my lovely little plate is lovely no more?
There are no luggage racks on hearses, so why do we sometimes live our lives as though there were?
When Jesus was sharing his last meal with his disciples before his death, he gave them a new command: love one another.
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit―fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:16-17 (NIV))
Unlike the Greek language of Jesus’s day, the English language makes it hard to capture that command in a single word. We use “love” for many different kinds of affection, sometimes showing the deepest engagement of our hearts and sometimes just meaning we like something a lot.
The four words for “love” in the Koine Greek of Jesus’s day are phileo, storge, eros, and agape.
Phileo is the affection between good friends. It’s a give-and-take kind of love that grows out of companionship.
Storge is the natural affection for members of one’s own family. While it doesn’t have to be earned to start (it’s normal to love a newborn baby), it can be either strengthened or destroyed by the actions of the one we love.
Eros is the emotional involvement based on physical attraction. It’s a self-centered kind of love where one’s own pleasure is most important.
The love that Jesus commands is agape love, love that is unearned and unconditional. It’s not a natural emotion for one person to love another even when there is a good reason to dislike or even hate that person. Agape love is an act of will, not an emotion.
The quality of our love for our fellow believers, for people not especially our friends, for those who wish us harm―that speaks more loudly about our faith than anything we say.
In an individualistic culture like the United States, it’s easy to slip into the habit of thinking about God only in terms of our personal relationship with Him.
There’s no doubt that’s important. When Jesus was talking with his disciples during their “private retreat” to Caesarea Philippi, he asked them two questions. The first was who did people say he was. After giving them a chance to answer, he zeroed in with the question of vital importance.
“Who do YOU say that I am?”
While our relationship with God depends on how we answer that very personal question, it doesn’t stop there.
We are a fellowship of sisters and brothers with the whole being much greater than the sum of the parts. The importance of the whole versus just the parts extends to the gifts of the Spirit.
While each gift of the Spirit is a personal blessing, that’s not their main purpose.
Every so often, it’s good to go back and review the basics. We need to re-examine those underpinnings that we once learned but now unconsciously assume rather than thoughtfully consider. The end of one year and the beginning of the next can inspire us to do that. Perhaps that’s the best kind of New Year’s resolution we can make.
For a Christian, that can mean rereading the Gospels to see once more what Jesus said, how and to whom he said it, and what he did.
It’s funny how each time I read one of the Gospels, I discover something I never saw there before.