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First Week in Lent
Give Up Something Bad for Lent
Scripture: Read Matthew 5:29-30; 16:26
A few years ago, I was with some friends at a banquet in Texas. After a sumptuous meal, the waiters brought out a beautiful dessert. One man at our table said, "Oh, no! I can't even look at that!" "Why not?" we asked. He answered, "Because I'm giving up desserts for Lent, and I don't want to be tempted."
For years and years, people have given up something for Lent as a spiritual discipline, usually things like desserts, sweets, chocolate, coffee, tea, or ice cream. Some who are less disciplined will dramatically announce as a joke that they are giving up something that's out of season and not available like watermelon or strawberries, or something that they don't like anyway like spinach or Brussels sprouts. And others with tongue firmly in cheek will say they are giving up something they can't do anyway like space travel or running a four-minute mile.
Well, recently I've been thinking about this from another perspective. If we are going to give up something for Lent, instead of choosing something good, why not choose something bad? If we are going to give up something for Lent as a spiritual discipline, then why don't we pick out something that we really need to get out of our lives permanently? Why not give up something bad for Lent?
It happened one morning a few weeks before Easter in an adult Sunday school class. During the gathering-in time, people were drinking coffee and chatting informally. Suddenly someone asked, "What are you all giving up for Lent?" People began to discuss that question. Some took it very seriously and told what they were doing, but others took it very lightly. They joked, made wisecracks about it, and brushed the question aside. But then, one woman who had just gone through a painful divorce said something powerful. She said, "I've decided this Lent to give up being unhappy! I'm going to give up being unhappy for Lent!" That comment touched me deeply because it made a lot of sense when I thought about it. After all, if we are going to give up something for Lent as a spiritual discipline, why not pick out something bad? Why not pick out something that spiritually we would be a whole lot better off without?
It's really a very Biblical idea, isn't it? Jesus said to the disciples that they should deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him (Matthew 16:24). And he says it to us! Deny yourselves! Take up your cross! Follow me! We also could say it this way: "Get rid of those things in your life that prevent you from walking where Jesus would lead you. Get rid of those things in your life that are not Christlike!" Then, Jesus put it even more graphically in the Sermon on the Mount. Listen to these shocking words: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell" (Matthew 5:29-30).
Tear it out? Cut it off? Throw it away? Did Jesus really say that? Is this the "gentle Jesus meek and mild" who we sing about? Is this the personable Jesus who took little children up into his arms and blessed them? Is this the sensitive Jesus who loved the birds of the air and the flowers of the field? Is this the compassionate Jesus who touched the man with the withered hand and made him whole? What are we to make of this? These words sound so harsh, so stark, so brutal. If your right hand offends you, cut it off.
There must be some truth here that is tremendously important to prompt Jesus to speak so strongly and so unflinchingly. Obviously, Jesus is speaking symbolically here. He is not talking about acts involving knives and gouges. He means that anything that is destructive, anything that threatens to destroy us, and anything that seduces us to sin should be ruthlessly and radically cut out of our lives. Any part that threatens the existence of the whole must be eliminated before it contaminates and destroys.
If you are smoking and it's destroying your lungs, quit smoking. If you are drinking and you are becoming an alcoholic, quit drinking. If you are gambling and losing all your food money at the track, quit gambling. Whatever you are doing that is tainting and destroying your life, cut it off, quit it, and give it up before it does you in.
Although it sounds harsh and startling, the truth is that we do, as a matter of fact, operate on this "cut it off, give it up, get rid of it" principle all the time. Ask any doctor about this. If you have an appendix that is about to rupture and spread its poison into other parts of the body, the doctor will not hesitate to cut it out. If skin cancer appears on your finger and threatens to get into the bloodstream and spread to other parts of your body, the doctor will say, "Let's give it up." Ask any dentist, any athlete, or any singer, and they will all tell you that there are certain things that you have to give up before you can be your best.
Nowhere is this principle truer than in the spiritual dimension of our personal lives. There are certain acts, certain attitudes, certain habits, certain sins that will contaminate, infect, and poison our souls. The only way we can be spiritually well, spiritually fit, and spiritually whole is to get rid of them, give them up, cut them out. Nothing less than radical surgery will do!
Now, be honest with yourself and with God. What is in your life that you need to give up for Lent? What bad thing in your life right now do you need to get rid of? Let me list a few possibilities. I'm sure you will think of others.
FIRST, GIVE UP BITTERNESS.
Is there some bitterness in your life right now? If so, you had better give it up because it will poison your soul. Is there a grudge, a grievance, a smoldering hatred, a broken relationship that is tainting your life right now? If so, please don't go to sleep tonight until you have set it right.
The hit movie Rain Man is the story of a young man named Charlie Babbitt who became estranged from his father because of a confrontation that happened when Charlie was sixteen years old. Charlie brought home a good report card and wanted to take some of his buddies for a victory ride in his father's prized convertible. But his father said, "No!" Well, Charlie took the car anyway. His father had him arrested along with his buddies for stealing the car! The parents of the other boys bailed them out immediately, but to teach him a lesson, Charlie Babbitt's father left him in jail for two days! When Charlie finally got out of jail, he was so angry, so hurt, so hostile that he ran away from home.
Later, his father tried to contact him; but Charlie, still bitter, refused to respond. Finally, when Mr. Babbitt died, he left the convertible—the car that had caused their estrangement—to Charlie; and he left the remainder of his estate—over three million dollars—to Charlie's autistic brother named Raymond, a brother Charlie didn't even know he had.
As the story continues to unfold, Charlie is angry. He feels that he has lost his birthright to Raymond who is out of touch with reality, lives in a world all his own, and has absolutely no concept of the value of money. He thinks a candy bar and a sports car cost the same ... about a hundred dollars!
Charlie Babbitt tries at first to use Raymond to get the money, but in the process he realizes that he really loves his brother and that's more important than the money. They connect in a wonderful way.
It's a beautiful story. It has some language in it that I wish they had left out, but it's a beautiful story. However, the story is tinged with sadness that is produced by seething bitterness. Look what Charlie missed over all those years, and I'm not talking about money. And look what Charlie's dad missed. All because of a festering unresolved bitterness.
Please don't let that happen to you. Remember how Jesus put it: "For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?" (Matthew 16:26). The King James Version translates the word for life as "soul." With every fiber of my being, I'm pleading with you to think about this. If there is bitterness in your life, give it up for Lent. Give it to God. Let God bring healing. With God's help, you can give it up forever!
SECOND, GIVE UP APATHY.
Apathy means quitting on life. Apathy means not caring. Apathy means not trying. It's amazing to me how many people there are in our world today who get discouraged and throw in the towel. If you want to give up something for Lent, give up apathy! Give up negative, cynical, pessimistic thinking.
I heard my college Bible teacher tell this story: Dr. Halford Luccock was a distinguished professor at Yale University a few years ago. He told a bittersweet story of his own youth. He and a few of his rebellious young friends decided to do something wicked, the wickedest thing they could think of. They decided to burn a Bible and not just any Bible. They slipped into Hal Luccock's father's study, took the huge book from the library, and set it on fire. But Mr. Luccock arrived on the scene unexpectedly and spoiled their fun by pointing out that the huge book the boys had burned was not the Bible at all but the dictionary, which of course contained exactly the same words but in a different arrangement. Then Mr. Luccock pointed out to the boys that we don't destroy words by burning them; we destroy them by not using them!
Burning the Bible is a wicked thing but ignoring the Bible is even worse. You see, we destroy good things by ignoring them. Churches, schools, families, marriages, friendships, commitments, physical health, spiritual life, intellectual growth: all these good things can be destroyed by neglect, by apathy. Apathy is the opposite of commitment, the opposite of faith, and it can ruin your life. If you want to give up something for Lent, why don't you pick out something bad to give up like bitterness or apathy?
FINALLY, GIVE UP DISCOURAGEMENT.
I heard a story about a preschool teacher who felt worn down and burnt out. She was a committed teacher, but she felt tired and discouraged. And the children were really beginning to get on her nerves. They were driving her up the wall. Then things got worse. Word came that her mother had died. She was very close to her mother, and she was devastated by her sudden loss.
After the funeral, she took some time off to work through her feelings. Her grief made it even harder for her to go back into the classroom. Finally, when she returned to school, she felt more like a soldier going into battle than a teacher of preschoolers. The first day back, she went through the motions like the competent professional she was. Even though she felt sorry for herself, she felt that she was covering it very well.
But on the second day back to school, something happened. She discovered five-year-old Rachel picking the last chrysanthemum from the flowerpot in the hall. Rachel, by the way, was the most distant, difficult, disruptive child in her class. In a stern, trembling voice, the teacher said, "Rachel, what are you doing?" Rachel held out in her little hand the flowers she had already picked. "Mrs. Terrell," she said, "You used to be like a mother. I know you are fussed in your mind. Maybe these flowers will help you be like a mother again."
Mrs. Terrell was taken back. Fussed in my mind, she thought. You mean it shows? to a five-year-old?
Then Mrs. Terrell asked, "Rachel, what is a mother like?"
"A mother is like you used to be," Rachel said.
"I like being with children.... It's just that, well, Rachel, my mother passed away and...."
Rachel meekly interrupted, "You mean she died?"
"Yes, Rachel, she died."
Rachel looked up at her teacher with big brown eyes and asked, "Did your mother live until she died?"
Mrs. Terrell thought, What kind of question is that? "Well, honey, of course. All people live until they die. They ..."
Rachel interrupted again, "Oh, no, they don't, Mrs. Terrell. Some people change. They stop being what they used to be. They walk around, but they don't seem alive anymore." Rachel paused, and then she said, "Please don't die, Mrs. Terrell. Stay alive for us. Be like a mother to us again."
Mrs. Terrell hugged her tightly and through tears she said, "I will Rachel! I will!"
All of us have moments when we get down, when we get discouraged, when we feel sorry for ourselves. All of us have to walk through difficult valleys. All of us have to experience the Good Fridays of life, but the good news is that Easter's coming. Easter's coming! And if during these days of Lent we can—with the help of God and by the grace of God—get rid of some of the bad things in our lives like bitterness, apathy, or discouragement, we will be better prepared to receive the Easter victory, the new life God has for us. And, if we can give up some of the things that are bad for us for Lent this year, then hopefully, prayerfully, we can give them up forever with the help of God.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. What does Lent mean to you? Why is it important? What do you hope to receive from participating in this experience?
2. Why do you think people give up something for Lent? Have you ever given something up? What was it? What was the result?
3. What are some reasons to give up something bad for Lent? What might happen when we give it to God?
4. What dangers do you see in bitterness? Why do you think bitterness is often left unresolved?
5. Think about a time when you experienced apathy. What was it like? How can apathy harm your life?
6. When have you experienced discouragement? What are some ways to eliminate discouragement from your life?
Dear God, thank you for the season of Lent. Remind us of the importance of preparing for and anticipating Easter. Help us to use this season wisely as we make positive changes in our lives. Amen.
Focus for the Week
Begin your observance of Lent by taking a personal inventory of your habits, strengths, and weaknesses. Look deep inside to see what is holding you back from a better relationship with God and others. Take the first steps toward giving up something bad for Lent.CHAPTER 2
Second Week in Lent
Give Up Harsh, Condemning Judgments for Lent
Scripture: Read Matthew 7:1-5
Her name was Ellen. She was a junior in high school, an honor student, a member of the band, and secretary of her class. Her life was beautiful, her future bright; but then, everything went wrong. I was called on to conduct her funeral on what would have been her seventeenth birthday. It was suicide. In the depths of depression, she had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. She left a note saying that she couldn't go on. She couldn't fight the rumors and the rejection any longer. She felt betrayed by her friends and her community. It was all so sad, so useless, and such a waste. This tragic teenage suicide was sparked by a misunderstanding, by a false rumor, by people spreading vicious gossip, by ordinary people like you and me passing on a cruel, destructive untruth.
The rumor was that she had come home at daylight in a drunken stupor, her clothes disheveled, delivered to her door by an older man in a fancy sports car. That was the rumor. The truth was that she had sat up all night at the hospital with her gravely ill grandmother and had been brought home early the next morning by her uncle. That was the truth!
A neighbor saw something out her kitchen window and jumped to the wrong conclusions and then started spreading a false rumor. As a result, an innocent teenager was devastated. The harsh stares, the cruel jokes, the profane wisecracks, the vicious gossip, the whispering behind her back, the pointed fingers, and the blatant lies became too much for Ellen. Her fragile, sensitive personality couldn't take it. She cracked under the pressure, and in a moment of deep agony and excruciating emotional pain, she took her life. A young life with so much promise was snuffed out because people like you and me participated in spreading false rumors. When will we ever learn?
As far back as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned us about this: "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged" (Matthew 7:1). This is not a suggestion, not a request, not a plea. It is a strong command, an emphatic order. Jesus is speaking straight from the shoulder here. He is not mincing words. He is not beating around the bush. He is coming on strong and giving us a stern warning: "Do not judge!"
Excerpted from Give Up Something Bad for Lent by JAMES W. MOORE. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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