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Here we are in the season which the Christian church calls Lent. Every year at this time I am reminded how, when I was growing up in Jersey City in the 1940s and 50s, it always bothered me that my friends, who were mostly Catholic and Jewish, got excused from school (or were allowed to come in late) for all kinds of religious holidays, but Protestants like me, weren’t excused. We could have been excused from school, like the others, if we brought a note from church. The problem was that Protestant churches didn’t celebrate many religious seasons and holidays, so they weren’t about to be issuing notes for us.
I don’t know what the other Protestant churches did in terms of celebrating Lent, but in the church I attended I never even heard of or celebrated Lent (or for that matter – Advent, Epiphany, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or Pentecost. The only religious holidays I ever heard of or got off from school were Christmas and Easter. And everybody got those days off, because the schools were closed for winter and spring breaks. I don’t know why my church and most other Protestant churches ignored all those other religious holidays. I suppose they didn’t want to be accused of acting “too Catholic”.
Anyway, in terms of days off from school, there was a distinct disadvantage to being a Protestant. On the other hand, there was also an advantage. I don’t know what the Jewish kids had to do when they got off on all or part of their religious holidays, but the Catholic kids, especially during Lent, had to go to confession every week. They had to perform acts of repentance for the sins they confessed about. And they had to give up something for Lent. Usually they gave up candy or gum. But the good news for us Protestants was that, while we didn’t get the days off, we didn’t have to go to confession. We didn’t have to confess or repent. More than that, we could have our candy and gum, without feeling guilty. In other words, we could just go on doing what we always did.
We could and did go on living as though Jesus never made that final journey to Jerusalem. As though He never was denied and betrayed by those who claimed to be his closest supporters. As though He never was tortured and executed on the cross. As though there was no connection between Jesus and us.
Back in those days, the idea that I would some day be a pastor, leading in the celebrating of all kinds of religious holidays and seasons, never crossed my mind. Me, a pastor? What a ridiculous idea. But as the years went by, it turned out that it wasn’t such a ridiculous idea. In fact, it became a reality. And the time came, 25 years ago, at the age of 49, that I assumed the responsibility of leading the people of the churches I served in celebrating all those religious holidays.
I came to understand that whatever else Lent is, it is a time to stop and ask myself and those in the congregations I served: “Are we, individually and collectively, living as though we are really connected with Jesus? Not just saying we believe all kinds of religious doctrine about Jesus, but living according to His example and direction? Are we living our God-given lives by loving God and every other human being, as Jesus taught and did? Are we forgiving those who are doing hurtful and harmful things to us, as Jesus did when He asked God to forgive those who were torturing and executing Him, even as He spoke those words from the cross?”
It wasn’t until I became a Methodist in my mid 20s that I began to understand that one thing that all religious holidays, regardless of what the religion happens to be, and regardless of what each one celebrates, were and are times to stop and seriously engage in prayer, meditation, and reflection on how we are living our God-given lives. We really ought to be doing that every day. But we get busy with the things we have to do, or believe we have to do. So we need to stop and make and take some designated times to intentionally be in touch with God. To the extent that we do that, we will over a period of time, which can mean a day, a month, or years, hear from God, because whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not, God always has something to say to us. And the basic theme of what God has to say to us can be summed up in one word – LOVE.
The basic question God is always asking, is not “what do you believe?”, but “are you living a life of love?” If your answer is yes, then the next question is “how are you doing that (give some examples)”? If your answer is no, then the next question might be “Why not”? My experience has been that God isn’t just interested in having a discussion with me on how I’m living my God-given life. What God wants is for me to discern what He wants to do with my life in order for it to be a life of love. God wants me to say yes to whatever that is. And then to have faith that my HOPE for a life of love will be fulfilled, since that is the kind of life God desires for me and everyone else to live. I try to be in contact with God every day, but even though I’m retired and have all the time in the world, I still have to make and take time for this. That’s what I’m doing during this season of Lent.
Grace and peace, Ray
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May God be with you,
Patty Perez and Ray Gough