Sometimes I give myself writing assignments by title. Here, mister smarty pants, try to write a coherent blog post about that. It reminds me of my drama club teacher in high school giving us the most ridiculous juxtapositions and thirty seconds to come up with some way of working them into an improvised scene on the fly. My other goal is to try to offend as many people as possible at once. Tell me how I do.
So here are a few thoughts that have been rolling around in my head that I think are related. Though I never can be sure until I’ve banged them out here and can squint a little bit at them and try to see if it is what I thought it was. You never can be sure about thoughts; they have a way of looking a little different inside your head before you cough them up and hit publish for the whole world to see.
Let’s begin with Lent. Some of my good friends aren’t fans. They’re not upset that good Christians are free to do it, but they’re not convinced this is a strategic hill to take in our battle against the darkness. For them the risks outweigh the advantages. And in the great war against sin, Satan, and the flesh, there’s a cosmic-sized battlefield with room for any number of generals making varying calls based on the state of their troops, the terrain, and the tactics of the enemies of God. We all answer to our Commander. But best as I can tell nobody objects to Christians claiming the Lordship of Jesus over time. God brought the animals to Adam in the beginning to see what he would name them, and ever since, God has expected, even required, that we name the world rightly, and that includes the dicey task of naming time. In good Christian fashion we killed the giants of the pagan world, and we hung up their heads on the days of the week. Sun-day, Moons-day, Tyrs-day, Odins-day, Thors-day, etc. At it’s best the Christian calendar is simply more of this. It is the authoritative voice of the Christian Church claiming that the story of Jesus is more important, more significant, more crucial to the renewal of the human race than March Madness or the October Classic. It is an annual review of the gospel of Jesus applied to the people of God and proclaimed to the world. Christ was born, and His light shone into the darkness. He was rejected by His own, and by that rejection He bore our sin, conquered death, and crushed the power of the devil. He rose up victorious and now sits at the Father’s right hand reigning and ruling until all His foes submit. This is the story of the Church Calendar. Nevertheless, at it’s worst, the Christian Calendar is a neopagan enslavement tactic. It loads guilt-ridden people down with piles of things to do that conjure up just enough religious feelings to distract them from actually coming face to face with the state of their own soul before the Living God.
Clearly celebrating Advent or Easter or Lent is not required. Paul insists that we ought let no man judge us for keeping days or not keeping days. He was talking about the Old Covenant calendar, but the principle remains. We are justified by Jesus not by having a Christmas Eve service. We are justified by Jesus not by having a Good Friday service. Which means that people who have these services should hold them a little lightly. We may have good reason to be suspicious of the killjoys that don’t want to celebrate any Christian holidays, but our joy in Jesus does not demand such things. We ought to be able to easily count them loss for the sake of the excellency of Christ.
Nevertheless, and all things being equal, I want to argue that it’s a tactical failure not to claim Lent and assume the center there. The argument against it is that “Lent” has been utterly trashed by trendy, nominal catholics, by evangelical hipster wannabes, and by the atrocity which remains of official Roman Catholic dogma. Calvin and many other reformers ditched Lent, Joe Biden will show up in the news today with a cross on his forehead and his paws on somebody else‘s wife, and meanwhile Rome is still leading millions on the guilt march to Hell with her heretical doctrines of purgatory, the treasury of merits, penance, and a seemingly never ending surplus of superstitious folk practices to further confuse the gospel and reinforce paganism. So a reasonable question is: why would we want to do Lent?
I want to argue, in fact I will now proceed to argue, that the Church, and the Protestant-Calvinist Church in particular needs to claim this besotted Lent, this pimple-faced Lent, this unloved hooker of a season, we need to move into this demon infested graveyard and have a brawl with the Legions that have been wreaking havoc here.
And this brings me to the masculinity bit. But first let me grant that there is a decidedly feminine streak in the traditions that are interested in the Church calendar. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. I mean that the men who lead those churches got their balls crushed decades ago and now they’re floating right along the river of popular opinion. And today they’re playing liturgical dress up with their ashes and super-deep liturgies, only it’s some kind of religious cross dressing. Many of the men in skinny jeans and black-rimmed glasses smearing crosses on peoples’ foreheads might as well be wearing pushup bras while they’re at it.
And while I do think it’s funny to put it that way, I also think it’s pitiful and sad and a travesty given the rich heritage of Christendom. And it’s a travesty because the very season that marks the masculinity of our Savior is being neutered and marketed as an emotional orgasm. Here, come to our service where we will conjure up warm feelings together of things that are deep and subtile and contradictory, and then we will play with ashes that are symbolic of things that represent metaphors of uncertainty and sublimity and irony and stories — stories that we can’t tell because they’re so poetic and deep and artsy that it would ruin the moment. In the best case scenario, the gospel will actually be described amid the latte liturgy, and in the worst cases, a neopagan ritual will be performed served with a green Mormon smoothie on the side.
Have I gotten carried away? I don’t think so. And so once again, the astute reader may sincerely want to know: why would you celebrate Lent? I think we ought to celebrate Lent for the same reason we ought raise our boys to be men, for the same reason young men ought to take wives, for the same reason a married man should pray for and seek to father a hefty quiver of arrow-children. We ought to celebrate Lent because it’s the story of our Lord’s masculinity. If Lent has been distorted and twisted by many, nearly beyond recognition, perhaps (and I mean perhaps) it is precisely because if anyone actually pulled that sword out of the stone, the effect would be glorious.
Each of the synoptic gospels underlines this moment in the story, the moment when Jesus turns His face toward Jerusalem, the moment He fixes His eyes on the prize, on the joy, on His bride. It is here that we hear the love and vehemence rising in His voice. Here, we see Him in anger over the hypocrisy and cruelty of the scribes and Pharisees. This is the meaning of Lent. This is the call of Jesus to follow Him to Jerusalem, to stand tall as men, to call sin for what it is, to call out evil leaders, to take responsibility for our actions, to take responsibility for the wives and children entrusted to our care, to take responsibility for the orphans being slaughtered by abortion in our cities, to take responsibility for the abused and lonely and elderly and forgotten in our communities. Take the cross on your forehead and mean it. Go home and kill your porn habit. Go home and confess your bitterness to your dad. Go home and lead your family before God. Go out into the world and proclaim the crown rights of King Jesus. Take the cross and go pick a fight. Take the cross and go find a holy rumble.
And yes, I know full well, that this kind of Lent, this kind of masculine-shaped grace is hardly popular, hardly a discernable voice in the cacophony. We are a tiny squirt gun in a hurricane of fire. You think you can go up against Mardi Gras and trendy Facebook “fasts”? But that actually only sharpens my point. Since when did we back away from dragons? Since when did we concede the field to taunting giants? Last I checked that was our invitation to fight, that was our invitation to call the punk out, that was our invitation to find a few smooth stones and claim the field as our own.
Lent means it’s getting lighter. It means “spring.” It means our Lord Jesus has led the way into the Hell of human darkness and He has already burst out the other side with the beastie’s heart clutched in His triumphant hand. Lent is covered in bastard barnacles and deceitful dust, but beneath the rubble is the story of a Man, our Man, our Hero who submitted to His Father and crushed the head of the Serpent, abolishing death and the fear of death in order to bring many sons to glory.
One final thought using Pastor Tim Bayly’s blogging habits as a case study. First off, apparently Tim has the spiritual gift of indigestion. And what I mean is that he’s been on something of a crusade against the Federal Vision for the last six or eight months like a dog on a bone. I haven’t read everything Tim’s written; I can only handle so many jalapeños at any given meal. Call it a weakness in my constitution. I happen to think that Tim is wrong on a number of points and has misunderstood a number of other things along the way. And if I get to it, I may respond at some point to the substance of his claims. But the thing I admire about Tim (despite all that) is his direct assertiveness. He names names; he explains his disagreement, his concerns, and does so publicly in broad daylight. Now, I know why some might be concerned. If you’re the air traffic control guy leading a presbytery, you might need to insist on some ground rules, and if you aren’t interested in this particular rumble, nobody’s forcing you to read it if you don’t want to. But I often admire the way Tim is wrong more than the way some of my friends seem to handle being right. In other words, I admire his martial spirit. Real men fight for what they believe in. But lots of guys get criticized or misunderstood and get all whiny and moody. They resent the fight. They resent the fact that somebody has misunderstood them, that they have to punch back. But God made men to fight, to punch back, and yes, that can be done sinfully, but many men use this pseudo-piety to cover their cowardice and laziness. I think it’s high time we had more gentlemen in the field, men with backbones and conviction and grace. We could use more men with as much chutzpa as Tim.
Beginning on Ash Wednesday and throughout the season of Lent our recessional hymn is The Son of God Goes Forth To War. And that’s on purpose. Paul didn’t tell Timothy to play a good game of cricket. He didn’t tell him to weave daisy chains of peace. He told him to wage the good warfare, to fight the good fight of faith, to run in order to win, to seek after the victor’s crown. He told him to be a good soldier and to keep his eyes on the prize. There are fleshly wars that are driven by lusts and envy, and James warns against them. But the alternative isn’t apathy or retreat. The alternative is obedience. The alternative is repentance. The alternative is to follow the Lord Jesus, to follow in His train.