Blind Faith (No. 9, 2009)
Early blooms on daffodils, forsythia, and flowering cherries presage the coming of Spring! We are more ready than usual in our yard for Spring budding and growth to erupt. Weekends in February have found us doing late-winter pruning of shrubs and fruit-bearing plants, preparing them for fresh growth of foliage and (we fervently hope) more bountiful fruit in due season. We have moved several flowering plants to new locations, seeking better growing conditions and more striking displays than the plants produced in their former homes. Sherron even has an army of tomato seedlings started in transplantable peat cups. We’re experimenting with a cold frame for giving them and other tender plants a jump start on growing outside in the cool early days of Spring. We are hoping that our getting ready now will bring us maximum returns when everything begins to grow and flourish in the growing season now just ahead.
Reports of azaleas and camellias already in bloom from friends who attended Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama increased my eagerness for blooming and growing season to arrive here. I remember the lush growth and spectacular landscapes full of azaleas and other early bloomers that created striking backdrops for the frolicking events of Mardi Gras. As a Baptist schoolboy, I knew little more about Mardi Gras than parades, Catholic friends having to give up something they liked when Mardi Gras was over, and that we had two school holidays to enjoy the parades- complete with candy, beads, other trinkets, and serpentine thrown by revelers from the floats. Since Mobile has a sizeable Catholic population, some few people would go out in public the day after Mardi Gras Day (Ash Wednesday) with a smudge of ashes on their foreheads. I don’t recall learning about the connection between Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Easter until I was in Seminary. All I knew was that Mardi Gras usually meant the end of winter, the beginning of gardening season, and that it allegedly had some religious meaning.
The streams of thought about preparations for growing plants in our yard and the significance of what I now know as the season of Lent began to converge for me. Lent, stretching from Ash Wednesday (February 25 this year) until Easter (April 12) historically has been a season for Christians to practice penitence before God and to contemplate the agonies of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. The purpose is to prepare for greater appreciation of the glorious celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and gift of new life on Easter. In the ancient church, new believers studied the teachings of Jesus in preparation for their baptism early Easter morning. They were expected to grow and flourish in the community of faith following their baptism into Christ. Lent was conceived, therefore, as a season of cultivation and preparation for the new life Jesus promised through the events of Easter.
As my thoughts were traveling this path, I read a column by Michael Helms, Pastor, Trinity Baptist Church, Moultrie, Georgia, posted on EthicsToday.com, an online publication from the Baptist Center for Ethics. After tracing the reasons for Easter varying between March 22 and April 25, and reflecting on the intentions behind Lent, he addressed the ideas coalescing in my thoughts. He observes:
Preparations are being made all around us for another growth cycle. Why should that be any different within our spiritual lives? Spiritual growth is more intentional than not…. Easter is on the calendar and Easter Day will come and go whether we do any planning. However, Easter will not produce much spiritual growth in us without preparation.
(Michael Helms, Explaining Lent to Non-Liturgical Christians, EthicsToday.com, 2/25/2009)
We spend hours of time and expend all kinds of personal energy preparing gardens and yards for pleasing growth each Spring. Certainly, followers of Jesus can spend the 47 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter – the season of Lent – preparing for spiritual growth and for bearing the kind of fruit Jesus expects us to bear. Lent provides a well-recognized period for Christians to dedicate ourselves to fulfilling Peter’s instructions and prayer for us: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18a NRSV)
Here’s the plan that came to my mind. Read and carefully think about the gospel of Luke during Lent. Luke is particularly helpful to read during Lent because it tells the story of Jesus’ life and his teachings very well. Luke offers more detail about Jesus’ birth, growth to manhood, and his daily life than the other gospels. Luke’s edition of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not as detailed as Matthew’s, but no other gospel offers as many of Jesus’ parables. The gospel of Luke clearly narrates Jesus’ life, drawing attention to significant points at which he revealed and fulfilled God’s intentions to save us from our sins. Luke also succinctly records the events of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, and gives faithful testimony of Jesus’ resurrection and mission entrusted to his followers before he returned to Heaven.
If you start today, February 26 and continue your reading through Easter Sunday, you can read Luke once or twice during Lent. Only two days during Lent will you have to read more than one chapter from Luke. To read the gospel twice, read Luke 1-2 today. You know these chapters best, since they tell the Christmas story. Each following day, read one chapter from Luke. When you finish, start over by reading Luke 1-2, just as you did the first time, then read a single chapter the remaining days through Easter Sunday. If you prefer to commit to reading the gospel of Luke once during Lent, start today by reading Luke 1-2. Every other day after today, read just one chapter, ending with Luke 24 on Easter Sunday. Here are some things to consider as you read:
• Pay attention to details of the story you have not paid attention to before. What do you find new to you about Jesus’ life and teachings?
• How does Jesus’ life-work influence your anticipation of the Easter events of his crucifixion and resurrection?
• If you read through Luke twice, pay attention to what you might have missed the first time, earlier in the month.
• What teachings of Jesus stick in your mind? What changes do you need to make in your own life in order to grow closer as a follower of Jesus each day?
A number of readers have reported to me that you have been reading Psalm 119 during February. If you have, just substitute reading a chapter of Luke for the time you have been spending with Psalm 119. If you haven’t read Psalm 119, I challenge you to read Luke and to let the story of Jesus help you to prepare for a burst of spiritual growth this Easter. Tending the garden of your soul during Lent will produce growth that is more satisfying and far more lasting than the growth in your flowers and yard, no matter how much work you do out there.
– J. Edward Culpepper, Ph.D.