Wednesday, February 22, 2012
This Week’s Focus: Gardening Tips for Lent
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:1-21
Once again Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season of self-examination and self-denial we call Lent -- a name derived from the Old English “lencten” which means “lengthen”, referring to the longer period of daylight in the transition from late winter to early spring. In recent years self-denial has become the more readily identified aspect of Lent, as in: “I’m giving up champagne and caviar for Lent.”…Or some other, more serious, expression of sacrifice.
In our gospel for Ash Wednesday Jesus focuses on self examination. He does not ask us to nit-pick petty flaws. He asks us to take on the big one, the ubiquitous one, the invasive and pernicious one…Pride.
Pride is the crabgrass in the garden of our souls. It produces no fruit while it overgrows grace and strangles goodness. And in this gospel, Jesus warns us sternly not to let pride choke the love out of our worship and generosity. As Jesus shows us, pride has the ability to make a pious fraud of our prayer. It can flip our charity on its head and turn it into self-aggrandizing cant. Ultimately, it threatens to transform our entire spiritual journey into a squalid little ego trip.
What makes pride so powerful? The answer is amply documented in scripture and literature. And in an increasingly exhibitionist culture, it is in our faces every day. In Genesis, pride destroyed the innocence of Adam and Eve. They wanted to usurp God’s power. They got shame and banishment instead. In Exodus it drove pharaoh’s chariots into the sea. In Greek drama pride always leads to destruction. Avenging Nemesis always follows hubris. In Shakespeare pride haunts the histories and initiates the tragedies; while American literature is littered with proud victims from Ahab to Charles Foster Cain.
Spend some time examining the pathology of pride and you begin to grasp its power. Pride springs from our primordial will to survive. We’ve all got it. Some of us learn to channel it. Others don’t. Healthy self-esteem is built on understanding our worth as beloved children of God. It‘s the cornerstone of well-being. Unbridled pride is the threshold sin to a host of iniquities. It destroys with a smiling face.
Jesus is the antidote for pride. Humility permeates what he says and how he lives. Today we’d say that he’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is and why he is here. He’s got infinitely more reason to swell and to strut than anyone who has ever walked the earth. But that’s not Jesus. His every word, his every move is a well-studied lesson in living the good life. Search the gospels for the proud Jesus, the vain Jesus, the self-centered Jesus… you’ll never find him. He’s not there. You’ll only find the humble, loving and gentle Jesus. Even in his wrath, he is humble; in righteous obedience to the will of the Father.
Ask any gardener: What keeps the crabgrass at bay? There’s only one answer…constant vigilance. The same is true of pride. But rather being in a reactive mode, just watching for the grass to grow, Jesus wants us to be active, to live productive, fruitful Christian lives. He wants us to vigorously witness his love in the world. Live humbly for and in Christ. And the grass will take care of itself.
God love you,