Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
Today is Valentine’s Day, a holiday often celebrated with candy, flowers, and romantic dinners. But the word holiday comes from “holy day,” and this one honors St. Valentine, a real person who lived in the third century. While a lot is not known about him, we do know that he lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire when Christians were being persecuted intensely. It is commonly believed that he was arrested and imprisoned for protecting and helping Christians. What we know for sure is that he was ultimately martyred for his faith on February 14 in the late third century.
So Valentine’s Day is a “holy day” that honors a holy man (the meaning of saint) who chose to heed Jesus’ words, “If any wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” He is a remarkable example of someone who learned the way of unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus.
Lent begins this week on Ash Wednesday. I love Lent because it begins in winter and ends in spring, at least in the northern hemisphere. There is a natural longing for change from the cold and darkness of winter to the warmth and light ushered in by spring. This helps us to get in touch with our deeper longings for transformation, to let go of our sin and let God do what only God can do.
In my last post I spoke about my reluctance to “giving up something for Lent” because it feels like we have given up so much already. But deeper than the resistance to letting go is the longing for something more. I want to process all the letting go, but I also want to embrace hope and joy and love. I want to become more like Christ.
Desire is necessary, but it’s not enough. It takes intention. If we want to lose weight and get in shape, we have to change the way we eat and exercise. If we want to gain knowledge or learn a new skill, we have to study and practice. Becoming like Christ also requires intentional choices and disciplines.
It is common during the season of Lent to take on spiritual disciplines—sometimes with the intent of changing ourselves. However, none of us can do that apart from Christ and his grace. This is important to emphasize because so many of us try harder and do more to change ourselves by our own effort. We simply can’t change by our own human striving. As we let go, and let God do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, we can be changed and learn the way of love.
Spiritual disciplines are also a way we can practice self-denial and take up our cross. The disciplines of detachment—such as fasting, unplugging, silence, and solitude—can help us to face the hold that our sin patterns have on us and to somehow let go. These disciplines can create space for the godly grief that leads to repentance.
But this is not the end. These disciplines open us to our own need for God’s grace and love and then may lead us to consider how we might be called to give more of ourselves to others. Forty days seems like a manageable time to engage in intentional disciplines that can lead to the growth and real change we long for and to learn the way of love.
Some years ago I remember hearing about one of the most popular classes at Yale: Psychology and the Good Life. Students refer to it as the Happiness Class. The professor believes it is so popular because kids today feel so stressed and unhappy, but they want help to feel happy. To be a part of the class, every student has to commit to daily homework: meditate for 10 minutes a day, sleep for 8 hours, do something kind, and write down five things you are grateful for.
I chuckled when I heard this because these are disciplines that are to help people quiet their minds, rest their bodies, expand their hearts. For humans, who all have real limits, it is necessary to stop doing some things you may do regularly to instead do something else. That’s how transformation happens.
But our aim as followers of Christ is not happiness but holiness—the ability to do what needs to be done. We are to become like Christ. We are to become the kind of people who are able to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. It turns out the cross is the way to the heart of God. The cross is the place where we experience the love of Jesus and learn to love others as he has loved us. But this doesn’t just happen. It takes intention and practice.
Unlike other religious traditions, Christian meditation is not just emptying our minds. It’s turning to God and becoming more aware of his presence. Sleep acknowledges that we are creatures who need rest. We are going to live for eternity, so we really do have time for a good night’s sleep. Doing something kind takes our focus off ourselves and our circumstances to focus on someone else and to show God’s love. And gratitude helps us turn from all the problems and struggles in our lives and in the world to recognize what is good. Putting into practice these four ideas would be a good way to take up our cross and learn the way of love.
To be alive is to be formed into some kind of person. The only question is what kind of person. God longs for us to intentionally live into the unforced rhythms of grace in order to resist the rutted grooves of the world like busyness, consumerism, anger, injustice to become like Christ—more loving, joyful, peaceful, and hopeful.
I don’t know what that will look like for you, but I encourage you to prayerfully consider and discern Christ’s invitation to you. The next 40 days will come and go whether we live them intentionally or not. But I pray that this season of Lent will be a significant leg in our ongoing journey of transformation into the image of Christ as we let go, let God, and learn the way of love.