Wednesday, February 17, 2021


Return to the Lord, your God, for gracious and merciful

                  is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.                                                         

  Joel 2


You can learn a lot from bumper stickers. What makes many of them funny is their ability to summarize an idea in the fewest of words. There is one that continues to stand out in my mind. It summarizes one of the major themes of fundamentalism pretty much this way, “Jesus is coming soon and man is he angry!”

What makes it funny is that it does nail a popular fundamentalist religious belief that God is constantly irritated at us and would love to fry our little butts in hellfire the first chance he gets! I believe that people who perpetuate this “just wait till your daddy gets home” brand of religion do not actually love the God they believe in! They obey him and preach obedience to him because they are, themselves, actually scared to death of him.  They need to listen to the Prophet Joel, 

Return to the Lord, your God, for gracious and merciful

is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in


When these people get a hold of Lent, they turn it into a season of self-punishment because they believe that God wants to see us pay for our sins. They talk a lot about God’s justice meaning that, sooner or later, we are all going to get what we deserve. Lent, for them, is a time to make deposits into our suffering account. In other words, the more you suffer here, the less you will have to do later! The fact of the matter is, as Joel teaches us today God is gracious and God is merciful. Grace is when God gives us what we don’t deserve. Mercy is when God doesn’t give us what we do deserve.  

I no longer live out of that theology of fear, even though I was raised on it in my early years. That is not the God I believe in today. Over the years, I have gradually come to a deeper understanding, I believe, of just how loving God really is! For over fifty years, I have read the Scriptures and preached on them on an almost daily basis. When I speak to priests, I call preparation for preaching “wallowing in the Word.”  I have been changed by this saturation of Scripture. I have come to believe that God calls us to some to him, more for a hug, than for a scolding 

For that reason, Lent has gradually changed for me too! Rather than being a season where I deny and punish myself to make God feel better about me, Lent is a season where I get back on track so that I can again receive the wonderful things that God wants to give me. Lent is not a time to do things to get God to love me, Lent is a time to do things that will help me get myself to back in shape enough to receive more of the love that God wants to give me.  Lent is not for God’s benefit, but mine! Lent is not about placating an angry God, it is about getting a grip on myself to be more loving back to him! Lent is about making a course correction for my own happiness and holiness. God doesn’t need to change! I do! 

Return to the Lord, your God, for gracious and merciful is he,

slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in


The Church has given us three disciplines to help us during this season: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  Jesus refers to all three of these disciplines in today’s gospel.  Note well that he is not condemning prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but defending them from those who were trivializing them by playing silly religious games with them. We have these readings every Ash Wednesday as a warning against religious hypocrisy.  The whole idea of Lent is internal change, not external shows of religiosity.

Lent is a time of prayer. It is special time for getting back into more intense personal prayer. To do that, we may decide to cut back on some recreation time for Lent, so that we might use that time for some quality time with God. For some of you, it is probably not a matter of praying more, but praying better. You give up that recreation time, not as self-punishment nor an effort to bribe God, but so that you can open yourself up more to the loving guidance of God. Better than giving up recreation time, some of you might think about using your recreation time as a time for more focused listening to others, than talking at them and trying to get them to listen to you! Now that is a true penance!

Lent is a time of fasting. It is a special time for getting back into self-discipline. To do that, we may have to cut back on our wasteful and excessive eating, drinking and consuming habits. We give up spending, meat and sweets, not as self-punishment nor an effort to bribe God, but so that you can focus more on appreciating these good things that we normally take for granted, hoard for ourselves or abuse.   

Lent is a time of almsgiving. It is a special time for making ourselves aware of the needs of our brothers and sisters. To do that, we may have to consume less so that others can have more. Again, we give up things, not as self-punishment nor an effort to bribe God, and certainly not as a way to lose a few pounds or to hoard them back for our future needs, but so that those resources can go to those who are without food and the necessities of life.  Fasting and almsgiving are ways to live more simply so that others can simply live.

The disciplines of Lent, then, are not meant to be efforts to punish ourselves nor to be efforts to bribe God to be merciful, but the means to make us more aware of those with whom we are in relation - God and each other.  The spiritual disciples of Lent are meant to shake us out of our routines so that we can refocus on our paths as disciples of Jesus and on a right relationship with our suffering brothers and sisters. We engage in these practices, not for God’s good, but for our own good. They are really meant to be catalysts for an internal change within our own hearts. Remember this! God does not need our little Lenten disciplines! We do!





















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