Season 4 - Lent Season meditations

by Tim Isbell, posted February 2020 (written a year earlier)

These Lent meditations are the fourth part of the seven-part collection for every season of the Christian calendar. Unless you read it earlier, please read the introductory material at Responsive Prayer Meditations

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for another 5-7 weeks, ending on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. Lent prepares our hearts for Holy Week by focusing on two things: 1) individual and communal attention to sin and confession and 2) acts of mercy. Many churches use the Lent Season to prepare candidates for baptism.

Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies. – Westminster Shorter Catechism

Lenten acts of mercy - Ash Wednesday

Lent - Isaiah 58PYS Lent, ch1

Lent reminds me of fasting, giving up something such as a meal or another activity, and using the time for confession, repentance, and prayer.

But this Isaiah passage expands the concept beyond solitary practices. Steve Bell writes, “[Lent is] not only about giving up something for the sake of our own interior renewal but equally about adding something that is good: works of mercy that help us turn from our self-orientation to focus on the flourishing of others.”

Isaiah’s passage starts with five verses describing the anemic and misguided fasting practices of his people, and goes on to quote you like this:

No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
  • Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you.
  • Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.
  • Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless.
  • Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
  • Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal.
  • Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.

After some meditation, I see two practical ways to respond to your (Spirit) teaching.

First: Remove some chains that bind someone. You’ve long put an interest in my heart about the student loan chains that bind so many young people. This week you’ve put a particular young couple on my mind. So I’ll reach out to them to see if they would receive a modest contribution toward their debt.

Second: Give a care kit to a homeless person. Our church has a history of filling 1-gallon ziplock plastic bags with useful items for homeless people that parishioners can keep in their car or backpack to distribute. One remains in my car, so it’s time to find a recipient. And it’s time to fill a few more gallon bags with some subset of socks, granola bar, crackers with peanut butter, hand wipes, fast-food gift card, toothbrush/paste, wipes, water bottle, comb, razor, deodorant, etc.


Inadvertent sin - Ash Wednesday

Lent - Psalm 32, Pilgrim Year Series (PYS) Lent, ch 4

I felt privileged that you (Spirit) let me spend many years in creating integrated circuits and software, and not spending much time repairing or maintaining things. Later you pointed out my arrogance in presuming that creating new things was a higher calling than to restoring or maintaining existing things.

A few years into Christian ministry, I noticed that there are only two chapters in the Bible describing the creation, and 1157 describing your restoration and maintenance projects - made necessary by many cycles of human betrayal. About then was also when I began asking you to make my heart beat more like Jesus’ heart. Of course, you answered that prayer and my interest in restoration and maintenance grew. So did my regard for people who spend their lives restoring and maintaining things.

But, I don't recall ever confessing my arrogance. I didn’t actively choose pride over humility; I slipped into it and ignored the tinges of conviction. But this Lent, you brought it to my attention, and I will respond. Please forgive me.

I’m sure there are other areas where I slipped into sin, some more consequential. Will you please show them to me so I can also deal with them?

Bell explains sin as “our willful opposition to love” and writes, “Sin is the most bewildering malady, as it keeps us from the life for which we are destined and for which we long. It isolates and segregates those things that were created for communion, for love. Sin is in stark opposition to our created nature as image-bearers of the divine communion of Father, Son, and Spirit.” That rings true for me.

What an astonishing offer you extend to us! Despite my resistance to surrendering to your love, you lead me along the path described in this snippet of Steve Bell ‘s song, “Psalm 32:” (To listen click on Pilgrim Year Songs, then click on Lent and then on “Psalm 32.”)

I said not a word and my bones, they wasted away.
From groaning each day and night, your hand lay heavy upon me.
My heart grew thirsty so I…

Made myself known to you.
I did not hide my shameful soul, my darkest side.
And you loved me and held me, and you forgave my sin.

A hard act to follow

Lent - Luke 4.1-13

As a prelude to praying together, Robin and I read this Luke passage about your (Jesus) wilderness temptation. She summarized the devil’s three proposals in one sentence: “Basically the devil was saying, ‘Just take one of these shortcuts instead of going through the cross.’” Then she added, “Jesus is a hard act to follow, isn’t he?”

That sums this topic up for me. You didn’t take a shortcut; you went through the cross. If I’m to follow you as Lord, I must assume that you don’t want me to take shortcuts either. Though you went through the physical cross for me, I don’t have to go quite that far. But you do expect me to trust you instead of taking shortcuts.

It’s Lent, and confession is on my mind. So I confess the many times I surrendered to a shortcut. Mostly, these resulted in unsatisfactory outcomes. A few times, the result was okay, but I still felt guilty. Please forgive me. I'm sure more shortcuts lie ahead. Please help me spot them early, and give me the courage to trust your way.

A day later, I noticed how the devil tempts Christian politicians and business leaders with shortcuts, too. Their choices affect far more people than mine. Please help leaders, especially those who claim Christian faith, discern each instance as a temptation to a shortcut. And give the leaders sufficient courage to trust you at the moment. When they do, please provide one of your Invisible Options. (See also the Lent Season meditation, “Claiming invisible options.)


Citizens of heaven

Lent - Philippians 3.18-20 (NLT)

For I have told you often before, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.

I presume the Apostle Paul wrote this passage about people who do not consider themselves your (Jesus) followers. 

I think he also intends this passage for those who self-identify as your followers, but whose actions and attitudes contradict this claim. I see people who live in this contradiction, including many leaders. They may claim Christian faith, but they live as your enemy.

Even if the world disassembles, I want to transparently live as a citizen of your Alternate Kingdom so that others will see you through my life. But I cannot do this in my own strength. I need your Spirit to guide and convict me when I stray. And, whenever you create an occasion for a spiritual conversation or action, please help me recognize it and respond with gentleness and respect.


Lent is like playing musical scales

Lent - PYS Lent, ch 2

Lent invites us into a season of especially deep spiritual formation, including introspection, confession, and repentance.

Steve Bell writes that time spent in deep spiritual formation is to following you (Jesus) as practicing scales is to playing beautiful music. No teacher tries to convince a student that the reason we practice scales is to play scales well. And no student is drawn to lessons because they witnessed someone good at scales. The entire effort anticipates the deep pleasure of music-making. It’s the fruit of the scales, not the scales themselves, that inspire students to the disciplined work of mastery.

Lent is like playing scales for a musician.

My grandson is a junior pitcher on a high school baseball team. A senior on the team is so great a hitter that the University of Oregon signed him three years ago. I asked my grandson what it is like to pitch to this teammate. He answered, “Well, I never throw him a fastball; he’ll hit it out of the park. All you can do is throw specialty pitches at the corners and hope for the best.” He went on to say that his teammate is down in the batting cage all the time - before school, after school, in-season and off-season. I’ve seen student-athletes with shirts saying, “Champions are made when nobody is watching.” This bit of wisdom applies to more than athletes.

Lent is like practice time for an athlete.

In high school, I endured the brutal contact of football practice. I tolerated the boredom of baseball practices. But I loved to practice basketball as much as playing in the games. I loved hanging out with friends at the gym, the sounds of bouncing balls, shoes squeaking on hardwood, and every clank on the rim and swish of the net. I even grew fond of the sweaty locker room smells.

Decades later, I enjoy the extra contemplative time that is a part of Lent even more than I used to enjoy basketball practice. I love the intimate times alone with you, and when Robin and I share deep spiritual times with you, and when I spend spiritual times among friends. Thank you for such precious times, during Lent and throughout the Christian calendar.

Just as basketball practice prepared me for the games, so do today’s times of spiritual formation equip me to minister in my world. What’s not to like about a life where the practice is as fulfilling as the game?

Prayer of Saint Patrick

Lent - PYS Lent, ch 6

Some words struck me in a song by Steve Bell, and then I discovered that they came from Saint Patrick's prayer:

Christ beside me, Christ before me,

Christ behind me, Christ within me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me.

I will pray this prayer to you (Jesus) for the next few days.

Steve connects this prayer to the concept of co-inherence among the three persons in the Trinity, whose image we bear. At the chapter's end, Steve includes a song, “The Lorica," which means a prayer of protection against evil. It comes from the Christian monastic tradition. The Latin word lōrīca originally meant armor or breastplate.

Here are some lines from Bell’s “The Lorica.”

I bind unto myself today

The gift to call on the Trinity

The saving faith where I can say

Come Three-in-one, O One-in-three!

Be above me as high as the noonday sun

Be below me, the rock I set my feet upon

Be beside me, the wind on my left and right

Be behind me, Oh circle me with your truth and light! …

(Listen to the song at Pilgrim Year Songs, then click on Lent and then on “The Lorica”)


Purpose into old age

Lent - PYS Lent, ch 1, Psalms 92

Lord Jesus, I notice that some who graduate from child-rearing and approach the end of their working life run low on purpose. Psalm 92 says, among other things, that this need not be so:

Even in old age they [God ’s followers] will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green. They will declare, “The Lord is just! He is my rock! There is no evil in him!”

Here are some lines from a Steve Bell song that paraphrases Psalm 92. (You can listen to the song at Pilgrim Year Songs, then click on Lent and then on “Fresh and Green.”)

Fresh and green we will remain,
Bearing fruit to a ripe old age.
Happy to tell about your name,
A blessed endeavor...

The senseless person doesn’t know
The wonders of your glory.
And yet their hoppers overflow.
But they don’t understand
That folly springs up like the grass
And spreads throughout these vast lands.
But harvesting will come to pass.
When everything is shown,
Everything will be exposed...

It is so good to sing of you
At the first sight of the morning.
And at night your faithfulness review
Before I close my eyes.
And sometimes in the dimming light
I stumble on your glory,
That overwhelming sudden fright,
But not the daunting kind.
It’s so hard to describe...

Fresh and green we will remain,
Bearing fruit to a ripe old age...

Thanks, Lord Jesus, for giving life purpose and meaning even as I age. And thanks for so often awakening me early in the mornings with fresh insight. And for occasionally, especially when I remember your faithfulness before dropping off to sleep, for sharing a snippet of your glory.


Communal sin and reparations

Lent - 1 Corinthians 10.1-13, Jeremiah 31.29-34

For years, I thought of 1 Corinthians 10.13 in terms of personal piety. Yesterday, a young woman noted how this passage hints at communal sin. Lord Jesus, please teach me how to think about collective sin and a community's responsibility for reparations to its victims.

I understand that communal sin occurs when a society normalizes behaviors and attitudes that draw its members away from you. I guess collective sins become institutional sins when political leaders codify them into policies and laws. Religious leaders sometimes do the same within their institutions. Many political and religious sins impact multiple generations.

In the Old Testament, several prophets confessed societal sins as if they were their own. When their society fell into idol worship, prophets repented that their nation had become like an unfaithful spouse to you. Sometimes you punished whole families, cities, and civilizations for societal sin - even wiping out its victims. I don’t like such passages, and yet they remind me of how my sins impact others.

In the New Testament, you (Jesus) identified communal sin mostly within the religious tradition and actively opposed it on two levels. First, you stood in the gap between individual victims and the institutional accusations - such as when you lifted up and set free the woman “caught” in adultery. Second, you actively opposed institutional sin when you overturned the money changers' tables in the Temple. The ultimate example was at the cross where you confronted and absorbed the evil in all kinds of sin.

Communal and institutional sin persists today in our society.

  1. We normalize sins of commission (both acts and attitudes), such as materialism, hyper-individualism, promiscuity, warmongering, oppressing people groups based on gender, race, and social status.
  2. We normalize sins of omission, such as failing to ensure economic and social justice, relieving the plight of refugees, and tending to your Creation, and promiscuity.

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah promised that someday every person would be individually responsible to you. You fulfilled this promise when you sent your Spirit at Pentecost to guide/coach every individual who would repent and follow you as Lord. This leads me away from repenting for communal sins in which I was not, at least, complicit.

In 1940, C.S. Lewis received this question: "Young Christians… are turning to [national repentance] in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war (World War 2), and to admit their share in the guilt of England… Are they, perhaps, repenting for what they have in no sense done?"

Lewis answered under the title, “Dangers of national repentance,” ending with these lines: You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbor (even our Christian neighbor) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.

So, because of my understanding of New Testament theology, and my respect for the wisdom of Lewis, I won’t join in confession for sins beyond those where I was complicit. But I will try to follow the New Testament teaching to follow the example of Jesus, such as in 1 Peter 2.21, "For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps."

I will follow by: 

  1. Lamenting communal sin in my secular, political, and religious societies. (See Psalms 90 for an example).
  2. Opposing structural sin in our contemporary society, government, and within the church.
  3. Helping victims through acts of mercy and social/political activism.
  4. Supporting reparations to victims and their descendants, aware of ways I’ve benefited at the victims’ expense.

Please continue to teach me about these things, and coach me into living out this strategy.

(Additional resources that informed this meditation: Fig Tree Christians blog “Meditations,” 8/27/2015, Basically, Is There Such a Thing as Communal Sin?, The Case for Reparations, Reparations, Privilege and Communal Sin.)

The prescriptive - descriptive thread

Lent - Exodus 20.1-17; Matthew 5.1-12; Philippians 2.5-11

Thank you (Jesus) for your presence yesterday, including in the evening at Blaze Pizza, where Robin and I shared a table with two church couples and a high school student. While the adults talked, I enjoyed helping Emily prepare a presentation to the Christian group at her school. It involved finding biblical characters as examples of a couple of beatitudes.

We came up with several characters and the three scriptures (above), which I dwelled on overnight. Though each is familiar, I never previously connected them.

Exodus - the 10 Commandments. I understand this is a list of prescriptive rules for your people to follow. It marked and continues to mark Christians today.

Matthew - the Beatitudes. I know these are not your New Testament revision of the Ten Commandments. Instead of prescriptive - the Beatitudes are a descriptive list of the qualities of heart that you will build into those who follow you closely. We cannot develop this kind of heart through willpower; it only comes as a fruit of our relationship with you. The list also indicates areas where we need to change, prompting us to pray for your assistance.

Now that I think of it, another descriptive list of characteristics you develop in us is the fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians 5.22-23. These fruits also mark Christians today.
The new insight for me is that I couldn’t think of any biblical character who embodies all the Beatitudes - except for Jesus!

Philippians - Soon, I remembered this passage in which Saint Paul commends Jesus’ humility and then explains the outcome this way: Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I sense that we somehow bless you when we reveal some of these traits in our world. And I notice how often you use these traits to evoke curiosity among others, leading to spiritual conversations with them.

Thank you for the fresh insight, and for the elegance of your strategy for spreading the Good News. And, thank you for inserting yourself into our little conversation at the corner of the pizza table!

Plant your seed in me

Lent - PYS Lent, ch 8

Years ago, in seminary, a professor described Christian conversion in terms of you (God) planting a redemptive seed in a society. Then, you love to grow this seed into a plant that scatters more redemptive seeds through that society and beyond. It intrigued me then and still does.

Recently, every time I listen to Steve Bell sing "May it be Done," my thoughts return to that class. Here are the special lines for me:

May it be done as you have said

Plant your seed in me oh God

Not the seed of human life

But your ever-lasting word

For we are all just like the grass

And our glory’s like the flower

But the grasses wither

And flowers fade

Yet your word, O Lord, it stands


I marvel at the beauty and robustness of your redemption plan for all humans everywhere. Beyond us humans, your redemption and restoration plan extends to all of creation. Awesome!

Romance metaphors

Lent - PYS Lent chapters 9-11, Kinlaw’s Let’s Start with Jesus

Steve Bell’s Lent ends with three chapters and three songs that reminded me, yet again, of the romance into which you (Jesus) subtly led me over many decades. So this morning, I spent some time reflecting on that journey and reconstructing how you (Jesus) used literature, music, and married life to draw me into intimacy.

The first step that I remember was John Michael Talbot’s guitar/vocal album, “The Lover and the Beloved,” based on The Song of Solomon. I listened to this album dozens of times, and it began to reform my understanding of romance - with you, and with Robin.

The next was an Old Testament book of prophecy. Hosea helped me see into God’s heart as he grieved and dealt with his wife’s repeated betrayals. Time after time, he took her back, only to only long enough for another betrayal. Hosea’s story deepened my understanding of the quality of your love for us humans. I began to get the hint that I was a lot more like Hosea’s wife than Hosea.

Then there was Dennis Kinlaw's book, Let’s Start with Jesus. He explained that the Bible opens with a wedding (Genesis 1-2) and closes with your wedding to the church (Revelation 21-22). Further, he pointed out that the intervening pages repeatedly use some form of a romance metaphor. Sometimes the examples were positive (Song of Solomon and such stories of intimate love), and other times they were negative (Hosea and such stories of infidelity). Kinlaw convinced me that the marriage metaphor is the most common one in the Bible.

A few years later, you opened my eyes while reading another Old Testament prophet. Ezekial 16 likens Judah’s relationship with God to a husband’s relationship with an unfaithful wife. This time, I couldn’t dodge conviction for my betrayals. I had come to realize that my “mistress” was my career. As I got to the end of that chapter, my heart cried out, “NO, this is not good! I had hoped for a much better ending!” Somehow, in the same setting, you led me to Romans 5.1-11 (Faith brings joy), and my heart responded, “Yes, thank you, Jesus!”.

In 2019's Lenten season, you led me back again to this romance theme through three of Steve Bell songs: "Big Mistake," and "Lenten Lands," and "Bethany in the Morning." (You can listen to these songs at Pilgrim Year Songs, then click on Lent and finally on each song’s title.) This trio of songs connects romance with the Exodus story in a new way.

  • “Big Mistake.” The lyrics are as if written by a woman trapped in an abusive home life. When you come to her in the darkness and kindled her desire. She fled with you and began to experience freedom. As she experiences the burdens of freedom she thinks she made a big mistake. She believes she is too inadequate ever to please you. The song ends with her thinking that both of you made big mistakes. She is in the same place I was when I got to the end of Ezekiel 16. Fortunately, Steve Bell immediately followed “Big Mistake” with another song.
  • “Lenten Lands.” This song comes from your viewpoint. The woman you love and redeemed from a lousy circumstance has forsaken you and run far away. It’s like the story in Ezekiel 16. You wonder if she will perish in those desert lands. In hopes of her return, you hold your “arms out wide upon the tree” and yearn for her, hoping that in her pain, she will see you and return to you.
  • “Bethany in the Morning.” Steve doesn’t say that he intends this song as a follow-on to the previous two, but I don’t think its placement is an accident. “Bethany in the Morning” consummates the relationship. Each of its three stanzas ends with “... Lift your head, dry your eyes, time for rising.”

After reviewing the decades, I see that your Spirit used scripture, music, and wedded life with Robin to lead me into a romance with you. And that romance looped back around and deeply informed my romance with Robin. This dynamic remains ongoing.

So very clever and elegant are your ways!

End Notes

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