Jim Bishop: If ‘Lent’ to you, will you give it up for me?

Column by Jim Bishop
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“Oh, Lord, it’s great to be humble, to be perfect in every way,” goes the delightful ditty by Tom T. Hall.

Tom probably wasn’t aware when he wrote and performed this homage to false humility that he echoed somewhat Jesus’ warning not to perform perceived acts of piety to gain others’ approval. Dust off that Bible and check out the clear-cut injunctions for yourself (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21). It’s not easy reading, because it hits me where I live.

Our prayer life, our giving and other expressions of oblation should arise from love, honor and obedience to God rather than attempts to rack up spiritual Brownie points.

But that’s easier said than done. Even in preparing this reflection I struggle with the “need” to impress whoever chances upon these words with my intellect, experience and way with word pictures. The messenger trumps the message; I go away feeling smug, but God is not impressed.

I was munching on my fish sandwich at the local Dairy Queen I frequent – not just because think their food is tasty and it’s close to my workplace but because they offer a senior discount – and looked over to see an elderly couple hold hands across the table and pray silently before consuming their cheeseburgers. It touched my spirit. Were they doing this to draw attention to themselves or to acknowledge God’s benevolence?

I think I need to pray some more about this (and do it without injecting “just” and “really” so often in my prayers).

Lent, the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, for many is a time to devote more time to prayer, reflection and voluntarily cutting back on an activity or giving up something as a way of drawing closer to God. Wife Anna is still spending time on the computer every day, but she’s bypassing one of her favorite pastimes – playing “Hearts” and “Solitaire” – a big deal for her.

Several years ago, I vowed to abstain from chocolate and other sweets for the entire Lenten season. A candy dish sitting on top of the tube in our living room beckoned this weary TV watcher to garner sufficient strength to get up off the couch, lunge forward and thrust one’s hand deep into the carbohydrate cache for an ample supply of miniature peanut butter cups, peppermint patties and Hershey’s kisses. If forced to choose between TV and satisfying my chocolate craving, I’d opt for the latter any day. So to publicly declare my intention to abstain from this palate-pleasing pleasure is a major oblation.

Again, if I do deny myself, it should arise from a desire at self-discipline and self-improvement, not to impress my Creator or my family and friends with my feeble attempt at surrendering a craving – if only temporarily.

I have a small plaque on my office desk given me some time ago by a member of my church small group that states, “It is my heartfelt prayer that you will be blessed today and everyday.”

What a privilege and blessing to be able to pray and to know that others are praying for me. Prayer should be conversational, open, honest, Christ wants us to talk to Him regularly, as a friend and confidant, not to impress others with our words, but to have a conversation with Jesus and to wait upon the Lord with expectancy, believing that an answer – it may not always be what we want to hear will come in God’s good time.

Someone said, the highest form of prayer comes from the depth of a humble heart. I want to spend more time acknowledging my weakness, my dependency, and focus less on reciting a list of perceived wants. God already knows what those are.

In this reflective season of Lent, may our prayers of confession, petition and praise – whether silent or audible, private or public – always be directed toward our omniscient God, not to impress others. And then, let us give of ourselves and our alms as a responsive act of gratitude to and worship of our Creator.

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