Friday, March 30, 2012

Not The Way I Expected ~ A Lenten Reflection

"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen" ~ Ephesians 3:20-21, NIV

Lent is a perfect time to reflect on our needs and our expectations.  That made seem like a strange statement, but let me pull apart what I mean for you.

Jesus entered a world in desperate need and blew apart every expectation that was laid upon Him.  He came to His chosen people at a time where they were politically oppressed and harassed.  He came to the poor, socially outcast and sick.

The expectations laid upon Jesus carried much pressure, but He never buckled to them.  There was the expectation that He would heal every person.  He did not.  Many expected Him to overthrow the Roman rule.  He did not.  The religious ruling class expected Him to align himself with them.  He did not.

The bottom line is that people questioned whether Jesus was truly the Messiah because He didn't at all meet any of the expectations they had built up in their minds of the One who would come to save them.  However, looking backward, we can see that His plan was better than any preconceived notions others had set up for Him.  Rather than a temporary rescue from Rome, He launched an eternal rescue from ourselves and the sin that imprisons us!  Rather than providing endless meals of bread and fish, He gave real, lasting food in His word.  Instead of a quick fix, He left us His Holy Spirit to fill us with all we need both now and in eternity.

I find reflection on Jesus' whole expectation-busting mission to be especially relevant this particular Lenten season.  Our son has recently undergone a frightening hospitalization.  Any time we go through a life-threatening crisis with him, we find that there are unspoken expectations.   It is only natural to assume family, friends and church leadership will be there for us at times like this.  Sadly, as with every crisis we endure, people disappoint.  We discover that we can't rely on others like we anticipated.

But to God be the glory!  We are never left orphans!  The Lord meets our needs.  It may not be in the way we expect, but we have more than we could ever ask or imagine.  When people from church didn't show up,  we hurt, but God shocked us with the love and attention of so many others in the Body of Christ.  We were showered with meals, notes and silly gifts!  When family let us down, He built us a new family that loves us unconditionally.  Giving kids rides from school or to youth group were small gestures of love provided by others.  I could almost write a book over the countless ways God has blown our expectations out of the water.

Lent is our opportunity to unite those disappointments with the ones that Jesus faced.  It draws us closer to Him and leaves us in awe of what He accomplished for us.  We are suddenly able to imprint on our minds and hearts the fact that God may take us through the heart of sorrow to provide a breathtaking outcome that we never would have considered before.

As we walk through life's difficulties, we must realize that God is not limited in the way He can meet our needs.  Do you face a financial trial?  Your need may not be met through that well-paying job or raise as you expect, but rather through an unanticipated rebate or sudden inheritance.  Is your marriage never what it should be?  Perhaps the support and friendship you would usually expect from a spouse will be met in other surprising ways.  Has a physical or emotional trial that your child faces continued without the resolution you had hoped for?  God may be doing something powerful in the unseen realm that will yield a surprisingly magnificent result that could not be obtained in any other way than through suffering.  The point is that there are no limits to what our omnipotent loving Creator can do.  And if we patiently endure in faith, we are sure to receive more that we could ever ask or imagine.

Pray:  Lord, you know I'm often skeptical.  I doubt Your care and grieve the way others disappoint me.  Help me to realize that humans will always fall short.  May all my expectations lay in Christ alone!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reasonable Expectations? ~ A Lenten Meditation

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and began walking with them, but they were kept from recognizing him. Then he said, "What are these things you are talking about while you walk?"

The two followers stopped, looking very sad. The one named Cleopas answered, "Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who does not know what just happened there?"
Jesus said to them, "What are you talking about?"

They said, "About Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet who said and did many powerful things before God and all the people. Our leaders and the leading priests handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. But we were hoping that he would free Israel. Besides this, it is now the third day since this happened. And today some women among us amazed us. Early this morning they went to the tomb, but they did not find his body there. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive! (Luke 24:15-23, NCV)

It's fascinating to contemplate during the holiest season of the Christian calendar, what sort of expectations were placed on this Person we celebrate. Jesus came into the world at a time when Israel had been oppressed and persecuted by the Romans for at least 60 years. Hundreds of prophecies appeared in the Old Testament pointing to a coming Messiah or "Annointed One" who would resume the kingly rule of David's family and usher in peace.

Given the conditions of that time, Jesus' followers fully expected Him to overthrow the Roman rule and set up an earthly kingdom, fulfilling the ancient prophecies. You can imagine their astonishment and disappointment when Jesus was crucified. At least 12 individuals had given up their homes and livelihoods just to follow this Messiah! What would they do now that He was executed?

But as so often happens, God had an even better plan. Their faith in Jesus was not in vain. His rule as Messiah merely came in a form much different from what they had expected. He did fulfill every one of those ancient prophecies, most of which he could not manipulate or control. And had they paid attention to ALL of the prophecies, they would have realized that his crucifixion had to take place. (See Deuteronomy 21:23, Isaiah 53:1-5) The kingdom He established was eternal! He conquered not an earthly invader, but death! Only by the power of the Holy Spirit were His disciples' eyes opened up to the amazing implications of what had happened.

As parents of kids with special needs, how strongly we can identify with that world of disappointed expectations! How many of us have had the wonderful poem "Welcome to Holland" (see presented to us along our journey? How many times have we hoped a treatment would work to no avail? How often have we thought that a given school or program would be our arrival at a level path, a time of coasting in our struggles with our kids? How much shock and pain have we experienced as friends, family or even a spouse have fallen short of what we desired?

Perhaps, like the disciples, we need to realize that God has an even better plan for us and our children. Problems may get solved, but in a completely different way than we had anticipated. Being open to other ideas, to change, and to not always having things done exactly the way we desire can end up blessing our families in the long run. Prying our sweaty, rigid fingers off of the need to always be in control of a life that seems completely out-of-control can lead us to a fuller, more peaceful life. Seeing the good that can come out of our trials can give us unexpected joy and redeem our suffering.

When Jesus was at Gethsemane before He was crucified, there was no doubt that He was bearing a tremendous weight. In fact, a "gethsemane" is a heavy stone used for pressing olives to render their oil. Not only the torture facing Him, but the pressure of the intense expectations placed on Him were a burden any of us would be crushed in facing.

In the same way, the outcomes we anticipate can unwittingly be an onerous load on our children. Challenging the way we think may be the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and our families as we journey along the dynamic path of special needs parenting. May this time of the year, renew your hope and free you from the bondage of unfulfilled expectations!

PRAY:  Lord, help us to let go of our preconceived notions and expectations in exchange for Your better plan.  Strengthen us when our perseverance waivers.

~ Barb Dittrich

Friday, March 23, 2012

Rock Climbing - A Lenten Meditation

"Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.  For you have been my refuge,a strong tower against the foe." ~ Psalm 61:1-3, NIV

We have studied before that the season of Lent is an imitation of Jesus' 40 days of wilderness time after his baptism by his cousin, John.  During that time, He was put to the test in every way.  And that time prepared Him, toughened Him and strengthened Him for living out the mission He was to carry out here on Earth. 

Too many times as parents of children with special needs, we find ourselves in that wilderness time, tried relentlessly in every way.  Our paths are rocky, not smooth.  Things that should be simple are hard work.  Travel from point A to point B may include lugging a wheelchair or other equipment, praying that some thoughtless individual isn't parked in the handicapped spot at our destination.  School, which is typically identified with more joyful landmarks than frustrations, may be a constant battle with staff, other unkind students or a lack of viable strategies.  Dates and vacations?  What are those?

While we may be able to accept that this is what our "normal" looks like, the crushing weight of all of these trials can be wearying.  It is difficult to stay positive, focusing our glance towards heaven, and setting a guard over our behavior when we are facing such cruelty in this life.  We want something positive to come out of our challenges, but often that's easier said than done.

This is where I find my mind reflecting on rock climbing.  As I have grown in my faith over the years, I have found that our amazing God is a God of details.  Nothing is coincidental in God's economy, and that even includes something as clunky as rocks!

Let me first note the difficult parts of rocks.  They are not smooth.  They are tough to climb and often shift under our feet.  They can certainly hurt us.  And in fact, you may be interested to learn that the "Gethsemane" represented in the name of the Garden of Olives where Jesus spent His last night on earth in prayer, is a heavy stone that crushed and pressed olives to squeeze the valuable oil out of the fruit.  How often we can identify with that heaviness!  Sadly, since it had such economic value, only the most affluent in town could own such a significant rock.

While they often represent difficulty, rocks also represent something profoundly useful.  They themselves are produced from the pressure of the earth forced against itself.  They can be polished into beautiful stones.  Their weight can result in something good.  In Scripture, rock formations or caves were a place of safety and shelter.  Furthermore, the oil produced by the Gethsemane stone was used from everything to cleansing, to personal healing, and to offering light in the darkness.

When we are willing to climb those rocks that appear to be a Gethsemane, something transformative happens in us.  We make real our desire to get closer to our God.  We are raised up by the very thing that should have been a stumbling block for us.  Our trials are put under foot and dominated by the Creator of the Universe, rather than dominating us and removing our joy in life.  That certainly makes us look different to a world that is fixated only upon the ugliness of rocks.

During the remainder of our days in Lent, let us lift our prayers to Heaven, asking to respond to life's boulders in the obedient, selfless, God-glorifying way that our Savior Jesus did.  This is the very thing that makes Christianity a worthy surrender -- A Lord who can make something breathtakingly beautiful and immeasurably useful out of life's dirt!

Pray:  Lord, lift me to that higher ground!  Help me to remember that by Your power, I am set above my troubles.  Bring me through this Lent looking better than when I entered into it!  

*Please check out a FAVORITE resource of this ministry to go with today's post, THE BUMPS ARE WHAT YOU CLIMB ON by Warren Wiersbe

~ Barb Dittrich

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Healed - Part 2 - A Lenten Meditation

If we are God’s children, we will get the blessings God has for his people. He will give us all that he has given Christ. But we must suffer like Christ suffered. Then we will be able to share his glory. (Romans 8:17, ERV)

 "...And by His stripes we are healed."  (Isaiah 53:5, NKJV)

"Healed".  A word that has much emotion and strong personal definitions attached to it.  Nothing can rip at a parent's heart like seeing the need for mental, emotional or physical healing in their child.

We revealed in Part 1 the counter-cultural notion that true healing is attained only through the suffering of Christ.  It's a healing like no other.  And if He suffered, we, His followers will also suffer.

Here's the piece of healing that is tremendously unique to parents of children with special needs.  Because of what we suffer through with our children -- the heartache of seeing them rejected, their physical pains, the injustice that is heaped upon them -- we are able to intimately identify with the anguish our Heavenly Father endured in watching His Son Jesus accomplish His earthly mission.  When we couple our sufferings with those of the Father, they take on tremendous meaning.  We are His ambassadors, His image-bearers to a harsh world.

Attaching our sufferings to His becomes tremendously healing.  "Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you.  Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world" (1 Peter 4:12-13, NLT)  In other words, marrying our sorrows to His brings us the overwhelming healing of partaking in His glory!  This type of cure is one that restores us to a position better than the one we originally found ourselves in.  How awesome that is!

While there is no doubt that a life with special needs is one that contains many trials and difficulties, it is also a very real opportunity to be living out the Gospel in this world.  If we partake of the gift of being healed by Christ's suffering in this life, we will also have the inner peace and joy of having a front row seat to watch Him work.

The question this Lent is, Will you accept the free gift of healing?  Will you cling to the bitterness and sense of injustice that you perceive that was committed against you and your child when a diagnosis came?  Or will you come to the realization that you have a loving Savior who understands each of your hurts (see Hebrews 4:15) and by his own pain, can give yours great meaning?  Will you settle for the cheap, temporary human form of healing?  Or will you take hold of that gift that guarantees, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There won’t be any more death. There won’t be any grief, crying, or pain, because the first things have disappeared.” (Revelation 21:4, GW)?  The choice is yours.

Pray:  Oh, loving Father!  I want the healing that You alone provide!  Today, I lay down doing life in my own power and accept your free gift of help that comes through Jesus alone.  Come into my heart, and make my life new again in You.

~ Barb Dittrich

Friday, March 16, 2012

Healed - Part 1 - A Lenten Meditation

"...And by His stripes we are healed."  (Isaiah 53:5, NKJV)

"Healed"...  Few words are more emotionally charged for those who have a special need in the family.  Being set free from the bondage of illness, chronic disease or disability sounds like a dream come true.  And all too often, we are smacked around by the words of Christians who want to assure us that if we had more faith, the special need in our lives would be cured or removed.

Lent is the perfect time to examine healing.  Why?  Because Jesus mission here on earth was centered on healing.  Examining that further may reveal something different than we expect.  

Let's hang out on the Bible passage in today's devotional.  It doesn't say "By the waving of His hand, we are healed," or "By His command, we are healed."  It says "By His stripes we are healed."  In various different translations, "stripes" is replaced by the word "punishment," "wounds," "bruises," or "scourging".  Each of these words point to suffering.  We are healed by suffering.  That seems contrary to human logic, doesn't it?

Every inch of agony Jesus suffered gains healing for us.  What does that healing look like?  Does healing look like all of our problems going away?  Does it mean that our mental health is perfect?  Does it mean that our kids are at an age-appropriate cognitive level?  Does it mean that disease disappears?  Certainly, God tells us that His power is made perfect in weakness. (See 2 Corinthians 12:9)  He also tells us that no servant is greater than their master.  (See John 13:16 & John 15:20)  Further, God even takes ownership by His Sovereignty in allowing deafness, blindness and being non-verbal to prevail.  (See Exodus 4:11)  And Jesus Himself proclaimed that a man born blind was allowed to live with that challenge so that the work of God might be displayed through him.  (See John 9:3)  Therefore, in light of God's own words, it is clear that the suffering of Jesus does not mean that we are always physically healed this side of heaven.  If He suffered, we will suffer, but it will result in something glorious.

Every wound, each painful scourging is evidence of his identifying with our sufferings and of his taking the punishment we alone deserve.  "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Corinthians 5:21, NASB)  His healing is more than the temporal remedy confined to life on Earth.  Jesus alone provides healing that allows us to be in Heaven, forever in the glorious presence of God, where "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There won’t be any more death. There won’t be any grief, crying, or pain, because the first things have disappeared.” (Revelation 21:4, GW)

Jesus' healing is a profound, incomparable healing!  No where else can you find healing like the kind described in Revelation 21:4!  As you contemplate what Jesus did during your Lenten season, spend some time basking in the matchless healing that is yours because of Easter.  Revel in the overwhelming gratitude and deep joy that can't help but flow out of that time of reflection.  And go forward proclaiming the awesome news that there is a Divine Healer who is on call for all who are willing to give him a call!

Pray:  Oh, gracious Jesus!  You are the Healer of all of our sorrows.  Thank you for the eternal hope you alone provide!  Help me to share the good news of all that you have done.

~ Barb Dittrich

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Brokenhearted - A Lenten Meditation

But there's also this, it's not too late— God's personal Message!—"Come back to me and really mean it! Come fasting and weeping, sorry for your sins!"~ Joel 2:12, MSG

Writings on the topic of sin are surely uncomfortable and somewhat unpopular.  Rather than comforting us with faith's stories of redemption, salvation and hope, passages about our shortcomings leave us feeling disgusted, frequently in denial, and often inadequate.  No one likes feeling that way.  Yet, I would contend that there is a deep need for to visit to boldly confront that which our human nature would like to avoid at all costs.

Think about this with me for a minute.  There are certain behaviors in each of our lives that, if revealed, would be tremendously embarrassing to us.  We wouldn't want anyone to judge our character based on those little parts of us.  It may be the times we lost our temper with our innocent children.  It may be occasion we stole a couple of extra alcohol swabs or band-aids from the clinic because we needed them at home and didn't want to pay for more out of our own pockets.  It may be the little "white lies" we told the school to get our child through a bad situation.  None of this is anything we are particularly proud of.

Yet, unless we come to a point where we are willing to face how flawed and wicked we are, we will see no need for a Savior.  And unless we become utterly brokenhearted over how nasty and evil we are, we can't fully appreciate the lavish love Jesus showed us by dying on the cross in punishment for that depravity.  I used to bristle at Rick Warren's words in The Purpose Driven Life, "Given the right circumstances, any of us are capable of any sin."  But the more I see both in culture and in myself, I see the truth and wisdom in those words.  Furthermore, as I read God's word and witness His utter perfection throughout history, my conscience becomes more awakened, and I become more aware of how much I fall short.  I can say with the Apostle Paul, "I know that nothing good lives in me; that is, nothing good lives in my corrupt nature. Although I have the desire to do what is right, I don’t do it."  (Romans 7:18, GW)

Now, lest you think that you are exempt from being anywhere near as evil as I, allow me to invite you to identify with the people being interviewed in this video.  I love this approach made popular by Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort in The Way of the Master.  Going through this "good person test" opens a person's eyes to the fact that what they may think is good, really leaves a great deal to be desired.  In fact, Paul rightly reveals to us, "For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard." (Romans 3:23, NLT)  The best person in the world still falls far short of God's perfection.

Don't be afraid or too proud to face your filthy motives and behavior.  As I frequently tell others, The more ugly I am willing to admit I am, the more beautiful Jesus looks!  That is a phenomenal, breathtaking place to be!  During this season of meditating upon the price that was paid for your eternal salvation, take some quiet time apart to think of all your shortcomings.  Spend some time becoming brokenhearted over what you have done.  But don't stay there.  Quickly turn your face towards the rejoicing of what was done to take the burden of that wickedness away.  Your Maker truly loves you!

Pray:  Jesus, I am a hopeless sinner, desperately wicked and unworthy of heaven.  But I praise You because you took my punishment for all of that.  Thank You for making a way to spend eternity with you forever in paradise! 

~ Barb Dittrich

Friday, March 9, 2012

Love That Demands a Response - A Lenten Meditation

The Lord appeared to me in a faraway place and said, “I love you with an everlasting love.  So I will continue to show you my kindness..." (Jeremiah 31:3, GW)

"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." (John 15:13, NIV)

Imagine you are zipping along in your car one day, running from doctor's appointments, hurrying to grab groceries, then hop on the cell phone to connect with your spouse.  In all the rush and demands of your busy life, you carelessly veer out of your lane, colliding head-on with another driver.  You wake in a hospital bed realizing that not only are you and your child-passenger injured, but you have also killed the other driver.  Subsequently, the district attorney seeks to remove your children from your home because you are a negligent parent, and you face jail time for reckless homicide in the killing of the other driver.  Life seems hopelessly grim as your life turns upside down in one car ride.  At trial, you are found guilty of all charges and are sentenced to the maximum punishment.

At your sentencing, this gentle friend, who has never done a thing wrong in his life, shocks everyone when he stands up and demands to take your place.  The judge, finding your friend to be rather annoying, agrees to the exchange.  You are set free and watch your kind friend hauled off on your behalf.  As you are allowed to resume your life, you see your friend suffer all the horrors of the punishment that should have been yours -- rape, beating, isolation, deprivation, abandonment by others, and complete humiliation.  

Given what your friend has done for you, what is your response?  Do you just walk away, acting like he doesn't exist and enjoy your life to its fullest?  Or do you instead, give that friend your full attention, realizing no debt of gratitude could ever make up for the generous love this friend has poured out on you?  Your friend has every opportunity to have your case opened back up, declaring a mistrial, making you take that punishment, but he never opens his mouth to do so, despite his immense suffering.  You look at him in complete puzzlement, but realize fully that you have something serious to learn from a friend like this.

While this little story may seem a bit far fetched, it is not unlike the story of what Jesus did for you when He came to earth over 2,000 years ago.  We may use the excuse of being busy or absent-minded, but we are still too sinful to be anywhere near a Holy God.  Frankly, our best is not even remotely good enough.  We each deserve hell.  And while there are days where we may feel like we are living hell on earth, those times don't even hold a candle to the eternal doom reserved for those who rely on their own "goodness".  Each "white lie" we tell, each cranky snapping at those we love, each gossiping word we share or each gluttonous morsel we devour makes us fit for nothing but separation from God's radiant glory.

But the very Son of God left that resplendent, glory to come down here and make that journey into hell for you.  Take a minute to watch Him be punished on your behalf.  That disgusting mucus spit upon Him was meant for you.  Those smacks across the face had your name on them.  Every excruciating stripe of open skin on his back is yours.  The blood and life poured out as others laughed in heartless humiliation should have been yours.

Yet, you live with an eternal hope today, not only from that substitute of suffering, but from the death-busting and heaven-uniting His eventual resurrection power provided.   How will you respond to that today?  Can you just go on without the fact that this was done on your behalf eating at you?  I doubt it.  This sort of insane love demands a response.  How can you not love back?

Pray:  Jesus, when I meditate upon what you have done for me, it takes my breath away.  My sadness is real.  Help me to respond in a life-changing way to your love poured out for me.

~ Barb Dittrich

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

CRAZY About You - A Lenten Meditation

"My Child" by David Bowman
It was before Passover, and Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and to return to the Father. He had always loved his followers in this world, and he loved them to the very end.~ John 13:1, CEV

Dream a little with me.  Wouldn't it be nice to have someone who was absolutely crazy about you?  They would make you their top priority, know every detail about you.  They would be concerned about your hurts and share all your joys.  But they would also want only the very best for you to the point that they would be willing to be the object of your anger if it meant stopping you from destroying yourself forever.  They would comfort and encourage you when you couldn't go on.  And they would even work behind the scenes to your benefit, whether you knew it or not.

Actually, we're not dreaming.  There is Someone who is truly that crazy about each and every one of us individually.  He walked the earth over 2,000 years ago, and he's still alive today.  His name is Jesus Christ.

Hang out with me here for awhile, and think on this rather than glossing through it.  Imagine living in painless, tearless, awesome joy, life as it should be.  Angels attend to you.  Saints sing your praises and bow down before you.  Would you want to leave that?  No.  I wouldn't either.  Yet, that is what Jesus gave up to come into our messy, broken world for 33 years. 

He didn't just come into our world and live in discomfort as a highly honored human either.  Instead, Jesus, who knows the beginning from the end and the end from the beginning, willingly came into a situation where he was born into a family in an oppressed country.  He was born in the utter stink and squalor of a dung-filled cave where those of a trade equal to today's garbage men or pig farmers kept warm at night.  He subjected himself to all the limitations of being human such as pain, disappointment, exhaustion, humiliation, hunger and illness.  And Jesus' hands were worn from learning the trade of his earthly father.  He was homeless, wandering and rejected by the very people to whom he was delivering his message of hope.  He was insulted without insulting back, spat upon, hit, threatened, lied about without waging a defense, falsely convicted, scourged, tortured and brutally murdered.

All of these lengths the High and Holy God of heaven went to just to let you know how CRAZY He is about YOU...  Yes, little, flawed, average, human YOU!  He did this not only to make sure the price of justice would be paid, so that you could be with Him in eternity forever, but also so you knew the infinite worth you have.  Through His sacrifice you have value and meaning.  His life gives your life purpose.  He even became one of you, so you would know He fully understands you!  Hallelujah!

Spend a little time today catching yourself smiling as you reflect on what insane love Someone has for you.  Unlike human love, it's a love that knows no end and spares no expense.  It's a love that treasures who you are and stretches you to become the best you can be.  Where else can you find a love like this?  Nowhere!  Quiet yourself for awhile and bask in that love today.

Pray:  Jesus, in a season that's all about Your very life on this earth, let me not  grow dulled to this passionate, crazy love You have for me.  Let it penetrate the deepest parts of my heart and mind.  May it not leave me where it finds me.

~ Barb Dittrich

Friday, March 2, 2012

Desert Time - A Lenten Meditation

"The Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him." (Mark 1:12-13, NLT)

Lent is a Christian church season that represents a period of 40 days which lasts from Ash Wednesday through Holy Thursday right before Easter.  According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary online, the word itself originates from the Middle English lente springtime, Lent, from Old English lencten; akin to Old High German lenzin spring, and was first known to be used in the 13th Century.  Often far from feeling like a springtime, Catholic scholars still debate whether this season was observed during apostolic times.  Regardless, this time in the church calendar has become known as a period of self-examination and purification that imitates Jesus' 40 days in the desert immediately following his baptism.

Personally, it has become a time of great spiritual growth for me over the years.  Allow me to share with you what these 40 days have become for me.  Perhaps it can grow into a special annual tradition for you.

Lent first becomes a mindset for me.  I see this as my chance to separate myself a bit, just like Jesus did.  It denotes days where I can give God my full attention and lessen the distractions to hearing His voice.  I enter into Jesus' desert journey of learning lessons that only discomfort can teach.

I am an avid reader, so I always devour something focused on the life of Jesus that grows me in intimacy with and appreciation of my Savior.  The best Lenten season I ever experienced included my reading of the book Jesus: Who Is He? by Tim LaHaye.  This book was so full of facts that support our faith that it was amazing!  If I didn't believe in who Jesus was and what He did before I read the book, I certainly couldn't do otherwise after having my eyes opened by this volume.  Another favorite that I come back to each year is Bread and Wine:  Readings for Lent and Easter.  Filled with meditations on topics such as suffering, repentance, and hope by classic authors like Martin Luther, CS Lewis, and Henri Nouwen, I use this book almost like a devotional for quiet reflections on my life in Christ.  Max Lucado also offers great food for thought during the season of Lent through books such as Six Hours One Friday, And the Angels Were Silent: Walking with Christ Toward the Cross, and No Wonder They Call Him the Savior:  Discover Hope In The Unlikeliest Place.  Authors like Philip Yancey, Beth Moore, Henry Blackaby and others offer meaty books and studies on Jesus as well.

Lent is also a time to couple my sufferings with Jesus' sufferings.  A desert doesn't sound to me like a fun place to spend 40 days alone.  The scorching heat sounds like it would leave me thirsty.  The openness and extreme solitude seem scary.  And I imagine the barren vista would become old very quickly.  It amazes me that Christ endured this and in fact, was trained by it.

Some challenges or temptations I can barely face for 40 hours let alone 40 days.  But when I look at the sorrows involved with parenting children who have special needs, I know that it can also be a long, dry, lonely season at times.  It can take forever to get a diagnosis or to work out adaptations with a school.  I can be surrounded by friends who either don't understand or who are sick of hearing about my troubles.  I can also find myself dragging as I lack the spiritual verve I need to be reflecting God's glory through my trials.  These are times where I'm grateful to have the angels to take care of me as they did Jesus.  And I'm so glad I have a Savior who understands my pains.

When I get to Holy Thursday and Good Friday after a Lent like this, these holy days hold so much more significance and meaning.  The last hours of Jesus life and the unbelievable sacrifice He made for me are so very real after spending 40 days of contemplation.  I find myself weeping in remorse and gratitude as I think of every humiliation, every abrasion from whipping, every bruise from beating and the deep, deep wounds of crucifixion.  My heart almost explodes from the responsive love Jesus' sacrifice draws out of me.

And Easter, oh what a joy!  It is far more powerful and real to experience how Christ overcame and conquered by His death and resurrection when I have spent all that time focusing on the darkness.  The sense of freedom is truly remarkable!  I feel spiritually renewed and excited once again to share that hopeful, transformative, news with a sad and desperate world.

While I want to affirm that we are not saved by rituals, some intentional spiritual practices can be water to our souls when they provide our forgetful minds with significant meaning.  I find the observance of Lent to be one such practice.  I invite you to spend these days in the desert with me each year.  I pray it will not leave you the way it finds you.

Pray:  Lord, help me to use these days before Easter to recall what you did for me.  Help me to be utterly filled by this desert season, so I can become more effective in sharing the news of Your hope with a hurting world.

~ Barb Dittrich