Celebrating Easter Like a Cubs Fan: An Explanation and Defense of Lent

I Love tradition. As a teenager I used to get into fights with my parents about things like buying a fake Christmas tree, or going out to eat for thanksgiving. I especially love church traditions, partly because I grew up with them, but mostly because they have deepened my understanding of God. Lent is one of these traditions; it starts on Ash Wednesday (March 1st) and continues through Holy week to Easter. What saddens me is the way Lent is misunderstood and forgotten in the church today. While some modern churches may still celebrate Advent, Lent isn’t very popular. It’s sort of like Advent’s less adorable cousin- similar in purpose, but moody and morbid. The beautiful candles and wreaths are replaced with grubby ashes and uncomfortable sacrifice. Instead of ending with a cute baby we end up with a cold, dark tomb.

So why do we need a season like this? It’s important because it prepares us for Easter- the holiday that defines us as Christians. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV). In fact, Easter is so important people regularly compare it to the Super Bowl. Just as the NFL and network spend lots of time and money to create an extravagant celebration to reach millions, so do Church leaders. The analogy weakens, however, if you take it any deeper. Most people who tune in for the Super Bowl aren’t even watching. Many aren’t even football fans at all, they just like the party that comes with it and the commercials. And although it’s the most watched sporting event on television, it doesn’t convert many of those casual observers into regular season football fans. I don’t think this is what we want to be saying about Easter.
If we have to use a sports analogy, Easter is more like the Cubs winning the World Series. After 108 long and horrible years, the Curse of the Billy Goat was finally broken. People watched that game with complete focus, because they knew baseball history was in the making. And in the end, who wasn’t rooting for Chicago?

But the elation we felt was not just from the Cubs winning the last game. It was a celebration of their endurance to win their division after 6 months of regular season games, about their focus and drive during the post season, and about the nail biting drama of the seven game championship. If you only saw the very last game you missed the depth of their final victory. You weren’t one of those people throwing things at the TV when they almost blew it in the 8th, or screaming loud enough to wake the kids when they finally won. That passion came from preparation: from having spent time following the team and knowing the players, their stats, and their history. This is why we need Lent, so we’re prepared to appreciate the victory.

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Ordinary Time

To begin with, the regular season of baseball is far more like Christian life than football because it’s played all week long. Players toil day after day, going through streaks and slumps, working against a handful of pitchers who know their every weakness. Last year, the Cubs had a great regular season; with a stellar line-up and bull-pen, they were exciting to watch. Everyone on the team proved their worth, and they finished with the best record in baseball, 103-58. But even in their awesomeness, that means they still lost a third of their games. It’s impossible for a team to always play at 100 percent of their potential day in and day out for six months straight. That much work and stress takes a physical and an emotional toll on the players. It’s one of the things that makes baseball so relatable and lovable to its fans, because our lives are like that too.

According to the church calendar, the seasons between big holidays are called Ordinary Time, and it’s our regular season. We struggle through embarrassing slumps, and shine when we’re having a hot streak. Temptation is like a pitcher that throws at us relentlessly, and even when we’re doing our best we’ll still only beat it 3 times out of ten. While we may feel like we have a winning record, subtle sins creep in and weaken our relationship with God. We develop bad habits and hurt people we care about. We start turning to things besides God to numb our worry and pain. Our daily tendency to sin makes it impossible for us to consistently act out our devotion.

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Lent 

Last fall, all baseball fans feared the Cubs. Our attention focused on the teams that would make it to post-season, analyzing all of their stats, trying to guess who might be able to beat Chicago in their bid for the World Series. In the regular season, teams focus on their division standing; but in fall ball, every game matters. A single win or a loss could mean the chance for a wild card. Three or four bad games in a row will kill a team’s hope for the championship title. When the Cubs made it to the post-season, they had to be smart. The staff began strategizing on how they could keep their star players rested, healthy, and playing strong. They adjusted their pitching rotation to optimize everyone’s performance. They looked at their regular season losses to find weaknesses, and thought how they could avoid them. It’s important to note again that these things were happening daily.

This is Lent. It’s 40 days (plus Sundays, which are like the rest days) for self-analysis and repentance, and it lets God rid us of the ordinary sin that settles in our lives during the year. It’s not about giving up something to prove devotion, or about doubling up efforts to follow all the rules. The fasting of things dear to us means the only place we have left to turn for comfort is to him. But we’re so bad at giving these things up; even our weak will reminds us we need God’s mercy every hour. If we’re like the team, then God is like the manager, molding us into something stronger, getting us back into our best possible shape.

The actual season of Lent is not a biblical commandment, but a ritual based on biblical principles and examples of repentance, prayer and fasting. My favorite example is in Daniel, when the 70 prophesied years of Jewish exile was ending. Daniel wants God to redeem the Jews, but he knows the importance of confessing how awful they’ve been, and how they don’t deserve it. In Daniel 9:3-4 it says, “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord God and confessed… ” The prayer that follows (9:4-19), admits the shame and the destruction the Jews brought on themselves because of their sin. He laments the choices they have made, and recognizes how desperately they need God’s salvation. Yet the prayer is still laced with worship, proclaiming that God’s awesome power is in his ability to love above all else. He ends the prayer with the attitude we should all have during lent, saying, “We do not present our supplications before you because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies.” (v.18)

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Holy Week

By the end of October, the Cubs had won the pennant, and there was massive excitement because it was the first time they’d gone to the World Series since 1945. The odds were that they would easily win, so who could have expected the heartbreak fans felt midweek when defeat seemed inevitable? Only five teams before them, in a history of 112 World Series, had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit before. Defying all odds, the team continued to hang on in the series until it all came down to the seventh and final game.  In that last chance,  the Cubs scored in the first inning, and our hope began to surface. When we got through the seventh and they were still ahead there was excitement that this hope might actually survive. But in bottom of the eighth, when game was almost over, the Indians scored three runs. Suddenly the game was tied, and stayed that way through the ninth. The Cubs were now facing extra innings, and announcers were rattling off numerous statistics about how many times the team had lost in extra innings, and how many times over the last century they had buckled under pressure. Their bull-pen was spent, and morale was as low as could be.

Little did we know, God is a Cubs fan too, and the miraculous timing of a 20-minute rain delay saved the game. Jason Heyward saw the despair on his teammates’ faces, so he pulled the team together in the weight room behind the dugout.  He told them, “We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best for a reason. Now we’re going to show it. We play like the score is nothing-nothing. We’ve got to stay positive and fight for your brothers. Stick together and we’re going to win this game.” (WORLD SERIES-It Happened) Then other players began to chime in and the theme was, “We won’t quit.” When the team retook the field in the tenth, people started hitting again. They averted disaster with brilliant base running. Ryan Zobrist batted in the winning run and Miguel Montero another after that. To everyone’s relief, the Cleveland bats had no response, and in an instant, 100 years of baseball fans were finally vindicated. All of Chicago ran out into the streets celebrating; their joy and excitement so contagious, they made Cub fans of us all.

While it was probably the best week of baseball ever, Holy Week is even more grand and grueling a journey. In this last week of Lent, scripture takes us with Jesus through Jerusalem- reliving His entry, last supper, death and resurrection. Each event is marked by a holy day on the calendar.

Palm Sunday starts the week with the triumphal parade into the Holy City. People cheer, and throw their coats and palm branches in the street for a King they think is so holy, not even his donkey’s feet should tread the dirt. There is finally hope in the dull roar of the Passover festival- after 7,000 years of promises, there’s finally a Messiah. But this King and the celebration of him infuriates the establishment. They grumble in the shadows, plotting how they can be rid of him.

On Maundy Thursday, the gracious Savior knows what’s coming and tries to warn his followers. He washes their feet, breaks bread and pours wine as a metaphor, but they just can’t fathom what He’s saying. After dinner they drift off to sleep in the garden while prays and His sweat becomes like blood. He offers up a desperate plea for mercy, but the cup is His to drink. When they come to arrest Him, He submits peacefully (much to his friends’ dismay) even though the soldiers are ready for war.

The high and mighty continue to flaunt their power over him on Good Friday, battering Hope, ridiculing it, and strapping it to a cross to die; a public warning displayed for anyone who might try to rekindle its flame.

On Holy Saturday we mourn while the King we thought would save us wades through the depth of hell on our behalf. The only people who haven’t walked away from Sunday’s parade entirely hide themselves away, confused and terrified.

Just when everyone thinks the story is completely over, at Easter Sunrise on the third day, a miracle occurs. It’s more extravagant than anyone dreamed- the man who had the power to raise the dead has actually raised himself. Finally, the cryptic prophecies begin to make sense to His weary followers, who emerge from their despair barely understanding the implications. The victory is so outrageous that when they try to repeat what happened, even their best friends don’t believe it.

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The story is world altering. It changes the way we tell time. It reforms our laws and morals. We shouldn’t miss out on even one part of it. I hope that regardless of what your church chooses to do, you and your family will observe lent. Being able to follow Jesus all the way to the cross and beyond is a long, rigorous, daily journey that takes discipline and resolve. But focusing our attention on it strengthens our love and faith in Him. People who just show up for the last game of the season don’t care much who wins or loses. If you are going to be as passionate about Easter as a Cubs fan was last fall, then be prepared, so you can fully appreciate the magnitude of the victory.

Advent 2016

Today is the first day of Advent! Do you celebrate? Do you know what it is?  Advent is one of the things I really miss about traditional church.  How do you feel during the weeks leading up to Christmas? Maybe the overwhelming spirit of materialism makes you sad, or maybe you feel only stress and long for some peace. Maybe you just really want your kids to know they are receiving a gift infinitely bigger than video games or lego sets.

Advent is a 4 week season to remind us that Christmas is about hope, peace, joy and love. It allows us time to realize we are doomed by our sin and lets us prepare our hearts for the arrival of our savior. By Christmas day we are ready to celebrate the savior who keeps his promises, loves abundantly, and will never abandon us.

If you’ve celebrated Advent the same way your whole life, maybe this is the year to do something different. There are many Advent traditions that have evolved over the past 2000 years, some are ancient and some are brand new.  I love how the Holy Spirit continues to push and inspire us to find new ways to relive this familiar story. Sometimes a change in practice allows us to see the story in a new light, or from a different character’s point of view.

If you’ve decided to practice Advent this year, I compiled some resources to help you and/or your family. I have used them myself and with my family. They have given me new ways to think about familiar scriptures, and have led our hearts away from the frenzied consumerism and back toward the earth altering event in Bethlehem.

The Advent wreath has 4 candles on the outside, with a large one in the middle, and it visits a different part of the Christmas story each week. It varies from church to church, but the point is to cover major themes: the prophecies which bring hope, the preparation which (oddly enough) brings peace, the shepherds who receive joy, and the angels who sang of God’s gift as love. Finally, on Christmas day, you light the Christ candle to remember his humble but awesome birth.  Lighting the Advent wreath is my favorite Christmas memory from childhood. Each Saturday night we would gather around the wreath, my parents would trust me to strike matches, and we would light the new candle. We followed the same litany each year, which was a poetic combination of scriptures, prayers, Christmas hymns, and a specific reading for kids to tell what the candle was about.

There are many scripts to use for lighting the candles online if you google Advent wreath scripts, but this one is my favorite for families and young children:

https://mikemilton.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/advent-readings-and-lighting/

Jesse Trees  show us how the Christmas story relates to the rest of the bible with a new ornament and bible story each day.  I usually gather the trimmings from the tree and put them in a vase. Some people buy a small table top tree, or just put the ornaments on their larger family tree. The reading plans go through the major bible stories chronologically and help us trace God’s promise and our need for a savior through history.  When you’re finished with the bible story, hang an ornament relating to the story on the tree. You can buy ornaments, or make them, or just print the ornaments and color them.

Ann Voskamp has perfected the Jesse tree, she has written beautiful books for adults and families. The books take you through the scriptures with devotionals and matching ornaments (which you can print for free or buy.)

annvoskamp.com/thegreatestchristmas/

Holy Heroes also offers an Advent Adventure program, which is a  combination of Advent wreath prayers and Jesse tree ornamets. Each day you get an email with a new video, and links to activity pages, prayers, and kids devotionals. This is a Catholic resource, so I skip the parts about mass and about praying the rosary, but if you’ve never celebrated advent before those parts may help understand the history and the symbolism of advent. The Jesse tree links have their own videos and printables though, and can be used across denominations.  The other awesome part about program is its FREE!

Sign up for your daily email here –holyheroes.com/Holy-Heroes-Advent-Adventure-s/48.htm

A Christmas Craft Calendar is very similar to the Jesse tree, but focuses more on the Christmas story and less on the entire Old Testament.  

A list or crafts and bible stories can be found at  truthinthetinsel.com 

Every day you create an ornament with your kids for the tree, and read the scripture that corresponds. The ornaments are fairly simple, made with common craft supplies. If you think your kids would love it, but 25 days of crafting sounds crazy, don’t fret! There are shorter plans, with ornaments for just 5 or 10 days. There are also backup printable ornaments that only need to be colored if you’re missing the supplies on any given day. I would recommend it for kids between 4 and 10, although I had a lot fun helping my kids last year and I’m 35.

Photo challenge is for visually minded learners, and maybe teens who want nothing to do with things like circle time or coloring pages. A photo challenge has a list of Advent keyword topics relating to the lectionary readings for the day. Snap a photo that embodies the topic and keep it in a gallery to meditate on, or share it on Instagram/facebook/twitter/whatever to minister to your friends and other visually minded people.

rethinkchurch.org/articles/spirituality/2016-advent-photo-a-day-practice

Bible journaling- Have you seen the art people draw in their bibles? Search  #biblejournaling and prepare to be amazed! It’s a beautiful outlet for people who are crafty AND inspired by scripture to put those talents together.  Drawing, writing, painting, or crafting in response to the word challenges creative minds to see familiar Christmas scriptures in entirely new ways.  Scripture Writing is for the person who loves the idea of bible journaling but is about as crafty as a lumberjack. Scripture writing is basically copywork for grownups- copy down the daily scripture, (about 5 verses) word for word.  It can be in beautiful calligraphy with embellishments, or written on a legal pad in pencil. Pray over the passage, and scan it for words and phrases that God is speaking to you. Then highlight these things, or retrace them, while thanking God for his faithfulness.

The benefit of both practices is that you’re engaged with the Word, removing the temptation to space out while reading the parts that you’ve read 100 times. Both practices can be done year round, but there are special resources to help you focus on Advent.

Journaling: seasonsillustrated.com/announcing-advent-illustrated-2016-calendar/

Scripture Writing (starts dec.1) thebusymom.com/scripturewriting

Devotionals Almost everybody puts out an Advent devotional, there are several inspiring ones for free on the YouVersion bible app. The ladies at She Reads Truth also deliver goodness every single day, and they expand their offerings during Advent to minister to kids and hubbies too! Their workbooks are beautiful and worth the price, but you can also follow the readings and devotionals daily for free on their website. shopshereadstruth.com/collections/advent-2016

Daily reading-shereadstruth.com 

I hope you and your family will take the time this next month to celebrate Advent! If none of these resources work for you, I hope you will at least be intrigued by the concept and find your own way to celebrate.