Purpose is a word that is on the minds of many millennials, however, for many it seems to be that piece of the puzzle that is hidden; That needle in the haystack that you are searching for.
The frustration of figuring out what one is supposed to do is what seems to open a door to the spirit of heaviness that plagues so many of us. We may wonder, “Why did I go to college? What now?” You may be working a job and wondering where the end will be.
Could it be that you are looking at purpose from a different perspective? If we are to model Jesus Christ, He was first a carpenter before He revealed Himself as a Savior. Carpentry involves accuracy, commitment and focus. Think about it, you cannot build half a chair or half a table. The everyday, ordinary commitments that Jesus had to do, prepared Him for His greatest purpose on earth, the Cross.
Instead of complaining about your job, master the skills that your job allows you to learn. Be the expert at everything you do. Instead of wondering about tomorrow, maximize the 24 hours given today and commit yourself to excellence.
I view excellence like a garment worn each day to let purpose know you showed up ready to live and maximize your potential that day. The worst mistake you can make is to be a replica of someone already existing. Wasting time copying what is already there is robbing yourself of the opportunity of discovering what God the Creator had in mind when He formed you in your mother’s womb. Be inspired by what is around you, but allow yourself room to be an inspiration to others.
One of my favorite scriptures is Ecclesiastes 11:4 (Living Bible Version) “If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.”
Instead of wondering what your purpose is, you can:
- Become a student of your own life
- Study what motivates you and inspires you to want to make a difference
- Pray and believe God. However, as you pray, research your passions, and educate yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised that what you have been searching for, has always lied within you.
Prayer for the journey to purpose:
Dear God, as I begin this month of March, teach me to be present, to be aware of what is going on around me, to pause, and be grateful for all the wonderful things You have done for me. I release the fear of missing my purpose and destiny. I put You first and ask You to help me. I want to live a life of purpose, to glorify You. I will honor You and share with others how You have blessed me. So Lord, I exhale and release myself to you. I am ready for this journey. I am ready to take a risk of trusting You…Thank You Lord for hearing this prayer. Amen.
The internet is saturated with tons of information for all facets of life, including spiritual resources.
In fact, if you do an Amazon search for something like study Bible results will include a wide variety of options. While scrolling down the list, you will find study Bibles for men and women. You will find study Bibles for couples and you can also find a study Bible in just about every translation. So why would anyone need another study Bible, particularly the Africa Study Bible?
Well, to start, we suppose you should start by asking, “What exactly is the Africa Study Bible?”
While all of aforementioned study Bibles have their merit, the Africa Study Bible delivers something unique. It contains insight and knowledge about the Bible from a non-majority culture perspective. It is packed with over 2,400 features, and 350 scholars from more than 50 African countries have contributed to the making of this Bible.
The features of the Africa Study Bible speak on different topics through the lens of African culture. Whether you’re African or a member of the African Diaspora, this Bible provides in-depth knowledge to show that Christianity extends beyond just one group of people.
Contrary to popular opinion, Christianity is not solely the territory of those of European ancestry. In fact, it is the countries and cultures of the South and the East where Christianity is growing at a rapid rate. Not only that, but studies show that Africa played a major role in the development of Christian theology. The Africa Study Bible helps to make that clear and it can make that clear for you as well.
The Africa Study Bible is loaded with tons of features, including:
- Book introductions explaining the history of each book
- Touch Points to show where the culture of the Bible meets African cultures and how Africans shaped Christian belief
- Learn Notes to teach the foundations, values, and the doctrine of the Christian faith.
- Proverbs and Stories to enlighten readers through the parallels of Scripture and cultural wisdom found in wise sayings and fables.
- Application Notes to inspire readers to reflect on issues and apply truth to everyday life
- Articles giving practical advice on how to live out the Christian faith, focusing on 50 critical concerns facing the church in Africa and its people
- Topical Index and Concordance that lists the biblical text s and Africa Study Bible features by topic and defines difficult-to-understand words connecting concepts from Genesis to Revelation for research and teaching
- Maps, Graphical Timelines, and Other Features that spread throughout the Bible and help provide insight and understanding
With this Bible you will have specific insight and knowledge into the cultures and customs of the Bible from an African perspective. This will equip you with tools to share non-majority insights with your congregation or Bible study. The Africa Study Bible can help you to reclaim Christianity’s African roots.
Check out our interview with Dr. A. Okechukwu Ogbonnaya, Ph.D. on the inspiration behind the Africa Study Bible and its impact on our community below:
(RNS) When Sarah Bessey started blogging in 2005, she saw it as a way to keep in touch with friends and family.
And that was in the early days of the Christian blogosphere, which she remembers as an “oasis of community” — strangers sharing everything from parenting tips to theology and filling comment sections with “lively and respectful” dialogue.
Flash forward to 2017.
In many places, blogging seems to have become all about personal branding. At the same time, Bessey’s blog has brought her speaking engagements and inspired two books — “Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women” and “Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith” — with a third in the works. Bessey now has nearly 43,000 followers on Twitter and about 38,000 onFacebook.
“The internet gave women like me — women who are outside of the usual power and leadership narratives and structures — a voice and a community,” Bessey told RNS by email. “We began to write and we began to find each other, we began to learn and be challenged, we began to realize we weren’t as alone as we thought we were. Blogging gave us a way past the gatekeepers of evangelicalism.”
For many Christian women, including racial minorities, and others whose voices traditionally have not been heard by or represented in institutional churches, the internet has created new platforms to teach, preach and connect.
That includes countless personal blogs and social media accounts like Bessey’s. It also includes online ministries that have grown to include offline events like Propel Women, (in)courage, The Influence Network and IF:Gathering, and Bible study communities like She Reads Truth, which started as a hashtag by several online strangers to share what they were reading in the Bible and has grown to a website, app, book and specialty Bible that counted 500,000 active users last fall.
“People used to ask me, ‘Where did all these women writers and influencers come from?!’ and I’d have to laugh when I said, ‘The internet!’” Bessey wrote in her email.
But, if the furor on social media this past month is to be believed, the abundance of faith bloggers also has created what the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren called a “crisis of authority.”
“Is literally everyone with a computer — do they equally hold authority to teach and preach?” said Warren, an Anglican priest, who wrote a commentary for Christianity Today titled “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?”
The controversy started just before Easter. Writer and speaker Jen Hatmaker criticized “the systems and alliances and coded language and brand protection that poison the simple, beautiful body of Christ.” Hatmaker said she had encountered all that after affirming in an interview last fall with RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt that same-sex relationships can be holy.
A day later, Bible teacher Beth Moore tweeted that when considering the “things that need crucifying with Christ I vote personal branding. It’s gross.”
“I am so sick of it and them I could vomit,” Moore wrote.
And, after the hashtag #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear trended on Twitter, Bessey started #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear to “amplify the voices of women who have too often been silenced” in the church, she wrote in a Facebook post. More followed, including #ThingsOnlyBlackChristianWomenHear.
Warren said the controversy touched on nearly all of the disagreements currently roiling the waters of evangelical Christianity — one of which is complementarianism, or the belief that men and women have different roles.
“We’re talking about the history of evangelicalism, anti-institutionalism meets complementarianism meets marketing, money and power meets marginalization of minority voices — all of these things collide in this conversation,” she told RNS.
Warren said her concerns extend to the male-dominated “megachurch” model, as well.
Austin Channing Brown. Photo courtesy of Austin Channing Brown
“I think the reason — and this is why I wrote the piece — that a lot of women are going outside their congregations to the internet for discipleship, is that they don’t have women in their congregations who can come to them, not just as buddies but with pastoral authority,” Warren said.
Many women already are gifted teachers, and the institutional church should embrace them, she suggested. That’s a mutual relationship: Bloggers also should work to “build a church bigger than their own personal brand and submit to this long tradition of Christian faith.”
That’s precisely why internet platforms are so important, according to Austin Channing Brown, who writes and speaks about justice and racial reconciliation.
Not only does it give a voice to those the institutional church hasn’t — and minority women in particular often are overlooked for leadership positions, Brown said — but also, she tweeted, “important things have been said from outside denominations because denominations were all messed up.”
Not all churches and denominations confer authority through a seminary education. Brown is ordained by her Full Gospel Baptist Church denomination though she doesn’t have a traditional seminary degree.
“The church has survived the printing press, radio and televangelists. We survived the rise of non-denominational churches and megachurches. We survived generations of white men with a platform and no traditional governing body sanctioning or approving their words,” she said in an email to RNS.
“But I don’t want to frame this newest step in the democratization of influencing the church as something to be survived. Many Christians believe that the church is made better when marginalized voices bring a new narrative to old ideas.”
Why this isn’t new
Questions about authority and influence go back at least as far as 1517, as those on all sides of the conversation are fond of pointing out. After Martin Luther reportedly nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, they were distributed widely via new media (then, the printing press), sparking the Protestant Reformation.
“So, no, I am not worried about women with blogs becoming a crisis for the church. I suspect that we will survive, and maybe even be made better by their presence,” Brown said.
Many famous evangelicals have lacked seminary training or institutional backing. For instance, best-selling author Ann Voskamp recently noted that D.L. Moody — the 19th-century evangelist who founded the Chicago Evangelization Society, later renamed the Moody Bible Institute — had no more than a fifth-grade education.
Evangelicalism is what historian Daniel Silliman calls a “discourse community.” It has no agreed-upon definition, no creed, no single person or council who can speak for the entire movement.
“It’s a conversation, so those platforms shape the conversation,” Silliman said.
It just looks different in 2017 than it did in the world of the 1970s, when the conversation happened primarily through Christian bookstores and radio.
Bessey, the blogger, says it’s easy for someone with a recognized platform to sneer at building such a following. But she says the church is stronger when those unauthorized voices get heard.
“I know that I love Jesus and follow Jesus better when I hear why and how other people follow him — especially when I hear from people who aren’t always approved by the establishment,” she said. “God isn’t trademarked.”
Shalita O’Neale is not your average survivor.
The 34-year-old is a foster care graduate who took her experiences and used them as inspiration to create the Fostering Change Network, a nonprofit that creates avenues to a successful life while eliminating the stigma of being a foster care child. The organization is based in the Washington, D.C., area and hosts networking and workshop events throughout the country, including its Six Degrees of Foster Care Gala/Alumni Powerhouse Network event planned for New York City in May.
When O’Neale was approached for this interview, she was eager to tell her story so that anyone who has gone through similar troubles will be encouraged. Check out our interview with Shalita below as she shares her journey from sufferer to survivor.
THE BEGINNING OF GOD’S CHARGE
O’Neale was thrust into a horrific situation that many do not survive, but her tenacity to be loved served a purpose and she was encouraged along the way by an unlikely person.
How did you end up in foster care?
SO: My mother was murdered when I was two years old and my father was never part of my life; he drank himself to death when I was 16, but I didn’t find out until I was 19.
What was your experience in foster care?
SO: My experience in foster care was extremely lonely. I tried very hard to fit in and to avoid being a burden, even with my own family. I was put in a Kinship Placement with my grandmother at age five, but due to her alcoholism and physical and verbal abuse I was placed with my uncle until I was 13. Unfortunately, he was also physically abusive. At 13, I gathered the courage to tell someone and officially went into foster care. I lived in two different foster homes before going to live in a group home and often felt I was being punished because I did not have parents. There were people along the way that encouraged me and spoke to my potential and I am forever grateful for them. It was this and my desire to prove everyone wrong that fueled my ambition to succeed.
What are some of words inspiration that kept you going?
SO: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi
CB: Who was your role model growing up?
SO: Aaliyah! I was so lonely through my different living situations, despite that I had much older siblings (17 years older). My brother and sister were dealing with their own set of trials, because of our mother’s murder. But Aaliyah was the big sister I never had with her mix of tomboy and “girly” style, love of music, and humility that I could relate to. When she died I grieved heavily, but she still inspired me to grow into that type of woman, a woman who was loved and admired for all that she gave to the world.
Shalita chased the light despite her strenuous beginnings and went on to complete her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and her master’s degree in social work, with a concentration in community organizing and social action from the University of Maryland. Looking at Shalita, she did not seem like the hard-core detective type like Misty Knight from Luke Cage. We laughed about that. However her past did dictate what her future would become and in this case it was a good thing.
What was your “savior” moment? What made you create the Fostering Change Network?
SO: I’ve had several savior moments. Every time I wanted to give up, even end my life, there was something that removed the despair. Almost as if in the next moment, the feeling was forgotten and my will to live and to continue to move forward, replenished. I believe God has consistently used people, angels and spirit guides to intervene on my behalf. I started Fostering Change Network to show others from foster care that they are valuable contributions to this world and that they are capable of great things. I created FCN to highlight the accomplishments of alumni of foster care nationally and internationally and to provide the support they need to take their personal and professional endeavors to the next level.
Do you feel like God handed you this journey for a reason?
Shalita poses with her family. She admits that her family’s love is what keeps her motivated in spite of her past.
SO: Absolutely! I have come this far, learned so much and kept my “crown” in place during all attempts to remove it. I accept the power that I have been given and understand it is my calling to help others do the same. I’ve been married to an amazing human being for almost 10 years. He has always been very supportive of and patient with me. He was the first one to show me that you can disagree with someone without leaving them. You can love someone and not agree with everything they do or say. From my experience with my family and in foster care, I used to believe that it was normal to just leave people or force them out when you didn’t see eye to eye. My husband and I have grown together through our different journeys. He is an amazing father to our 6-year-old son, Amani. Amani has shown me what it feels like to have a heart on the outside of my body. I was afraid that I would not know how to be a good mother or wife because I have never seen it, but they have awakened those instincts in me. I may not have known what unconditional love looked like as a child, but I knew what it was supposed to feel like. I let my heart lead and I now have a family of my own to pour into, in the way I would have wanted to be poured into.
THE MARCH FORWARD
Although living a Christ-like experience we are only human and can still hold animosity towards those who have wronged us. When Shalita was asked about this, she took a breath, and with wisdom explained why it was important to forgive in order to grow into who you must become; and more importantly how it affects the future of those around you.
Do you forgive your parents? Both biological and your grandmother and uncle?
SO: Forgiveness was necessary for me to step into the person I am today. I will always be on the journey of “becoming,” but about a year ago, I was stuck and I didn’t know why. I realized that after so many years, I had not forgiven my father, mother, grandmother or uncle and so many others. I told myself I did, but the way I was living my life, making my decisions and attracting negative people and situations told me otherwise. Not only did I have to forgive them but I forgave myself, which was the hardest thing of all.
If there is never another like you, what is your hope for the future of foster care kids?
SO: I want foster children to grow up in a world where there is a universal understanding that they add value and are worthy. My hope for the future is that they see themselves and their greatness through people who have been in their shoes and lead by example. My hope is that they see the world full of opportunities that are available to them instead of a world full of people that mistreat and misunderstand them.
What is next for you. When it is time to remove your “crown”?
SO: I don’t think I will ever remove my crown; I strive to always be present with my power as a “Light Worker” in human form. Although some days its more challenging than others. In everything I do (foster care-related or otherwise) and with every person I meet, I hope even if only for a moment to help them adjust their own crown and to realize that it has always been resting there, gracefully, on their heads all along.
Do you have anything that you want the world to understand about people like you?
SO: It is time for adults who have experienced foster care at some point in their childhood to step forward. We are gifted. We are resilient. We have given so much to our communities and to the world. There are so many of us hiding in plain sight, waiting to bump into someone who can share in our experiences of foster care. We have wanted a safe space to heal and achieve with others that “get it.” Fostering Change Network is it. We are a network of alumni that have overcome the barriers associated with foster care and we are leading Fortune 500 companies. We are celebrities, legislators, community organizers, human service professionals. We are amazing parents to our children. We are not the stigma. To the alumni of foster care reading this I say: Welcome home.
Shalita O’Neale ended this interview with an embracing hug that gave the feel of “home.” Essentially she was built for this purpose. The Upcoming Alumni Powerhouse Networking Conference and Six Degrees of Foster Care Gala will feature a variety of speakers , workshops, and entertainment to include Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Humble G, and poet Bathsheba & Cage Free Voices.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NIV).
Have you ever known someone who never meets a stranger?
Folks who live their lives in such a way that nearly everyone they meet becomes a new friend astound me with their generosity of spirit. I admire their courage and zest for life, which compels them to embrace even those they do not know well, knowing that each creature has gifts to share with the world.
As a faith leader, when I meet folks with those sorts of spirits, I see some of the Spirit of Christ who, although divine, shared meals with the poor, sick, and sinful, laid hands on the infirm, and drew close to the crowds without reservation.
Even in His dying moment, Jesus stretched His arms wide as though embracing all of us and declared forgiveness over us because we did not realize what we were doing. Jesus is the embodiment of the grace of hospitality, and I would argue that hospitality is the biggest gift we, the body of Christ, can offer the world right now.
The Fear Factor
The current social and political climates have caused me to take a step back to examine what Scripture teaches us about welcoming strangers among us. I confess that I focus much of my time concerning myself with the sins that other people perpetrate on each other. I concentrate on the news stories about hate crimes without giving much consideration to the ways that I allow hate and fear to fuel my actions.
The truth is that fear motivates so much of what we do. Our fears prevent us from loving and practicing hospitality in the ways that our faith demands of us. In today’s social media culture, many of us have a fear of rejection. As humans, many of us also have a fear of not knowing which prevents us from meeting new people and having new experiences.
We also often have fears of being powerless that cause us to try to stay in places that make us feel powerful. We allow our fears to impede upon our ability to love.
Before turning outward and critiquing national and international leaders, I want to encourage us, especially during this introspective liturgical season called Lent, to look within to ask ourselves how we are practicing the kind of hospitality that Scripture and the example of Jesus Christ demand of us.
Love Thy Neighbor?
Many of us have learned the classic stories about hospitality in Sunday School and Sunday morning sermons.
We have heard about Abraham and Sarah, who unknowingly hosted angels who foretold the birth of Sarah’s son. In the passage from Hebrews I cited at the top of this article, the author alludes to that passage from Genesis. Despite the many admonitions throughout the Hebrew Bible to care for the foreigner, widow, and orphan, we, like the lawyer in Luke 10, often ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
In response to that question, we have heard Luke’s well-known story of the Good Samaritan who, despite his vastly different culture and faith, cared for an Israelite stranger he found injured on the side of the road. Even after hearing such a dramatic story of sacrificial love, we continue to struggle with caring for our neighbors. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the story is the way it condemns us for the times we fail to show love to people who are just like us.
We have become politically motivated to care for immigrants in recent months, as we should, but we mistreat those who sit right next to us in the pew or who share our offices at work!
Jesus tells Israelite listeners the story of an Israelite man who was robbed as he traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest passed by and walked on the opposite side of the road to avoid helping. Then, a Levite, a religious leader from the priestly tribe of Levi, passed him. Only a Samaritan, a man who was from a different culture and faith background, cared for the man.
Many commentaries have explained that the priest and the Levite probably did not interact with the victim because of concerns about ritual purity, but does that not cause us to consider our priorities? We cannot prioritize legalism over mercy and love. Here was Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, essentially urging His listeners to ritually defile themselves because mercy is at the heart of the Gospel.
The Missing Link
What the world needs from the church is for us to be the church. The time is now for us to commit ourselves to following Jesus Christ in our actions. It was the way the early Church first began to thrive.
As J. Ellsworth Kalas puts it in his book The Story Continues: The Acts of the Apostles for Today, “The Christian church was born in a time and culture when the marketplace of beliefs was crowded to its borders. Religion was everywhere … This meant that it was easy to talk religion, but also that it was difficult for the decision to get serious. No wonder, then, that the followers of Christ were known as ‘people of the Way.’”
The earliest Christians stood out, and they increased in number because they lived their Christianity; for them, it was not simply an interesting intellectual idea. They attracted converts because of their countercultural way of viewing religion as more than a list of philosophies.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provided a practical understanding of this concept in his sermon “A Knock at Midnight,” which appears in his 1963 book of sermons called Strength to Love. King preached, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state … if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace.”
In other words, from the Scripture we read, to the prayers we pray, to the songs we sing, our worship is real and lived and must transform us from the inside out. The church is not a place to go; the church is a thing to do. We call the physical buildings in which we worship churches, but the church is the body of Christ, at work in the world.
So, what does living our faith teach us about hospitality?
A Place Where Ministry Happens
One of my mentors in ministry began a new pastorate at the end of 2016. After examining the needs and challenges of ministry at her new church, she chose as her theme of her church “Radical Hospitality.” The new framework of thinking about the church as a place where radical hospitality happens has changed it in practical ways in just a few short months.
Church members are beginning to imagine their worship space as first and foremost a place where ministry happens. That sounds obvious, I know, but so many churches have gotten away from thinking of themselves as being ministry spaces above all else.
One of the most drastic changes she has made as pastor has been to reimagine the parsonage, the house that is owned by the church for use by pastors and their families. That house now serves a dual purpose. It is both a “meeting house” where retreats, Bible study, and meetings can occur, and it provides accommodations for the pastor and visiting ministers.
Knowing my colleague, and understanding what it means to be “radical,” I am expecting that in the months and years to come, her new ministry will continue to grow and transform to become more welcoming for all people.
It is our task, as the Samaritan did in the Gospel of Luke, to embrace all we meet. As Hebrews 13:2 reminds us, we do not know the actual identity of those we encounter each day. Scripture teaches us that if we open our hearts to the possibility, each stranger has gifts to share with us that will enhance our lives. My fellow people of the Way, let us go forward with joy to spread Christian hospitality.
Jaimie Crumley is a minister, blogger, podcaster, and ministry consultant. She blogs about race, gender, history, and Christian faith at iamfreeagent.com.
Share your thoughts on ministry and hospitality below.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the day which marks the beginning of Lent for many in the Christian tradition. Thereafter, for 40-plus days, many will observe a period of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting from things ranging from certain types of food and television to shopping and social media. The fasting portion of Lent is what most people focus on and what people abstain from usually depends on what it is they believe is hindering their relationship with God. Most aren’t afraid to share what they will abstain from for Lent, but Lenten waters are sometimes muddied by that sharing. It is as if Lent is the new black and it is fashionable to rattle off the list of things you are giving up in order to gain the esteem of your colleagues–Christian or not. Some critics of this approach have compared it to a “benchmark for righteousness.” Stories have been published ad nauseum about the so-called “Lent trap” and I’ve noticed that, increasingly, my social media news feed is filling up with people throwing symbolic punches by way of status updates aimed at those who decide to share what it is they are fasting from. Yet no one is free from the Lent trap, not the person who makes a list and shouts it twice or the person who chin checks the person who makes the list. In both cases, the people are being boastful either about what they are giving up or the fact that they have reached a pious peak that is above stooping to the perceived valleys of talking about what they will give up.
All of this conversation must be muted for the sake of upholding the sanctity and penitent nature of this upcoming season. A season where we are all faced with the same reminder, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”(Genesis 3:19). And we are all told, “Repent, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Whether you are one who proudly proclaims what you have given up for Lent or one who proclaims how Lent should be done in light of your revelation about the vanity of proclaiming what you will give up, the Ash Wednesday lectionary text teaches us all a lesson about the performance of piety.
Matthew 6:1-4 says,
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Here Jesus is contrasting the piety of the hypocrites to the piety rewarded by the Father in heaven. This piety is inward and requires the individual to do pious acts in private, which was not something the Pharisees were doing at the time. On the topic of almsgiving, Jesus warned his followers that they weren’t to alert the masses to giving alms by way of trumpet blowing, they were to give their alms in secret and their heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will reward them. In the same way, we are called to such a quietness in service so as not to draw attention to ourselves but to draw attention to God. This scripture also introduces us to two phrases that will repeat two more times throughout Ash Wednesday’s text, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” And “…your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus continues by talking about prayer. Of this he says,
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6, NRSV).
Again Jesus warns of doing pious acts in the public eye and reminds followers that their Father “who is in secret and sees in secret will reward” them. In the case of prayer, followers are not to stand in the public places where they can be seen nor should they “heap up empty phrases as Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” Instead he tells them to pray the prayer that we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. In this way there is no room for bloviating, only God-oriented thanksgiving and petition. This concern about prayer turns the act from outward posturing to inward connection.
Matthew 6:16-18, is the linchpin of the Lenten season, in it Jesus says,
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18, NRSV).
At once this scripture appears to contradict the spirit of the Lenten season. It seems to go against remembering mortality, humility, and penitence in exchange for putting on a happy face. But it isn’t a contradiction. Actually, the text focuses on three of the several disciplines of Lent; almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In this particular text, Jesus is encouraging followers to let none be the wiser when they are fasting. By telling his followers not to look dismal or disfigure their faces he is telling them not to draw attention to themselves. They are supposed to keep the same countenance as if they weren’t fasting and let the act be about what is going on inside of them, not what they display on the outside. We too can learn from this teaching during this season, the lesson being that what we choose to fast from or how we choose to observe Lent in general is not something we proclaim to the masses lest we miss the point.
In Psalm 51, David gives us further direction about our posture during this season when he says, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” Again we are faced with the secret nature of our search for God which is connected to our inward being and caring for our inward selves. Our participation in Lent is for our relationship with God “the Father who is in secret and who sees in secret.” What we choose to do is between God and us and need not be shared. Granted, we can find accountability when we share what we are abstaining from with a close circle of friends, but what we choose to do in this season is really no one’s business but our own and God’s.
By keeping our lists secret or keeping our judgement secret from those who announce their lists we open ourselves all the more to what God wants to do in our lives during this season. In doing this we open ourselves to God’s reward and that is the point of it all.
Do you participate in Lent? What does this period of reflection and sacrifice mean to you? Share your thoughts below.