The Seven Deadly Virtues: A Lenten Guide

Dave Meserve and I have written a half dozen Advent Guides together and wanted to try our hand at a Lenten Guide.  A printed form (like our Advent Guides) did not make sense this year, so we have decided to offer it digitally. This week’s introduction is written by Dave.

Welcome to Lent. 

Lent is a gift the ancient church has given us that often remains unopened.  For some it is too antiquated or intimidating.  For many it is simply a mystery that holds intrigue but lacks direction.   This Lent guide is an attempt to provide some gracious direction for those who may want a fresh take—or even a first take—on an ancient season.  And so…

     •  If you know Lent in your bones and hope for a fresh experience of the season…

     •  If you grew up seeing it from afar (likely, across the street at the Orthodox or Catholic Church) and are ready to explore it for yourselves…   

     •  If your default position remains a safe distant from organized religion and yet, you still long for a true, spiritual experience…  

May this guide play a small part in helping you find what your heart truly seeks.

The Season of Lent

We begin our journey with a few helpful ways to approach Lent:

Lent is a season.  Originally a time of preparation for Easter baptisms, Lent expanded to 40 days and included the whole congregation.  Its length is intentional. In the church world, we look at 10% as a “tithe” number — one tenth of your income set aside for holy use.   As Lent is roughly 10% of a year, it can be viewed as a time to intentionally set apart a portion to be especially mindful regarding our spiritual life.   

Lent is a messy season.  The name itself comes from a German word meaning “lengthen.” As the days get longer, it coincides with the coming of spring and the ending of winter.  We call it “mud time” where the melted snow reveals all the debris underneath, a helpful metaphor for our spiritual lives.  It is while we address the messiness of the season we notice the buds of new growth beginning to sprout.  

Lent is an intentional season.  To pursue spiritual growth through Lent requires a level of focus and this focus must happen within a  frantic culture where reflection and resolve have never been more elusive.  We know that, without intention, growth rarely occurs. This makes the very act of committing to practice Lent counter-cultural.  

Lent is to be practiced.   We don’t “practice church,” we practice Lent.  Even the most irreligious recognize the active part of the season: “What are you giving up for Lent?”  While we often dumb-down Lent to some form of self-improvement program, we understand that Lent is not a passive endeavor.  As well, embedded in the idea of practice is that we practice to get better.  We don’t have to be very good at it—and that is strangely comforting.  

In all, Lent is an intentional, messy season where we practice that which helps us grow into the kind of people were were designed to be, the kind of people who look more and more like Jesus.  This is the gift of the ancient Church and now is the time to open it anew. 

Our Theme: The Deadly Virtues

To help focus our Lent, we have chosen a theme to center our thoughts and hopes and practices: “The 7 Deadly Virtues,” a twist on the ancient list of vices. 

Before Gregory the Great (circa 600 A.D) was honing the list of vices to avoid, others were writing about the virtues to engage.  One such writer coined the term, “Contrary Virtues,” an attempt to combat the sinful seven.  In modern vernacular, he understood that “a good offense is the best defense”.  We think he was right. 

We borrowed “deadly” as our adjective for the same reason it was attached to “sins”.   Certain sins were considered “deadly”, not in the sense that they are beyond pardon but rather in the sense that they are “root” sins — they lead to other sins.  Similarly, “deadly” virtues are “root” virtues: their presence and practice leads to the formation of other virtues. 

Our use of “deadly” is also a nod to the seriousness of the subject.  These virtues are not tame niceties that we put on to be impressive but divinely directed strategies in the battle for our souls.  These particular virtues and vices cannot coexist; we are moving toward one or the other.  Lent is an intentional time to move toward the “deadly,” virtuous life of Christ.

Using This Guide

Each week we will introduce one deadly virtue through a short writing and a response section.  

The writing will tease out the nature of each virtue—often in light of the corresponding vice.  The Christian Scriptures will be our primary backdrop but, we will resource other sources of wisdom as well. 

The response section will offer ideas and direction regarding how to nurture a particular virtue.  It will include some stories to research, resources to explore and practices to try on, if only for the week.   All this is in hopes of forming the right kind of virtuous habits. 

As with any adventure, participating within a community of any size heightens the effectiveness and, likely, the pleasure of the pursuit.  We hope you find some friends to make this Lenten journey with you. 

Overall, we hope GRACE covers all of your efforts along with all your inner thoughts during this season of Lent.  The last thing most of us need is another spiritual program where we fall short.  That is not the heart of this guide and certainly not the heart of Lent. 

May you have compassion toward yourself, 

love others through imperfections 

and be generous with your heart.  

May you practice temperance with joy, 

diligence with affection, 

and humility with accomplishment.  

And may you find yourselves at peace with God.  

Your companions on the journey, 

– Mike & Dave.

Trying To Be Good

Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? The one whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous … Psalm 15:1-2

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. Romans 3:22

It is easy to begin trying hard to be good. The very act of trying makes us feel better about ourselves. When we try hard to be good, sometimes even other people feel better about us. And we imagine that God is pleased as we trudge up “His Holy Hill,” foot by excruciating foot. We usually don’t get far, however.

It is more difficult to acknowledge our depravity and our inability to want to be good. When we get honest, we realize that what we really want oftentimes is to be bad. It is then we call out to God, “I can’t live on your holy hill! I’m not righteous at all!”  Then, upside-down reality breaks in—because of our faith in what Jesus did on the cross, God brings us up to the top of that hill to live with Him, day by day. It is there that He gives us strength to live the life we read of in Psalm 15.  (And strength is required!)

To put it succinctly: Living the righteous life through faith in Christ is easier than living righteously on your own. Try hard to be good and you will succeed for a while. If you can keep it up, you’ll become proud about your ability to be good—which makes you bad (remember Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in the Gospels). The truth is that it is impossible to be good for a lifetime without Jesus making it happen in you, as we read in Romans 3.

How to “Cash-in” on God’s Amazing Offer for 2020

Isaiah 55:1-2  “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

The Old Testament prophet is appealing to those who are thirsty and have no money, to those who are hungry and work hard for stuff that doesn’t satisfy them. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” (Luke 6:20) and we think He was being nice to the people of the world who don’t have much materially. He was doing much more than being nice. He was stating the same truth found in Isaiah—part of which is that people who have no money are candidates for spiritual riches. There is a relationship between being poor monetarily and rich spiritually. It can be seen throughout the Scriptures. The opposite is also true—those who have a lot of money are often spiritually bankrupt in the Bible.

So where does that leave most of us?  We, as Americans, are among the richest people in the history of the planet (we have more stuff, better healthcare, more leisure time, and greater conveniences than the kings in the Bible). And yet we still long for more. But here’s the deal: if you are thirsty for the things money can’t buy, then you are poor enough to “cash in” on God’s amazing offer. The seller, God, is giving away that which fills us up the best—that which truly delights, that which satisfies the cravings of our souls (which are immortal) as opposed to our bodies (which are not). Money can’t buy you love; God is love. You do the math.

It’s the start of a new year and a new decade. Let’s resolve to approach Jesus as poor beggars who will never have the means to acquire what we truly long for: LOVE—love of God, love of self, love for others. He’s giving it away for free. “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love…” (2 Thessalonians 3:5)

Considering the Problem of Evil In a Few Paragraphs

Tolkien (20th Century Fox)

Mary & I recently went to the movies and saw “Tolkien,” the biopic about the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. We liked it. It’s about J.R.R. Tolkien’s early life—from boyhood to when he began teaching at Oxford University. There’s nothing about him leading C.S. Lewis to faith, or about his association with the Inklings (there’s not a lot about his faith in Christ at all, actually)There’s quite a bit about the events that shaped him and became themes in his novels. If you read Tolkien, you realize that the fight against evil is a dominant motif. The problem of evil is one that we Christians must address at times with those who have a different view of the world. Here’s an attempt to give you some talking points for that discussion.

For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations. (Psalm 100:5) 

As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them. (Ecclesiastes 9:12) 

The Biblical view of this world is one of spoiled goodness. Evil is the warping of the good. God did not create evil, but He did create both invisible and visible beings with power over a physical world who have the ability to choose His good or to reject it. Thus, good is primary and evil requires good to exist. We know God does not override the will of angels nor humans in their choices (to do so would take away their free will) but the Bible states that God can make good come from evil choices— for He is both merciful and full of grace. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)  

A truly good God would only create the best of all possible worlds. The problem is that this world is obviously not the best possible world—but it is on the way to the best possible world. God will create a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more pain or death; but in the meantime, He is about making goodness appear in the bleakest of situations. Consider heroism, which is the kind of good that can only grow in the face of evil. Consider patience, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, sacrifice—all of which require an evil against which to react.  The Book of James acknowledges this when James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:1-4) 

The Bible reveals that God only permits as much evil as is necessary (in a universe with beings who have free will) to provide for the potential of their increased goodness. As evil as these times are, God recognizes our ability to choose but allows only what He must to accomplish His ends. It was even so with Jesus—as the writer of Hebrews says, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8)

Open Up Your Church to Future Generations

If your church is turning gray (and especially if it has been that way for several years) there are things you can do to make sure you have younger Christians to whom you can pass on the faith and the church. Having pastored a congregation that is 20-30 years younger for the past two decades, here’s a bit of what I’ve learned.

Pray—This is crucial, because if God doesn’t do something, all these steps are meaningless. It’s not perfunctory prayer. Survival as a church is at stake.

Spend Time With Young People—This is a call to the older members of the congregation. It includes your own adult kids and your kids’ friends. It’s the young neighbors on your street. Befriend them. Invite them over. Go into their worlds. Be the only “old friends” they have, if necessary. This takes courage.

Look for Key People—Whom is the Holy Spirit pointing out to you? Who, among the young people you meet, introduces you to their inner circle? Who’s the “pied piper” of the group? Luke 10:5-6 talks about the person who opens up the possibility of sharing the Gospel in a certain locale. Key people open the culture of the younger generation to us.

Let Them Work Alongside You—This means training young people to do the things in and around the church community that you do.

Give Them Authority & Responsibility—This is somewhat scary. The Boomer Generation has a death-grip on the leadership of the church and must begin to let go. This means allowing them to make mistakes—and then cleaning up the mess without grumbling.

Sacrifice—You will take some “hits” during this process. Young people will distrust you, say hurtful things, and make stupid moves. You can handle it without blowing up or quitting the process. As an added benefit, you’ll learn to be a bit more like Jesus during this part of the procedure. 😉

Go Away Sometimes—Give up control totally for a while and let them run things without you there. It’s like taking the training wheels off of a bicycle. They won’t fully learn if you don’t vacate the premises.

Pass the Torch, the Baton, the Pulpit—Just do it. Have a party to celebrate the transition.

They Will Need You Again—Your ministry in the church is far from done! Young people need old people—always have, always will. It’s like going from being a parent to a grandparent. Enjoy them without having to change their spiritual diapers. The new, young leaders will do that job.

Nine Years Ago, I Was Killed.

I was attending the National Pastors Conference in 2009. Shane Claiborne was one of the speakers. This all happened.

Shane Claiborne pulled me up onto the stage, sawed me in half and then laughed as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He must like what he’s doing.

He started off with a simple magic trick. He slightly burned and then tore up a real $100 bill with the help of an assistant from the crowd of pastors. Of course, after he “restored” the $100, he just gave it (for real) to the assistant. I knew he would. He’s Shane Claiborne, after all.

He then proceeded to do a presto-chango from magician to become St. Francis of Assisi. By the middle of the talk he had morphed again into Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Of course, it’s all in what he says. He starts quoting Jesus, “Let him who has two give to him who has none.” As Shane talks about his life, the real magic happens. He turns into Jesus right before our eyes (at least, momentarily). And a small percentage don’t like it. They start to leave. You begin to realize how difficult it must have been to be around Jesus because it’s so convicting.

It’s the impact of a life poured out, gone to the extreme. It makes you question if you could go to that extreme yourself. And THERE is where it gets really scary; because you know you have the ability to go there, but not the desire.

And then, to prove his point, Shane brings out a bag full of $1 bills, which total all of the money he is being paid by the National Pastors Conference to speak here. He starts tossing wads of the greenbacks into the no-man’s land between the stage and the first row of seats, just like I knew he would. He challenges each person in attendance to come forward, reach down and take one as a reminder to do what Jesus said to do with our money and our stuff. It’s what Mother Teresa did. It’s what St. Francis did. It’s what Shane is doing right now.

I decide that I can’t go up for a couple reasons. One: this is way too convicting. Two: I have already been given one thousand $1 bills by Shane Claiborne. About a year-and-a-half after we started Scum of the Earth Church, we received a $1000 check from something called “The Simple Way.” I may have found that out much later, as I do not remember if there was a name on the check. Even so, I had no idea what the Simple Way was. There were no strings attached to the gift. It came at a very good time. We needed it.

Sitting here with all these pastors, I feel Jesus pulling me toward Himself like we are in some kind of tug-o-war. I’m destined to lose, and I know it. So, I am one of the last people to go up and grab a $1 bill from the floor. There were still plenty left. As I stand there looking down at them, it is obvious that they have all been defaced. Each one has the word, “love.” written on it with magic-marker.


Christmas Memory

This was written for a holiday variety show where I was on stage as the “visiting Protestant minister.” I appeared along with a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest. No joke.

“I am a Protestant pastor, but I grew up in the Greek Orthodox church. It was a great spiritual foundation. You need to know that Greek Orthodoxy is kind of like Catholicism before they modernized under the Vatican II Council. By the way, my family is very Greek. All four grandparents were immigrants and they spoke Greek at home. I went to Greek school (with all the other kids from church) every Tuesday and Thursday after American school was over.

My mom died the summer when I was twelve years old. That first Christmas without her was weird. We sat around the Christmas dinner table like there was an empty seat … or like we were a holiday jig-saw puzzle with a piece missing.

Then, a few years later, my dad married an American woman. I say that because, as far as the Greeks were concerned, it was a mixed marriage. But Christmases became a lot better.

My new mom wasn’t just American—she was blue-eyed, blonde, and Protestant—and we started going to a Presbyterian Church every other week. I didn’t mind it. Not only could I easily read the prayers along with everyone else during the service, the service itself was a lot shorter. We were out-of-there in under an hour. Truthfully, I had never heard a church service performed in English before that. And perhaps what impressed my adolescent boy’s mind the most was that the girls at a Protestant Church didn’t all look like my sister. (Um, just so you know, my sister is beautiful … but … well, um … you know what I mean.)

Christmastime was different at the Greek Orthodox Church. The priest and the cantor would sing something in Greek, sounding more like Middle-Eastern street performers than like Bing Crosby and Perry Como. If the Byzantine choir sang anything, it was always in a minor key. Anything Christmas-y happened during Sunday School in the separate building next door to the church. Truly, it’s not even officially Christmas until around the 7th of January in Orthodoxy.

I will never forget our first Christmas at the Protestant Church. We didn’t have to get as dressed up as we did when we went to the Orthodox Church We went on the night before Christmas. The stars were out in that cold, clear, black sky. The church windows glowed as we approached. And the Americans had decorated their building—oh, how it was decorated—with holly wreaths and mistletoe, with green garlands and gold bows, with red candles and twinkling white lights. A handbell choir rang out, Away in the Manger. The pastor spoke about the significance of Jesus’ birth in language even I could understand. We got to sing Christmas carols inside the church—songs like, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Silent Night.

There was even a tall Christmas tree in the front of the sanctuary, all lit-up with colored lights and ornaments, over a Nativity set. In my teenage imagination we were like the shepherds, all around, who had come to see the Christ-child. I could almost hear the lamb and cattle sounds. And I nearly caught a glimpse of angels making their rounds.”

What Kind of People Did Jesus Befriend?

Luke 7:20,22-23  When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’” … So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” 

Luke 7:31-35   “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like?  They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’  For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

Jesus loves everyone, but He did not buddy up to “religious” people—at least those who thought they knew how God behaves, what He likes, and what He hates. They struggled with the people Jesus hung around. The question we must ask ourselves is: What Kind of People Does Jesus Befriend?  From the several verses above, we can surmise the following:

  1. Totally committed people who struggle with doubts sometimes (like John the Baptist).
  2. Totally sinful people who struggle with their reputation.  (Like the “sinners” mentioned above).

If you find yourself in either one of these groups, Jesus wants to spend time with you. He will be with you in your solitude and doubts (the believer that you are); or He will celebrate life with you (the immoral person that you are). Anyone who tells you otherwise will be whining along with the ultra-religious people mentioned above, “Hey Jesus, we thought we knew the kind of people you liked—men and women who keep the rules and never question—but you wouldn’t cooperate with us!”

If Jesus didn’t befriend the “religious,” but still loved them, how did He show it? —By refusing to play their games and by challenging them about Himself.

Submission to Authority

Not a fun topic, especially with the kind of folks who make up Scum of the Earth Church—a group of amazing, passionate young people who have seen part of their subculture’s mission as reprimanding corrupt institutions, being skeptical of corporations, and questioning governmental leaders.

It’s a prophetic calling, really.

And yet, in the Bible, there are commands to respect that which God has placed over us—even if there are bad people in those positions. It doesn’t make sense when one remembers that Christianity has been seen, historically, as a subversive movement by many of those in power.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. (1Peter 2:13-15)

How often have we viewed civil authorities as the enemy? In many movies, television shows, and books we paint police and politicians as evil (or at least incompetent) people who should be disobeyed. We can’t stand the injustice they perpetrate. When they are defied, it is to the delight of the reader and the cinema audience.

The Apostle Peter—the guy who wrote the Bible passage above—once cut off the ear of a government official who was coming to arrest Jesus (and do you honestly think he was just aiming for the man’s ear?) Later on in his life, Peter still had plenty of reasons to mistrust those who ruled the Roman Empire. Christianity was outlawed. He was flogged, beaten, imprisoned, and finally crucified upside down by the “authorities” he writes about—all for speaking the truth about Jesus, the Savior of that world.

That Peter would obey civil authority at all is amazing. That he would encourage other Christians to do so is mind-boggling. He becomes more concerned about the reputation of Christ than about his own sense of justice. He submits himself to the laws of the land—as long as they don’t break the higher laws of God. When he refused to defer to the empire’s demands to stop talking about Jesus and discipling churches, they killed him.

We, in the Western world, enjoy more freedoms than any people at any time in history. So, let us obey the laws we have to the glory of Jesus; that is, until the time when our obedience to the nation becomes disobedience to God.

In Him,