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I’ve recently started playing pickup basketball again, and I’m remembering a lot of things I hadn’t know I had forgotten. One of them is the joys of defense. I would almost rather play defense than offense. I’ve always been that way, from when I first learned the game in grade school, through rec league basketball in high school (aka “church ball”, from where we drew our team members), and up till now.

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Not me (I usually have my back to the basket).

Defense doesn’t require any particular talent, unlike offense. All it requires is hard work and a readiness to sweat. The willingness to get physical, push and shove, bang, and generally run into people doesn’t hurt either. That hard-nosed, collide, mix-it-up, defend the basket aspect of the game appeals to me. I also like that there’s no breaks on defense — if you take a break, you usually get burned and your man scores on you. It’s a high level of effort, all the time, with occasional spurts of flat-out exertion. Part of me craves that chance to work hard.

In high school I played football, among other things I did. My position was lineman. This was due in part to my frame and heredity — bigger and not so fleet of foot as some (go figure) — but also due to what the position was like. As one coach I had described it, being a lineman is an every-down proposition. Linemen do not get snaps off, unless they’re on the bench. Every time, you have to be ready to blow out of your stance and hit the other guy — hard. And be ready to do that for as long as you’re in. It’s facemask-length, brute strength, mano a mano combat. Even if you win this down, you might not win the next — so you have to be ready every time. There’s no breaks. Crunch, crunch, crunch…repeat, for as long as you’re on the field. The idea of toiling away in the trenches made a lot of sense to me, so I gladly took up the challenges of the position. I like a good slog, I guess.

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Also not me…I was usually closer to, um, the sideline. Because I was often on it. (Still enjoyed football.)

So now it’s Lent, and maybe like me you’re finding Lent a bit of a slog at times. Part of the reason for this is that we were blessed with a baby boy in January (hi, Mark! Keep sleeping soundly! Daddy loves you!), and I could use a nap. Part of that is the fact that I am preaching my own midweek Lenten sermon series. I say this not to brag; it just is. Every pastor must figure out what works for him and his congregation in the area that they’re in, and this is what works best for me. To preach it any other way, whether using canned sermons or as part of a rotation with other area pastors, would almost be more work for me. It would be a different kind of slog — perhaps a less interesting one, more of a tiresome chore than the hard but interesting work that is preaching the Word. Every time I get to preach, I love it, but you understand how the flesh turns a duty that delights into a drag. I wasn’t interested in going down that road, so I do my own Lenten series.

ImageBut that’s not why Lent feels like a slog to me. It’s for a far more basic reason, one that any Christian — pastor or layperson — can appreciate. Every week I am confronted with my own weaknesses, my own sins of choice and convenience, as we ponder our Lord’s Passion in worship. Every week I have held up before me the results of my sin — you see Him, don’t you? See Him dying on the tree? That was for me. And you. That’s a hard fact to swallow at times, especially when it’s so inescapable, because we all like to pretend we’re good people — and the cross of Christ punctures that fond illusion of ourselves as good, moral people with emphatic finality. No, you’re not good. Neither am I. If we were, we wouldn’t be gathered at the foot of His cross, watching Him die in our place.
Lent can be a long slog for another reason. Contrition, repentance, sorrow over sin can seem tiresome after a while. It can seem like something you have to gin up in yourself before God will forgive you and love you — and frankly, we don’t care to go through all that effort. When we forget that true repentance is worked by God’s Word on us, just as faith is, then repentance becomes a chore — and not a particularly appetizing one.
Yet every year we take up the slog of Lent once again. Even if we don’t feel like it, we take up the Ten Commandments, or a passage from God’s Word, and we begin to probe our discontented hearts — listlessly at first, and then with real alarm and turning away from sin as the Word does its work. It always does. It always opens, lays bare our sin in all its malignant wretchedness — but it also shows us our Savior, the Savior who not only died for us, but did not stay dead. Instead, He rose back to life to grant us life and joy forever. Now we are in Holy Week, and the time of our rejoicing draws ever nearer…but first we have to slog the wrenching pathway through upper room, garden, judgment hall; Golgotha, and finally tomb — but not to remain there. He makes the journey sweet. He makes the slog a valuable one, as God’s work is done in us. May Jesus grant you a blessed Holy Week, friends.

 

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