Lenten Letter 2024 from Our Patriarch

On Christmas Day 2023, 140 Nigerian Christians were killed at the hands of Islamic extremists known as Boko Haram, a terrorist group that aims to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. Since the turn of the 21st century, 62,000 Nigerian Christians have been killed for their faith. As I heard this news, I was sitting in my living room watching television. Next to my very comfortable, television-watching, reclining chair was our family Christmas Tree decorated with lights and various ornaments, each with a memory attached to it, mostly about my children and grandchildren. On the other side of the room, in our dining area, on top of a table, was our Nativity set, complete with the crèche and figure of the baby Jesus placed there on Christmas morning. Also, next to me was my Bible. I pray in my comfortable chair in my living room. Everything in my home on Christmas morning spoke of peace, safety, and comfort until this horrible news invaded my space. The news hit me really hard. It’s so hard that here I am, just a few weeks from Ash Wednesday, reflecting once again on the event.  

I like the liturgy of Ash Wednesday. I particularly like the invitation that the celebrant gives to the Church. It is a call to a “holy Lent” of self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. It is a call to set aside a time of spiritual renewal. It is a time of intensifying those disciplines that should be a part of the normal life of those who have decided to follow Jesus and participate in His life of crucifixion and resurrection. We are reminded it is a time of preparation that will help us grasp the incredible events of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus.

Perhaps what hit me, personally, about the Nigerian murders certainly was the horror of such a thing, but more so how “numb” I can make myself emotionally and even cognitively to the terrors and horrors of the world. I can compartmentalize them in a part of me that makes them news items rather than life events. I can also do that with events that are close to home.  

The other night, I was driving home from Sharpsburg, Georgia, after a really great time at the Cathedral Church of Christ the King. I spent one evening with a home group. Awesome fellowship, great “potluck” buffet, and a really anointed time of prayer. They even prayed for me. Then, on Saturday, I got to go to a men’s breakfast catered for free by Waffle House. (I have never been to a Waffle House.) The Sunday was awesome, and Jesus was so central to the gathering. The music team just followed the flow of the Spirit. (They will be at Convocation.) It was so great, and I thought to myself, if I lived in Sharpsburg or that area, I could go to this Church.  

During the drive, Cathy and I quietly savored the joy we had experienced over the weekend. It is a long ride on a straight highway with very few sights except signs that point to various gas stations and fast-food restaurants. We got closer and closer to my home in Jacksonville and had to go over a bridge and pass through downtown Jacksonville. Downtown Jacksonville, or at least the part by the bridge, is a poor part of town and a high-crime area.

It was really cold outside. Not usual for Jacksonville. We passed a large park. The park was filled with small tents that had been put up by men and women who were homeless and most likely struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. This is not a place for families that are homeless. Under my breath I said a “quick prayer” and thought to myself how painful and tragic this little tent city is. How tragic are the lives enslaved to drugs and alcohol. It reminded me that these men and women are made in the image of God. They are loved by the same God that loves me. They are there every night. Then I thought how tragic it was that I could, once again, make myself numb to this reality not far from the comfort of my home. Within a short time period, I had blocked the thoughts. There was nothing I could do now, and I had a scheduled appointment with my son-in-law and daughter for dinner at a local Thai restaurant.

How uncomfortable it can be to find Jesus in the homeless, the hungry, the poor, the prisoner, the stranger, and the naked. It is really uncomfortable when I think of the children in these situations. How uncomfortable it is when I allow myself to remember the suffering of aborted children around the world and the pain and distress of the women who thought it was their only choice. How I get unsettled in my soul when I think of the single mothers who decided to give birth and now face poverty because they have been abandoned by men. The truth is so disturbing. It is disturbing to look into the eyes of Christ Jesus when He comes to us in this way.

Lent reminds me that I desperately need a Savior. When I enter into my Romans Chapter 7 existence, the grace of Jesus brings me to the freedom and grace of the new Romans Chapter 8 life where there is no condemnation. I hope Lent will help me to live a little less “numb” to the suffering in the world.  

I admire the life of St. Teresa of Calcutta. I have a statue of her on my desk. What an amazing life of a person who went to the least of the least and brought life. The images of her holding dying men and women in her arms and giving them comfort are their last memories on this side of eternity. Her words to the Church were not “come to Calcutta and join the Sisters of Charity.” Her words were to love our family. To love the people right next to us. To soften our hearts to the voice of God and ask the Lord to open our eyes to see Jesus around us.  

All the disciplines of Lent will not make you holy. Fasting will not make you holy. Giving up things you should give up anyway will not make you holy, but it might make you healthy. Lent is a time to open up more to Jesus. When you do, you will become intensely aware of His holiness and His love for you. It will be a transformative time led by the Holy Spirit. In front of Jesus, we have an Isaiah 6 encounter.  

I will be traveling this year on Ash Wednesday. I won’t get Ashes, but I am going to read the invitation to Lent to myself and invite myself to the observance of a holy Lent. And, I will invite you now to go to Church on Ash Wednesday, if you can, and hear the invitation from Jesus to come to Him. May you have a holy Lent where, at the end, you are aware that it is by grace that we are saved. Our churches need to preach more grace and more mercy.

Under His mercy,

+Craig, Patriarch

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