I grew up in the late 1940s/early 1950s. When I was a child we didn’t have things like a car, central heating, a telephone, a television … and all the other things my grandchildren take for granted today. We did have ‘steam radio’ however, and it was constantly on when we were at home. I remember that there seemed to always be lots of popular music programmes on the radio in those days … and I still remember a number of the songs. One very popular song back then was ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’. The music was written by Harold Arlen and the lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and it was published in 1944 (the year after I was born). It was sung in the style of a sermon, and suggested that ‘accentuating the positive’ was the key to happiness. Describing his inspiration for the lyric, Mercer explained that he went to hear Father Divine (a popular preacher of the day who began life as a Baptist but eventually became very ‘odd ball’). Apparently Father Divine preached a sermon, when Mercer heard him, which included the phrase: ‘you got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.’ Mercer’s response was, ‘Wow, that’s a colourful phrase!’ Mercer then went home and wrote a song about it … in which the words, ‘You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative’ form a recurring refrain.
In the Church Year we are currently in the Season of Lent. Lent is a period of six weeks, 40 days (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter (the most important festival in the Christian calendar). Lent starts on Ash Wednesday in western Christian Churches, and comes to its climax during Easter Week. The last week of Lent is called Holy Week. During the 40 days of Lent, Christians remember the time when Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray, following his baptism, before beginning his public ministry and ultimately fulfilling his divine purpose in taking human form – his sacrificial death on Calvary’s cross in order to redeem us from sin and its damning effects. During this time Jesus was severely tempted by Satan, but was able to resist (Luke 4:1-13).
Lent is therefore seen, by many people, as a time for giving things up for a season. For Christians, it is one way of remembering the time Jesus fasted in the desert and is a test of self-discipline. There are many foods that some Christians do not eat in Lent, such as meat or fish, fats, eggs, and milky foods. Some Christians just give up something they really enjoy such as cakes or chocolate or alcohol. In western Christian Churches, the day before Lent starts is called ‘Shrove Tuesday’ or ‘Pancake Day’ and traditionally is the last chance to use up the foods Christians would not be eating during Lent. Today people often give up chocolate or alcohol. The following day, the first day of Lent, is known as ‘Ash Wednesday’ and many western Christian churches hold Services in the course of the day during which Christians are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes (that come from burning the palm crosses from Palm Sunday of the previous year). This is a sign of ‘Penitence’ or saying ‘Sorry to God’ for any wrong doing and marks the beginning of ‘Lent Fasting’.
In latter years, however, it has become popular to use Lent as a kind of ‘spring board’ or ‘launch pad’ in order to ‘take on something’ rather than ‘give up something’. To ‘accentuate the positive’ and ‘latch on to the affirmative’ if you like, rather than just ‘eliminate the negative’! Now in many ways, there is nothing wrong with ‘giving up things’ for Lent. We know of one particular Christian friend who always gives up chocolate for Lent and she says that this is the only way she can annually get her ‘chocolate habit’ under control (after the excesses of Christmas). Others have found that ‘giving up smoking’ for example, initially during Lent, has enabled them to ‘break the habit’ completely. If, however, ‘giving up something for Lent’ is only done in order to ‘lose weight’ or ‘dry out’ etc. then we are in danger of ‘missing’ the whole ‘reason for the season’.
This year at our church in Knaphill we have taken the theme of ‘Taking God Seriously’ for Lent. We have based the various sermons, small group studies, etc. for this season on a verse from the Book of Micah where the Prophet exhorts his hearers (and us readers) with the words: ‘Don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously!’ (Micah 6:8 The Message). The 40 days of Lent are best used – and this is why we ‘fast’ or ‘abstain’ from certain other things that otherwise may distract us – as a prolonged period given over to prayer and meditation, thoughtfulness and (ultimately) possible decision-making, in which we seriously ponder the claims and call of Jesus Christ on our lives.
The fruit of ‘taking God seriously’ over the period of Lent should not find its fulfilment in simply some kind of ‘short-term fix’ – losing a few pounds in weight (before putting them all on again) or giving up smoking for a few weeks (before smoking ourselves to death once again) once Lent is over? We need to use this period to genuinely, prayerfully examine ourselves, our life-style, our purpose in life even, in the light of Christ and his claim upon us.
Perhaps this is why I am inclined to favour this new approach to Lent in which we seek to deliberately ‘take on things’ – to ‘accentuate the positive’ and ‘latch on to the affirmative’ – rather than just ‘give up something’ – ‘eliminate the negative’. Now by this I don’t mean ‘taking on anything and everything’ just for the sake of it or just because we ‘spot a gap’ somewhere or other and decide that we will fill it. The Apostle Paul – someone who was very used to the Jewish ‘work ethic’ from his days as a Pharisee and key member of the Jewish Ruling Council – was very aware of the danger of being caught up in a kind of ‘driven-ness’ or ‘ought-ness’ (either self-imposed or imposed on us by others or the situation in which we find ourselves at the time) that simply serves to ‘drain us’ rather than ‘energise us’. Writing to the Christians in Rome he reminds them that we are ‘called according to God’s purpose’ (Romans 8:28), and writing to the Christians in Ephesus he reminds them that although we cannot be saved by good works we are ‘saved for good works’ but immediately qualifies this by telling us that these are not just to be any kind of good works but rather ‘those good works God has prepared beforehand for us to do’ (Ephesians 2:10). In both these Letters Paul is at pains to express the idea that God has a ‘specific purpose’ in life for each one of us. Our job is to discern that particular purpose … and then seek (with God’s help) to fulfil it. As the old hymn says: ‘There’s a work for Jesus ready at your hand, ‘tis a work the Master just for you has planned!’ Lent (used properly) is the perfect time for us to deliberately ‘take time out’ to prayerfully discern (and commit to) that which God wants for us in the future. Ultimately, God has a ‘life plan’ for us … but more often than not that plan and purpose consists of ‘bite sized chunks’ that we can take ‘step by step’ and ‘one step at a time’ (if you will allow me to mix metaphors)!