My nephew was asked to put together a report on Mardi Gras which reminded me of a reflection piece I had written that might be of help to him, and hopefully you too.
Throwing the Baby Out With the Bath Water
The traditional Christian season of Lent starts on February 13 this year. Christians have been practicing the 40 days of Lent for literally hundreds of years, since the third century. It’s only recently, in the grand scheme of things, that many believers have decided that they are not going to participate anymore. Some avoid it because it’s associated with the Catholicism or old-school Christianity, and I can understand that, but as with many other modernizations of the practices of our faith, I believe we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and have lost a lot of traditions that were very powerful tools in Christian discipleship.
The Reformation was all about combatting the false teachers in the church who were telling people that they had to do certain things (like pay money, go on pilgrimages, say so many prayers, do penance before God would forgive them) and had moved away from the true message of salvation which says that we are saved only and fully by the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ – the exchange of His life for ours on the cross. In correcting this error and walking away from this corrupt teaching they also walked away from many of the practices and disciplines that were part of the church.
Ancient practices like Advent, Lent, and Good Friday, were given up because they had been corrupted by false teachers who were using them to manipulate the faithful. They were started with the best intentions to be regular times on the calendar where Christians would remember and celebrate the life of Jesus and practice various spiritual disciplines, but then the false teachers started saying that Christians had to do them in order to be saved. Protestants rightly said, “No we don’t.”, but then many stopped participating in the holidays and disciplines surrounding them.
It is my belief that we should recapture some of the old ways because many of them are still good ideas, and powerful ways to experience God.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and goes until Easter. It is a period of 40 days, which is a number we find all over the bible. The rains that brought the flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights, the Hebrews spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Moses fasted 40 days before receiving the 10 commandments, Goliath came out and insulted the Israelites for 40 days before David came, God told Jonah to give Nineveh 40 days to repent, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert fasting and confronting Satan. It’s a spiritually significant number.
Lent is to be a time of reflection and preparation before we get into the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. Instead of being like the world and avoiding sadness, lamenting and sacrifice, we choose to embrace it and seek to be more like Jesus as we meditate, mourn, repent and fast. We stop eating certain foods and avoid parties and celebrations for a time, so we can contemplate the meaning and significance of crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Instead of skipping straight to the resurrection, we take a long time to think about why Jesus was crucified, what He went through, what our personal salvation cost, and what consequences that has for us, our family and our church.
It is a time of prayer and repentance, of fasting and meditation, of consideration and mortification of sin, a time to think less of ourselves and more about Jesus, a time to give a sacrifice of our time, energy, and efforts to God in a special way. To practice self-discipline and open ourselves for God to show His amazing provision for our souls.
The Corruption of Shrove Tuesday
The day before Lent is called Shrove Tuesday and the story of the corruption of this day emphasizes a serious problem in the Church.
Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the word “shrive”, which means to confess sin. It was a day set aside to clean out our hearts before the special season of Lent began. To prepare ourselves for this very serious and spiritually significant time of the year. It was a day of becoming real with ourselves and our sin. A day to pray to God with David in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
Pancake Day = Fat Tuesday = Mardi Gras?
But here’s what happened. There were certain foods that people would traditionally give up for Lent, foods like meat, fish, fats, eggs and milk. Like the Israelites with their unleavened bread, they would let their diet show what was going on in their hearts. And since they were going to give them up, and they would certainly spoil before the 40 days was over, Shrove Tuesday became the day that people would use up these foods.
And what’s the best way to get rid of fats, eggs, milk and meat? A pancake meal. So it became tradition that on this day of confession and repentance, of getting right with God, there would also be a large feast where families would get together on Shrove Tuesday and eat up all the foods they wouldn’t be eating during Lent.
And so Shrove Tuesday became Pancake Tuesday… or Fat Tuesday, because it was the day you would eat pancakes and use up your fatty foods. The French name for Fat Tuesday is Mardi Gras — maybe you’ve heard of it.
And when you and I think of Mardi Gras, the first thing that comes to mind is Repentance, Confession, and getting right with God, right? No, it went from a day of getting right with God to a day to tell God to get lost so we could indulge in as much sinful behaviour as we can!
It’s incredibly ironic what some of the customs for Mardi Gras have become. In place of opening our hearts to God, coming clean, and letting God shine His light on our lives, we have the “Mardi Gras mask” where people cover up their identities and be someone else for a day so they can get away with whatever they want without people knowing who they are.
Instead of preparing ourselves for a time to remember the sacrifice of Christ and to fast in His name, Mardi Gras has become a time to indulge ones self, to go overboard, to do everything to excess!
Where Shrove Tuesday was a time to confront temptation and sin, Mardi Gras has become an overly sexual, hedonistic day where men and women give up their dignity and “flash” the crowd to win some beads.
A Mardi Gras Heart
Now, believe me, I would love to spend the rest of our time pointing out other people’s sins, pointing out what’s wrong with the world and everyone one else… and say “Wow! Those guys are really bad!” But I can’t because you know what? I do the same things they do. Except I’m worse because I’m supposed to know better.
This is classic human, sinful behaviour, and something we all need to watch ourselves for! How many of us really act the way we are supposed to act as a Christian? How many of us are truly walking the walk of faith? The truth is that not many of us are. Not really.
Please understand that I’m talking to the more mature believers, not the new believers and the non-believers. Right now I’m talking to the people who have claimed to be believers for a while. Those who should be remarkably different after a long walk with Jesus. Those who claim that Jesus resides in their hearts, and who have listened to the Holy Spirit for a while. And that’s me included.
The “Christian Atheist”
Pastor Craig Groeschel wrote a book a while back called “Christian Atheist” which is all about people who claim to be Christians, but live as though God doesn’t exist. In other words, Christians who talk about Shrove Tuesday, but live with a Mardi Gras heart.
He begins with a very common story about two different kinds of atheists. The first are common atheist who doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t claim to. He then introduces another kind of atheist – the Christian Atheist. Check out this story from the book:
“Before our plane took off, Michelle struck up a conversation. Somewhat nervous about flying, she seemed eager to talk, as if our chat might make the flight pass more quickly. After describing her difficulties with balancing her checkbook and handling her divorced parents and her live-in boyfriend— who’s scared to death of marriage— she asked me about my life.
Creating a diversion from my “I’m a pastor” answer, I explained that I am married and have six children. “Six kids?! Don’t you know what causes kids?” she joked. After some more small talk, Michelle asked me what I do for a living. No longer able to dodge the inevitable, I answered, “Well, as a matter of fact, I’m the pastor of a church.”
This revelation gave Michelle permission to unleash a stream of Christian words and stories. Dropping the occasional “God told me” and “God is good,” she smiled softly as she described how she “gave her life to Jesus” at the age of fifteen at a Christian youth camp. After praying sincerely, she was eager to get back to school to share her faith and live a life of purity and spiritual integrity.
Michelle held on to her new belief in God but soon slipped back into her old way of life. As if in a confessional, Michelle continued pouring out her life’s darker details. She looked down as she admitted that she was doing things with her live-in boyfriend that she knew she shouldn’t. She told me she wanted to go to church but was simply too busy working and studying. She did pray many nights— mostly that her boyfriend would become a Christian like she was. “If only he believed in Jesus, then he might want to marry me,” she said, wiping her tears.
At last, Michelle expressed one final confession: “I know my life doesn’t look like a Christian’s life should look, but I do believe in God.”
Welcome to Christian Atheism, where people believe in God but live as if he doesn’t exist.”
I really understand where that girl is coming from, because I often act the same way. I see this kind of Christian Atheism — this Mardi Gras Heart — in myself quite often. I can’t speak for you because I don’t know your heart – but I know mine. Saying one thing, and doing another. Struggling with the same sins and temptations, time after time. Going days without praying or reading my bible. Going through the motions in worship and my devotional times. I may not have a huge, public sin to confess that would cost me my position as pastor… but I can certainly understand what it means to be a hypocrite in my own eyes – and in the eyes of God.
A Holy, Different People
God has been teaching me something over the past while, and I encourage you to ask yourself these questions: How are Christians different than other people? Why are we different? What makes you different than you were before you met Jesus? What does being a Christian look like on the inside and the outside? How do we keep from turning the parts of our life that are supposed to look like Shrove Tuesdays into the self-indulgent hedonism of Mardi Gras?
God describes His chosen people in Exodus 19:4-6 saying, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Some of us think, “Well sure, Israel was special! They were the people of God! They had Mt. Sinai, the 10 Commandments, and were the people God chose to bring the Messiah Jesus Christ through. That’s true, but read 1 Peter 2:9 which was written to Christians, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”
That’s what a Christian is:
A Prayer of Confession
Lord, you have made me special. You said you knitted me together in my mother’s womb, set me apart from before creation, and have appointed good deeds for me to do in advance. You are the giver of good gifts, the author of salvation, and my personal redeemer. You bought me back from death, from captivity, from the rightful consequences of my sin. I rightly deserved Hell and you came for me. Lord, you demonstrated your love for me in this: while I was yet a sinner, you died for me.
And yet, in so many ways I live as though you don’t exist. In my daily life, I forget about you. I reject you. I disappoint you. I refuse to listen, and sometimes even ignore you. I take control of my life when I should be giving it to you.
I know that it is not my deeds, my good works, or anything that I do, that saves me. Yet, I also know that faith without works is dead. I know there is nothing I can do to make you love me more or love me less. But I also know that your love should spur me on to good deeds, and that your Son’s life is the perfect example of how I should live.
Lord, there are some areas of my life that I need you to deal with. Areas that I’m not proud of… and, in fact, I’m ashamed of. Areas of sin, rebellion and pride, idolatry and disobedience. Lord, you say in your word that if we confess our sins, that you are faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I want to confess to you because I need cleansing.
I pray with David the words of Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment….”
Lord, there are areas of my life that are not pure, and times when I have chosen filth over purity… I’ve chosen to look upon sin… to listen to sin… to touch sin… to taste sin… to revel in and think about sinful things… and I’ve gone back for more… forgive me. Cleanse me.
Lord, I have made places of my heart and life off limits to you. I’ve heard you knocking on the door, and I’ve refused to answer. I’ve loved my secret places more than I’ve loved you. Please open up those doors and let your light in… no matter how painful it might be. I need you to clean those areas out.
Lord, I have lived dishonourably, and dishonoured others. I have taken the reputation of Christ and dragged it through the mud. I have been dishonest and disloyal. I have not let my yes be yes, and my no be no… and I have broken promises. Forgive me. And help me make it right with those I’ve hurt.
Lord, I have rejected your word. I have read parts of your bible and argued with you. I’ve even chosen to avoid parts of your word because they make me feel uncomfortable. When someone has asked me about what I believe, I have told them my opinion, which was not in line with your word, because I was ashamed of what you said. Forgive me for my arrogance and my fear of man.
Lord, You have given me opportunities to share my faith, and I have not taken them. You have given me chances to inject your truth, and I have kept my mouth closed. You have stirred my spirit to speak, and I disobeyed and walked away. There were chances to give you glory, to give you credit, to say that you are the one who did it… and I stole your fame… or I gave it to someone else… or simply didn’t say anything. Forgive me.
Lord, there are times when I have sought out the darkness. You call me to live as a child of light, but there are times when I have closed the blinds, locked the doors, turned off the lights, and preferred the darkness because it covered my sin. I have hidden my sins from my brothers and sisters in the faith. They have asked me, and I have lied to their face. You have given me chances to flee temptation, and I have dismissed them, and continued to walk towards sin, invited you to leave… and then I committed sin, on purpose… in the darkness of my private life. Forgive me.
Lord, I have rejected your church. I don’t really love your people, the body of Christ, as I should. In fact, I avoid them. I prefer the company of non-believers. I give my service to other places. I give my time to other people. I have come to church time and again, and then left quickly to avoid your people. I don’t ask how other people are doing because I don’t want to get involved. I make myself busy so I have an excuse to stay away. I do not treat other believers as my family. I have even mocked them, ridiculed them, and gossiped behind their back. Lord, forgive me for how I treat your beloved bride… your church.
Lord, I life too much as a citizen of this world, and not of your kingdom. I embrace many worldly things unquestionably. I have put idols in my home, idols in my work, idols in my car. I live by the world’s standards, not yours. I have spent money I don’t have, on things I don’t need, to impress people I don’t even really know. I am in debt because I want to be more like the world. I’m not different than the non-believers around me… in fact there is almost no discernible difference between me and them. Lord, forgive me for not living as the salt and light I should be.
Lord, I don’t acknowledge the spiritual realm. I live as though what I see is all that there is. I do not store my treasures in heaven, but instead spend time building bigger and bigger barns here on earth. I do not put on my spiritual armour… the armour of God which you have given me… but leave it off to the side every day as I go into the world. And then I blame you when I fall. When a battle is waged in my soul, I give up far too easily because I do not want to fight… I am too lazy… too selfish… too worldly. I love my flesh and the god of my stomach too much. Forgive me for not thirsting for You alone.
Lord, I ask you to “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit…. to sustain me”
Al – thanks for your blog here on Mardi Gras and the Christian Atheist. I’m giving some thought as to how I might honor the Lord in a special way during the coming “Lenten Season”.
That’s excellent! Think outside the box and really challenge yourself to fast something meaningful. (And remember, fasting isn’t about “removing”, it’s about “replacing”. Replace an earthly treasure with an eternal one.)
Pastor Al, thanks for sharing this. Just the other day someone told me a dream of theirs was to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I felt I should say something but kept stum! If I had read this first, would I have said anything, perhaps not? Thanks for your prayer of confession. We all can relate because we are all there. Thanks for your honesty and example. Our Lord is wonderful!
People don’t seen to really know what they are getting into with Mardo Gras and many just make the excuse that they want to “have fun”, which is really not a great reason to do anything.
I think what you shared today goes to show that by sharing like this in Fellowship can go a long way in helping to see our own reflections in others.
I remember reading something about a splinter in my brothers eye and a log in my own.
In one way or another we’ve all been to the modern day Mardi Gras.
Your words can help us get back where we should be as Christians and help others to find their way as well.
You’re absolutely right. Sometimes people ask me about how I preach (write), with such passion. The answer is simply because it has touched my heart first.