Lenten Reflection: Clay Cotton

On Wednesday nights during Lent, members of the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church are sharing their thoughts on the season. Clay Cotton was our first speaker on March 12, 2014. 


If Lenten sacrifice is restricted to fasting, I’m in trouble.  After all, I have been a weight watcher for thirty years.

No, I hope it is more than giving up chocolate, beefsteak, or crawfish étouffée.  And, as I once told a Mormon Missionary, I could never worship a God who said drinking coffee is a sin.

As a Baptist, growing up in Virginia during the Fifties and Sixties, we did not do Lent. Perhaps the pastor would preach on themes of sacrifice and reflection, but I can’t remember any references to the season of Lent. It was something we heard about from our Catholic friends, who pretended to be shocked that their parents would not let them give up spinach, broccoli, or Brussels’s sprouts for Lent. Such sacrifice!

Living in New Orleans, I have come to appreciate Lent as the reverse side of the Carnival Doubloon.  The obverse is joy, plenty, and excess, the reverse is reflection, solemnity, and sacrifice.  The dramatically abrupt transition, as the coin turns from Fat Tuesday to Ash Wednesday is quite impressive. We go from masking, feasting and frivolity to being solemnly marked with ashes in a darkened room.

As we make the 40-day pilgrimage toward Easter, we examine ourselves and repent of the erroneous choices we have made. Our time on this world is limited; we don’t know how long we have to make a positive difference in the world. We turn back to the teachings of our Lord, and we seek to make some sacrifice to show our commitment to change.

But what sacrifice?

Does God begrudge us a bowl of bread pudding?

Or a rich dark gumbo?

Or even a large dark-roast from PJ’s?

I think, rather, Lenten sacrifice is more like what the prophet Micah had in mind when he wrote:

“But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
what God is looking for in men and women.

It’s quite simple:

Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,

be compassionate and loyal in your love,

And don’t take yourself too seriously—

take God seriously.”  —  Micah 6:8, The Message (MSG)

Or as the prophet Isaiah recorded:

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:

to break the chains of injustice,    

get rid of exploitation in the workplace,

free the oppressed,    

cancel debts.

What I’m interested in seeing you do is:

sharing your food with the hungry,

inviting the homeless poor into your homes,

putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,

being available to your own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on,

and your lives will turn around at once.

Your righteousness will pave your way.

The God of glory will secure your passage.

Then when you pray, God will answer.

You’ll call out for help and God will say, ‘Here I am.’

“If you get rid of unfair practices,

quit blaming victims,

quit gossiping about other people’s sins,

If you are generous with the hungry

and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,

Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,

your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

I will always show you where to go.

I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places— firm muscles, strong bones.

You’ll be like a well-watered garden,

a gurgling spring that never runs dry.

You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,

rebuild the foundations from out of your past.

You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,

make the community livable again. – Isaiah 58:6-9, The Message (MSG)

And so, I suppose, my understanding of Lent is not too different from what I think is our mission as Christians any other time of year.  We are to do the work he set before us so long ago.

And what we are looking forward to is not a high-Holy day, or a basket with jellybeans and chocolate. What we are looking forward to is this:

“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne.

Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me.’

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about?

When did we ever see you hungry and feed you,
thirsty and give you a drink?
And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’
Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth:

Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’  — Matthew 25:30-40,  The Message

So I’ll keep my coffee, and I’ll solemnly count my weight watchers points,  and, while I am doing that, I hope I will, to the best of my ability, and with humility, do the work He has set before me.


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