The Lenten season is a time of reflection, renewal and anticipation. This reflection and renewal gives us time to prepare for Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Often this time is spent in self-deprivation, ridding our lives of various vices.
In previous years, my Lenten observations have included giving up various vices: sugar, chocolate, etc. And each year, after the Lenten season ended and the resurrection had been celebrated, I resumed indulging myself.
This past weekend, our Sunday School message centered on the possibility of adding virtues into our lives during Lent rather than taking away vices. In particular, three virtues were addressed: courage, patience and hope. Courage to face death without anxiety, patience to wait for God's timing, and hope based on the belief that, in the end, God's will will prevail.
Instead of focusing on giving up what is not good (vices), the focus could move to taking on additional responsibilities, providing service to others. In other words, focusing on creating virtues.
President George Washington understood the importance of personal values as the underpinning of a great nation. In his farewell address, written after serving eight years as our first president, Washington wrote, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports." Washington understood that in order for a country to be able to self-govern, that trust between individuals based on common values was important foundationally.
More than two centuries later, in today's world, Americans often take for granted the foundations on which our nation was built. This past week, I received an e-mail forwarded from an American military officer serving in Afghanistan, who has also served in Iraq. This message eloquently interwove the importance of national and personal values with the ability of a country to govern itself.
"Since being here I have realized two things about the United States. One is that our forefathers were more incredible than I thought, and two is that I believe more so than ever that our Christian-based value system is what made our country the most successful nation the world has ever seen. ... My hope is that ... we as a nation are reverting back to the hard work, Christian values and family-centered homes that made our nation the example it is today."
Today, there is a great debate over whether our nation is exceptional -- and if so, why and how. Our exceptionalism begins with the Declaration of Independence, which states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
We don't believe that our rights began with leaders, monarchs or reigning military power, but with God. These God-given rights are bestowed upon people who then loan them to the government. This understanding that people's rights begin with God makes our nation exceptional. Almost halfway through his first term, President Abraham Lincoln wrote in a private note, "The will of God prevails. In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war, it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party -- and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose."
Lincoln understood that he was but an instrument in the hand of God, and that the will of God would prevail.
This Lenten season, possibly we should focus on creating rather than denying. Creating the underlying values that lead to virtues. Creating space and time for God to act. Developing courage in life as well as in facing death, patience with ourselves as well as with others and God, and cultivating hope, which leads to action, participation and solutions rather than reactions.
It is these building blocks that create the personal and national character that is so very important to us individually and to our nation collectively.