observing a holy lent...

Last night I gathered with my colleagues in ministry - and the people from our five congregations - for Ash Wednesday: our invitation into a holy Lent. One of the celebrants shared the time-tested call as restated in the Reformed tradition:

I invite you in the name of Christ, to observe a holy Lent: by self-examination and penitence; by prayer and fasting; by works of love; and by reading and meditating on the Word of God.

I didn't grow up with this liturgy but have ripened into it with love as the years have matured.  At first, I was moved by the ascetic aspects of this season. Prayer and fasting gave me a way into the suffering of Jesus and taught me to bear the Cross intentionally. In time, however, I began to suspect that such an approach was merely the door through which all young believers greet the mysteries of contemplative prayer. Asceticism
has its place, but it is not our destination in Christ. As Bonhoeffer has noted:  asceticism is fundamentally self-centered while Jesus is the man for others.  Intuitively I grasped this truth 30 years ago although I didn't know Brother Dietrich's insights - but two clues pushed me beyond acts of self-denial.

The first was the practice of Centering Prayer. Fr. Keating was my link to the wisdom of Western contemplative spirituality and I devoured all of his writing. In one essay he confessed his own addiction to scrupulosity. If one hour of prayer was prescribed by his Benedictine prior, then he would push himself to spend three hours on his knees. If fasting for one day was the community rule, he would double it.  As those in a 12 Step program know scrupulosity, is all about going overboard with public acts of self-denial in the mistaken notion that self-initiating acts can heal and purify us. Keating wasn't happy - he wasn't filled with the Spirit's joy - but he kept trying harder until the monastery's prior told him:  Thomas, this year for Lent, when the others kneel and pray, you must go take a nap; and when they fast, you must drink a milk shake! This horrified and offended him and Keating inwardly resisted. But over the course of a tender and loving Lent he began to grasp that he could not punish his body into encountering Christ's love. Rather, he had to simply rest in a radical trust and let God renew him from the inside out. Clearly, the prior of that monastery saw how Keating's broken understanding of prayer was wounding him in an unhealthy way.

The second clue took place during my time of ministry in Tucson when the words "the joyful side of Lent" swelled up in my prayer. The movie, "Chocolate" was a visual reinforcement - and I've used it as study tool for Lenten devotions over the years - but the joy of Lent idea sprang from prayer. Working with my dear friends Roger and Debby, we transformed our desert Sanctuary into a garden of delight with flowers, shrubbery and art. I invited a local artist to paint his take on five different Bible stories that emphasized the upside-down nature of God's presence in Christ's ministry and his art was displayed on the Sanctuary walls. With a worship space that was filled with beauty rather than stripped naked, with visual art giving our prayers and conversation focus, we discovered a deeper hunger for both the traditional disciplines of Lent - prayer, fasting and sharing our resources with those in need - as well as the importance of committing to this journey as a community. Lent was no longer a private act but a shared practice of spiritual trust.  

This is likely the last year I will be leading a congregation into the Lenten practices. Already I am semi-retired and working only part-time in ministry. I am keenly aware of what this trajectory means for me personally and seek to be clear how it might matter to the congregation. My deepest hope is that together we might rediscover the joy of a holy Lent. Last night as I read the Epistle lesson in our ecumenical community and then served the Chalice I experienced a taste of what St. Paul prayed for us so long ago:

We don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside and see that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! All this comes from the God... and now God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you.
Please, beloved, we beg you, please don’t squander one bit of this marvelous life God has given us. God reminds us,

I heard your call in the nick of time;
The day you needed me, I was there to help.

Well, now is the right time to listen, the day to be helped. Don’t put it off; don’t frustrate God’s work by showing up late, throwing a question mark over everything we’re doing. Our work as God’s servants gets validated—or not—in the details. People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.

May the peace and the joy of the Lord be within you all as you enter into the blessings of Lent.


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