Sunday, February 19, 2012

Looking Toward Lent

My childhood church tradition that had no interest in Ash Wednesday, or Lent, or any of the seasons of the liturgical calendar. The idea of giving up something as a spiritual practice seemed superstitious: does God care if I eat chocolate or not?

Yet, in a dry, thirsty time of my life, I was deeply fed by my encounter with a deeper liturgical practice, and after almost thirty years now in the Anglican tradition, I look forward to Lent the way I look forward to an hour of quiet at the end of a long, hard day.

Lent is an ancient practice – an attempt to approximate in some way the forty wilderness years of the Israelite people, the forty days in the desert of the prophet Elijah, and the forty days of fasting and temptation of Jesus at the start of his ministry. During the seventeenth century, a period of reformation and liturgical revision, an Anglican priest, Anthony Sparrow, wrote a defense of Lent which appealed to church histories going back as far as the time of the apostles:

London, 1672.

THe Antiquity of Lent is plain by these Testimonies following. Chrysol. Ser. 11. Chrys. in Heb. 10. 9. Ethic. Cyril. Catech. 5. August. Ep. 119.  . .                        That forty days should be observed before Easter, the custome of the Church hath confirmed. . . One Fast in the year of forty days we keep at a time convenient, according to the Tradition of the Apostles. . . . 
This forty days Fast of Lent was taken up by holy Church in imitation of Moses and Elias in the old Testament; but principally, in imitation of our Saviours Fast in the New Testament, Augustin. ep. 119. That we might, as far as we are able, conform to Christs practice, and suffer with him here, that we may reign with him hereafter. . . . 
The examples of Moses, Elijah and of Jesus highlight the tension between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. 

Moses and his people, newly escaped from slavery in Egypt, wandered in the desert – some wanting to go back to life under Pharoah, Moses insisting that God would provide. 

Elijah, after defying bloody King Ahab, and with Queen Jezebel on his trail, ran for his life to the desert, where he collapsed under a broom tree and begged God to take his life.

And Jesus himself, after forty days of fasting, was confronted with an offer of “all the kingdoms of this world and their splendor.”

Lent offers us a time to examine our own allegiances, our own journey between the kingdoms of earth and the kingdom of God. Small sacrifices are one way to help us focus. Some of my friends choose to fast one day a week, or to give up facebook, wine, dessert, coffee.

The point isn’t the small sacrifice. Rather, the sacrifice helps us set the time apart – a small, regular reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for us. But it’s also a reminder of our deep complicity in kingdoms we don’t understand, our hunger for the tastes of the old ways, our willingness to find comfort in material things, rather than hunger and thirst for a deeper knowledge of God.

In Ephesians 4 Paul urged the church in Ephesus to “put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness”

That work will never be done, but Lent is a time to pause, and to ask: what should I be putting off? Where have I given control to things, to habits? What have I been feeding myself? Where am I headed?

Christ in the Wilderness, Briton Riviere, 1898
It’s a time to look more deeply at my own attitudes. I usually give up sugar, which also means I give up coffee. In the withdrawal from both sugar and caffeine, my underlying attitudes surface quickly: Irritation. Impatience. Discouragement. Self-pity.

Lent can sound depressing, but I don’t find that to be the case. As addictions and harmful attitudes surface, I can acknowledge them, address them, and set them aside, ready to put on something new.

It’s a bit like retooling a computer. Over time, unused files, dumb downloaded games, the backload of cached internet files slows the system down. It takes time to erase unused programs, delete files no longer needed, adjust the start menu, optimize disk storage. It takes time, but it feels good to get it done.

That sounds a bit mechanical – an analogy, but not a good one.

Because Lent, while it’s a time to confront our evasions, our half-believed lies, our self-protective inner story, is even more a time to draw closer to God.

The Israelites, out in the wilderness, experienced God’s presence in manna, in cloud and pillar of fire, in the tent of meeting.
The Israelites in the Wilderness Preceded by the Pillar of Clouds
William West, Bristol, 1830

Elijah, in the cave where he found refuge, complained that he was the only faithful follower left, God invited him out onto the mountain, where he experienced God’s presence in a new way, and heard God’s word of encouragement and instruction.

And we, setting aside distractions, distortions, determined to shed whatever deceives us, prepare to know God better – in the sacrifice of Good Friday, in the joy of Easter, in the countless little ways that God’s grace meets us in moments of hunger, or prayer, or waiting.

There are lots of ways to approach Lent.

My favorite online bookstore, Hearts and Minds, offers a mix of resources for Lent.
World Vision, Relevant Magazine and Intervarsity are partnering to promote their Relentless ACT:S of Sacrifice – six weeks of exploring sacrifice on behalf of global justice. 

Tearfund is inviting Christians around the globe to take part in a Lenten Carbon Fast – with facebook messages every day suggesting actions and prayer.

Lots of churches give out Lenten readings. This morning I picked up a copy of our new rector, Richard Morgan's "A Cross Centred Life," with readings, prayers, and some questions to consider. 

My own plan is to give up sugar (and, sad to say, coffee), to explore both the Acts of Sacrifice and Carbon Fast, to work through the readings from our church, and to experiment with some new, or rather very old, approaches to prayer, fasting, and stillness. 

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts - especially about Lenten practices that you've found helpful, or resources you recommend. 
Lord, You searched me and You know,
   It is You Who know when I sit and I rise,
          You fathom my thoughts from afar.
   My path and my lair You winnow,
          and with all my ways are familiar.
   For there is no word on my tongue
          but that You, O Lord, wholly know it.
         .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Search me, God, and know my heart,
         probe me and know my mind.
And see if a vexing way be in me,
         and lead me on the eternal way.
   (The Book of Psalms, 139, translated by Robert Alter)