Sunday, March 2, 2014

Leaning into Lent

As part of my Lenten observation this year, I'm taking a break from writing new blog posts and updating and re-posting earlier material. Today's post was first shared on February 19, 2012.

My childhood church tradition 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?

Elijah icon, 
Yet, in a dry, thirsty time of my life, I was deeply fed by my encounter with a deeper liturgical practice, and after 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. 

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, then spent forty days traveling to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. 

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 as we travel between kingdoms of earth and heaven. Small sacrifices are one way to help us focus, to shake free from what holds us. Some of my friends choose to fast one day a week, or 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? 

detail from Christ in the Wilderness,
Briton Riviere, England, 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-protection.

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, and the system runs better freed from the weight of digital detritus.

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.

Elijah, on Mount Horeb, 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.

Tearfund and the Church of England offer The Carbon Fast:
Consciously adopting carbon-saving behaviours is sacrificial and provides a wonderful way to engage with the Lenten concerns of temptation, denial and salvation. We are called to change the world, but cannot do so without the Spirit.
  • We believe God is the Creator of the world and that we are entrusted with its care;
  • Lent is a time for sacrifice as we prepare to celebrate life in Christ at Easter;
  • Christians love the world and want to influence it for the good.
Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Kramskoi, 1872, Moscow

Many churches and organizations offer their own Lenten resources: daily readings, weekly videos. Mustard Seed Associates has put together an exhaustive list of ideas, resources, and other Lenten materials

My own Lent will be a little different this year. I'll be traveling more than usual, and busy in a strange mix of ways, so plans to give up sugar (my fall-back practice) won't work. 

An article about an eight hour daily fast from Facebook and email has encouraged me to limit computer time (aiming for two hours a day) while another article about fasting not just from, but to, has me thinking about ways to listen better, pay deeper attention, find more in less. 

In all of this, I'll be praying for a life deeper than the surfaces where we so often find ourselves living.

Looking for a way to move beyond the flood of words I often find myself washed along in.

Watching, and waiting, for something new.  
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)
What spiritual practices will you be exploring this Lent?

What resources would you recommend to others?

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