Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the Journey Through the Desert

Scriptures for Ash Wednesday's beginning of the Lenten Season are Exodus 1:8-22, 3:1-14 and Luke 4:1-13.

This blog is a bit longer than others I've written. But I hope you'll bear with me. This writing is intended to help us move into the season of Lent and to lay the groundwork for the Bible study and worship that we'll be sharing as well as suggest some personal ways you might chose to approach this important Christian season.

On Wednesday, many of us will have ashes placed on our forehead as a sign of repentence and to mark the beginning of the Lenten Season. The ashes symbolize our desire to "turn" (that's what the word repent make a 180 degree turn) from the things that block our life as God's people. They also remind us that life is short. None of us is here forever. Our opportunity to make a gift to God of our lives is limited by number of our days. The word "Lent" comes from the Germanic word for springtime. Like a good gardener we look to prune and tend our lives so that they will move toward becoming what we believe God desires us to be (and, as every good gardener knows, creating a garden is a process of years, not days). And so, each year, we remind ourselves and one another of our need to do the work of shaping and moving and turning that will aid our journey as God's people both individually and collectively.

There are four basic tasks or "disciplines" that have traditionally been associated with Lent. They are very personal. But when a group of people, a prayer group, a congregation, a family engage individually in these personal disciplines, their life together is shaped by them. As each member tends the garden of their personal lives their corporate life together is altered. Below is a brief description of each. I've put them in the order I have to suggest a way (not the only way, but a way) that they may link up for us in our personal journey:

Fasting. Please think about this as more than not eating. Though, for some, this may be about food, for others it is about other things. Ask yourself, "How do I sooth myself when I am anxious, angry, ashamed? What is my 'emotional crutch'?" It may be that you become overly critical of others (perhaps just in the secrecy of your own heart while smiling sweetly at them). It may be that you use alcohol or drugs to excess. It may be that you over work, or over spend. It may be that you turn to pornography. It may be that you become violent in some way. It may be the way that you eat. There is a standing joke with a therapy group I lead that when we've had a bad night I can stop at Pizza Hut just outside my building and buy a large pizza all of which I will eat on the way home. So it's not just what we do, it's how we do it. Often, when we answer this question honestly, we feel a bit uncomfortable or ashamed of the answer. I would invite all of us (myself included) to name for ourselves one of the things that we sooth ourselves with, and 'fast' from it during this Lenten season. What we will find is that the thing we're 'soothing': our feelings of inadequacy, our fear of failure, our fear of relationships; will rise to the top. This is scary, I know. But it is only when it 'rises to the top' that it becomes visible in a way that we can begin to deal with it. A word of caution...there will be a strong temptation that when you give up the one soothing thing and the anxiety comes to the top, to turn to another soothing mechanism rather than sit with, and deal with, the thing that we've been soothing. But this is the very thing that we need to "prune" to bring in our worship and prayer to God.

Scripture. This Lenten season I will be focusing us on the Exodus journey as a way to look at our own spiritual journey. It is a time honored tradition, both within the Jewish community and the Christian, to look at the Biblical story and ask ourselves "how is this my story?" to see the Biblical story as an expression of what we, in some way, are experiencing as well. Before Ash Wednesday I will post on the blog the scriptures I will use for the weeks of Lent so we will all have them. Let me invite you to daily read the passages for the coming Sunday. This means that when we come to worship together we'll all have read the passages at lest 6 times. Then, as you think about what has 'risen to the top' as a result of your fasting, ask yourself: "what do these passages say to my condition?" "how is this story, my story?" "what do these passages call me to do now?" and "how does this story reflect God's grace in my situation right now?" You might even want to keep a journal each day as you answer those four questions in light of your reading. As we re-read the passages each day they will open up new avenues of thought. Don't think that one reading on Monday is all it takes. Watch what happens in you as you do this.

Prayer. We've fasted; and seen what comes to the top. We've read; and looked for ourselves in the Biblical story. Now we pray. We come to God and say something like: "O Loving God, my fears of failure haunt me. I see myself in the Children of Israel complaining and being willing to go back to Egypt rather than move out into the unknow desert. O God, speak to me, and help me listen." Then: Sit. Be quiet. Give yourself time and freedom to hear what God is saying to you. When you've heard, you may want to write that down as well in your journal.

Charity. Having fasted and seen what risens to the top. Having found ourselves in the Biblical story. Having brought all of this to God in prayer and meditation and heard what God has to say to us. Now we ask ourselves, "how do I give to others in a way that reflects what God has done for me through these spiritual disciplines?" My friends in 12 Step programs say, "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all areas of our lives." Another way to think about it is the definition of evangelism as "one beggar telling another begger where to find food." How can we share the 'feeding,' the healing, the comfort that we've found in our work with 'another hungry beggar?' An example might be something like "I grew up poor and always worried about the next meal. To soothe that fear that still haunts me, I've criticized those who are on welfare or need help. Now, having seen how I am anxious, and remembering that fear, I will donate time each month to My Brother's Pantry or to a local soup kitchen."

These disciplines will, by their very nature, push us to the limits of our personal comfort zone. If we can do them and not be disturbed....we're not doing them right-we're not being honest with ourselves. This being pushed to our emotional and spiritual limits is often triggered by tragedies or traumas in our lives: the death of a loved one, the lose of a job, etc. During the Lenten season we follow Jesus' example of allowing ourselves to be led into the wilderness. This situation goes by many names, depending on who is describing it: The Dark Night of the Soul; the Night Sea Journey; a Spiritual Exodus; the Desert Journey. It was the model for Dante's Inferno and other great writing. It is, in my mind, a model for what happens in Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Counseling.

But it does push us to the limits of our comfort. It takes us out beyond what we know, or feel safe with. It is not a journey to be taken lightly. Our worship together on Sundays will attempt to share some parts of our journeys and to nurture one another for the continuing journey ahead. This is a time we might want to be able to share some (though not necessarily all, since a lot of what happens in this process is deeply private and personal) of what is happening with us with a friend, or spouse, or pastor. Pray for someone you know who is also engaged in these disciplines, and ask them to pray for you. And as I attempt to follow these disciplines through Lent as well, I would ask that you pray for me.

I know that this blog is read by folks both inside the Broadneck Baptist Church family and folks from other places. I pray that our Lenten Journey will be one that transforms us all and brings us closer to the God who loves us and the Christ who came to make that love flesh and bone.

Hope to see you Sunday.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on these practices, Stephen. I'm very interested in exploring these elements you've challenged us with. The discipline of making time for God outside of my scheduled events (Thursday night, Sunday morning, and the occassional Saturday morning) is a way to grow throughout the week and live/abide "more" in God's presence, which I know I need.

I'm looking forward to the Ash Wednesday service, and I'll be there provided our flight isn't delayed.

Thanks again, Stephen!