“Accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul.” Teresa of Avila
Well my friends today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is, for those unfamiliar with the custom is a penitential season in the days leading up to Easter in which Christians, through prayer, fasting and abstinence seek to prepare themselves for Holy Week and Easter. It really is a time of great value if its observance is not done simply out of legalism or even the need to show ones personal holiness as somehow more important than the relationships that one has with both God and one’s neighbor.
If you have read my articles on this site dealing with Ash Wednesday and Lent you will note that Lent is a season that I have struggled with throughout my life, even my life as a Priest. I did not grow up in the catholic tradition, Roman, Orthodox or Anglican. I came to a catholic understanding of faith in a Southern Baptist Seminary and my journey took years and when I finally came over to the “catholic” side of the line in 1995 and 1996 I attempted for a number of years to be more individualistically pious in my observance of the Lenten season and tradition than others.
That did not work well. Instead of finding a depth of meaning and transformation Lent became a burden. I observed it and did my best but without much joy. When I returned from Iraq in 2008, my faith shaken, and emotionally broken my Lenten observance was so painful that mid-way through it I abandoned it. The following year I declared that I was not going to do Lent in the way that I had done in the past, but even in this I struggled. That was not unexpected because by then I was for all intents and purposes an agnostic struggling to believe and praying that God might be real. The only thing that kept me going at times was the belief that my vocation as a Priest mattered, no matter how I felt.
The past few years Lent has been a struggle. I have worked to make it both meaningful and joyful. When I think of the irony that I was attempting to work to experience God’s grace I can now laugh.
This year Lent started out differently. Over the past number of months my life, including my spirituality has been coming back into focus and much more free and integrated than it was in the past.
Today I was part of our hospital Chapel ecumenical Ash Wednesday service. Our small chapel was full, with more people standing than sitting. Working with my two colleagues, a Southern Baptist Pastoral Counselor and an American Baptist Chaplain we served those who came, Catholics and various expressions of Protestants. My colleagues did most of the work for the service. I simply approved their work and though about what I was going to say and do as the primary celebrant during the service.
Our Old Testament reading out of Isaiah Chapter 58 actually set the tone for me because it has been something that has been zinging my spirit ever since my seminary days and early days as a Priest. In the passage Isaiah was speaking to a very religious people who seemed to take great pride in their external demonstrations of righteousness but whose hearts were far from God and the people that God had placed around them. Isaiah wrote:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
Likewise Jesus warned his disciples about the dangers of religious hypocrisy in the Gospel reading which was from Matthew Chapter Six. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” He then went on to warn them about how to pray and how to fast. In each case he was very much against public displays that would serve to show off an individual’s religious superiority. Instead he talked about prayer being in secret and fasting that did not attract the attention of others. That is actually quite a revolutionary idea if you take a look at the practices of many who call themselves Christian, or for that matter religious people of any religion.
Jesus seemed to “get off” so to speak in confounding the severely religious people of his day. He hung out with, care for, fed, healed and loved people that the people who were more concerned with outward religious displays actually despised. I think that Jesus actually understood the real meaning of Lent than we do. Yes, Jesus prayed, he fasted, actually for 40 days in the wilderness once and was tempted by the Devil who offered food, protection from harm if he jumped off the pinnacle of the Temple and even the whole world, if Jesus would only worship him. Of course Jesus withstood the temptation, but it was real and if we actually take the humanity of Jesus seriously it was a real temptation that actually threatened to destroy the eternal relationship that Jesus had with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
So there is a value in spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting, but they are not the be all and end all of the Christian faith. Instead, they are important but unless they actually are part of a change in our hearts that turns them from us to God and maybe even more importantly the real people that we meet, especially the least, the lost and the lonely.
However according to the Barna Group, which surveys Christians and their attitudes it seems that American Christians don’t seem to get the message. Barna commented:
“The vast majority of (secularists) don’t need to hear the Good News. They have been exposed to Christianity in an astonishing number of ways, and that’s exactly why they’re rejecting it. They react negatively to our ‘swagger’, how we go about things, and the sense of self-importance we project.” They quote one outsider as saying: “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”
Over the past few years I have gotten to the point that I have a hard time simply giving money to causes, ministries and churches but really have a hard time passing up the homeless, the hurting and the despondent people that I see every day.
I just wonder what it would be if people that call themselves Christians would during Lent, instead of giving up chocolate or going meatless on certain days would instead do something kind for a person that can do nothing for them, especially people who may or may not be Christians. I’m sorry but that seemed to be what Jesus did more often than not.
Can you imagine what the practical result of over one billion Christians doing one act of kindness a day to someone that can’t pay them back, that they don’t know, that may even to them seem to be of a class, religion or lifestyle that they do not approve? What if instead of giving billions of dollars to the money pits of self indulgent Christian ministries and churches they simply paid someone’s rent, bought a meal, or a tank of gas for someone in need, took someone to the doctor, or helped someone find a job? What if instead of giving up something that for practical purposes is meaningless for 40 days, like our favorite food or drink seek out opportunities to do something as simple as walking up to the homeless person on the side of the road who has the “please help” sign and look them in the eye, ask them what they need and then do something to help them?
And let me preach. When we were down and out and losing almost every earthly possession we had when I was in seminary there were regular people who did those practical acts of kindness and mercy that helped us through terrible times. People bought us gas, let us borrow or gave us cars, paid for doctors visits, food and even tuition. Of course I was working my ass off in two or more jobs at any given time, going to school full time and serving in the National Guard as we attempted to recover from the debacle we had experienced while still moving forward. Thus I approach this with a great deal of gratitude and empathy.
I think that this is a radical idea. Not original by any means, but certainly radical.
And then there is one other thing, what we do should be done with a happy heart, not with a gloomy one. Saint Teresa of Avila once said “God save us from gloomy saints!”
Have a happy Lent.