as lent approaches.

kite

Growing up, I heard a lot of talk about searching our hearts and examining our motives. We hid God’s word in our hearts to protect us from our sinful inclinations. We studied the Bible so we could learn how to live and we were encouraged to share the things that we were struggling with. If we couldn’t think of anything, we prayed for God to open our eyes to our shortcomings, because thinking that we were doing okay was surely the sin of pride. There was a lot of reflecting but, as I reflect upon it now, I think that maybe it was not a great idea for someone who was already shy and too much in her own head to get the idea that she should turn even more inside herself and seek out all the wrong things hiding there. I cycled through feeling okay and feeling wretched because I sometimes felt jealous of my classmates.

I value reflection. Right now I am writing about my feelings on the internet. But all this searching and hiding gave me the impression that a big part of Christianity was about struggle. I carried those ideas with me as I started learning about the church calendar in college, especially to the practice of Lent. I thought that Lent was to be like a flashlight that I could shine in the dark corners of my heart, rooting out my hidden transgressions. I didn’t believe that praying in the car rather than listening to music and giving up emotional eating was helping me join in the suffering of Jesus. I just hoped it was helping me get rid of myself.

Giving up something for Lent is not required of Christians, and I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way to practice it. I have done different things over the years, both adding things in and giving up habits I would like to break. At this point in my life, it is helpful to see the seasons of the church calendar as part of a long conversation that I am having with God. My spiritual practices don’t include constantly searching my heart for dark things, which paradoxically makes it easier for me to identify areas of my life where I would like to make space for change. I don’t have to worry about making that change happen all by myself (or at all), but I have to be honest with myself about the fact that my practices, good and bad, affect other people.

I like the way that Marcus Borg put it in his post here:

Ash Wednesday, Lent. Holy Week and Christianity itself are about following Jesus on the path that leads through death to resurrection. They are about dying and rising with Christ. We are to follow him to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection. That is what the journey of Lent is about.

That journey intrinsically involves repentance. But repentance is not primarily about feeling guilty about our sins, or about doing penance (think of the common practice of “giving up” something during Lent – whether meat or chocolate or alcohol or shopping, and so forth). The biblical meanings of repenting are primarily twofold. On the one hand, it means to “return” to God, to “reconnect” with God. On the other hand, it means “to go beyond the mind that we have” – minds shaped by our socialization and enculturation.

The result: dying to an old way of seeing and being and living and identity, and being born, raised, into a new way of seeing and being and living and identity. Ash Wednesday, as we are marked for death, is the annual ritual enactment of the beginning of that journey.

In December, I had the opportunity to read City of God by Sara Miles. Her book Take This Bread, about how feeding people connects her to the body and blood of Christ, was transformative for me, so, you know, no pressure, Sara. City of God is about her experiences over several years on Ash Wednesday, adding another layer to her ideas about embodied faith. I promised myself that I would read it again closer to Lent, so I picked it up over the weekend.

Though the Bible describes people trying to demonstrate their sorrow before God through rituals like fasting, wearing sackcloth, and pouring ashes on their heads, prophets like the ones we read aloud on Ash Wednesday insist these acts do not constitute repentance unless there’s a real change of behavior.

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,” God demands, in Isaiah’s account, “one day for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

Repentance means turning toward other human beings, our own flesh and blood, whenever they’re oppressed, hungry, or imprisoned; it means acting with compassion instead of indifference. It means turning away, “fasting,” from any of the little and big things that can keep us from God–drugs, religion, busy-ness, video games, lies–and accepting the divine embrace with all our hearts. Repentance requires paying attention to others, and learning to love, even a little bit, what God loves so much: the whole screwed-up world, this holy city, the people God created to be his own. -City of God by Sara Miles

This repentance, it is not meant to turn you inward. Over and over, we hear this message from the church and her practices: You cannot–should not–go it alone. As we move from this season of light into one of repentance, may your Lenten journey be one of grace rather than of struggle, and may your reflections help you to see the need around you rather than creating more need within yourself.

Readings I recommend for Lent:

City of God by Sara Miles (copy provided by Netgalley but I am buying my own)
The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan
Still by Lauren Winner
-My favorite prayer books are The Divine Hours, The Book of Common Prayer, and Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro
“For Lent, 1966” by Madeleine L’Engle

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  1. By Soaking in Lent on 3/5/2014 at

    […] enough since last Easter. (I know I’m not alone in such general misconceptions—my friend Kari put it more eloquently like this in a recent blog post: “I thought that Lent was to be like […]

  2. By Lent Resources on 3/15/2014 at

    […] a Lenten expert. If you are looking for help with Lent, I would point you to Rachel Held Evans or Kari. Most of my resources come from them. But of their suggestions, these are some of the ones […]

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