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Lent 2019

The Holiness of Lent

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. 

Book of Common Prayer, Liturgy for Ash Wednesday, p. 265
Photo by James L.W on Unsplash

In the Anglican-Episcopal tradition, the liturgical season of Lent begins with an invitation to participate in the observance of the season.  Active engagement in the season of preparation for Easter is for all Christians, lay people and ordained ministers alike.   It’s not simply a matter of “giving up something  for Lent.”  The “something” is often a little luxury that a person enjoys, but thinks is probably bad for them, like chocolate. The liturgy does not mention chocolate, or meat on Fridays!  Instead, the invitation is to look deep within oneself, in self-examination and repentance for the sinfulness that we all find there when our self-appraisals are honest.  Prayer, fasting, and self-denial are all time-honored spiritual disciplines that are encouraged throughout the year, but practiced in a more focused way during Lent.  The result is a picture of ourselves as God sees us, which leads to authentic contrition and commitment to follow God’s plan for us. 

During Lent we may practice self-denial by giving something up, or by taking something on that will benefit those who rely on God’s providence most.  When Lenten observance is grounded and shaped by engagement with God’s Word, we are assured that we are following God’s direction and not our own self-centered wishes.  Granted, it’s not as straightforward as giving up chocolate or meat, but it’s not complicated either.  In fact, the intent is to un-complicate this contemplative season.  Well-thought-through rules eliminate the stress of worrying whether we’re doing something “right,” and they help simplify decision-making, thus reducing stress.  For example, if your Lenten commitment is to attend a Lenten program such as a mid-week worship service or study, there is no decision to be made each week on Wednesday.   Attendance is a given.   Attention is freed up to focus on the message and content of the event.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Rather than being worrisome weights, spiritual disciplines have been proven over centuries to be effective ways to improve our relationship with God and with his creation.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Choose Lenten practices that help you live more simply.  Simple should also mean less stressful, so if a practice seems to produce more stress, that’s a signal that it either isn’t a good choice or expectations are unreasonable.  For example, I might decide to begin each day in Lent by reading a chapter in a book on spirituality, but then discover that my stress about time for meeting other responsibilities has increased.  That tells me that reading a chapter at the start of each day is not the right choice for me:  it may take too much time, or my mornings may need to be allocated to other tasks.  I should look for another type of reading material, or try reading at another time during my daily routine, or choose another form of practice, such as a short emailed meditation.  (see suggested resources below)
  • Structure your Lenten practice to incorporate contributing to the well-being of others.  For example, I might redirect the money that I would usually spend on a treat for myself (a daily specialty coffee drink?  weekly movie night?  a new book or magazine purchase?) toward a charitable fund or organization that will use it to meet needs of less fortunate people.  Another example:  if I commit to spending a set period of time in prayer every day during Lent, I can make that practice benefit others by devoting that prayer time to interceding on behalf of people who need God’s healing, strength, peace, discernment, or other comforts of his presence.

These are only a couple of ideas.  There are many more ways to combine sacred practice with simplicity.  Please share your suggestions – and, if you would, how they worked for you – in the comments.

A final word:  The essential component of any approach to the observance of a holy Lenten is authenticity.  Going through the motions for the sake of outward appearances will not benefit you spiritually.  Jesus talked about the Pharisees who loved to make public displays as they prayed aloud in the synagogue and on street corners, and who adopted facial expressions of deprivation to advertise when they were fasting.  Their reward, said Jesus, would be limited to the recognition or respect they gained from others who were fooled.  But they couldn’t fool God, who knew what was in their hearts, and we can’t fool him either.

Further blog posts during this Lenten season will focus on some of the spiritual practices that have proven helpful to Christians through the ages, and on the gifts of a holy Lent. 

Resources for Online Lenten Meditations

Breaking the Bread – from Paraclete Press; delivered daily

Go to https://paracletepress.com.  Click on link under “Stay in Touch” and provide email address in box.

Episcopal Relief and Development – delivered weekly

Go to https://episcopalrelief.org. Click on Church in Action, then Church Campaigns, then Lent.  Click on purple button “Subscribe to Lenten Meditations Daily Emails.”  Provide information requested.

Our Daily Bread –  delivered daily

Go to https://odb.org.  Click on Email.  Fill in required information.  (Can be delivered via Email or Mobile app.)

Verse and Voice – from Sojourners; delivered daily

                Go to https://sojo.net.  Fill in required information under Subscribe.

Categories
Lent 2019

Lenten Gifts: Gratitude and Grace

A prayer card on the bulletin board in my office reads:

O Lord, you have given me so much. 

Please give me one thing more — a grateful heart.

Hydrangea – Floral Symbol of Gratitude

Owing to my long-standing fascination with word origins and derivations, I wondered whether gratitude and grace were related.  It turns out they are:  both are derived from the Latin word gratūs, meaning pleasing.  That word made me think of a Scripture verse I learned long ago:

And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments,  and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.                             1 John 3:22 (KJV)

This verse speaks of us doing things that we know will please God.  What he gives us, as reflected in the derivation of the words “grateful,” “gratitude,” and “grace” refers to things that are pleasing to us.  When  we seek to please God and he, despite his ultimate sovereignty and power, delights in pleasing us, the circle is complete.  Could that be what Eden was like before the fall?  Perhaps it’s similar to what heaven is like?

I started thinking about gratitude and grace a few weeks ago when I received a wonderful and entirely unexpected gift.  About two years ago I registered with one of the commercial DNA analysis companies.  They compare members’ DNA with that of known genetic groups to generate a profile describing each person’s genetic inheritance.  It’s also possible to compare an individual member’s DNA with that of other members in the database, to identify those that are genetically related.  I wanted to know about my genetic background because I was adopted at birth, and had only basic identifying information from my adoption record.  Perhaps – ideally – there would be others in the database whose DNA matched.  For many months only distant potential relatives showed up in the online match files, until I received an email from a man whose DNA matched mine at the 25% level, indicating that we are half-siblings.  Since then we’ve been in touch frequently by email and have spoken on the phone.  We’ve now embarked on a joint search for further information about our shared parent, and have plans to meet in person.  Gratitude is the most fitting word I know to describe the gift of knowing someone who is related to me.  I am so grateful for the former stranger I now know as family, as well as the technology that gives us the opportunity to connect with each other.  A remarkable development. 

At this point in human history our world seems tragically short of gratitude.  It’s a natural human tendency, exaggerated by some personality traits, to look first for what’s missing rather than what’s pleasing in a situation.  At least in western culture, possessing a “healthy skepticism” is considered wise.  We believe we should always be on our guard because “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”  Our first impulse is not to be thankful, but to be wary.  That’s a common outlook on life and not new, but these days such a perspective has been amplified.  Fear is the common denominator, a strong and pervasive undercurrent in our present discourse.

What if we intentionally cultivated the habit of looking first for what there is to be thankful for, before looking for fault or risk?  It may actually be fairly simple to change that perspective.  Take, for example, a physician with whom I once worked closely.  He came from Iran, and after many years in the U.S. his English was excellent, but he still had a few verbal expressions that readily identified him as a non-native English speaker.  One such comment was “Thanks God.” This was his response to any piece of favorable news that he received.  I couldn’t be sure whether he meant, “Thanks be to God” or maybe “Thank God,” as English speakers often say to express relief or satisfaction.  Still another possibility could be a personal mini-prayer:  “Thanks, God!”  It was an efficient, multi-purpose phrase, useful in a broad variety of situations.  In a way it really doesn’t matter which of the three meanings he intended, or even if there were other possibilities.  Any one of them expresses gratitude.  If we could prioritize thoughts of thankfulness over our typical skepticism, the rest of our thinking would fall into proper alignment.  God, whose grace is sufficient for every circumstance and whose power is more than sufficient to meet every need, is in charge.  The outcome is in God’s hands, not ours, no matter how diligently we search for lurking threat.

A final thought about the words “gratitude” and “grateful: ”  both are related to “grace,” and grace comes from God.  It’s a gift – unearned, unmerited, undeserved.  We can’t be grateful without God.  The prayer on my bulletin board asks for a grateful heart, that is, a heart transformed by God’s grace.  It’s the process that gradually breaks down our defensive posture and removes our need to be guarded and wary, as the heart softens.   We don’t make ourselves grateful:  God’s grace makes us grateful.  We need to be grateful for gratitude, as well as for every other good gift from the Creator.  How many times today have you said, “Thanks, God!”?

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay