Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Observance of a Holy 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.
With these words, the Church calls us to enter the forty days of Lent. I hope you will consider this season an opportunity for spiritual growth, as that is what it is intended to be. Consider it the “spring cleaning of the soul” if you will. We may not like to clean, but it sure feels good after it’s done.

We may not like Lent, either, but if you follow a Lenten discipline, I assure you that it will transform your experience of Easter.

The model for Lent is Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We are invited to make a similar journey, into the wilderness of our own soul. We are invited to look deep within ourselves, and confront those things hidden in the dark corners.

To make this journey, we have to begin by recognizing that there are parts of ourselves that don’t want to go along. Our emotions, often the voice for the appetites and desires of our body, are going to protest. Our emotions, in league with our bodies, wants to be in charge of everything.

The other part of ourselves that will most likely protest the journey inward will be our minds, which I often call “the committee that meets in my head.” Those folks never seem to shut up! Consequently, I can rarely reflect on much of anything. The internal dialogue goes on and on, often about pointless stuff, never giving me a moment’s rest. Beyond the incessant noise, I’ve also learned not to trust my head. I can justify almost anything, if I think about it long enough.

The truth of the matter is that neither the body, the emotions nor the mind are really in charge. You are. They must submit to your will. Once they’ve submitted, the inward journey can begin.

How do we get them to submit? This is where the Lenten disciplines come in. Let’s talk about some of them.

Fasting - Traditionally the weekdays of Lent are considered fast days. We reduce our consumption of food. Maybe we serve smaller portions, or cut out desserts. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two complete fast days we have left on our calendar, which means that on these two days, if our health will allow it, we don’t eat anything until after the sun has set. Another common discipline for Lent is to abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. I guarantee you the body won’t like this, and will protest through your emotions. Don’t falter. With time, the body will stop rebelling, and the emotions will calm down.

Self-Denial – But just in case the emotions are still acting up, we have this additional discipline to offer! We give up something we find pleasurable during Lent. Maybe it’s going out to dinner, to the movies, or having a beer, or a caramel machiato from Starbucks. Ideally, we would then offer the money we have saved to some worthy cause. Our emotions will not be pleased. They will call us to mope, and whine, and get grumpy. Too bad. Don’t give in. Eventually, when the emotions realize there’s a new boss in town, they’ll submit.

Then it’s time to go to work on the mind. The committee up there has been holding a continuous meeting debating the various implications of what you are doing to it’s partners in crime, the body and emotions. Time to adjourn that meeting. How do we do that?

Prayer – We commit ourselves to a regular cycle of daily prayer. Many Anglicans pray the Daily Office, especially Morning and Evening Prayer, every day. This is a good discipline, and one that I highly recommend to you. Contemplative prayer, which calls us to being still before God, is another form of prayer that many find helpful. If you’re interested in either of these forms of prayer, and are not familiar with them, let me know and I’ll see if I can help you get started.

During our prayers, that committee upstairs might keep trying to interrupt us. Ignore them. Don’t be too forceful, though. That gives them the attention they want. Just let their jabberings float in one side of your head and out the other, while you continue your prayers.

This may not be enough to quiet the mind, so we have another Lenten tool at our disposal;

Spiritual Reading – Our tradition is that during Lent we commit ourselves to increased study of the scriptures, or some other spiritual text. We carefully monitor what kind of information we let into our minds, and give ourselves an extra helping of spiritual content.

Once the body, emotions and the mind have submitted through using these disciplines, the real journey begins. Without the clamor of the emotions and the committee, we may be finally able to hear another voice; the voice of the Spirit of God that has dwelt in us since our baptism. This Spirit did not attempt to talk over the top of the mind or the emotions, instead she patiently waited until we quieted them down.

As we listen, we might not like what we hear. The Spirit of God knows what is inside of us; she knows what is hidden in those corners that need to be cleaned out. This brings us to the next Lenten discipline;

Self Examination and Confession – Now that we are quiet, we can honestly confront the sin in our lives; the destructive behaviors that have drawn us away from God, the harm we have done to others, the neglect of things we know are important. We admit these sins, confess them to God, make amends to others as we are able, and reorient our lives so that we are once again focused on God. Piece by piece, we haul out every dust-covered, cobweb encrusted fault the Spirit convicts us is an occasion of sin, and we get rid of it, forever. We also have the rite of Reconciliation in our prayer book, which I would recommend that everyone take a look at and consider using as another Lenten tool.

We mark the beginning of this Lenten journey by placing ash on our foreheads as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This calls us to remember our mortal nature. In a sense, we are intentionally encouraging the demands of our body, our emotions and our mind to die just a little bit., so that we can be open to the whisperings of God’s spirit. There is no need to fear these little deaths. Easter, with the promise of the resurrection, is coming.

I encourage you to observe a Holy Lent, resulting in abundant Easter joy.


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