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Monday, 3 March 2014

What is Lent?

Lately we've had a lot of conversations about what we should give up for lent.  But maybe the question should be - why are we giving up stuff for lent? 

Rev. Elder Dr. Mona West's Lenten Meditation for Ash Wednesday gives us some insight into the spiritual practices of lent.   

Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21 (Click here to read them)

"The Pace and Place of the Journey"

Well, here we are again. It is Lent. Ash Wednesday begins a forty-day journey (plus Sundays) to Easter. This season in the life of the Church is fashioned after Jesus' forty days in the wilderness, where he fasted and prayed and struggled with temptation in an effort to discern his true relationship to God. Each year, Christians are called to slow the pace of their hectic lives and enter into forty days of introspection marked by spiritual disciplines such as prayer, almsgiving, and fasting in order to discern our true relationship to God.

The pace and place of transformation and healing, says Jesus, are in secret. Our quiet center is the place of transformation. It is that quiet space, that secret space, that empty centering point in the hearts of all believers where we wait upon God to speak to us, to see us in the silence, and to name us in a deeply intimate way.

In the history of the Christian Church, the way people have made this Lenten journey is to 'give up' or 'take on' certain things. This giving up or taking on is what is known as spiritual practices or disciplines. Fasting, the giving up of food, or a bad habit, or too much television or internet; prayer, the taking on of a specific time and way to talk to God; and almsgiving, the giving of ourselves to others through acts of kindness or presence, are spiritual practices that prepare the soil of our souls for God's work of transformation in us.

Sometimes we confuse the practice with the transformation. The practices in and of themselves do not transform us; they clear out a space in our lives for God to act. Our passage from Matthew 6 makes this point. Notice that Jesus doesn't say, 'if you pray' or 'if you give alms' or 'if you fast.' He says 'when' you do these things; spiritual practices in the life of a Christian are not optional. I believe we are called to spiritual practices throughout the year. Lent helps us to understand this by giving us a jump start.

Jesus warns us that we need to be clear about our motivation for these spiritual practices. Some people engage in the giving up and taking on of spiritual disciplines to flaunt their willpower, or to appear holy, or to prove to God or themselves they can earn grace and forgiveness. Their practice will not result in transformation. Their practice will result in the source of the motivation: praise and admiration from others or failed self-reliance.

But when our motivation is to come before God in the secret places of our hearts, to clear a space for God to act through the practice of spiritual disciplines, then the reward is transformation in the secret places of our hearts.

For this forty-day period, all of us are invited to enter into covenant with God and one another, to be intentional about the journey we will make together. We covenant with God and one another because God is a God of covenant. God's covenant with us is redemption and transformation. God accomplishes in us what we cannot do for ourselves.

That is the essence of the message of Psalm 51. The psalmist cries out to God: "Create in me a clean heart and put a right spirit within me. You desire truth in my inward being, so teach me wisdom in the secret places of my heart." God does not require us to 'work on ourselves' until we are worthy. God doesn't look at how holy and pure we think we are because we pray and fast and tithe. The only thing God asks of us is a willing spirit and contrite heart.

Lent opens those secret heart places in each of us. It is an intentional journey with Jesus into the wilderness. What other geography is there that invites this kind of transformation? Terry Tempest Williams says it this way:

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It's strange how deserts turn us into believers. I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility. I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together. And I believe in the gathering of bones as a testament to spirits that have moved on.

If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.

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