February 23, 2009
For the Love of LentLast night I gathered with others from my church for our annual Solemn Assembly to confess my sin individually and corporately; to have ashes placed on my forehead as a reminder that the cost of sin is death, and that I am finite and dependent on the Creator who formed us from the dust of the earth; to hear words of truth spoken from the Bible about who I am, about sins I'm guilty of; to pray the Jesus prayer as so many saints before have:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
It's a service that called us to name our sin, to sit for a little while in the raw, ugly fact that we are sinners who have turned from God, doing what we want to do instead of what we know he wants us to do. It felt awkward, uncomfortable, unfamiliar, sitting with others I know, pondering my own sin, identifying with each other for a while not as the friends and ministry partners and small group members we are, the roles that usually define our interactions with each other--but as fellow sinners.
This, however, was not a wallowing service. It was solemn, yes, because it was serious, because sin is serious. But after we sat with our sin, after we asked Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for mercy--then we received that mercy anew. We shared in Communion, celebrating Christ's painful death and victorious resurrection on our behalf, taking it in as the free gift of God that it is. And we recommitted ourselves to living as the people of God--as sinners redeemed, as new creations in whom Christ dwells--in a hurting, broken, sinful world.
Lent, which begins on Wednesday, has become a significant time of year for me. Yet it can often feel unfamiliar or mysterious, depending on the tradition you've grown up in or depending on where you're at in your faith. Indeed, it is unfamiliar because it's so countercultural; it goes against our efforts to appear good, our perfectionistic tendencies, our desires to keep our minds on happy, uplifting topics. Lament and sin are not on any "conversation-starter lists" for first dates or parties. We don't discuss them in the hallways at work or on the train during our morning commute. We don't like to feel bad about ourselves and recognize our sinfulness, both of which usually occur during Lenten services like the one I attended last night.
But Lent as I am coming to see it is not about judging ourselves, grinding ourselves down into the dirt until we can't even get off the floor for the shame of the sins we've committed. It is, rather, a time set aside to give us perspective, to correct our vision of ourselves and the world that may have tilted to the "we can't help it that we sin" side through the year, to remind us that the world is not as it was meant to be and not as it will always be, and, above all, to help us better celebrate and understand what Christ has done. We can't really feel grateful for Christ's suffering until we understand that we are the ones who deserved to suffer. We can't understand the significance of his sacrifice until we accept the seriousness of our own sin.
In this context, then, Lent becomes not just about sin, but about the juxtaposition of sin and mercy: a confession of lust is forgiven with love; an acknowledgment of anger is answered with grace; a group of deserters has their feet washed by the One who knows they'll desert him.
So, whether you've been observing Lent for years or haven't heard of it till today, I invite you to do something to observe it, beginning on Wednesday. You might consider simply giving up something that keeps you from spending time with God, or that keeps you from seeing the truth of who he is.
You could also observe Lent with us at Likewise books. Tamara Park, author of Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem and relatively new to observing Lent herself, will send out a short email each week with a reflection and questions as well as a song, Scripture and image to keep in mind as you go through your days. These emails can help you take stock of your spiritual state and give you space for sacred encounters of your own. If you want to receive Tamara's emails during Lent, simply email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Lenten Sacred Encounter" on the subject line.
Kimberlee Conway Ireton, author of The Circle of Seasons, can serve as a Lent guide for you too. She explains the background and practices of Lent for you in chapter five of her book, as well as gives simple suggestions for Lenten observances that can make it a significant period of discovery for you. In addition, she's written and posted family devotions for each day of Lent at her website. Just click on "Resources" to find the guide.
Yet another option (aren't we helpful??) is to join Dave on his personal blog where, starting Wednesday, he'll be posting daily readings from his latest book, Deliver Us from Me-Ville--a particularly apt topic for the season.
Lent, admittedly, takes work. But it's work that is so necessary for our growth in Christ. As I walked from the parking lot to my office building this morning, the sidewalk gave me a clear--though unglamorous--picture of the essence of this season of the church year. There, alongside the white, unmarred snow that fell this weekend, lay a pile of geese poop. The juxtaposition of Lent is that stark as well: we see our ugly, unglamorous sin next to Christ's saving grace, our embarrassing messiness beside God's deep mercy. Starting Wednesday, let's name and sit in and walk through our sin together--that we might know in even deeper ways the gift of having that dirty sin become clean like untouched snow.