The Practices of Lent
February 26, 2020
Available only by text
The first word I learned how to write was my name: four simple block letters L E I F. My mom taught me when I was home sick from Kindergarten one day.
But the first complex word I learned to spell was TRANSFORMATION. Again, my mom, awhile later, taught me how to sound it out: TRANS FOR MA TION. I had no idea what it meant, but I was pretty proud of my spelling prowess.
In many respects, I have been learning the meaning of that word my entire life. Our theme for this year—Called to Change—is, of course, akin to transformation, and certainly apropos to Ash Wednesday and Lent.
The prophet Joel beckons us in the words of the Lord:
Return to me with your whole heart, for I am gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and rich in kindness.
And in our Psalm for the day, Psalm 51, we pray:
Be merciful, O God, for we have sinned.
Create in me, a clean heart, O God.
A willing spirit, sustain in me.
Through these readings, and others that we will hear and pray with over the next forty days, we know that Lent is a call to change:
A call to recognize our failures, shortcomings, and outright sins, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation from God and from others.
A call to turn our gaze back to the things that really matter: those whom we love, those who love us, moments of solitude that set us straight and recharge our batteries, and acts of mercy, kindness, justice, and advocacy that remind us that ours is not a solitary journey.
A call to transformation. A willingness to start this Lent as the person I am today, but open, and even anxious to be a different person six weeks from today when we enter Holy Week. That’s what the Psalmist means by “A willing spirit, sustain in me, O God.”
And there is urgency in this calling. We hear it from the prophet Joel:
Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
STOP . . . NOW! Wipe away all that preoccupies you and turn to me, says the Lord. For you can’t just work this change-thing, this transformation into the creases and folds of your daily routine.
So, we blacken our foreheads with ashes as a blatant symbol to all that indeed this day, this seemingly ordinary Wednesday, is interrupted by a call from God. The ashes are a very public acknowledgement that:
And our reading from Matthew tells us, in concrete practical terms, just what to do: pray, fast, give.
When you pray – go to your room, close the door, pray in solitude. God will meet you there . . . and give you the comfort and clarity you seek.
When you fast – get cleaned up, put on nice clothes, and a cheery face. Don’t let on that you’re fasting, for as soon as you do, you trade away lasting spiritual benefit from God for fleeting admiration from others.
When you give – do it in such a way that you won’t be acknowledged. Just give. No strings, no expectations of gratitude or praise. Just give.
These are the practices of Lent. But you know, when you think about it, these are, really, the practices of the Christian life 24/7/365.
Engage in these practices and you will surely and authentically respond to God’s call to change.
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