The Missing Piece of Lent
I don’t know about you but Lent hasn’t always been easy for me. When I first came to the Anglican faith, I was a young teenager. At that time I understood Lent as a time to give up something I valued so as to show God how prepared I was to follow him. Giving up things for Lent was a demonstration of my will power and an outward show of my intention to be a good Anglican, more so that others would see how good I was being and think well of me than for any higher reason. It was a shallow understanding of Lent to say the least and it didn’t take long before I and my friends questioned how giving up chocolate, Saturday matinees or French fries was going to help us score points with God. But we tried. I do recall a discussion with my friends where we wondered if sacrificing church for lent would get us as many merit points as giving up chocolate? Clearly Lent made no sense. I was a child then.
As I grew older, Lent became uncomfortable so I ignored it for a while, dismissing it as an outdated idea from a former time. Then I began to see it as a time to reflect on man’s inhumanity to man and the opportunity to vicariously experience the suffering the world inflicted on someone who came to teach us about God’s loving presence in the world. But why, I frequently wondered wasn’t the experience of Lent having a more positive effect on the world? Certainly millions of members of the universal church Catholic sacrificing and praying through Lent weren’t having much of an impact on the brokenness of the world. Why wasn’t it working?
Then, for many years I expected to feel sad and somewhat depressed during Lent and gradually I recognized that Lent had evolved into a time of exasperation and frustration with fellow humans and myself who still seemed to be unable to clean up the messes of the world. I began to experience Lent as a lesson in endurance with the prize of Easter celebrations at the end. But as I struggled with Lent through those years I was aware of knowing deep down inside me that it was an important aspect of our faith. I just couldn’t figure out what that importance was and so Lent remained an imperfect fit.
Something important was missing and I hoped and prayed that over time I would discover what it was. And then, I encountered Contemplative Prayer and slowly, one layer at a time, I began to see Lent differently. I began to see the wisdom of this time set apart. I also realized that somehow over the centuries we had lost sight of the example set by Jesus himself.
Let me tell you about the example that Jesus set.
A few weeks ago our Gospel reading told us about the Baptism of Jesus by John. Jesus, a gentle man submitted himself to Baptism in the Jordan River. Today, our Gospel shows us a very different Jesus: an angry man, someone who took on the profiteers at the synagogue to remove the corruption that he saw there; one who firmly foretold of his resurrection should he die. So what is the linkage between these two pieces of scripture?
The link is that after Jesus was baptized he did not immediately embark on his ministry. Instead he went into the dessert. He went to pray and to meditate to discern God’s will for his life. We are told he was there 40 days. Through listening prayer and through meditation, Jesus conquered his human temptations, encountered God directly and came to understand the path that was set before him. Scripture notes that Jesus regularly took time apart from his ministry. This particular time launched his ministry. He came to know what God was calling him to do. He was to teach the message of love and awaken people to their sinfulness. This led to his outburst at the temple where he tried to clean up the corruption he witnessed there.
The early church fathers realized the importance of meditation and prayer and so they prescribed a period of time in the Church Year to emulate what Jesus did following his Baptism…….a time to simplify our lives, to get quiet and to find greater clarity about who God is and what kind of person God is calling us to be through prayer and meditation.
In former agriculturally based communities, this time is fallow time before the crops are sown and need tending, harvesting and preserving. It was also the time of year when preserved or stored food was at its lowest and the excesses of Christmas and New Year were well behind. That made it easier to choose some self-denial to emulate what Jesus experienced in the desert. Today it is harder. 21st century life is 24/7 and there is no downtime, save what we carve out for ourselves.
Overtime, the self- denial part of Lent became prominent because it was easier for the church to police and the contemplative prayer aspect was largely forgotten, especially by the protestant faiths, but even in Catholicism. Self-denial became part of religious culture of the Christian world but rather than leading to a deeper understanding of God, it was often little more than what Father Richard Rohr calls “Willpower Christianity”. It’s ok as far as it goes but it won’t get you to a deeper, lasting relationship with God.
Lent can provide the time and contemplative prayer can help us use it well. It can be a time of discernment to clarify what each of our unique missions are. Contemplative prayer was the tool that helped me discover the missing piece of my Lenten puzzle. I’ve finally come to see Lent as the gift that it is …and it is a gift that keeps on giving.
During this lent I urge you to give up 20 minutes each day. Sit down in a comfortable chair that supports your back and let your feet rest comfortably on the floor. Take three deep breaths making your in and out breaths the same length. Remove all distractions and intentionally invite God into your awareness. Remain still and quiet, gently breathing and focus your awareness on inviting God to be present. When your own thoughts become intrusive, take another deep breath and breathe them away gently as you return your focus to God’s presence. Let God do the talking.
The Kingdom of God is within Jesus told us. It’s not out there somewhere where we can find it with the right map and a secret decoder ring. And, I’m willing to bet that God doesn’t really care whether or not we eat chocolate during lent. God does care that we care enough to spend time with him. Each time we set aside time to meditate and pray we are saying, “yes” to God. And when we say yes to God, we are surrendering to “thy will not mine be done.” God is not going to fix this world for us, but God will reveal to each of us our individual parts in fixing it.
Everyone can go to their soul space; that still place in the centre of our being where we can come to know the peace and joy of encounter with God; where we can come to know what God is calling forth in us and it is where we can feel the support that God will provide as we travel the bumpy road of life. It takes disciplined practice because our heads are so full of noisy thoughts. But if you keep showing up, you will discover that God is waiting for you.
If you are tempted to think that you can’t give up 20 minutes a day, remember what Jesus gave up to teach us about the presence of God in the world.
If you live alone you may be tempted to think this isn’t for you because you live in the quiet. That’s not quite so because as you potter around your home your head is also full of the continuous chatter of your thoughts or the external stimulation of television, books or radio. Singles too need to dedicate time to a daily appointment with God. This is a discipline that will yield gifts for everyone.
It is so simple yet at the same time so challenging. We’ve come to view encountering God as difficult work. One should study theology at least as a first step….but in our second reading today St. Paul tells us that the wise and powerful will be thwarted….only those who show up and encounter God will realize the gifts of spirit in their lives. St. Paul is telling us that we are enough already,…. as we are…..as the hymn says: “Here I am Lord, send me!” Showing up with a willing heart is enough. It isn’t easy. It has never been easy.
500 years ago Teresa of Avila a Christian mystic encountered the same problems we do and she wrote the following prayer about it. “Although I have often abandoned you, O Lord, you have never abandoned me. Your hand of love is always outstretched towards me, even when I stubbornly look the other way. And your gentle voice constantly calls me, even when I obstinately refuse to listen. “
I find this prayer comforting. If someone who dedicated her entire life to God couldn’t always get it right, then there is lots of room for you and I to keep trying.
I invite each of you to try daily contemplation throughout the remainder of this Lent and hopefully beyond. If the Glory of God is man fully realized, then there is no better way to discover God’s plan than spending intentional time listening to him each day. Say yes to God and then go and live as God would call you to do. Be God’s light in the world and become a co-creator of a world alive in the knowledge of the love of God. If you do this, then Lent will never be the same again…..but then, neither will you.
This is the Good news of the Gospel this day. May all praise be to God.