Catching up with Lent

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My pastor, out loud: From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.

[smears ashes on my forehead]

Me, silently to myself: That’s not a very nice thing to say!

But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?  Lent ain’t nice, it’s necessary.  It’s the time for taking stock of ourselves, remembering our mortality and our frailty.  During Lent we reflect on our place in the human community in which Jesus lived and taught, and eventually …inevitably… was betrayed and killed.

You wouldn’t think it was possible—it’s on the calendar about this time every year—but Lent sometimes sneaks up and catches me by surprise.  After working a full day and rushing home, I went to the Ash Wednesday evening service at my church “cold,” having given no thought to what was about to happen, to the journey the congregation and I were beginning.

Sitting in the pew, it occurred to me that I hadn’t identified a bad habit to give up.  Time to pick one, quick: Lent is already 18 hours old!  I thought, here’s one vice of mine… only, shoot, I was guilty of doing that earlier today.  Another candidate… darn, I did that one today as well.

Even in that moment in the sanctuary, I realized this was too fussy an approach.  Starting my Lenten resolution a day late is something that Jesus would forgive.  Besides, swearing off a vice is a means, not the end; the true end is self-examination and repentance.  I recalled a conversation with a co-worker here at the Clergy Health Initiative a few years ago, whose Lenten practice is to take up a good habit (it was exercise goals for him that year) rather than to give up a bad one.  That strikes me as a fine practice: positive, constructive, and future-oriented.

The theologian and fiction writer Frederick Buechner has a lovely meditation on Lent that is similarly constructive — and challenging.  Here is an excerpt:

When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?

If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?

Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?

Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?

If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.

Buechner invites us to repent of the past and to commit passionately to the future.  He inspires us to treat our lives seriously, because they matter greatly.  With this in mind, I’ve resolved to reshape my habits, allowing some to die, others to rise in their place.  Lent may have gotten off to a late start, but I’ll catch up in time for Easter.

* * *

I would to offer a special prayer for our Spirited Life Group 3 participants and our program staff taking part in workshops this season.  May the Holy Spirit fill your hearts as well as the meeting rooms and the interstitial spaces.

– John James

Photo by flickr user Coolm36 via creative commons

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