Practicing Lent: Invitation to Return to God
Lectionary readings for February 22, 2012: Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5: 20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Lenten Lectionary (Cycle B) Calendar
“Yet even now, says the Lord, repent and return to me with all your heart.” –Joel 2:13
Today is Ash Wednesday—the beginning of the Church’s observance of the Lenten season. Ash Wednesday ushers us into a space in time in which we engage very intentionally into the disciplines of prayer, self-examination and repentance. But these disciplines—as significant as they are—are not ends in themselves. They are a means to an end and that end is that we would return to God with all our hearts.
What are You Giving Up for Lent?
Unfortunately, the practice of entering into the Lenten season has often been reduced to the question: “What are you giving up for Lent?” This is a fine question, but it only takes us so far. The real question of the Lenten season is: How will I repent and return to God with all my heart? This begs an even deeper question: Where in my life have I gotten away from God and what are the disciplines that will enable me to find my way back?
How many and how subtle are the ways we “leave” God and the true spiritual journey in favor of other pursuits—even those that seem very noble and even necessary. The cares and concerns of life in this world and even the dreams and visions that God has given us can become distractions from the relationship itself. One day we wake up and realize that we have tolerated that which is intolerable and compromised that which is of greatest value. Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.
What a poignant and compelling invitation!
Our Messy House
Returning to God with all our hearts begins with repentance. In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris tells the story of working as an artist-in-residence at a parochial school, teaching children how to write poetry using the psalms as a model. One little boy wrote a poem entitled “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response (in the poem) is to throw his sister down the stairs, then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’”
“My messy house” says it all, Norris observes. “With more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out…he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?”
This kind of truth-telling is the essence of repentance. It is truth in that deepest down place, the secret heart that is so hard for us to listen to and open to the light of God’s presence. And yet, this is the kind of truth-telling God’s desires—honest admissions about those deeply-patterned, self-protective responses that shape our decisions every day and have nothing to do with true faith. We have a hard time naming and acknowledging these subtle dynamics, but they “wreck our house” nonetheless.
During Lent we sit in our messy house and get a little more honest about the fact that we are in disarray. We acknowledge what got us into the mess we are in, we feel our remorse and admit, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” This is the kind of truth that Jesus is talking about when he says You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.
Lenten disciplines help us to abstain from the daily distractions that prevent us from seeing and naming reality correctly. As we allow some of the external trappings of our lives to be stripped away, we can return to a truer sense of ourselves and a deeper pursuit of God. We acknowledge the subtle temptations to which we are prone rather than pretending that we are beyond temptation.
The disciplines of fasting and other kinds of abstinence help us to abstain from that which distracts us and numbs our awareness so that we can become more finely attuned to what is going on in our lives spiritually-speaking. We allow ourselves to experience the necessary grief that leads to repentance and we ask God to lead us in a new and everlasting way.
Today many of us will receive the symbolic gesture of the imposition of ashes on our foreheads as a way of acknowledging our human finiteness and mortality. No matter who we think we are, the traditions of Ash Wednesday remind us that “you are dust and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19) This is not meant to be morbid, it is just meant to limit our grandiosity and help us to stay in touch with the real human condition that we all share. This is a wonderful discipline for us as leaders who are so prone to getting lost in the fog of illusions created by believing our own press.
The ashes marking our foreheads carry the same meaning contained in the Old Testament practice of covering oneself with ashes. They are an outward sign of an inward repentance and the mourning we experience as we become aware of our sin. This is good for us because we live in so much denial. Facing our sin in the shadow of Christ’s cross and impending resurrection is the healthiest way to deal with the knowledge of our sin.
As sobering as the Lenten season is, it is also strangely hopeful. There is a path for returning to God no matter how distracted I have been. Even now, God says, no matter how far away you have gotten…Even now I am inviting you to look for the path of returning and to walk it with all your heart.
A Prayer for Entering into Lent
“O God of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest
we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength:
by the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence,
where we may be still and know that you are God,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Book of Common Prayer, page 832
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©Ruth Haley Barton, 2012. Feel free to share this article using the buttons below; please do not reproduce and distribute without permission.
Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (June 2012) and Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.
What are the Lenten practices that will help you return to God with all your heart?
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