Scripture for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Lent is a time of returning to God. It is a time to confess how we keep looking for joy, peace, and satisfaction in the many people and things surrounding us without really finding what we desire. Only God can give us what we want. So we must be reconciled with God … The season of Lent, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.” –Henri Nouwen
There comes a time in the spiritual life when one of the major things God is up to is to lovingly help us see ourselves more clearly. This is a time when we are called to wake up to the darkness within and invite the light of God’s presence to shine there. Just as winter and spring—light and darkness—seem to be fighting for dominance during this season of the earth, Lent is a spiritual season for seeing, naming and confessing our own darkness until eventually it gives way to God’s marvelous light.
Self-examination is the practice that facilitates such spiritual awakening—awakening to the presence of God as God really is and awakening to ourselves in light of God’s presence. Awakening initiates a stage in the spiritual life traditionally understood as purgation in which God gradually strips us of our reliance on that which is not God so we can return our hearts to him.
The Lenten season in particular invites us to be more intentional about returning to God on every level of our being through practices of self-examination and repentance. Then, as we renounce those aspects of the self that keep us from abandoning ourselves to God more fully, we are called into the sacred rhythm of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.
The Purgative Way
Robert Mulholland, in his book Invitation to a Journey, describes different levels of purgation the soul passes through on its journey towards Christ-likeness and greater abandonment to God. The process of purgation begins by exposing conscious sins and omissions and culminates in a greater awareness of the deep-seated attitudes and inner orientations of our being out of which our behavior patterns flow. Here God deals primarily with our “trust structures,” especially those deep inner postures of our being that do not rely on God but on self for our well-being.
In the uncompromising light of God’s presence we discover all the ways we are captive to our own anxieties, driven by our need to control God and others so we can impose our own order on things. We begin to get a glimpse of the false self that functions primarily to keep itself safe by relying on human plans and schemes, rather than by increasingly abandoning ourselves to God. We take a hard look at whether we really are trusting ourselves to God or whether we are relying on our own defensive, self-protective patterns designed to help us maintain our fragile sense of security and well-being.
At every level of the purgation process we are led to the final and most transforming aspect of the purgation process—confession and renunciation of false-self patterns. This is the “self” we die to as we abandon ourselves to God’s mercy so the true self can be raised to new life and freedom in Christ. This is the grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying in order for it to bring forth real fruit.
The Lenten season presents unique challenges for us as leaders because our roles and responsibilities require us to be “out front” so much of the time and yet we need to find ways to allow God to be at work in the more private and hidden places of our lives. Following are several suggestions for leaders who want to walk through Lent with intentionality:
Consider incorporating a half an hour of “hidden-ness” into each day during the Lenten season. Craft this time in such a way that you can be with your own soul in complete privacy, paying attention to God’s invitations to you on your Lenten journey. You might spend time in silence and reflection on different aspects of Christ’s journey to the cross and find yourself in the story. You might slip into a church where you are not known just to be quiet or to participate in some aspect of their prayer rhythm such as Morning Prayer, praying the stations of the cross, hearing the Scriptures read. You could consider refusing additional requests for public ministry that would feed your ego’s need to be “up front” rather than helping you to remain hidden.
Engage in Self-examination
Lent is an ideal season for engaging more intentionally in the process of self-examination. One suggestion would be to begin each day with the prayer if self-examination in Psalm 139:23, 24. You could even paraphrase it a bit so that it is a more penetrating and personal expression. Here is the way I will be praying this prayer this season: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and illuminate my thoughts and false patterns. Help me see if there is any unloving or unfruitful way in me and lead me on your life-giving path.
As you are praying this prayer daily, receive criticism and feedback differently than usual, assuming that God might be answering your prayer! Allow your first response to be one of asking God if there is anything he wants you to see in response to this feedback rather defending and deflecting. Commit yourself to follow up on any guidance God gives regarding how you can die to false patterns of self- reliance and surrender yourself to God in big and small ways.
Fasting or some form of abstinence is a key discipline for the Lenten season because, if well-chosen, it can be a concrete way of renouncing sin patterns and attachments that have us in their grip. Consider fasting or abstaining from something that is connected with that place where God is revealing your need to die to some aspect of the false self. So for instance, if you are aware of lacking self-control or being self-indulgent in some way (eating and/or drinking habits, shopping, media and technology, ) you might want to incorporate a plan for abstinence in that area.
If you are aware of a tendency to gossip or indulge in ill-considered words, fasting from words (more silence) might be a life-transforming choice. If you are particularly aware of pride or ego-driven-ness in your ministry life, further consideration of what it might mean for you to remain more hidden would be tremendously important. If your pace of life is compromising your spiritual health and physical well-being, perhaps this might be a time to pull back to only the barest necessities of life for purposes of rest and returning to God.
Be sure and share your intent with a spiritual friend so they can pray for you and listen along with you for what God is saying in and through the space created by this practice.
A Leader’s Prayer During Lent
It is not easy to consider “dying so that we might live,” but there are times when it is what God calls us to. As we embrace the rhythms of the Church year as seasons of transformation, hiddenness, self-examination, and fasting is what we are called to during Lent. Let’s pray for ourselves and one another that we will hear God’s call to us during this Lenten season journey. Perhaps this prayer from Henri Nouwen’s work, A Cry for Mercy, will help us in our praying.
“Yes, Lord, I have to die—with you, through you, and in you—and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess.
O Lord, I am self-centered, concerned about myself, my career, my future, my name and fame. Often I even feel that I use you to my own advantage…
Yes, Lord, I know it is true. I know that often I have spoken about you, written about you, and acted in your name for my own glory and success. Your name has not led me to persecution, oppression, or rejection. Your name has brought me rewards! I see clearly how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it.
O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen.
©Ruth Haley Barton. 2014. Not to be reproduced 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, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, and Longing for More.