I wanted to write something to “kick off” the Lenten season. In my spiritual journey, I have have found Lent to be a valuable, frustrating, maddening, enriching struggle.
What is Lent? Liturgically speaking, it is the 40-ish days (excluding Sundays…and no, I have no idea why Sundays “don’t count”) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. I say 40-ish because traditions vary – some have Lent ending at sunset on Maundy Thurdsay, some on Good Friday, others on Holy Saturday.
It is meant to both honor and mirror the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert preparing himself for ministry. (Note: biblical numbers are often symbolic – “40” being biblically equivalent to “a really long time,” so try not to get hung up on the exact number of days in the observance). During this time, many Christians practice prayer, fasting (to varying degrees) as well as a “giving up” and a “taking on.”
As a child, I gave up chocolate (or tried to). As I got older, I learned that the point wasn’t abstention for it’s own sake (or to earn spiritual “brownie points”) but rather, to give up something that separates you from focusing on God or God’s mission. Often that is replaced with a “taking on” a practice designed to draw you nearer to God. A friend of mine gives up checking Facebook in the morning, and has a 20 minute devotional time instead. For me, I have tried (and failed) the same Lenten observance for several years: I give up justifications and take on responsibility. Simple in theory, less so in practice. For 40 days, I try to think of everything I’m doing (and not doing) as a choice I am making, rather than the probable/ unavoidable result of my circumstances (“I am choosing to hit ‘snooze’ 4 times” NOT “I’m too tired to get up.”).
I fail a lot (shout-out to grace and mercy!), but I think it’s worth the effort. There isn’t a “right” way to observe this time – the point is to draw closer to God and to prepare you for your own ministry. But – and here’s the rub – by preparing yourself to serve, you are asking that God will use you to serve.
As I like to say: First you pray, then you act: that’s how prayer works. That line kept coming back to me in as Lent began on the same day as yet another school shooting. As of this writing, there are 17 dead in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In the immediate aftermath, people began using social media to send their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families. And I am struck at just how often “thoughts and prayers” is code for “I’m not going to do anything, but I want to feel better about myself.” And, honestly, it breaks my heart. I believe in prayer. Powerfully. But I believe that when we ask God to bless a person/situation, we are volunteering to let God use US to bless that person or situation. First you pray, then you act.
Let me be clear: I have no intention of turning this into a debate on gun control/ mental health/ bullying/ the cultural glorification of violence or any one of the myriad factors at play here. (And I’m also asking you to refrain from using this space to do so). But I find myself coming back to the words of a hymn by Joy F. Patterson “When Senseless Violence” (number 205 in Community of Christ Sings):
When senseless violence takes those we love,
when cruel death strikes childhood’s promise down,
when wrenching loss becomes our bitter bread,
we know, O God, you leave us not alone.
I believe that God is with us in this moment. I believe that in this time of preparation, as we ask God to bless and comfort those who are grieving, we are asking that we be used to bring comfort and blessing. So, let us pray; then, let us act. There are many ways you can be a blessing (and I don’t claim to know how you personally may be called to serve). But, please: Pray. Reflect. Listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Then, go forth and do – that’s how prayer works.