Thursday, February 14, 2013

Giving Up Religion for Lent

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”   — Matthew 6

     You know, I checked and Hallmark doesn't make greeting cards for Lent.  “Hey!  Happy Ash Wednesday! Don't forget you're gonna die!”  OK, that's a bit grim. How about this one?  “Merry Lent!  No steak for you!”  Or how about… “Stay away from that chocolate! Jesus is watching!”  No, they just don't work, do they?  Not only are there no greeting cards, there are so many questions: Do I have to give up chocolate?  Am I supposed to fast?  Of course, the most important question: When do you take the ashes off?  I guess the simplest answers to those three are: You can, you may, and whenever you feel like it.

     In the Gospel we read, Jesus just encourages us not to hold on to the things of this earth too tightly… to walk on this earth just a little more lightly.  "Where your treasure is, that's where your heart will be."  During Lent the most important question is: Where is my heart?  I must admit, I am bound to this earth; my heart is very much here.  My heart is bound up in people I love.  My heart is bound up in places like my church.  And my heart is bound up in things more than I would like to admit.

     The Ash Wednesday greeting card Jesus sends simply says, "Get Real!"  Remember what real treasure is.  emember what real giving to others is.  Remember what real relationship with God in prayer is.  In the eighth century, where we find the earliest records of Ash Wednesday, penitents wore miserable rough sackcloth and ashes.  Ash Wednesday is all about scratchiness, things that grate, or don't sit right.   The dissonance in our lives unresolved until we find resolution in Christ.

     So once a year, the Church gives us ashes.  Ashes remind us we are mortal… all made of the same stuff.  I've always been convinced the only people who have time to be selfish, and crabby, and mean are people who think they are immortal.  If you're immortal you have plenty of time to fix all that.  Who cares? You'll get to it later.  But if we stop and admit we are mortal… strangers… only passing through… We only have time for kindness… We only have time for love.

     Ultimately, Ash Wednesday and Lent are about trust.  We are forced to stop and admit we are not all-powerful; we have to entrust our lives and those we love to God.  We are forced to stop and admit we've been putting our treasure into things that are useless; we have to trust that there is something better waiting for us.  We are not walking this path of Lent because we are afraid of an angry, patriarchal God who will punish us for our sins;  no, we are walking this path of Lent because of something much more frightening.  We are walking this path of Lent because God has revealed God's own true nature: God is a God of love, a God of forgiveness, a God of second chances.  It's a frightening thing to be forgiven.  A lot of people run away from it.  We're walking this path of Lent to remind ourselves of who we really are, what's really important in life, and who we have to trust.

     One last question: "Is it possible to give up religion for Lent?" The answer is, "Yes!"  I think that is exactly what we are called to give up for Lent!  Give up religion in all its false piousness, artificial community, and caring from a distance.   We are called, not to more religion during Lent, but to faith — to a living, walking, breathing, serving, and yes, dying relationship with the God who calls us the beloved.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday

by William Loader

The darkness asks us questions.
You are out there and we do not see.
You invite us into the night,
          the stillness, the loneliness, the desert place.
We cannot see our shadow;
          the cold damp of unknowing rises up from beneath
          our feet.
We tread cautiously, tentatively.

We are afraid,
          afraid of ghosts
          haunting us with spectres of guilt
          and shame.

We would like to run back,
          reach the river bank,
          swim the Jordan,
          sit in the sun by the sea,
          mending our nets.
But you have brought us here
          - with no bread.

When we look we can see only ourselves,
          our darkness.
When we read,
          it is invisible words which cannot be grasped,
          thoughts we cannot clutch,
          hope we cannot capture.

Yet the wild honey remains a taste in our mouth,
          a memory for a new day.

Why have you brought us here?
What miracle will you perform for us?

The darkness sighs around us,
          dense with your unseen presence,
          close to our breathing,
          close to our breathing.

O darkness, enlighten us,
          embrace us with your invisible love.
Let us see your glory in the ashes.
Take us by the hand that we may trust the
Minister to us by your Spirit that we may not be
Jesus, keep the beasts away.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What do I have to give up for Lent?

Do I have to give up chocolate?
     What should I do during Lent?  Should I give up something?  Can I have chocolate?  Do I have to eat fish on Fridays?

     One of the great things about being in the Episcopal Church is we recognize the Holy Spirit works differently for different people, so we don't make many hard and fast rules. One of the drawbacks of being in the Episcopal Church is because of that, it can sometimes feel like you never get a straight answer.

     When I started attending many years ago, I drove a friend of mine crazy by asking a lot of questions about standing, kneeling, bowing, and crossing oneself. A lot of people did it at the same times, but some people did it at different times, and some didn't do it at all. The answer I got was not, "You do this then, and this at that time..." Instead, I got, "Well, some people do that here because... and some people like to... but some people don't do it at all."  I love how we always hear the reasoning behind why we do things instead of just being told to do something. Welcome to the squishy world of being an Anglican!

     At the beginning of the Ash Wednesday service this week you will hear the priest say the words, "I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent..." (Book of Common Prayer, p. 265). However you decide to observe Lent, you are invited... not required.

     The Church has changed over the centuries, and Lent is no longer treated as a time of public penance. The general tone of Lent is, however, one of quiet and reflection. You'll notice the organ at church is more muted, flowers disappear or are toned down, the alleluias are not spoken or sung (Boy, are you going to love them when they reappear at Easter!), there are often more pauses in worship for contemplation, and of course, the color of the season is purple. Purple is a royal color: Lent is actually our preparation for Easter — a King is on his way!

     The three general areas typically focused on during Lent are:
  1. Self-denial;
  2. Acts of charity, and;
  3. Prayer.
     These can take many different forms depending on what you feel you need individually or your family needs.  The only thing I would suggest is don’t kill yourself or your family trying to take on a bunch of new things; try one or maybe two things that work for you or particularly interest you.  Attend a service you haven’t tried: Go to the Ash Wednesday liturgy and remind yourself that you and everyone else are just human.  Observe the establishment of the Lord’s Supper and learn what it means to be a servant by washing the feet of another on Maundy Thursday.  Sit in the silence and the pain as you observe the miracle of Good Friday.  Go to the Easter Vigil and watch the new fire being rekindled and yell out your first alleluias in forty days!

Fish sticks?  Really?!
     Self-denial can be everything from fasting to something as simple as letting others get their way. The original idea of "Fish Friday" in the Roman tradition started because fish was the cheapest meal at that time (Plus, I understand the pope at that time had a lot of relatives in the fishing industry.) The concept was you had the cheaper meal on Friday and whatever money you saved by doing so, you gave to the poor. Not a bad idea, huh? Unfortunately, the original idea has been lost, layered over by centuries of tradition until all most people know is they can probably get clam chowder at Appleby's restaurant on Fridays. If this concept were instituted today, I suspect we would have "Mac & Cheese Friday". Fasting can take some unusual forms: A Lenten observance I did in previous years was I decided to fast from complaining... about anything... even in private. That meant if I spilled the coffee on the floor, I couldn't gripe about it.  Idiots on the road to work?  Sorry, I had to let it go.  Want to complain about the price of groceries? Too bad, all I could do was be grateful I had enough. Poor service at a restaurant? I had to smile and say, "Maybe the waitress had a really hard day; I'll tip more and be especially kind." Arrrgh!  This was one of the hardest disciplines I have ever tackled.  I never realized what a whiner I was!  I can't say I don't complain any more, but I will say I do it less and am very aware of it when I do.  I’ve heard of people fasting from Facebook or other social media (That’d be an easy one for me… kind of like giving up coleslaw… yuck, not a big challenge.)  Yep, self-denial can be a lot more than giving up the classic: chocolate.  My thought is keep the chocolate and try something harder — if anyone gets on you for eating chocolate during Lent, you tell them your priest said you could!

     Acts of charity can also take many forms, the classic being giving money to the poor — that was the original idea of Fish Friday. Notice how that knocked out two disciplines at once: self-denial and charity; add in a prayer before your fish sticks and Yatzee! You've done all three! The broad meaning of charity is love. Lent can be a time for finding a new, even challenging way to express love. Maybe you will challenge yourself to express love by being a better listener or caring for the earth by recycling. Perhaps your Lenten discipline will be to spend this time working on forgiving (Everyone has someone they need to forgive... maybe you even need to forgive yourself for something in your past!)  Perhaps you will focus on letting others in front of you on the freeway or getting out of the way of someone in an obvious hurry.  Maybe you will donate time in the service of the homeless.  Maybe you will stop being so busy and sit down and read to a child.

     Finally, prayer: It could be as simple as saying grace before meals — you can use traditional ones found in the Book of Common Prayer, p. 835 or be as free-form as everyone going around the table and talking about a blessing in their day.  Maybe you want to add a time for Morning Prayer or meditation.  Many of us don't necessarily need to increase our prayers as much as deepen our prayer lives. One way to do this is to shake up how you pray and try something different. There are as many ways to pray as there are individuals. You can use the Book of Common Prayer to pray (pp. 75–135), try praying while you walk outside, take a shot at the Anglican rosary (link), engage in contemplative prayer where you listen instead of talk, or attend a retreat at Church for new ideas; you can even pray by drawing and coloring! (link)

     Families can observe Lent with their children.  Take them to the Ash Wednesday liturgy and the services during Holy Week, but talk to them ahead of time about them.  Do things as a family to include prayer and charity.  Kids can learn self-denial from letting their brother or sister choose the TV program for the night.  Bottom line: Your kids will learn what they see you doing.

     For more thoughts on Lenten observances from people like the Presiding Bishop (who arguably has far more priest-cred than I), check out
Lighten up!  Watch Chocolat!
     Final thought: For heaven’s sake, lighten up!  We aren’t observing a holy Lent because we’re rotten miserable sinners — we’re observing a holy Lent because we are God’s beloved.  We aren’t punishing ourselves to try and somehow become more worthy in God’s eyes — the scary thing is we are already forgiven.  Lent is about love… thinking of others… slowing down… knowing what’s really important in life… about getting our hearts beating at the same rate as God’s.  Christians are people of joy!  If you find yourself getting too serious, rent the movie Chocolat — I watch it every year during Lent!  

Note:  My thanks to W. & R. for giving me the idea for this post!