And so it begins. Lent - this 40 day season of wandering in the wilderness; 40 days reflecting on how we don't live up to God's standards; 40 days of of denial, darkness and death.
At least that is how I was brought up to see Lent. It was a season, quite frankly, of misery. A time that I gave up something I loved - usually cookies or chocolate. Going to church was a much more somber, darker experience. No alleluias, dirge-like hymns in minor keys replaced the beloved joy-filled music that always seemed to touch me with such hope.
Lent always seemed to be about the loss of things we loved. And it was - well honestly it was depressing, a time I dreaded and endured, until we could finally get on with things at Easter.
But I always obediently went through the motions, always searching for deeper meaning in this dark season. But all I could come up with was that I was expected to intentionally make myself miserable. And if I did it right, I would earn my place I heaven. In other words, if I felt badly about myself, then life after death would be a bit sweeter. Or at least cooler.
I didn't grow up in a hellfire and brimstone church, but the message was there: lent was all about where you would spend eternity - heaven? Or it's alternative, divine punishment?
Thank God I was shown a fuller, more hope-filled, and more grace-filled picture of Lent.
It came from reading Isaiah... Why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrushes,and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.
Lent is not a time to fast without reason, to deny ourselves simply for the sake of denial. It is a time to focus on how we can better reflect the love God has given to us in our communities and in the world. It's a time to remember that in baptism God claimed us and gathered us in arms of love and made us a part of a community. A huge community of God's people of every time and every place. A community called to care for one another, called to love one another. A community called to clothe, to feed, to welcome.
"Ash Wednesday doesn't begin a hunger strike, but rather a season of self-examination, spiritual reflection, repentance, sacrifice, and focused prayer. Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to."
He goes on to say:
"The Lenten season is the spiritual equivalent of an annual physical exam; it's a time to take stock of out lives, our hearts."
Prayer, fasting, and denying ourselves are ways we can do that. Gathering with others in prayer, study, and service allow us to live and grow in this community in which God has placed us.
Again, Jim Wallis writes, "It's time to go deeper into our hearts and lives. Lent is a gift to help us do that, when we focus on amplifying the cries of the poor and welcoming the strangers in our own lives, communities, and even in the lives of our political leaders."
In this place, in our own communities, may this Lenten season be a time of renewal, a time of growth, a time of refreshment and yes, a time of joy as we experience God's reality for our lives. A time we see ourselves as a part of a community - a much larger community than we can probably imagine. We are a part of God's community called to rejoice in and take care of one another in love.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly. You shall call and The Lord will answer, you shall call for help and he will say Here I am. The Lord will guide you continually. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.
Then we shall know our God's love. And we will rejoice. Amen.