Jesus says, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.—Matthew 11:28-30, THE MESSAGE
Lent already? I’m pretty sure that we just had Easter a few months ago. The old saying that “time flies when you’re having fun” must be true. We didn’t observe Lent in the tradition in which I grew up, so this was all new to me when we became Episcopalians. I loved the rites and rituals of the church. They nurtured the God-life in me so I took them very seriously and I still do. I gave up meat for the whole of Lent, except for Sundays, and took on any other possible Lenten suggestion for self-denial as well.
After a few years, I found that these practices weren’t helping me much, anymore. I had a hard time staying with my “giving up.” Maybe, God was trying to encourage me to take another step in my spiritual journey. So, I added self-examination and confession. I usually had a Lenten meditation booklet provided by the church that I used during my quiet time. I didn’t know what spiritual growth was all about, so it is a good thing that God knew and urged me on. I still had trouble with that giving-up food thing, but that was part of Lent, wasn’t it? That is a great Lenten discipline….except…for me, it had nothing to do with growing closer to God and others. It was more about “doing something” for Lent. A “rule” that I had loved but was no longer working for me.
Later, when available, I added an additional communion service and a Lenten study. I went to a retreat, a quiet day or a quiet morning each year—maybe more than one—and, I still tried to give up something. After I adopted a rule of life, I checked to see how I was doing with that during Lent. If I was letting one part of the rule or another slide, I would give it attention. It gave a sense of control over my Lenten discipline.
All of these and more are good and helpful practices, but as we grow as apprentices of Jesus, we might need something else. Those practices that helped in the beginning had become duty for me and I was bored with them? They weren’t helping me grow closer to Jesus or to others which, I believe, is what it is all about. A day or two ago it came to me, Lent is GRACE—a gift from God. It is a time when our focus is on growing the God-life in us. It is not a “rule” nor is it a “duty.” Lent is not “law.” It is a Gift of Love. Enter the light bulb over my head. Did I just hear Jesus say, “Duh”? Would he say that? Well, maybe. I need to ponder this.
There is evidence that Lent was observed in the early Church as a preparation for baptism and Easter. It was a time of prayer, penance, sacrifice and good works in preparation for baptism or recalling one’s baptism which was done at the celebration of Easter. If Lent is Grace and a gift from God given to us as a time for spiritual growth, how does Jesus want me to make use of it? How can I open myself to receive this Grace? Do I need to give up anything? What should I take on? How can I grow in love with God and others? The scripture from Matthew, above, may hint at the answer. I think it’s a matter of intention. Maybe Lent is about letting Jesus lead us through this grace-filled period so that we might celebrate Easter with great joy?
Well, what activity could I give up in order to spend more quality time with Jesus? And, how about “giving up” those clothes in the closet I don’t wear, or that I continually throw on the bed after I try them on? The clothing bank is in need of these. I could give things that are cluttering my house to the ARC? If I give up certain foods, I can donate the money that would be spent on them to the Outreach Committee or food bank to help feed those in need? What could I take out of my life to make more space for loving God and others? And, maybe I could focus on an element of the Trinity Way (our rule of life) where I’m struggling? (And, I will give up sugar because my sugar addiction is out of control and I need to. I believe God is pleased when we take care of our bodies. You can hold me accountable in this.)
I’ll pray about these, but whatever I choose, or you choose in the next few days, if our Lenten practices do not help us grow into the Image of Jesus, nor make space for him and others in our lives, it is not really fulfilling its purpose.
I pray for you a Grace-filled and Holy Lent. Bless you, Donna