Friday, March 11, 2011

Remember that you are dust.... Thoughts on Lent

Kneeling as the priest intoned, "Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return," during my very first Ash Wednesday service felt rather real to me. The ashes and the symbol of the cross on the forehead are meant to remind us of our mortality and our need to confess and repent before God. It just so happened that just before the service I had replied to a friend who wrote me all about a mutual friend of ours who passed away all too recently. I was holding Judah, the baby who in the past year was formed from seemingly nothing. The reality that we are just dust is strong.

I posted last year about learning about Lent, really for the first time. Baptists and Bible churches don't really do the church calendar and Lent, but among my post-Bible College circles, becoming sort of pseudo-liturgical is the thing to do, and observing Lent is definitely in. It FEELS super spiritual (I mean that in a genuine sense), and then sometimes it feels faux-spiritual. Last year I felt like so many people around me were giving up facebook or blogging or coffee or TV or something of that sort, and I wanted to join them but felt like I couldn't because I didn't yet really understand what Lent or a Lenten fast of any kind was truly for, and I do believe that tradition devoid of meaning makes the tradition pointless.

This year I am observing Lent for the first time. Isaac pointed out that when he asked some friends at seminary why they gave something up for Lent, very few people had an answer for that question. He fired the same question at me. What is a Lenten fast for? I've asked the same question. Is it to become more holy? Is it to rid our lives of evil and sin? Is it to practice a spiritual discipline? Is it to sacrifice something in order to identify with the sufferings of Christ? There's lots of options for how you can use a fast well, but what is the real purpose?

I made my decisions after attending my first Ash Wednesday service. I took Judah and it was actually a really sweet thing to kneel while holding him at the imposition of the ashes and have him look wonderingly at the priest. The church is an Episcopalian church down the road from our current apartment and I was definitely the youngest person there - almost everyone was a good bit over middle aged. The building is stone and has high arches and old pews with kneelers and it all felt like my experiences of the high church in England. I was thankful that Judah was quiet and watched the stained glass and listened to the choral singing with wonder.

In any case, I found the liturgy really helpful in guiding me. This is what it called the congregation to:
...I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, or maker and redeemer.

So, in light of that, I see Lent as being a great many things, but is a corporate and individual practice of confessing our sin and coming back to God. It is experiencing the reality of Good Friday in some small way. So, I am instituting confession in my own life these 40 days. I've also chosen a fast, and I think the purpose of the fast is to sacrifice something in order to make space in my life and dedicate that space to seeking Him.

The Ash Wednesday service was mostly filled with corporate confession, and I've taken the liturgy home and am processing one line of the confession each day in my morning prayer and scripture reading. This was the first section:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.

We have not loved thee with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven. Lord, have mercy upon us.

Taking that and writing a prayer of confession of each element and how it plays out in my own life was really like a slap in the face. I am a person of pride, and I see myself as  good person. This is a good exercise to remember and root out the sin that entangles me that I am too often blinded to.
By the way, I love that all of this is happening as the flowers are beginning to bloom in Dallas. These flowers (below - gorgeous, right?!) are blooming right outside of our parking garage, and every day as I drive past in the morning and evening I am struck again by their beauty and how they are blooming while still surrounded by the clinging dead leaves and seed pods from the Autumn. It is vividly a picture of death and new life, and is so fitting for the arrival of Good Friday and Easter.

Anyways, it will be good to walk with the Church in these practices. Am I just an evangelical trying to feel all spiritual by joining into old practices I don't really understand? Maybe. May God work in my heart anyways as I remember His death for us.


CM said...

In those pictures, I am struck by yours and Judah's matching ashes and matching eyes; and the flowers are beautiful. I think that your question about why we give something up for Lent is a very good one. For me, I like to give up something "good" for Lent. In giving it up, it is about saying "God, this is good, but You are better. I want You more than I want this." That is what fasting is to me. It's about turning away from something good to focus on Someone better.

I'll be curious to hear your thoughts after observing Lent!

Charlotte said...

And interestingly enough, many of those raised in liturgical traditions want to leave them so that they can join more touchy/feely evangelical ones to feel "all spiritual." The grass is always greener on the other side.

Kacie said...

Very true, Charlotte, and honestly I think there will always be the pendulum swing in every generation, each person swinging away from how they grew up. That's just the way we humans work. I feel like as long as we stay within the broadly orthodox bounds of Christianity, God will have mercy on our sometimes-short-sightedness.