I wonder if the Christians who made the church calendar knew that some time in the mid-winter, when the joyful flurry of Christmas celebration had passed, the New Year and its resolutions were sufficiently far away, when we had just settled into the rhythm of life, that our hearts, minds and souls might need a strategic interruption. Today, I would like to invite us all to consider that this is the invitation of Lent: to be disrupted and learn what God has for us there.
Think about it: Lent is a BIG disruption.
Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is an invitation to remember our own mortality. Facing our own death is a HUGE disruption in a world where youthful beauty, health and longevity are prized above all. Why this reminder? What’s the invitation?
In one of my favorite novels, a priest and a young woman have a conversation that might help us answer the question.
“Have you considered,” she proposed after a moment of reflection, “that religion tries to explain everything with platitudes and cardboard characters trotted through simplistic morality plays??"
“Oh no”, he replied firmly. “Just the opposite. My faith proposes something more dangerous than that.”
“How so?” she replied doubtfully.
“My religion asks us to love in a fallen world, a world that is ignorant and cruel.”
“A point that could just as easily reinforce my position, don’t you think?” She said with mild disdain. “Why is the world so brutal?”
“Because mankind fears to love.”
I think there is truth in this. As people made in the image of God, the project of our lives is to receive love from God and then pour it out in love for God and people. I think deep down we want to do this and intend to do it, but all of us eventually default (often in response to knowing how limited our time is) to self-preservation.
If the ashes remind us that we (our bodies, our days on this earth) are limited, we are invited to ask ourselves how we’re spending that time and those resources to consider if we’re using them to maximize our own pleasure, comfort and power, or to live lives of generous love. As we ask ourselves these questions,
Maybe we notice that we began pursuing some pleasure or another because it was tasty or beautiful or enjoyable in its own right, but now it’s something we can’t seem to live without.
Maybe we notice that we started working extra hours because we loved our job or our classes, or wanted to fight for a good cause, but now it’s a frantic, frenzied attempt to prove our worth by our capacity to perfect, produce and perform.
Like the people to whom Isaiah 58 was written, maybe we started a spiritual routine with good intention, but now it’s something we just do to feel spiritually productive. Our spirituality has shrunk to a manageable size, but avoids bigger concerns of love, justice and mercy.
These disruptions are challenging. The questions are uncomfortable. They leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. Yet, I’ve come to see the process as a gift, because I know that WITHOUT disruption we don’t ask ourselves these critical questions, and we miss the opportunity to become the people we want to be, who live the kinds of lives we really hope to. Being forced to face our own mortality during Lent is a powerful jumpstart to this process: in Psalm 90, David asks God “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
I’ve also come to understand that the final invitation of Lent isn’t misery, or discomfort, or self-condemnation. No, the final goal is freedom- freedom to love, unencumbered by the downward pull of pride, self-preservation, self-protection and fear. Like scales for a musician or drills for an athlete, spiritual practices (intentional disruptions, if you will) train our physical, mental and spiritual muscles to move outwards in free, generous love. They force us to think about what we’re doing. Often they force us to ask for help when we find the pathway love to be painful and unnatural.
In the past few years, I’ve chosen my “disruption” by thinking backwards from how I want to grow in love:
If I want to grow in generosity, maybe I choose to eat more simply so I can donate the money I save, or decide that I’ll give every time I’m asked for money on the street.
If I want to grow in patience, maybe I decide to fast from speeding or multi-tasking.
If I want to grow in my ability to hear God, maybe build some quiet into my life by turning off the radio in the car or reducing the amount of TV I watch.
If I want to grow in love for others, maybe I fast from Facebook (which makes me jealous of how great everyone’s life is) or write a thank-you note each day or pray for people I usually criticize.
If I want to grow in my understanding of the love, grace, and compassion of God, maybe I fast from working more than 40 hours/week, or aim to get 8 hours of sleep every night, or take a weekly Sabbath. Maybe I fast from fasting this year.
In all of them, we choose self-denial not for its own sake (or to prove ourselves or look great by Easter), but because it frees us to love.
Inevitably, in our journey to learn to love, we will see with increasing clarity, our own weaknesses of heart, our constant need to receive love from God before we can pour it out. And when we do, David (whose Psalm of confession we read in this season) can be a great model for us. He wrote it after a point of major disruption in his life: the moment when his utter failure to love was laid out for him to face honestly. Talk about discomfort! But David models a remarkable response. Yes, he exposes honestly his failure to love. He takes it seriously. Yet, his prayer is not one of hopeless self-condemnation. Instead, he follows his confession with a prayer for redemption and restoration. He approaches God trusting that God knows his weaknesses, that God is surprised or deterred by them, that God is eager to make a new beginning.
Let us receive the disruption of Lent: that we are dust and shall return to dust. We are mortal. We have limited time. We need to consider how we spend it. But let us also recall that the journey through Lent ends at another cross, one that reminds us that God in his compassion moved towards us in our mortality and finitude. In Jesus, he shared our humanity; he took on our limits. He bore our grief and carried our sorrow. And yet, even in his humanity, he did not fear to love. No, every day of his life was lived receiving love from His father and giving it away. He loved us to the end. Ultimately, the invitation of Lent is to Him- His heart, His compassion, His mercy, His love poured out freely upon us.
Kasey was raised in Boston, MA and spent six years on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Baltimore, MD before coming to Regent College in the fall of 2014. When she's not studying doctrinal theology, she can be found cooking, working on her latte art, running, biking, reading, following the Red Sox and befriending people with dogs. She hopes to teach theology when she grows up, whenever that is.