A holy Lent, revisited

ash_2What does it mean to keep a holy Lent?

When I was a little girl, the principle focus was on giving up something (inevitably, in my case, sweets), and putting the money I would have spent on it into my mite box, to help poor children in other lands. When the season of penitence was ended, we brought our offerings up to the altar, building a rather imposing wall from them. In our household, prayer was a given, supervised at meals and at bedtime by my mother.

As I grew older, my practice varied. There were years when I did nothing to observe Lent, and years in which I misused it as an opportunity for non-spiritual self-improvement. There were years in which I was overly obsessed with it, and years in which I was balanced in my Lenten practices. For several years in my teens, I took the gospel for the day too literally, and declined ashing. Four years ago, wrung out by chemotherapy and engaged in a healthy prayer life, I just kept doing what I’d been doing for the last months before Ash Wednesday. There was nothing more that I could add or subtract.

For the most part, however, I now strive to take things on, rather than give them up, to live in an intentional manner and to maintain it as best I can when Lent gives way to Easter joy.

This Lent finds me in a thoughtful place. The Grace Prayer Network has been essentially dormant for a while, fallout from my second cancer and other changes to my life. I’ve had some disappointments that didn’t seem suitable for sharing publicly. The original cancer returned last fall, now promoted to Stage 4. On a very mundane level, the treatments and medications consume energy, and sometimes my good intentions collapse into inertia.

Working on GPN, though, helps me to sort through things in a meaningful and spiritual way. This Lent, I’ll strive to return to that, using some of the time I’ve spent on pursuits like social media and word games for the purpose. It won’t be daily, but it will be reasonably frequent. I invite you to join me in the journey. I welcome contributions to the site, and your own thoughts on the meaning of Lent.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Sermon notes: Giving up, taking on

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

SERMON NOTES, ASH WEDNESDAY (2013, Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue)

The party’s over. It’s time to hang up the beads. Today we embark on the season of Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter.

The time span reflects the period that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, preparing for his ministry, facing and resisting temptation. The purpose of Lent may be found in the collect for the day: We ask God to give us new and contrite hearts, to help us to acknowledge our sins, to receive forgiveness for them.

That’s something we should do every day, of course. But Lent gives us a focus and a framework for accomplishing it.

This is a period of preparation for us, as followers of Christ, for the world made holier by the light of the Resurrection. In the early Church, Lent was the time when new converts were prepared to receive baptism, learning about the doctrines of the faith and what is required of believers. Through the centuries, this season has been a time to focus on prayer and penitence, on doing without and doing for others.

How do we keep a holy Lent?

When I was a child in a High Church household, it was all very straightforward. I gave up sweets, which I loved – I mourned whenever Valentine’s Day arrived after Ash Wednesday – and my favorite television show. I put money – the pennies, nickels, and dimes which still had some value then – in my mite box, to help poor children. I tried to do my chores more cheerfully, and without being reminded. I said my prayers. On Fridays, I ate fish sticks.

In later years, it got more complicated.

There were years when I gave up chocolate. There were years when I treated Lent as a sanctified diet aid. There were years when I did nothing at all to observe the season.

In all of that I had plenty of company. There’s a tendency among some modern American Christians to observe Ash Wednesday as a sacred New Year’s, to focus on personal self-improvement instead of the spiritual: to give up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks because giving up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks is good for us physically.

It is a sacrifice to give up things we enjoy, whatever they are, but sometimes we don’t look beyond a few obvious suspects. It might be more useful to examine some of the other things in our lives, and consider the importance they hold for us. Sometimes we may find that those things have become little gods for us, and that we are worshipping at other altars.

It’s a good thing to exercise; it’s not so good to obsess about it and run roughshod over family life. It’s a good thing to connect with friends; it’s not so good to spend whole evenings on Facebook, or to check the Twitter feed every few minutes. It’s fun to play video games, but not to the point that they make us cranky and obsessive. It’s fun to play Words with Friends, but this Lent I’m going to play just a couple of times each day, instead of grabbing the phone every time my day slows down.

At least as important as giving something up is to take something on. We can check the daily meditation from “Forward Day by Day” every morning, or be conscientious about reading Morning and Evening Prayer. We can walk a labyrinth, or join a Bible study. We can work to increase our giving of time, talent and treasure, both at church and in the community. We can take on something new, as well as give up something familiar.

There’s another important point to keep in mind, and that’s the one that Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading from Matthew: Don’t make a big deal about it. At a restaurant with friends, don’t announce, “Oh, I’ve given that up for Lent” when the wine list or the dessert menu comes around. It’s human nature to want to get credit for our sacrifices, but, as Jesus notes, the announcement itself then becomes our reward. Just smile and quietly decline. Even if you’re suffering withdrawal symptoms, don’t say anything. Keep them guessing.

Practicing our chosen Lenten disciplines is a form of spiritual exercise, and the point of the exercise is to bring us closer to God. The ways in which we observe a holy Lent have changed over the centuries, but not the reasons that we do it. Like the earliest Christians, our aim is preparation to lead new lives in Christ Jesus.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Ashes to ashes…

This year’s Shrove Tuesday pancakes – served as usual by the current crop of eighth grade confirmands in the parish hall – were quite possibly the best ever.

We arrived late and found a companionable table;  the gaudy Mardi Gras decorations were taken down around us before we’d finished eating.

The parties are over now; it’s time to sober up, literally and figuratively. Today, we enter the season of Lent, a time for introspection and a little healthy self-denial.

To ash or not to ash is an eternal question. Some quote Jesus on hypocrites who run around in sack-cloth and ashes; others find it a useful symbol of our sinful natures, and one with a lot of backing in Scripture.

If nothing else, it is a very public testimony of religious allegiance, if not, in every case, faith: a reminder to all who see the wearer that this is a holy day. The sometimes startled reactions of colleagues and strangers reminds us, in turn, that we are wearing a declaration of belief on our foreheads.

In the coming weeks, we’ll have ample opportunities to consider just what Lent is and what it means. What it is not, though, is a time for self-improvement justified by a veneer of holiness: the idea is not to give up chocolate or Scotch with a hope of losing weight or cutting down on our booze intake.

The idea, rather, is to consider what Our Lord gave up for us. Taking on obligations – of prayer, of sacrifice, of helping others – may be more helpful to us spiritually than giving up the superficial. The cross worn smeared on the forehead is rightly an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, a sign of true intent toward repentance and reformation of life.

– sbm