Ash Wednesday: Welcome to Lent

Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday

Last Sunday Elizabeth talked about the legendary preaching professor at the Candler School of Theology, Fred Craddock. She said that he often advised using the form of the text to find your way in to the form of your sermon. If it’s a letter, preach a sermon in the form of a letter, if it’s written in poetry, preach in poem form, etc. So here we are with a text from Matthew all about praying and fasting in private and not showing off your spiritual disciplines in public. Do you know what I’m going to do? That’s right, I’m going to stand here tonight and talk to you about spiritual disciplines in Lent, particularly, my own experience with fasting this past year!

In a small measure of self-defense, might I add that Elizabeth made me do it?

It’s true. She did ask me to specifically tell you about that, and – against Craddock’s and Jesus’ advice – I will.

Last summer I took an “email fast” for one month. I put an explanatory “away message” on my email and an “away” status on my Facebook page and I encouraged people to call or come by in person to talk. Then I waited.

At first I loved the giddy sense of freedom from checking and responding to email. Then I began to wonder who was writing me and what was piling up in my inbox. There were a few times I was tempted to look and more times when I really wanted to dash off an email because it would have been quicker – and more convenient for me – to send something off and then move on to a new task, rather than taking the time to speak with someone on the phone.

One of the biggest surprises to me was how much more I got done in a day without email. Before the fast, I used to check email first thing into the office. Without that ritual during my fast, I set different priorities for my day – I actually set the priorities rather than merely responding immediately to assumed priorities simply because they showed up that morning on email.

Since then, I have tried to keep some of the spirit of the fast. My days off are non-email days and for a long while after the fast, I made a real effort to check email only twice a day, opening the program just to check and send messages, then closing it again to move onto other work and other priorities. This is something that has slid in recent months and I hope to revive it and to do another fast after this semester.

There is more that I could say about that fast and what I learned, but I think that’s enough for now. It’s more than I would have shared and more than Jesus and Fred Craddock would advise. But I think Elizabeth wanted me to reveal some about it because it struck her as a new way into spiritual disciplines and a very real, daily practice to disrupt our regular rhythms.

Tonight marks the first in a series of sermons I’m preaching with the Wesley Foundation students on spiritual disciplines. I won’t be suggesting a “top 5” of all-time Christian disciplines or urging any one practice over another. If anything, I hope my own fasting story will encourage you to get creative, to choose something that speaks to your life. I am encouraging us all to engage God more intentionally than we have before.

I hope we’ll all disrupt our regular rhythms this Lent and I want to share with you a remarkable theological insight offered up during our Sunday Night Worship last Sunday. A new tradition this year for us at the Wesley Foundation is to sing and explore a “hymn of the month,” one written by Charles Wesley. This month’s hymn is “Come Let Us Sweetly Join” (#699 in the hymnal).

Geoffrey Philabaum commented before we sang this past week, taking note of the fourth verse: “Sanctify us, Lord, and bless, breathe thy Spirit, give thy peace; thou thyself within us move, make our feast a feast of love.” Geoffrey mentioned the feast of Holy Communion we were about to partake in that night but he also connected that lyric to the Lenten journey we’re about to embark upon. He suggested that in opening up our hearts and our lives more fully to God we are “making a feast of ourselves for God.” What great theology! What a fantastic image as we begin Lent: our interior spiritual work amounts to making a feast of ourselves for God.

One way Christians have spoken about Lenten practices is to speak of “giving up” something for Lent. For the 40 days of Lent, people sacrifice something to which they have grown accustomed: chocolate, television, alcohol, sleeping in on Sunday… In more recent years I have also heard folks begin to use the language of “taking on” something for Lent. One might choose to begin a practice of daily prayer or become a weekly volunteer or start an exercise program or read on chapter of the Bible each day. At the heart of it, all of these practices are meant to bring us into closer contact with God and close alignment with how God is calling us to live.

As Christians, we understand that chocolate, for example, is not the enemy (far from it!). We understand that though we can find God in the strangest and most unexpected places, sometimes we are more open to finding God when we get out of our comfort zones. When I reach for the chocolate I gave up during Lent, I am reminded that my life is centered around and grounded in something more than what I want for myself. Confronted each day during Lent by the things we miss or the new things we are taking on it our lives, we are reminded more often and in new ways that every daily act or omission tells a story about our true priorities and our deepest faith.

This year I am hoping you might consider with me a new way to talk about and conceive of our Lenten journey. The language of “giving up” and “taking on” can be very helpful but it can also lead us into thinking that we are the primary actors, that we are the ones “accomplishing” something in the season of Lent. I – who have such remarkable willpower – have chosen to give up chocolate for 40 whole days! I – who already have the busiest schedule of anyone I know – have chosen to add yet one more thing, for God. Whether we ever make such outlandish statements or not, we can get so focused on the “rules” and the “accomplishments” of Lenten sacrifice that we stop allowing the sacrifices to actually work on us and in us. It can be tempting to think of our spiritual life as something that we are doing and creating ourselves rather than as something we are yielding to as God makes it happen within us.

So this year I am asking you to try thinking of your Lenten practice as yielding.
A few years back a friend of mine became a mother for the first time. On a rare visit together when her son was sleeping, we sat in her sunny home office and talked about the paths we’d been traveling that year. My friend spoke in familiar ways about motherhood, saying that it was rewarding and tiring and all the things you’ve heard before. What stayed with me was that, for her, it was a spiritual struggle, too, and she said that she had been learning to yield. She realized that parts of her struggled with the role of mother but she also realized that she was living out her calling in that new and unexpected way and that her spiritual work was in learning to give way within herself to what God was showing her and doing in her through motherhood.

There is wisdom in knowing how to yield. There is wisdom in being able to give way to God and go with the flow of the Spirit.

I’ve been reading Sarah Parsons’ A Clearing Season: Reflections for Lent, in which she describes our Lenten task as clearing a space in the wilderness. Parsons describes Lent as a “spring cleaning” for the soul and the ideal season for creating a small clearing in our own wilderness. Through engaging in a spiritual discipline for the season, we can clear away the brambles and the underbrush and make room for God. This image of space opening up appeals to me and, I suspect, to most of us in this overly-busy culture. Often we are more intimate with the “brambles” in our lives than we are with intentionally creating space for something unknown and unplanned to happen.

That’s where the yielding comes in. Practicing a spiritual discipline is like clearing away the brambles. But the practice is not the end goal. It’s the way to make space for deeper engagement with God. The practice can be very hard work but for many of us the harder part is to sit in the clearing and wait on God. In that sense, the practice is the easy part: having a job or a goal (like worship, solitude, fasting, or service) gives us something to do. We can see the area in need of light and air and we set out to make a clearing. But once the clearing emerges from the wilderness anything can happen – and at that point we are called to yield to it. At that point, we stop our own striving and let God’s work begin. At that point we have made a feast of ourselves for God.

Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.. For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6: 19-21).

These are the questions for Lent: Where have you stored your treasure? Where does your heart reside? What sort of feast are you making for God? Come any way that you know.

Thanks be to God!

© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis