Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent. As such, it is usually seen as a very solemn day, a day of judgment, a day of accepting ashes as a metaphor for life. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, from dust you come and to dust you shall return. . . .”
This is very dry, one could start coughing for the dryness in the throat.
But what if we thought of this time as rich and deep, a time for exploring real stuff, soul stuff, heart stuff. What if we gave up something really real for Lent, not just television or chocolate or drinking wine or going to the movies, but something really important? What if doing so created some real happiness in our lives?
What if we gave up fear for Lent? Every time I feel fear, I will take it out and look at it and say, “Okay, I have to careful but I don’t have to avoid doing important things, things I want to do, out of fear of how someone else will react or judge me.”
Or gossip? Every time I am tempted to talk about someone else’s foibles or stupidity, I will remember to look in the mirror and see my own. Then, I have a better chance of being whole and humble and pleasant to be around.
What if we gave up stinginess for Lent? Whenever a homeless or street person asks me for help, I will give them something. I can carry change or dollar bills deliberately, maybe protein bars, too (not a substitute for financial help but a statement about being fed) in preparation for the opportunity to give away some of what God has given me. Giving creates happiness for the recipient and the giver.
What if we gave up shallow political talk for Lent? This one may be for me. I say I am really tired of “horse race journalism,” the tendency of most our media to report not on substance and issues and positions on important public questions but on who is ahead and who has the most money and who has the momentum or who just committed the latest gaffe. But I can’t seem to stop reading it–it is like gossip in that it becomes addictive. Life would be better if I ignored it entirely–I could really have some fun every day if I gave up shallowness.
I think you get the idea. Go deep for Lent, and seek out a new way of being that can bring contentment and even joy.
And it might be good to remember these words from Isaiah, who knew a thing or two about living a soulful life.
Do you think God
wants you to give up eating
and to act as humble
as a bent-over bush?
Or to dress in sackcloth
and sit in ashes?
Is this really what God wants
on a day of worship?
6 I’ll tell you
what it really means
to worship God.
Remove the chains of prisoners
who are chained unjustly.
Free those who are abused!
7 Share your food with everyone
who is hungry;
share your home
with the poor and homeless.
Give clothes to those in need;
don’t turn away your relatives.
8 Then your light will shine
like the dawning sun,
will quickly be healed.
Your honesty[b] will protect you
as you advance,
and the glory of God
will defend you from behind.
9 When you beg God for help,
God will answer, “Here I am!”
Isaiah 58:5-9 Contemporary English Version adapted
And if Isaiah’s words seem heavy to you, if you think they are just one more thing to do, one more obligation, remember this: liberating others helps to liberate us, too. And that can feel really good–not to mention that you don’t have to wear ugly clothes and sour expressions.
This is a time for self-change, a time to clear the decks for new life that is coming. Yes, I mean Easter and Pentecost and Passover and Spring and the movement of God in the world.
But do you not know that new life is always coming? God is always on the move in the world, in you, in me, through you, through me, in and through everyone.
So, have a holy Lent, but don’t let it be hard and ugly and an uphill battle. Go joyously into it, know that God already has gifts for you and that as you give up something that lightens your load you will be able to receive what new gift God has for you.
Drop that thing you are carrying that is not feeding you and open your hands and arms to receive the bounty of God.
And have a Happy Lent!