I was invited as a guest speaker at Foley UMC's Community Lenten Lunch program this week. Below you will find my reflection on Lent through the beauty of our Ash Wednesday Collect.
Would you pray with me please.
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.
It is with this prayer that Anglicans around the world have been invited into a Holy Lent since Thomas Cranmer's first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. In my opinion, it is an absolute miracle that this prayer has survived and is still in use in 2011. To have such a prayer offered these days is most certainly bad PR for God. It uses that awful “S” word, sin. It dares to look down upon humanity as wretched. It seeks out God's forgiveness. These are not the things of highly enlightened, 21st century, American Christians. Our prayers sound more like, “God, I'm gonna go ahead and do this, so you should probably bless it now. Amen.” Common sense says Lent and all the icky language that goes along with it is bad for the Church.
But for some reason, this season, Lent, continues to intrigue us. Conventional wisdom says Lent is dark and sad and ugly and should at all costs be avoided in the name of seeker sensitivity. And yet. And yet, every morning I read the blog of a guy named Jay Wilson, part-time monk. Jay is keeping the traditional fast of the Paulaner Monks by consuming only water and liquid bread, a specially designed dobble-bock beer for the entire season of Lent. He is not your traditional lenten-fast-type. Jay is a beer lover and a historian. He has dabbled in the Christian life, but as far as I can tell, never been one to jump into life in Christ head first. He is walking his lenten journey, very intentionally, with the help of a Presbyterian Minister who is helping him see where God is in the midst of the whole thing: from dehydration and high potassium levels to media inquiries to his work and life with a wife and a couple of kids. Jay's sometimes irreverent insights into finding God in the midst of the absurdities of everyday life are delightful.
Then there is the story of Nate McKay. Nate grew up in a Christian home, but in the back of a bus at the age of 19 he first confessed his disbelief in God. No longer could he handle the tension of what his faith community taught and what the world around him looked like. And so, in 2008 he began his journey as an atheist. This year, however, Nate has taken on Christianity for Lent. He's praying again, reading scripture again, and is finding that somewhere between the Christianity of his childhood and the atheism of his early adulthood there is something beautiful and amazing happening.
Clearly there is something to this Lent thing, some reason that brew-heads and atheists of Christian upbringing are drawn to it. Something that has kept the Church calling her people to keep a holy lent for centuries. I think it is in part summed up in the way Cranmer's great invitation into this season effects our psychology. The 24 hour news cycle is built on the fact that our brains crave bad news. We eat it up. And so, when we hear this prayer we hear those key buzz words: “lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness” but we miss the beautiful declaration of the very nature of God that begins the prayer. God hates nothing that he has made. Let me repeat that because I know that some of you don't believe it. God hates nothing that he has made. He doesn't hate Jay for drinking nothing but beer and water for Lent. He doesn't hate Nate for walking away from him four years ago. He doesn't hate the people of Japan or Haiti or New Orleans. He doesn't hate Muslims, Jews, or Jehovah's Witnesses. And he doesn't hate you, no matter what you may have done or left undone. As our Ash Wednesday Service goes on to say, “God does not desire the death of sinners, but that they turn from their sin and live.”
God's desire is not to see us suffer, but to see us live life abundantly. The song that Lynn sang for us this afternoon sums this need or whole life repentance up so beautifully when in the second verse it says, “We are the broken, you are the healer; Jesus redeemer, mighty to save.” That song, “Be Unto Your Name,” was written by Lynn DeShazo of Birmingham, Alabama. In her 2010 book, More Precious than Silver: the stories behind the songs, Lynn talks about how powerful that line was for her personally. “I agreed with all the Scriptures like Romans 3.23 (for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God), which meant that I, too, was a sinner. Who'd be dumb enough to argue with God about that matter? But it's only been in recent years that I've come to understand how great a capacity I have for sin or, consequently, how much woundedness was in my own soul. I have to tell you that as disturbing as it was to discover such things about myself, it is both a blessing and the mercy of God. I simply could not come to repentance and healing for my sinful and broken condition as long as I was blind to it.”
That's what this season of Lent is all about. Not a season of darkness, but, as the old English word Lent suggests, a season of increasing brightness. As we take the time to honestly look at our lives, and allow God's light to shine in the darkest recesses of our souls, we find that God is not angry and smiteful, but ready and waiting, with open arms, to forgive and restore. Lent is a time when the stark reality of our brokenness leads us not into the pit of despair, but rather into the brightness of God's amazing gift of love and mercy. As we journey through Lent we ask God to remove our sinfulness and wretchedness and replace it with forgiveness and thanksgiving. That transition is possible only because of the merits and mediation of Jesus and his perfect love offering on the cross. “Holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Worthy is the Lamb Who was slain! Highest praises, honor and glory, be unto your name.”
As we gather this afternoon, a day shy of the mid-point of our Lenten journey, it is important to remember where we've come from. Ash Wednesday reminded us of our mortality, our sinfulness, our messiness. Ash Wednesday is our darkest night. Every day we walk the way of the Cross with Jesus, the light of Christ grows a little bit brighter in our lives. Every day we find ourselves a little bit freer, a little bit lighter, a little bit more able to love and be loved. May this season be for you one of growth until the bright shining light of Jesus Christ shines into the whole world. Amen.