Don Follis: Lent is all about seeking God with intentionality
A week before Lent someone asked me, "What are you giving up for Lent?" Lent often gets reduced to that question. It's an all right question, but usually it makes me think, "Hmm. I need to give something up. Well, maybe chocolate, my much loved jelly beans or, heaven forbid, my morning coffee."
But in fact Lent's purposes go much deeper. For centuries the Christian Church has set apart the six weeks prior Easter for the faithful to slow down, take a deep look inside, and then be as honest with God and themselves as possible.
Writer Ruth Haley Barton says the real question of Lent is "How will I repent and return to God with all my heart?" To me that begs even deeper questions: "Where in my life have I gotten away from God and what disciplines will enable to find my way back?"
Lent powerfully started for me when I attended an evening Ash Wednesday service at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Champaign. And though I have been considering these questions as I have slowly read Lenten Scriptures each day since Lent began on March 5, when I stepped to the front of the sanctuary to receive the ashes on my forehead, I was strongly aware of both God's presence and my own mortality.
The pastor, arrayed in his clerical robe, said to me in a quiet voice, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." He paused, looked directly at me and continued, "From dust you came and to dust you shall return. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust."
With his left hand he grabbed a small clay bowl containing ashes. After dipping his right index finger into the ashes, he made the sign of the cross on my forehead, saying, "In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
He paused and asked, "Is there anything for which you need prayer?"
"Yes," I answered, "I want to be more pure in heart."
Without closing his eyes or bowing his head, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, fill this man with your Spirit. Have mercy on him. With your help and guidance give him a pure heart to know you more during this season of Lent."
I smiled at the pastor and slowly walked back to the pew in the middle of the sanctuary where I had been seated. Sitting in silence, I thought of how in receiving those ashes on my forehead I had thereby acknowledged my own human finiteness and mortality — my own and of those seated around me.
"No matter who we think we are," I thought, "we are at this moment being reminded that, 'You are dust and to dust you will return.'" Those thoughts did not feel morbid in the least. Rather, I believe they came as a way for me to limit my own grandiosity and to help me stay in touch with the real human condition that all humankind shares. We are all, well, mortals.
So many people, me included, live in so much denial. But in that downtown Champaign church sanctuary on Ash Wednesday I willingly received, along with millions of faithful around the world, the "imposition of ashes." Writer Barton says receiving the ashes is "a graphic reminder of our sinfulness, an outward sign of inward repentance and mourning as we become aware of our sin."
Left to myself, I probably would not choose to devote 6 weeks to pondering my own weaknesses, my own sinfulness, my own mortality, and the fact that I and the whole of humanity will one day die.
But then, the very purpose of engaging in Lenten Bible reflections is to help us become more finely attuned to not only our mortality, but also to our longing for God so we can seek him with all our hearts. Thus, writer Barton again contends that "Disciplines of fasting and other kinds of abstinence help us to face the hold that our sin patterns have on us so we can somehow let go of our attachment to anything that is not God. As we wrestle with a more realistic awareness of the grip our attachments have on us, we enter into the godly grief that leads to repentance, and then forgiveness and freedom."
This is not easy. In fact, during these weeks leading up to Easter, just as the Devil tempted Jesus in the desert, we too, will very likely experience the evil one's proficiency at crafting subtle appeals to save ourselves through our own human strategies rather than trusting God for what we truly need — more of him and less of us.
I hope that for these few weeks of Lent we can resist making this grand enterprise all about us. But that only will happen if we keep our eyes wide open and allow ourselves to honestly ask Lent's most vital questions: Where are we tempted, with the gifts God has given us, to turn stones into bread, thus securing" our own survival? Where are the places in our lives that we feel most distant from God? Where are we most distracted from intentionally cultivating our relationship with God? Where, even today, will we invite God to search us and know us and lead us into the way of true, everlasting life?
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.