Observing Lent When the Ashes Fade

Much like New Year’s resolutions, one of the greatest challenges of Lent is follow-through. The first week (actually half a week) is pretty easy. Your resolve is fresh; a little ash still lingers on your forehead. The difficult part is faithfully observing Lent throughout the following weeks when the ashes have faded, as the pious resolve you felt on Ash Wednesday dims.

The spiritual component of Lent makes it even more difficult than a New Year’s resolution because it isn’t just about giving up unhealthy practices and adopting new ones. It is about preparing ourselves to experience the profound Mystery and Love of God in Christ Jesus afresh.

As Pastor Heather Thomas, from Imago Dei Community Church out in Portland, OR, said, we are drawn into the season of Lent by a call, an invitation to “Return to the Lord. The one who loves you and gave himself for you. Come back to him in places where your heart has grown cold or calloused. Or come to him if you have never tasted his goodness before.”

“Come back to him in places where your heart has grown cold or calloused.” It is this call that draws me into Lent each year. Growing up into Christianity, Easter itself has a staleness to it for me. Once I stopped getting Easter baskets, going on Easter egg hunts and getting a new Easter outfit, the holiday began to lose its luster. Replacing that childish wonder with adult awe has been difficult.

The wonder that God incarnate would suffer persecution and death for the salvation of humanity does not always seem that wonderful. In part because it is all I have ever known. Like how a child growing up in an extremely healthy home still finds petty things to complain about and often won’t realize how great she has it until spending time with some truly dysfunctional families.

Over the years my appreciation and understanding of God and His love displayed on the cross and in the resurrection has grown immensely. Lent has played a valuable role in this process. Still, my heart grows cold and calloused. Throughout Lent, I struggle with persistence and follow-through. During the forty days my devotion waxes and wanes so much that by the time the celebration of Easter has arrived it does not have the gravity I hope it to.

I doubt that I am alone in this. There is no easy answer or easy fix, facing temptation is a part of Lent. These forty days are meant to be similar to Jesus’s forty days and forty nights out in the wilderness, fasting and facing Satan’s temptations. Our struggles allow us to further appreciate Christ’s righteousness and become more aware of our need for God’s goodness, power and strength.

Still I long for a more robust and devote experience of Lent in which I do not let one week or one day pass in which I’m not actively observing this season. Knowing my own weakness, I have decided to devote each Mondays post for the next six weeks to Lenten reflections. In this way, you and I may begin each week during Lent reflecting upon the purpose of this season and seeking a fresh encounter with God. Hopefully throughout this season we will find our hearts expanding in readiness towards God’s demonstration of love on good Friday and promise of transformation and hope on Easter Sunday.

Yesterday, I listened to a meaningful preparatory sermon for Lent by Pastor Heather Thomas. In it, she gave a beautiful analogy of what Lent is. In one of her friend’s paintings, there is a woman looking longingly at a beautiful horizon but she is holding fast to an anchor. I imagine her knuckles are white as she grips it fiercely fearing that she’ll loose herself without it grounding her.

Thomas said, “The moment of pause and consideration in Ash Wednesday’s purpose is to ask us to take a look at what we are holding on to.” Followed by a gentle whisper,  “Let it go. Let it go. There is a horizon that is beckoning you. His love calls you…Give up that false sense of comfort. Let it go.”

Initially letting go isn’t that difficult. Sometimes it is relieving to give your hands a break from that tight grip. The challenge is continuing to walk towards the horizon instead of turning around and attaching ourselves to our old anchor. Or stopping ahead when we find another anchor to attach ourselves to.

Our Lenten tasks of devotion, our acts of abstinence or faithfulness that we’ve committed to, can even be turned into anchors if we do not allow them to help us keep our minds and hearts fixed on the horizon, on the love that is ahead in Easter. If we instead have our minds and hearts fixed on ourselves.

During these six weeks may we “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God…Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:1-2,12-13).

If you are looking for Lenten devotions this is a great resource, if you would like Daily Scriptures Readings for Lent this is a great resource.

Please, share what Lent means to you and your experiences in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Observing Lent When the Ashes Fade

  1. Beautiful post, friend! I understand what you mean when you say that Lent season (and Easter) can lose it’s luster when you’ve grown up with it your entire life. I had a renewing experience last year though:

    A few days before Easter, Scott and I watched “The Passion” (I’ve watched it a couple times now and I just can’t get past the rawness of it; the sight of blood like that makes me nauseous, perhaps one reason I don’t watch it more). But as we watched it, and cried, and reacted to it, I gained a new excitement for Easter Sunday. I couldn’t wait to be in church singing hymns, waving the palm leaves, rejoicing that Christ lives! It was an amazing experience and I felt like after watching the film a few days before Easter I was better able to partake in the excitement, better understanding what all the excitement was for.

    Sometimes I guess we just need a little reminder of what an amazing thing Jesus did for us. Even though that film has its flaws, it helped me understand his act of LOVE (I quite literally feel like I’m in a ‘wilderness’ while watching it). This year, I’m sure things will be different because we don’t have a church we’re attending right now…instead, we’ve been getting up Sundays and reading from the Bible, from Take This Bread by Sara Miles, or listening to sermons by Barbara Brown Taylor (I’m reading one of her books for Lent too). But even if this year is different I will always remember that feeling from last year, swaying in the Episcopal church, tearing up, and feeling genuinely excited and amazed. Thanks for writing about this and helping remind me of that feeling…

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