More of God

Lent is upon us - the ancient liturgical season that in this hemisphere coincides with autumn. The weather is unpredictable, the veges are going to seed, summer's roses are gone and the trees and shrubs are turning a duller shade. All around us creation is beginning to die, as nature pares down to the essentials.  Some gardeners plant bulbs, hoping for new life to come.

For the church, this is also a time to pause. The traditional Lenten practices are penitence, fasting, self-denial, conversion, spiritual growth,  and simplicity.  We first hear of Lent in the early church, as a fast for those who were to be baptised on Easter Sunday. The number of days set aside for fasting varied according to region, but by the fourth century the number was fixed at forty, probably influenced by the Biblical fasts of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. 

In the Western Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and occurs 46 days (40 not counting Sundays) before Easter. So it falls on a different date between February and March each year, depending on the date of Easter. The Lenten season begins with the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful, as a sign of repentance. Palm Crosses from the previous year's Palm Sunday service are burned, and the ashes are mixed with oil. This paste is used to make the sign of the cross on the foreheads. This ritual begins the six week journey of self-reflection, now celebrated all over the world.

So its a couple of weeks now since Ric and I attended the Ash Wednesday service with local Anglicans and received the traditional sign of Imposition of Ashes. After reading together the words of repentance in Psalm 51, we went forward to the altar rail in the beautiful little Selwyn church in Howick, and were marked with the sign of the cross in dark ashes to remind us "... you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3: 19). I found it very moving, especially since we went straight into Communion, to affirm that the frailty and sin the ashes symbolised has been convincingly dealt with in the work of Christ. 

Although the cruciform smudge on my forehead was hidden under my fringe, I was too self-conscious to leave it any longer than lunchtime. And in any case our reading that day was a reminder that God is not impressed by showy spirituality:
 And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6: 16 - 18)

What a contrast with a colleague of my husband, long dead, but in his day an ardent Roman Catholic, who proudly wore his ashes sign for weeks without washing. Actually that's not fair to say 'proudly' because only God knows the heart. But Neville  certainly wanted to proclaim publicly that he was faithful in keeping Lent. As I wore my sign that day, albeit a little proudly because I wanted to use the theme for our staff devotions that day, I was mindful of Jesus' words to his friends in the Upper Room as he washed feet, broke bread, and warned of his coming betrayal:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13; 34, 35)

So the sign of our discipleship is not an ashen cross, worn on our skin, but an otherly love, expressed in our daily actions and attitudes. Jesus defined this love as reflecting his own love of us, best expressed in that cross-shaped sacrifice that was to come at the end of that Holy Week. I think that love is what God has in mind as he calls us to this season of self denial, not just to remove something from our day as a Lenten fast, but to add more of God. In the 2012 Lenten Journal I have put together for our congregation, I have two favourite quotes, one from teacher, theologian and songwriter Maggi Dawn, whose book on Lent - Giving it Up - just arrived in my mailbox this week.
Lent is a call to turn away decisively from what keeps us from God, alienates us from other people and stops us living well. (Giving it Up, Maggi Dawn )
and the other is from another singer-songwriter, Darlene  Zschech, who offers this simple but profound challenge:
God wants to change us by his grace into a family who can love like he loves. (The Art of Mentoring, Darlene Zschech

I thought of both these quotes during our service on Sunday which was part of  a Lenten series on Salvation. After three individual testimonies on "What Salvation means to Me", our pastor reflected on the verse in Philippians 2 about "working out our own salvation with fear and trembling." As he described its meaning, as being more about "practical out-working" than mental "working out" - the New Living Version says "show the results of your salvation" - I thought of a bizarre illustration. Recalling people I know who, because of their dietary preferences, ooze the smell of garlic from every pore,  I wondered if God could be outworked in my life so that I ooze his love out of every pore. And that became my prayer.

So this Lent for me is  not just a season of Lenten readings (I was using Tom Wright, but something has gone offline at Monvee) prayer, selfawareness, and companionship with others on the journey - though it is all those - but also a time for inviting the Christ to share my daily life, with all its burdens and blessings, in a fresher and deeper and more loving way. If all of us endeavour to do that, then perhaps in this  Autumn Down Under we can "plant some bulbs together, praying that through our celebration of Lent, new life may spring up in our community and throughout the world." (Bosco Peters). 

To Chew Over: How is God calling you to "add more of him" this Lenten season?

Prayer Poem: The Frown
It made me uneasy, that look on his face,
feeling I’d done something wrong, somehow displeased him.
But I’d misunderstood entirely, 
his frown one of concentration rather than anger, 
and my discomfort in his presence altogether misplaced.

Too easily Lord, and at this season in particular,
 I picture you with a frown on your face—stern, forbidding, angry—
as though you are permanently displeased at my behaviour,
ready to step in and condemn.
 Remind that the reality is so very different
your nature always to have mercy, to forgive love and accept.
Help me then,  during Lent and always,
 to celebrate your love that smiles on me. Amen.
from Nick Fawcett ‘s  ‘Touching the Seasons.”