“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Psalm 139:23-24 NRSV
Back on February 2, Punxsutawney Phil (the famous groundhog from Pennsylvania) emerged from his stump and, with a bit of assistance, was able to “see his shadow” which meant another six weeks of winter. The weather has certainly been typical of Eastern North Carolina this winter. Cold and snowy one day and teases of spring the next. To say I am ready for spring may be an understatement and not only because of warmer temperatures, but also because things start to “come to life.” As the calendar turns to March, we are reminded that in just a few weeks the astronomical spring will begin on March 20. We have no idea what the weather will be like on that day, but it does encourage us that something new is about to take place.
The arrival of March means not only the beginning of spring, but also the beginning of our preparations for Easter. The stores are already in the process of preparing us for Easter with their offerings of plastic baskets, chocolate eggs, and stuffed bunnies to greet us along the aisles. As cute and tasty as these treats are this time of the year, they are honestly insufficient. Insufficient? What could be better than sugar and surprises? I am not trying to put a damper on Easter baskets, hunts, and the like, but I am calling into question what is necessary for proper preparations for Easter. The key word being “proper.”
With Ash Wednesday on March 2, we will embark upon a journey toward Easter Sunday and the resurrection of Christ. This journey has come to be known within the Christian tradition as “Lent” which is taken from an Old English word referring to the “lengthening of days.” As daylight saving time begins on March 13 and spring the following Sunday, we will notice the amount of daylight lengthen as we move toward summer. Dutch and German traditions have associated the word with “springtime” due to the season occurring during this time of the year. Regardless of the tradition followed, Lent is a six-week process which helps us prepare for the events of Holy Week and, ultimately, Easter.
Now what do I mean by “preparing?” If the coming weeks are not to make plans for April 17, then what are they to accomplish? Lent invites us to think about things which are not exactly easy: things such as sin, our humanity, and the shortness of life. Such topics force quite a bit of introspection because we have to move beyond the pleasantries of life and consider that which is uncommon and uncomfortable. As pleasant as our lives can be under many circumstances and in spite of our ability to mask over our struggles, there are underlying issues at work within each of us. We can call such issues by many names, but the reality is they represent our fallen human nature. Even as a people who have “been saved” and attend church faithfully, we can continue to harbor certain habits, attitudes, and practices which are characteristic of our sin nature.
Much of the attention of the Lenten season is focused upon the spiritual discipline of fasting. People will usually choose something to give up voluntarily for the duration of the six weeks (which does not include Sundays). Sundays offer an opportunity to break the fast, but many individuals choose to forgo the breaks in order to maintain their discipline. Such fasts may include any number of things and there are some who, rather than giving something up for Lent, will add a practice to help them draw closer to God. While somewhat challenging and to be commended, many of these fasts are simply for the weeks of Lent. Once the time passes, those things which have been abstained from are resumed once again. This form of Lenten fasting is by no means wrong, but in many cases does lend itself to the same pattern year after year.
This year, I would like to challenge each of us to a different kind of fasting. Of course, we can continue our other practices as planned, but maybe we need to consider working on something deeper. By this, I am suggesting that we do some deep soul searching and consider what needs to be abstained from and not resumed once the weeks of Lent have concluded. It is perfectly acceptable to pick up a chocolate bar or soft drink at the end of Lent and, unless such things are a struggle for health reasons, we will not experience any significant effects. However, what about those vices, attitudes, etc. which we hold within which are detrimental to our spiritual health and need to be surrendered?
During the Sundays of Lent, I will be preaching a series of messages focused upon “Giving Up.” Now that may not seem like the most encouraging advice, but, in this instance, it is completely understandable. Lent may be a starting point for transformation in each of our lives, but it should only be a beginning. Rather than making short-lived changes, we should look for those things which can lead to long-term spiritual health. Catherine Doherty has stated, “Lent is a time of going very deeply into ourselves… What is it that stands between us and God? Between us and our brothers and sisters? Between us and life, the life of the Spirit? Whatever it is, let us relentlessly tear it out, without a moment’s hesitation.” God does not want us to leave certain practices in our lives just to go on looking past them. Avoiding our deeper issues does not cause them to go away and, the longer we retain them, the more destructive they can be to us. I hope we will be prayerful and intentional as we prepare for Lent. May it not be a season of giving up for the sake of picking back up, but may we begin the process of surrender in order that our lives might be changed forever.
Together in the Lenten Journey,
The Reverend Kelley Smart