Welcome to Lent – March 2014

Every year, by tradition, we read one of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness as we begin the season of Lent. Jesus heads into the wilderness, led by the Holy Spirit, to be tested and tempted by the devil. We go with him. Which doesn’t sound like much of a blessing to me on first take. But the word Lent literally means Spring, and with practice, I’ve actually come to look forward to Lent.

I remember a visit to Prince Edward Island several decades ago. While driving the back roads I noticed a woolen products factory with a sign offering blankets for sale. Going in for a look, I was greeted by a man, who offered an informal tour of the factory. The place was old, the power looms were ancient. “It’s all running well,” he said. “Every year we shut down production for a month. We take every piece of machinery apart for inspection and greasing, and repairing as necessary. We can’t get parts anymore for this equipment,” he said, “so we really have to take very good care of it.” But setting aside a month to take apart and put back together the equipment – fixing things before they break – the looms kept running, year after year, making warm, beautiful blankets and employing local people.

This is one of the ways I visualize Lent. Not to apply the metaphor to excess – Lent’s not about us taking ourselves apart and putting ourselves back together. Lent’s not a self-help program. Lent’s a getting-help-program. But Lent is especially about slowing down – even stopping altogether – long enough, consciously enough to make time enough to open ourselves up for God to inspect, tune-up, repair, and put back together again; better than we were.

Modern machinery can usually be fixed or replaced speedily. People take longer. Our parts, like those at the woolen factory, are often hard to replace. And even when we can replace a knee or hip with a manufactured part, our bodies need weeks of rest to make it all work properly. This too, of course, is a metaphor.  No one comes close to getting it all together once and for all in the short span of Lent’s 40 days (six and a half weeks, with each Sunday in Lent counted as a “little-Easter,” exempt from traditional Lenten practices). We’re not going to be all-new people even by doing our very best and most intentional Lent. But Lent is enough time to make a noticeable difference. Lenten practice works, when we make the appropriate leaps of faith, slow down, and make time to let God work in us before we hit our breaking points.

The season of Lent is modeled loosely on Jesus’ time in the wilderness – a time for reflection, prayer, fasting or abstaining from distractions (not necessarily even from foods, but definitely from anything that distracts us from God). By tradition we also emphasize giving and forgiving. But Lent’s not a technical fix, and many other spiritual practices can also work. (There’s no substitute for prayer for discerning God’s intentions for each of us.)

I’ve come to think of Lenten practices as a tool kit of Best Spiritual Practices, which, used regularly, keep us growing in God’s grace, better able to stay focused, even calm – when the inevitable trials, temptations and testings of life are coming at us.

We learn by watching and following Jesus. Jesus withstands all the temptations offered by the devil – all of which are about “success” without sacrifice (see Matthew 4, Mark 1, Luke 4). As Henri Nouwen points out in his book In the Name of Jesus,  the temptations of Jesus come in the form of invitations to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful.  Elsewhere Jesus is tempted (as are we, usually in different ways) to use divine power to avoid human struggle and suffering. Jesus is offered economic temptation (turn rocks into bread); religious temptation (leap from the temple and let angels catch you); and political temptation (worship the devil and the world will be all yours). Jesus immediately says no to all the temptations. For most of the rest of us, the temptations are probably usually more subtle – and resistance takes more practice. All of us face daily temptations to do the quicker, less difficult, more “efficient” thing – instead of the most loving, faithful, and enduring thing.

Like Spring training for baseball players, Lent can be a workout. But once we get into it, it feels good. All the classic spiritual practices are helpful and necessary, yet the point is always getting closer to Jesus. Lent is actually less about giving up than about taking up practices that draw us closer to God… Especially making time to be aware of God’s presence, God’s love.

The more we check in with God, the more we notice God checking on us. The more we turn to Jesus, the more we find abundant life. Following Jesus more closely brings us face-to-face with the pain, sufferings and sorrows of the world. Following Jesus becomes more doable with the help of the traditional lenten practices – prayer, and abstinence from what distracts us from God, and giving of ourselves. The closer we get to Jesus,  the deeper our connection with the heart of Christian faith….

May your Lent be filled with the promise of Easter, and may God’s abundant grace and peace bless you always….

Pastor Tim