The words in the Ash Wednesday “Invitation” in the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer are often cited: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent….” I have read them every year of my ordained ministry which numbers almost 35 and before then as well. What does a holy Lent look like? Of course the Prayer book goes on to recite a list of spiritual disciplines to guide us in this observance: self-examination; repentance; prayer; fasting; self-denial; reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. Over the years I have practiced and taught each of these—even preached homilies on them, hopefully, benefitting others as well as myself. I’ve even observed and taught other spiritual disciplines as well, such as solitude, simplicity and silence, to name but a few. These have all played an instrumental role in my Christian life. Yet, frankly, I find Lent very different for me as a bishop than it was when I was a parish priest who needed to plan, teach and lead—even, God forbid—run Lenten programs. I suspect Lent for me is a bit more like what the lay members of a parish experience. So with this perspective in mind I offer these personal reflections.
This Ash Wednesday morning when I was purposely letting my soul catch up with my body and frankly inwardly troubled a bit by various pressures in my life these words from Professor J. Alec Motyer’s commentary on the prophecy of Isaiah (I know, the typical lay person in a parish wouldn’t be reading this) leapt off the page and brought my restless mind to a sudden pause.
“The Lord is more concerned with the enjoyment of his blessings through obedience to His commands than in self-imposed deprivations.”
These words came as if they were a prophetic word to my soul as I was prayerfully considering what disciplines to embrace this Lent. It wasn’t lost on me that Professor Motyer’s words were commentary on Isaiah 58 where the prophet spoke of the fast God chooses for his people: breaking the bonds of oppression, sharing bread with the hungry, caring for the homeless, clothing the naked, and nurturing one’s own family. How might this apply for us here in South Carolina? For our brothers and sisters in Christ in Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan and elsewhere around the world?
This was not the only word that resounded on this Ash Wednesday morning on this 2015th year of our Lord. There were others as well. Another was this opening paragraph from a homily by St. John Chrysostom expounding First Corinthians 1:1-3: ‘See how immediately, from the very beginning, he [Paul] casts down their pride, and dashes to the ground all their fond imagination, in that he speaks of himself as “called.” For what I have learnt, saith he, I discovered not myself, nor acquired by my own wisdom, but while I was persecuting and laying waste the Church I was called. Now here of Him that calleth is everything; of him that is called, nothing (so to speak,) but only to obey.’
Then there was this word, spoken originally to John Ortberg by Dallas Willard, and quoted in his book Soul Keeping: “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”
What do all these words read this day and resonating in my ears have to do with my observance of holy Lent? This I believe:
- If grace-filled obedience not self-imposed deprivation is the pathway to God’s blessing shouldn’t one’s Lenten discipline focus on this?
- If God’s call, not the driven life, is for each of us our apostolic mission shouldn’t that be the place out of which we live our lives and do our work and ministry?
- If we are dust and to dust we shall return (as the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy reminds us) why am I, and so many of us, in such a hurry?
Then there was this word that came like a lightning bolt across my mind illuminating my whole being: “… you think you have to be some place elsewhere or accomplish something more to find peace. But it is right here. God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are.” Once again this was a word spoken years ago by Dr. Dallas Willard to John Ortberg’s striving and spiritually dry soul; I noted these words in my journal and then wrote this confession: I repent of this, Lord. I renounce the life tape that has played within me for years that makes peace something relegated to some place “where” or some time “when” and other than here and now in You.
“Behold” writes the St. Paul in today’s epistle reading, “now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2) I suspect that for me at least each of these has something to do with getting it right for observing a holy Lent. And only by God’s grace would I dare to believe it will happen.