Dear St. Paul’s family,
One Ash Wednesday in seminary, one of our professors preached a pretty strong sermon. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it focused on fasting and self-deprivation as a path to drawing nearer to God. Soon after, another professor preached a sermon on how Lent need not be so hard—that fasting was overrated and even potentially harmful; and that for many it might be hard to draw near to God if using harsh means.
At a conference I recently attended, a well-known bishop of the church talked about how “the God of love is so compassionate we should not dare to waste our Lent trying to draw near to this God by doing things like giving up chocolate.” I agree. Shortly after, our Presiding Bishop called us all to a season of fasting this Lent, fasting for our nation. I also agree!
Lent, according to the exhortation in our current prayer book, is “a time of self-examination and repentance”: a time for “prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditation on God’s holy Word.” Repentance and self-examination. Repentance simply means a change of heart. So what kind of self-examination brings about a change of heart?
In my own spiritual life, I easily fall into patterns of self-denial. I easily self-criticize, believe I am not capable, and question my worth. I suspect I am not alone in that. In these times of my life, self-denial does not result in a change of heart, but reaffirms the lie that my false self tells me constantly: that God is far away and doesn’t care. For Lent to be holy in these seasons, I need affirmation, compassion, and self-acceptance to truly comprehend the gift of the love offered from our creator. For that reason, I do not usually choose fasting as a Lenten seasonal practice, but instead I choose to fast from self-denial and focus instead on practices of resilience, gratitude, and thanksgiving. I find that these are practices that open me to the one who offers grace unconditionally to all of us, the practices that turn me once again towards the God of love and allows me to realize I am beloved, as we all are.
There are also seasons in my life where I am aware that I am in a different place; where I feel privilege, arrogance, ego. In these seasons, I have had occasion to use Lent as an opportunity to let go of attachments that keep me preoccupied with things that make me forget my dependence on God or blind me to how I hurt others. Chocolate has never been one of those things for me! I don’t doubt that some people find God anew in giving up chocolate for Lent, but I am not one of them.
Where do you yearn for a deeper place for God in your life this Lenten season? There is not any one-size fits all answer. How can you invite God to meet you based on the season of life you are currently experiencing? I invite you to consider it, and open yourself to it, and let yourself be turned in a new direction to face the one who loves you deeply.
The Rev. Canon Jeff Martinhauk