I was not raised in a church tradition that observed Lent. Our small congregation of a fundamentalist sect of the Christian faith in a small town had banned all reference to what its founders considered ‘papist’, including any mention of saints, crucifixes, and church seasons except for Christmas and Easter. The reasoning behind such proscriptions rested on the idea that good and faithful followers should always be in a state of grace, and if they were, did not need a special part of the year set aside to restore them to it. Nice idea, but it didn’t work out too well, particularly in our congregation.
By the time my folks joined it, the church had entrenched itself into the strong clutches of a prominent family who ran things. Period. At any given time, several members of these aristocrats could be found on the church board of elders, and what they said was law. What this bred was an atmosphere of judgment and sometimes suspicion, often based on rumors and innuendos that floated freely every day in the local post office, the center of news for our town. A young minister came to serve the congregation, and when he had the temerity to point out that the church’s pervading attitude went directly against the most basic teachings of the Gospel, plans were drawn up to get rid of him, and in no time at all, he was gone.
Now that I see what Lent can be for people, I cannot help but think that a period of contemplative prayer and a renewal of Christian values would have aided that congregation way back then. Without it, we all adopted the prevailing sense of superiority, wanting as we did to fit in, often manufacturing our self-importance and holier-than-thou attitudes out of nothing. We never stopped to repent (meaning to re-think) anything much because we were sure that we were in the right, following as we did the examples and influence of the ruling family.
I do not mean to bring judgment down upon that congregation of so long ago, nor upon that ruling family. For one thing, they are all dead, so we can leave it to God to decide things; I merely report what was and how what they didn’t do in terms of taking forty days to look at things more clearly, shaped all of us in those days. They became habits and ways of non-thinking that have been hard to break, even now.
When, nearly thirty years ago, Lent became a part of my life, I had to learn what to do with it. I’m still learning. What happens changes from year to year as my life needs it to, and that is one of Lent’s great gifts. It is not, as some other traditions think, a period of doing nothing, of sitting around in sackcloth and ashes and moaning our state as fallen humans. It is instead a time of action, of finding ourselves on a closer walk with God.
One possibility and source of what to might do during Lent comes from the prayer of St. Francis, which is full of action verbs:
“Lord, make us instruments of your peace,” it starts. You can read it for yourself on page 813 of the Book of Common Prayer, but I want to go to its last part to make my point. “Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. ” If we can consciously move ourselves toward accomplishing only those great tasks and get used to doing them in our daily lives, continuing them as they become habits and ways of thinking, then Lent has meant something to us, has strengthened us in our Christian life and faith, and has put us on the truer path with God.
Just above St. Francis’ prayer, you’ll find this one, a prayer of self-dedication:
“Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”