Approaching Lent Holistically

Next Wednesday, the Western Christian community worldwide will cross a portal into the soulspace of Lent. Many will come to the moment in pious sobriety, weighing where they are in their spiritual adventure, naming places where progress is needed, identifying practices to strengthen and sustain them. Others will come ritually, passing by the altar to receive the sacred sign of ashes as a witness of faith and reminder of mortal frailty. Others will dismiss Ash Wednesday as an ancient, outmoded tradition. Still others will blink and miss it altogether, perhaps in the blur of having celebrated a wee bit too bountifully on Shrove Tuesday. Such has been the way since 6th-century Roman Catholics instituted a rite of ashes as the proper gateway to Lent’s season of penitence and self-denial.

Yes, this has been going on for a long, long time.

For most folks, the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is when you’re supposed to “give up something”—reducing the fast to a quasi-religious kind of New Year’s resolution, as if avoiding chocolate or loose language or the occasional adult beverage holds some kind of inherent spiritual value. Yet scripture repeatedly scorns shallow, self-serving fasts as ineffective (see Isa. 58; Jer. 14:10-12; Matt.6:16-18). Laying off curse words, Hershey bars, and Moscow mules might make you a “better person.” Or it actually might make you more difficult to be around and drown you in all sorts of egocentric behaviors, from self-congratulation to self-pity (all of which come with an unhealthy dose of self-gratification). But our “betterment” is not Lent’s endgame. Reining in desires so God’s Spirit can more fully inhabit our nature is what this season is about.

We can also go too far in another direction and overly complicate or intellectualize Lenten practice, which is its own sort of vanity. Lent isn’t about wit and intelligence. It’s emotional, calling for rawness and candor that enable our souls to be fully laid bare before God. If we get too clever—too geared up with ornate practices and smart approaches—we will have replaced Lent’s unvarnished simplicity with self-aggrandizing complexity. There’s a reason why the desert has prevailed as Lent’s metaphor: it’s where the grit of sand wears down our pride and hot blasts of wind blow away the residue of over-thinking.

So Lent is serious business. But if you’ve spent any time at all in the wilderness, you know deprivation isn’t always dismal. Beauty breaks through in unexpected ways. Joy finds you at unexpected turns. A welcome rain recharges the air with scents of sage and creosote. A spindly cactus explodes with vivid blooms. The barren ground becomes a dancehall for wildlife. The moans of sandswept wind mingle with a cool breeze to create entirely new music.

As we prepare to pass through Ash Wednesday’s portal, I pray we will go into Lent with mindful simplicity and an eager outlook for moments of refreshing. Self-denial is part of it. But awareness beyond one’s self is also essential. There is beauty all around us, even in our wilderness, because God is with us.

Please join us on Sunday March 8, at 5pm for “Desert Springs”—a special worship experience that turns our thoughts to refreshment in the wilderness. You can also join our weekly study series, “Into the Mystic” that uses the lives, experiences, and devotional practices of six Christian mystics down through the ges as guideposts for our own journeys. We meet each Thursday at 7:30pm. All of our meetings are hosted at Pilgrim Congregational Church, 460 Lake Street, Oak Park, IL. You can also join us virtually via Facebook Live.

We need your help!

As we think about the future of Gather, please let us know what gifts you bring and would like to share with the community. There are many roles that have to come together to make Gather happen every week. This includes setup, technical support, worship, managing handouts and information, coordinating drinks, and teardown. We need your help. Please let us know what type of service you’d be interested in!

Watch God Work,
Tim & Shea

As we prepare to become a vibrant worshipping community, we invite you to enjoy a Spotify playlist that captures the kind of worship we hope to embrace. Give it a spin while you’re driving. Make it your workout jam. Add it to your devotional time. Most of all, feel yourself becoming part of a sacred village of believers who love their God and one another!
Check out the Gather Worship Playlist here.