As I realized Ash Wednesday was approaching, I wondered what sort of spiritual discipline I wanted to take on during this season. I always like Lent because it is a distinct 6 weeks set apart for deeper reflection and relationship with God. At church we would have devotionals that people could use daily, sometimes we would pray n the sanctuary together every day, and then there is the fasting to remind us of the season and the sacrifice of Christ. It all begins today and I was always leading worship and offering the imposition of ashes for any who wanted.
But this year, I am not a pastor of a church and because of a long planned dinner with friends, I may not even receive the smudge of ashes today. And on the other hand, because of retirement I have this gift of time to enter into the season of Lent with more time for prayer, meditation, reading and even writing like this. I thought about trying something online - an e course or daily reflection, but it was not speaking to me. So, instead I think I will go back to the basics during this season and start the day with the daily lectionary and the scriptures that are offered.
And so, this morning I read through and even looked at some commentaries on the Ash Wednesday passages from Joel 2, Psalm 51, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:6; and Mathew 6. And trust that intentional time spent with God's word during these weeks ahead will make help me in my spiritual growth during this season.
What struck me this morning was the "both and" of this walk of faith. It started with reading Joel and his description of God - the day of the Lord is coming, darkness and gloom, let the inhabitants tremble. There is sense of danger and repent or else. But it is also a sense of God's eminence, power, authority, strength. And then what seems to be the other part of who God is: "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love." Similarly in Psalm 51 - we ask for mercy from our God of "steadfast love." At the same time in that text - the plea - "Do not cast me away from your presence..." And I wonder - does God do that? Does the Psalmist believe that? Do I believe that?
All of these descriptors of God remind me that God is always more than we can say or know. And my wondering is whether we emphasize certain attributes of God and not others.
And so that leads to the "both and" of our response to God. I love so much in these texts. I love when it is written in Joel: "Return to me with ALL your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning." I love when the Psalmist writes: "You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart." And I love the word of Paul in 2Corinthians : Reconcile - "Be reconciled to God." And what speaks to me is the awareness of how easy it is to be half hearted in my relationship with God, to take on the superficial values of this culture and to drift into times of feeling separated from God, from people, from myself.
The Psalmist writes that the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. And the truth is, that in those moments when I realize that (usually) my ego has led me away and astray, I do experience a "broken spirit" that leads to humility and a desire to come back and receive God's grace. One of the commentaries I read reinforced the "power and poignancy" of the life of Paul as a representative of the gospel. Paul was so far down the wrong road of certitude and judgment and God turned him around. Well. I too - and most of us know that road of certitude and judgment and (it may sound dramatic but...) it does lead to loneliness, anger, and death. Paul's writings about grace come from a place of having really experienced God's unconditional mercy and steadfast love. That is where this call to reconciliation comes from.
When we look at the text from Matthew there is a reminder that we to have a personal relationship with God in our own "private prayer closets" - not to receive praise from people but to become more Christlike. Public prayer can be a sham (take it from one whose life in ministry routinely involved praying outloud to God in front of others. Very challenging ) - The truth is that while public prayer can be authentic and even life changing I suspect God can work better with us from the inside out in our "secret heart" because we have spent time with God by ourselves.
The other side of this, however, (the both and) is that we are called to be ambassadors. It is a private relationship that changes us so that we become agents of reconciliation and bearers of the spiritual fruits of God. We are the ones who give God's grace and mercy and steadfast love to others. That is what it means to be co creating the kingdom of God on earth.
I contend that all of this can be tricky business. And it leads me as I begin this holy season to my knees. Wanting to be open to God in all of God's power and glory and love and grace. And knowing that a personal prayer life is essential to God's work within my inward being and my secret heart. And at the same time, I feel called to share this journey in my writing here. Not a sermon - but really my reactions to these texts. For what it's worth.
And so the season begins and my prayer is always for openness to God and awareness of grace and call. I believe that this is a journey in which we can continue to be shaped, molded, and used by God in ways we cannot even imagine. May it be so.
"See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!"