Today is Ash Wednesday and I couldn’t be happier. Weird, I know. But this is my time of year. And those with a glint in their eyes about the ashes and the intention and the reflection of these 40 days are my people.
As a brooding and introspective introvert, Lent suits me. A musically-inclined friend told me that if I had a theme song it would have to be performed in a minor key – you know the ones that sound like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh and every song your church sings during this dark and foreboding season. It was delivered as a good-natured rib but I wear it as a badge of honor, because I’m convinced that its hard to be a serious Christian if you don’t seriously appreciate the 40-day slog to Jerusalem.
Whether we like it or not, between the presents that come with news of the Incarnation and the joy we express in new suits and dresses at the Resurrection there’s something we need about tonight and the days ahead. There’s something essentially true about the season that begins with Ash Wednesday’s dust-marked repentance and concludes with Maundy Thursday’s new commandment, Good Friday’s dark death, and Holy Saturday’s wretched waiting and wondering.
We need it because it reminds us of the essential truths about ourselves and our sin-marred relationship with God. It reminds us of our mortality with its uplifting slogans that stay too close – that the wages of sin are death and from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. It reminds us, often and repeatedly, of the consequences we deliver to ourselves and to Jesus because we can’t avoid sin’s tempting allure. It reminds us, because the Bible won’t let us forget, that no matter how much we think we have arrived, we aren’t self-made or self-sufficient. Instead, we are reminded over and over again that we are helpless apart from God’s redeeming, renewing and restoring grace.
Ultimately this dark season, with its purple and black and confession and penance, is a means of God’s grace. It’s not about making ourselves feel bad or thinking that somehow we have to earn our salvation – it can’t be earned anyway, only received as unearned gift. This season – rooted as it is in Jesus’ fasting and praying and overcoming the devil’s temptations – is instead about making time and space in our lives to admit our sin and brokenness, becoming aware again of our desperate need for God’s grace, and taking on practices of faith that reconnect us to God.
Historically, Christians have either given something up or taken something on. It’s not just to do something, but as a way to be reminded and thankful for God’s love, provision and salvation. Forsaking something of value allows us to experience dependence and gratitude. Taking on a new practice allows to become intentional about reconnecting with God and growing in faith with the source of our life. Whether it’s taking on a new prayer practice, living a life without caffeine (I tried this once it was a DISASTER), or serving at the shelter, I hope that however you fast and pray will remind you of all the ways God is with you and God is for you.
As for me and my house, I’ll be continuing my attempt to not squander God’s gift by spending Lent writing 30 minutes a day and being reminding by Desmond Tutu about all the ways we are In God’s Hands.
But in the mean time, with respect to Paul Simon and even Miley, here are 30 ways to help you leave your idols this season.
Connecting With God
1. Read the Psalms: All 150 of them and learn how to pray. Save Psalm 22 for Good Friday.
2. Experience Jerusalem with Jesus: In Luke 9:51, Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem. Begin there and finish the Gospel to experience the transformational journey with Jesus as he marches to the Cross.
3. Atonement Answers: Find a good book to help you better understand how Christians make sense of the Cross. A few good ones are: Christ the Center, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and The Kingdom and the Cross, by James Bryan Smith.
4. Join a Lent Bible Study or Small Group: Most churches offer special classes or groups to help you focus during Lent. Check one out and join it.
5. Listen with Lectio: Lectio Divina is a particular way of reading, reflecting and praying the Scriptures. It takes about 20 minutes. Try the sacred words for your morning devotional.
6. End your day with the Examen: Part of the Spiritual Exercises, the Examen invites you to honestly review your day, confess the bad and celebrate the good, and see all the places God’s grace intersected with your life.
7. Fast, no seriously: Fasting has been historically tied to Lent. Fast from food or drink for a limited period of time and pay attention to what you see, feel and experience. Be smart and be healthy, of course.
8. Keep a Gratitude Journal: One of the things that is supposed to happen for us during Lent is to become more aware and grateful for God’s provision. At the end of the day write down five things you are grateful for. It will change your life. Ann Voskamp has written beautifully on this.
9. Try Liturgical Prayer: Sometimes prayer feels like staring at a wall. You aren’t alone in this. Try praying the order of morning or evening prayer. A great place to start is the liturgy of the hours. If that seems overwhelming, try Common Prayer.
10. Get Musical: Create a spottily playlist with music that connects the themes of Lent. It’s fun to find the message of this season in songs considered sacred and secular. Mumford and Sons and U2 will get you off to a quick start.
Becoming More Relational
11. Read a book with your spouse: My wife and I make sure to read a book every year together and discuss it during Lent. This year it’s the Archbishop’s Lent book by Desmond Tutu I mentioned above. It doesn’t have to be that organized, just pick a book about faith, read it, and talk about it. You’ll reap the rewards.
12. Mentor with a local organization: Young people all around you need a guiding hand and someone they can talk to. Commit to mentoring with a local organization. We work with the Emerald Youth Foundation in Knoxville, but Big Brothers/Big Sisters and so many others can get you connected.
13. Find someone different: And you know, listen to them. Connect with someone who thinks, lives and approaches life differently than you do. Don’t try to change them but just listen. It will open your eyes and improve your life.
14. Invest in relationships: We are so busy and have so much to do and can be so connected. But find ways to meet for coffee, have people over for dinner, or simply reconnect with your friends and family.
15. Give Up Your Screen: I’ve never gotten into giving up social media for Lent, too much of my ministry happens there. But leave your phone in the other room and spend time with your friends and family away from Facebook, Twitter, and Text.
16. Keep It To Yourself: Social Media is filled with controversial posts, links and opinion. Instead of adding to the fury, keep quiet and help the place become a little more civil.
17. In Other Words, Share Hope: If you don’t fast from social media, use it this season to post uplifting, inspiring thoughts, reflections and links that help people make it through their day at work, handle their home life and live a little better life.
18. But When You Do Text, Pray: Our phones are bombarded with text messages. When you get one, pray for the sender, especially if you don’t know them or don’t like them.
19. Love You, Mean It: Find someone at work or school and tell them something good about them. With so many people suffering from anxiety or low self-esteem, a comment here or there can do a world of good.
20. Write a Letter: This season can be full of stress and anxiety, particularly for church workers. When you get stressed, grab a pen and paper and write to someone who you appreciate, who has mentored you or helped you, who has been a means of grace in your life. It will calm you down, I promise.
Serving Your Community
21. Walk your neighborhood: Walk around your neighborhood and pray for the people and families who live, work and worship there.
22. Give Women A Hand Up: With all the fuss about 50 Shades, donate to organizations working to address and help women affected by emotional, physical and sexual abuse. An organization I love is Thistle Farms in Nashville.
23. Less Booze: Fast from or consume less alcohol for Lent and donate some of your savings to organizations who minister with addicts like Celebrate Recovery.
24. Volunteer: There are countless organizations in your community that need help doing good. Find one that deals with an issue you care about and help the cause.
25. Serve in the Shelter: This season we are focused on a Savior who gave up his home so we could have a better, more permanent one. There are thousands of people in your community living without affordable and permanent housing. There are plenty of ways to help – find one and make a difference.
26. Get Informed: Be intentional about learning about an issue facing your city or community. Get informed about issues in education, health care and city government that are affecting people God loves and cares about in your city. You’ll probably have to delve beyond your local TV station or newspaper.
27. Less Celebrity, More Community: My news feeds are filled with the latest news on Kanye, Kim, Taylor or Gaga. They serve as great distractions, but take a break from their latest and learn about more important things like drug abuse, children in poverty or even ISIS.
28. Lift Up: Our church makes an effort to be in ministry with the homebound and those in nursing homes during this season. Yours probably does too. Find a way to write a card, say a prayer or visit someone who is lonely or afraid.
29. Pray For Leaders: Most of us don’t agree with everyone who is in charge about everything, but they need all the help they can get. Add the mayor, school principal, county commissioners, governor, members of Congress and President to your prayer list.
30. Be a Neighbor: Connect with your neighbors, next door and across the street. Find out what’s going on with their families and in their lives. Know specifically what you can pray for them about. Good neighborhoods make good communities, and good communities are one way God’s mission goes forward.