Lent is nearly upon us. On Wednesday, many of us will go to church and be marked on our foreheads with the sign of the cross, a reminder of our mortality and a call to repentance.
During the weeks that follow, as we walk figuratively with Jesus to Jerusalem and death, many of us will fast, a reminder of the desert where Jesus fasted 40 days, where the Israelites wandered 40 years.
In fact, most of us if, we think of Lent at all, think of it in terms of fasting and repentance, of paring down and giving up. We think in terms of sacrifice.
And those practices and ways of being are certainly appropriate during Lent, but I think far too often they become ends in themselves. We fast and repent for the sake of fasting and repenting. We pare down and give up for the sake of sacrificing something. After all, Jesus gave His life for me. Surely I can live without chocolate for a few weeks each year. As ends, fasting and repentance, paring down and giving up are almost pointless. At best, they become futile acts of jumping through spiritual hoops of varying degrees of onerousness. At worst they become yet another way of living in pride or fear, of attempting to earn grace.
I am not condemning these practices. I think we need them, desperately. But I also am aware that practices are not the goal. They are a means to something bigger and better. They are not the purpose. They only have a purpose.
And the purpose of the Lenten practices of fasting and stripping away is to make room.
In this way Lent is very much like Advent. In Advent we have all the images of swelling bellies and pregnant hearts enlarging to make room for the Christ Child. We see the Holy Family turned away from every inn because there was not room. And we are exhorted again and again to prepare a place for the coming Savior, to make room for God. In Lent, these images are absent and so it is easy to forget that the reason for all our fasting and repenting, paring down and giving up is just the same as it was in Advent: we are making room for Jesus.During Lent we say no to certain things in order to say yes to God. We carve out space in our lives for God to enter in.
We live in a loud and insanely busy culture. We are harried and hurried and weary and worn out. Even those of us who try not to live at the breakneck pace of everyone else still get sucked into the whirlpool of too-much and too-many. What if we claimed Lent as the time when we intentionally turned down the volume and gave space to our souls?
When God revealed Himself to Elijah, He was not in the wind or the storm or the fire or the earthquake. He was in the silence.
God still speaks. He stands at our doors and knocks. But the quiet tap tap tapping at the door, the still, small voice of God get drowned out by the constant chatter, and sometimes the shouting, of media in its multitudinous forms, by the sleepless pace of the internet. As you think about how you are going to pare down during Lent, may I be so bold as to suggest giving up some form of screen-based media? Say no to podcasts or blogs, to Facebook or Twitter, to TV or Hulu, so you can say yes to God.
And since I’ve been bold enough to make one suggestion, allow me to make two more. Both are pleas for lectio divina (holy reading), an ancient Christian practice of reading slowly, quietly, prayerfully.
First, I suggest you get your hands on a copy of Word in the Wilderness by Malcolm Guite. An Anglican priest and poet, Guite has compiled this anthology of poetry for Lent and Easter, one poem for each day. Poetry is a perfect candidate for lectio divina, largely because it is language distilled and as such it requires sustained attention. Poetry does not reveal its secrets to those who skim or scan. It has jewels in its murky depths that can only be found by those who dive deep, who sit with the words and ponder them.
(Guite is also posting the text and a recording of the poems in Word in the Wilderness on his website. You won’t get to read his commentary on the poems, which I find interesting and helpful, but you’ll get to read and/or listen to the poems.)
Second, if poetry is really not your cup of tea (or even if it is), let me suggest that you choose a small chunk of Scripture–the first three chapters of John, say, or the Passion narrative from one of the Synoptics, or a half dozen Psalms–and read just three or four verses each day. The goal isn’t to get through the whole chunk of your chosen text before Easter. The goal is to sit with the words themselves, and with the Word who breathed them, and see what they might say.
Read your three or four verses. Read them again. And again. Close your eyes and see if you can remember any of the words. See if any of them shimmer more than others. Bring that word or phrase to God and ask Him if He has anything more to say to you through those words. He may not. But then again, He may. It’s possible He’s been trying to talk to you for ages while you dashed about like a mad hare or compulsively checked your newsfeed. It’s possible that your sitting in His presence like the weaned child in Psalm 131 is what He’s been longing for.
God stands at the door and knocks, but He won’t open the door for us. He won’t force His way in. He is patient and kind, abounding in steadfast love, and so He waits and knocks and waits some more.
And while He waits, He whispers words of love over us. I have loved you with an everlasting love. I would take you in my arms and heal you. I would wrap you in kindness and clothe you in love. I would quiet you with My love.
I pray this Lent is a season when you say no to noise and rush and the harrying, hounding voices of too much so that you can say a resounding and joyful yes to God. Yes to opening the door, yes to inviting Him in, yes to sitting with Him, yes to His words of love.
*Door image used by permission from Susan Forshey