If you’re like me, you’ve been asked to explain Lent, not once but numerous times.
Since Lent is the Christian season that has remained virtually untouched by the marketing world, it is not as well known, but the truth is, the more commercialized seasons of Christmas and Easter are really not any more understood. Yet, it’s possible that anonymity of Lent allows us to truly encounter some of its ancient spiritual power.
David Crumm, an author and journalist who reports on the impact of religion on American compares Lent to the “Lord of the Rings” of scriptural stories—a loyal fellowship of men and women fearlessly summoning all of their traditional knowledge as they make their way toward a dangerous encounter in a city where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. It’s analogous to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness or Moses’ 40 days of fasting, or the Israelites 40 years of wandering.
Jesus’ journey 2,000 years ago was a public journey of such profound significance that we mark it every year, day by day, even in the Third Millennium since he walked the Earth. The journey undoubtedly changes from year to year, as we bring new understandings and insights to the table. We encounter new challenges and different struggles. We are not the same people as we were last year. Hopefully, in the midst of the joys and celebrations, the loss and the struggles of this past year and the accumulations of all the years, we continue to grow. Undoubtedly, you are not the same spiritual person you were when you were first baptized. Yet you will also continue to face the same battles, temptations, challenges and struggles, the very same ones that you met and fought last year—the same but different—requiring your repentance, your confession and God’s forgiveness.
So, we come to this season of repentance and renewal “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning”—mourning our sins that separate us from God. Today we are marked with ashes along with millions of others in the world. Ashes symbolize our need and wish to repent and confess. As our soul is dirty with sin, so our face, our forehead is marked with dirty ashes. Our sin is as plain as the ashes on our face. Our repentance and our confession are as plain as the ashes on our face. We are marked by the sign of the cross both in our baptism and in our sin.
Yet, the truth is, most of us don’t like repentance, renewal or change. We don’t approach life with a great desire to change. Or we want to change but don’t want to do the work to get there. I want to lose these extra 25 pounds that I’m carrying…but obviously not enough to do something about it! Sometimes, the only push that moves us towards repentance and change is the pain that comes from staying the same.
Peter Bregman, author of a short guide to a big change, says that growth always involves failure. Yet most of us spend a tremendous effort trying to avoid even the possibility of failure. Michael Jordan, arguably the world’s best basketball player, has a growth mindset. Most successful people do. In high school he was cut from the basketball team but that obviously didn’t discourage him: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
If you have a growth mindset, then you use your failures to improve. If you have a fixed mindset, you may never fail, but neither do you learn or grow. If you believe you can’t grow or change, then you will try to avoid failure at all costs because failure is proof of your limitation. People with a fixed mindset like to solve the same problems over and over again. It reinforces their sense of competence. Children with fixed mindsets would rather redo an easy jigsaw puzzle than try a harder one. Students with fixed mindsets would rather not learn new languages. CEOs with fixed mindsets will surround themselves with people who agree with them. They feel smart when they get it right.
Failure is inherent in the Lenten journey for each of us who are not perfect. It’s a paradox, a conundrum. We enter into the Lenten disciplines to strengthen our faith, to reaffirm our covenant of Baptism and to celebrate the Baptismal promises of Jesus, yet we will feel weak and insecure, we will lose our focus, we will fail.
A weight training coach asked one of his students to stay after class one day.
“What’d I do?” the student asked.
The coach responded, “it’s what you didn’t do.”
What didn’t I do?
You kept me after class because I didn’t fail?
“This”—he began mimicking the student’s casual weight lifting style, using weights that were obviously too light—“will get you nowhere. A muscle only grows if it is worked. You need to use more challenging weights.”
The readings of Lent, especially in Year A of our Sunday lectionary, are not comfortable ones. They were chosen to challenge us in our faith walk. So if you don’t like challenges, Lent is definitely not a time to come to church.
But Lent is also a time of hope. If hope were a river, one of its sources would be the springs of repentance. Repentance might even be a synonym for hope because it latches onto a positive preferred future. If not a synonym, it may at least be a requirement for hope. When you choose repentance, you’re less likely to be arrogant or despairing. When you repent, you enter a cycle that moves from confession through forgiveness and then towards living forgiven. Because of the assurance of God’s forgiveness, you can repent with hope that you will be forgiven by likewise forgiven people around you.
Last week, in a retreat on repentance and forgiveness, I asked the clergy & seminarians & laypersons present to listen carefully to these questions about hope and to respond if something came to their mind. Only one answer per question was allowed. I’ll do the same thing for you. Listen carefully to the question and if something comes to mind, say it loud enough for everyone to hear. 14 questions – only one answer each.
- When do you experience hope?
- What’s the source of your hope?
- What basic behaviors characterize the hopeful people you know?
- Where do you see hope in yourself?
- What stands in the way of your being hopeful?
- In what ways is hope a practical part of your life?
- For you, what’s the opposite of hope?
- How do you keep hoping in difficult times?
- How does hope spread, deepen, connect, increase or grow other positive spiritual traits in you?
- How does your hope overwhelm negative ways of thinking?
- What does hope create?
- When has your hope surprised you?
- When have you been tempted to give up hoping?
- How did you become a hopeful person? Did you have a teacher?
Jesus’ journey to the cross is a journey of hope. He invites his disciples to give alms, to pray, and to fast, but the purpose isn’t to impress those around you, it isn’t to show off or to gain approval. It’s about what happens to us and those around us while and because we’re doing them.
They are challenging, the bar is high, and we will fail. And so we will enter into the lifestyle of forgiveness that includes pain, hurt, woundedness, remorse, contrition, repentance, confession, forgiveness and absolution. Only to start the cycle over once again, knowing that if we are to grow, we have to work our spiritual muscles until they hurt. If the muscle isn’t working, it isn’t growing.
Jesus calls us to follow him on his journey. It isn’t a journey to Disneyland, it’s a journey to the cross. If we are to grow, we will know failure. Our strength lies in our willingness to follow in Christ’s strength.
Today we are marked with ashes—a symbol of our need and wish to repent of the sin in our lives. As our soul is dirty with sin, so our face, our forehead is marked with dirty ashes. Our sin is as plain as the ashes on our face. Our repentance and our confession are also as plain as the ashes on our face. We are marked by the sign of the cross, in our baptism and in our sin.