I often get asked during the Lenten season “Does this count?” My answer is always the same: “The spiritual life is not about counting. But if you’re counting, it doesn’t count.” Jesus was not about counting. Jesus was about transformation and that is what our Lenten disciplines are designed to lead us to.
The first public word out of Jesus’ mouth was the Ancient Greek imperative verb metanoia, translated into English as repent. To our modern ears, we usually think repentance means to have a deep regret or remorse about our sin or wrongdoing and then to undertake some punishing hard-work in order to make amends. But our modern English take on our ancient texts often misses the mark and doesn’t really capture the fullness of meaning communicated in the original language.
Metanoia, or repentance, simply means to change our mind…to change the way we understand or think about something; it literally translates as ‘change your mind’ or ‘go beyond your mind.’ Jesus is not asking us to shamefully beat our breasts and enter into some harsh acts of atonement, rather, he is simply inviting us to change our mind. Perhaps most specifically the way we think about God. Jesus knew that our deepest human struggle does not come from God’s image of us but rather our image of God.
In his earthly life, Jesus was constantly trying to convince us that God is not AT ALL demanding any kind of harsh repentance or even a request for forgiveness. It’s automatically given. God simply wouldn’t be God if He were as small and exacting as we are sometimes.
God in Gods’ self is mercy and there will be nothing but rejoicing on God‘s part if we change our mind and believe fully – grabbing the truth with both hands – that God loves and forgives us without boundary or breaking point. Without conditions or demands, so that we all may be whole – together in mind in spirit once again. This is the nature of true repentance.
So when we are blessed this coming Wednesday with ashes and the words “Repent, and believe the good news” are spoken to us, let’s hear these words as encouragement for us to change our thinking and really believe what Jesus tells us and models for us about God. This unconditional acceptance is what heals, transforms and fuels us to become all God dreams for us to be. Let us enter into Lent with an openness to be transformed and to think differently – to trust that it is indeed GOOD news that Jesus is bringing to us, and to leave behind an old way of thinking, living and acting that stiffles our connection with God, each other and our best self so that we are able to embrace a new, full and free life in Christ.
So, in other words, perhaps some of the question we may wish to bring to this sacred season of Lent are “What can I change or think about differently in my life so as to live more concretely like Jesus?“ and/or “What course correction would help me to be a more loving person?” and/or “What will draw me nearer to God, strengthen my relationships with others and form me into all that God’s wishes for me to be and do?”
“Little children, (believers, dear ones), let us not love (merely in theory) with word or with tongue (giving lip service to compassion), but in action and in truth (in practice and in sincerity, because practical acts of love are more than words).” I John 3:17-18 Amplified
Extended Lenten Reflection on Fasting, Almsgiving & Prayer…
Our church, in our centuries of collective wisdom, suggests there are 3 pillars of Lent that can help us in our efforts to change our mind and therefore also our behavior; leaving our old ways behind and turning our lives more completely over to Christ and His way of life.
The first pillar, fasting acts on our concern for those who are forced to fast by their poverty; those who suffer from the injustices of our economic and political structures, and those who are in need for any reason. This is one of the reasons we abstain from meat. Traditionally this type of fasting linked us to the poor, who could seldom afford meat for their meals. It can do the same today if we remember the purpose of abstinence and embrace it as a spiritual link to those whose diets are sparse and simple. Avoiding meat while eating lobster misses the whole point! Fasting of course need not even involve food. For example, it could mean fasting from our devices (or really any number of things: work, golf, shopping) to spend more face time visiting with our family, elderly relatives, or children.
The second pillar, Almsgiving, or charitable giving of our time, talent, and treasure, is a sign of our care for those in need and an expression of our gratitude for everything God has given to us. This could be as simple as volunteering a morning at a soup kitchen or giving a special donation to your favorite cause.
And then of course, the third pillar, is Prayer. This one, more than the others sometimes leaves us stumped. The other two pillars are fairly straight forward, but what is it we “do” in prayer? Beloved author and priest, Henry Nouwen likens prayer as going from clenched fists to open hands. Our clenched fists represent everything we are clinging to, or angry about, our security in the things we can see, all our ideologies – all the things we are not willing to surrender to God – the places where we need to grow in trust that God has our best interests in mind. Prayer works to open our clenched fists, to let go of those things that are not of God, to come to God with open hands to receive all that God wishes to give us, to trust more deeply in God’s love and care for us.
One of the ways we God invites us to return to Him this Lent is by letting go of all the “shoulds” and “oughts” that we bring to prayer. For some reason many of us think we can’t enter into prayer unless we are in the right head space for it. We think that prayer demands that we first shake all the distractions and stress brought by the umpteen things that battle for our attention every moment of the day. We think unless we feel altruistic and pure and are able to muster up the appropriate reverence and attention that God deserves, we can’t even begin to enter into true prayer.
And though we may faithfully practice all kinds of various forms of prayer – devotionals – meditation –deep down we aren’t really convinced that we are “doing it right” and that our prayer – with all its distractions and missteps isn’t really prayer in the deep sense. We aren’t sure we are “effective” in our efforts or that God is even paying attention, because before, during and after our prayer, our distractions and lack of focus remain.
God for us then becomes like a demanding parent who only wishes to spend time with us when we are at the top of our game…on our best behavior. We treat God as a visitor… a distant figure of authority… someone who we only permit to see us in our most polished state… not someone with whom we “let it all hang out” so to speak. Before we pray, we think we need to sweep away all our feelings of boredom, or exhaustion, try to put out of our mind the anger we have about how our boss or classmates treat us, or how worried we are about our finances and future.
We think these thoughts and feelings are somehow disappointing to God, breaches of our trust in his providence. Instead, we try to muster up all these feelings of reverence, we murmur words of praise and gratitude, but they feel manufactured… contrived…and, indeed they are just that.
One of the oldest classical definitions of prayer is to “lift our hearts and minds to God” and what we have just described couldn’t be further from this practice. Quite the opposite, this is more like masking the true content of our hearts and minds FROM God. We are trying to lift thoughts and feelings to God that aren’t our own at all…. they are contrived and polished…not real and raw. In short, God cannot find you where you think you ought to be.
So, this Lent we need to shake the misconception that we somehow have to shape up before we arrive in prayer and rather – fearlessly open ourselves and believe that God welcomes, accepts, and loves us without boundary or breaking point just as we are, not as we think we should be.
If we believe that prayer is lifting our hearts and minds to God, and we desire to grow closer to God this sacred season, then we need to completely stop editing ourselves in prayer and believe that God is big enough to handle any and everything we bring, in all of our humanness, and trust that God is up for the task.
We must believe that every feeling and every thought we have is suitable to bring to God in prayer – no matter how irreverent – how full of doubt or anger – no matter how unholy we may deem them to be….
It would be nice if we always felt full of faith, chaste, hopeful, and happy with who we are and all that life has dealt us, but this is not the case. Ron Rolheiser puts it this way: “If you go to pray and you are feeling bored, pray boredom; if you are feeling angry, pray anger; if you are sexually preoccupied, pray that preoccupation; if you are feeling envious, pray envy; and if you are feeling full of fervor and want to praise and thank God, pray fervor. Every thought or feeling is a valid entry into prayer. What’s important is that we pray what’s inside of us and not what we think God would like to see inside of us.”
“You must try to pray so that, in your prayer, you open yourself in such a way that sometime – perhaps not today, but sometime – you are able to hear God say to you: `I love you!’ These words, addressed to you by God, are the most important words you will ever hear because, before you hear them, nothing is ever completely right with you, but, after you hear them, something will be right in your life at a very deep level.” (Robert Michel)
So, let’s begin this Lent by letting go of all our shoulds and oughts and simply “show up” for prayer, with all that we are, both what we deem the good and the bad, so that God can help us loosen our clenched fists, gently peeling back one finger at a time, and come to God this holy season with open hands….ready to receive….
**Much of the final part of this reflection on the topic of prayer is taken from Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s piece found here: https://ronrolheiser.com/praying-when-we-dont-feel-like-it/#.YXa7a9nMJH0
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