Lent: A Season of Returning

Scripture for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; II Corinthians 5:20-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


“‘And yet even now,’ says the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart . . .’”
—Joel 2:12


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Church’s observance of the Lenten season—six weeks set apart for the purpose of drawing closer to God and seeking him with greater intensity.  Lent comes early this year with Ash Wednesday falling on February 13, so we wanted to give you some time to prepare.

Unfortunately, the Lenten season often gets reduced to the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”  This is a fine question, but it can only take us so far.  The real question of the Lenten season is, “How will I repent and return to God with all my heart?” This begs an even deeper question:

“Where in my life have I gotten away from God, and what are the disciplines that will enable me to find my way back?”

Honest to God

As we prepare for Lent, we are called to be as honest as we are able about the ways we have “left” God and slipped into spiritual mediocrity. “You desire truth in the inward being,” Psalm 51 points out. “Therefore, teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”

As God gives us wisdom and insight about our true condition we can choose spiritual practices that are uniquely suited to help us return to God in the places where we have strayed or to renew our passion where our hearts have grown cold.

The Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday provide a good introduction and overview of some of the concrete disciplines we might consider as we enter into the Lenten season–prayer and fasting, hiddenness, self-examination and repentance, forgiving others as we have been forgiven, and storing up treasure in heaven by giving generously to others. These practices have the potential to loosen the grip of sin and distraction in our lives, creating  inner and outer space for attending to our relationship with God who is calling out for us to return to him.

Search Me, O God

Left to ourselves, we probably would not choose to devote a whole season to such rigorous and demanding disciplines, but God knows we need it. As we receive the symbolic gesture of the imposition of ashes on our foreheads, we acknowledge our human finiteness and mortality. No matter who we think we are, receiving the ashes reminds us that, “You are dust and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). This is not meant to be morbid; it is just meant to limit our grandiosity and help us to stay in touch with the real human condition we all share.

The ashes marking our foreheads carry the same meaning contained in the Old Testament practice of covering oneself with ashes. They are a graphic reminder of our sinfulness, an outward sign of inward repentance and mourning as we become aware of attitudes, orientations, and sin patterns that keep us from abandoning ourselves to God. This, too, is good for us because we live in so much denial. With as much openness as we can muster, we invite God to search us and know us and (eventually) lead us into resurrection life.

Longing for God

The purpose for engaging in Lenten disciplines is that we would become more finely attuned to our longing for God so we can seek him with all our hearts. Disciplines of fasting and other kinds of abstinence help us face the hold our sin patterns have on us so we can somehow let go of our attachment to anything that is not God.  As we acknowledge the grip our attachments have on us, we can shape our Lenten season around practices uniquely suited to the invitations that emerge in the context of this deeper self-knowledge. As we embark upon this Lenten season, we can ask, “What practices will help me return to the Lord during these set-apart days?”

  • How will I practice self-examination and confession in order to facilitate the truth in my inward being that God desires? (Psalm 51: 6)
  • How will I give?  (Matt. 6:2,3)
  • How will I pray? (Matt. 6:5-13)
  • Who do I need to forgive and from whom do I need to seek forgiveness? (Matt. 6:14,15)
  • How will I fast? What do I need to abstain from in order to create more space for God?  (Matt. 6:16-18)
  • What earthly treasures am I attached to and how will I “let go” in order to invest In God’s kingdom? (Matt. 6:19-21)
  • How will I be reconciled to God and how will I engage in the ministry of reconciliation this season?  (II Cor. 5)
  • How will I practice hiddenness as I order my life more intentionally around these disciplines?  (Matt. 6:1, 5, 16-17)

Realistically, most of us will not be able to incorporate all these disciplines but we certainly can choose one or two that will help us to return to God with all our hearts.  In very private moments with God we can allow him to show us what disciplines, practiced in what way, would be most effective in helping us create space for cultivating our relationship with him.

God’s Steadfast Love

Serious as the Lenten season is, it is also a time of great hope as we experience God’s steadfast love for us, even in the midst of whatever sin we are acknowledging. With confidence we pray, Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

In the shadow of Christ’s cross and impending resurrection we are assured that there is forgiveness and cleansing for all who turn to him. In Christ there is the power to pass from death unto life in the places where we ourselves are in need of resurrection.


©Ruth Haley Barton, 2013. Adapted from Lent: A Season of Returning. Not to be used without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton, D.D., is founder of the Transforming Center. A spiritual director, teacher and retreat leader, she is the author of Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence (InterVarsity Press).

Lent Calendar (Cycle C) and guidance for using the lectionary


Question:  How do you plan to arrange your life around practices that will help you return to God this season?  

Leave a comment below and/or follow us on Twitter (@transformingcnt) and join the conversation.

 

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

14 Comments

  1. […] for the last 4-5 years in my personal quiet times.  Ash Wednesday ushers in the season of Lent. Ruth Haley Barton explains it this way: “As we receive the symbolic gesture of the imposition of ashes on our […]

  2. Carol Hiestand | An Ash Wednesday Gift on March 1, 2017 at 12:31 pm

    […] for the last 4-5 years in my personal quiet times.  Ash Wednesday ushers in the season of Lent. Ruth Haley Barton explains it this way: “As we receive the symbolic gesture of the imposition of ashes on our […]

  3. Lyn O on February 14, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    Thank you so much for your encouragement to turn our hearts toward God in this season. Looking forward to future posts.

  4. Kelly K on February 14, 2013 at 2:25 am

    Thank you for this and all the wonderful resources you’ve provided to help us walk through this Lenten season. I woke up this morning singing “with my whole heart I will seek You.” 🙂

    • Ruth Barton on February 14, 2013 at 2:42 pm

      Wonderful! It is good to journey together, isn’t it?

  5. […] (from Ruth Haley Barton) The purpose for engaging in Lenten disciplines is that we would become more finely attuned to our longing for God so we can seek him with all our hearts. Disciplines of fasting and other kinds of abstinence help us face the hold our sin patterns have on us so we can somehow let go of our attachment to anything that is not God. As we acknowledge the grip our attachments have on us, we can shape our Lenten season around practices uniquely suited to the invitations that emerge in the context of this deeper self-knowledge. As we embark upon this Lenten season, we can ask, “What practices will help me return to the Lord during these set-apart days?” […]

  6. Resources for Celebrating Lent « Mennonite Road on February 12, 2013 at 2:05 am

    […] Lent: A Season of Returning, by Ruth Haley Barton. This reflection gives a wonderful overview to the meaning and purpose of the season of Lent. Her organization, Transforming Center, offers numerous great resources as well. […]

  7. Tony on February 11, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    Thank you for this treatise. I would love to share it with your permission.

    • admin on February 11, 2013 at 4:38 pm

      Thanks Tony.Your are welcome to share it as long as you provide full attribution. The easiest way is to use the grey buttons at the bottom the article (before the comments section). Blessings on your Lenten journey.

  8. Paul Bovankovich on February 11, 2013 at 1:06 am

    Thanks for your wonderful thoughts bringing us back closer to our
    toi our Lord. Personally I’m following your invitation to silence
    and solitude. I know God will be talking to me and I will be
    able to share prophetic dwords with others as He works
    through me. H wants to give us these gifts to encxourage
    us and build up His Kingdom. Thank You!

  9. Charlie Maxwell on February 10, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    The “search me oh God,” got me again. Psalm 139 is a roadmap back to God, even after all these years. Thank you.

    • Ruth Barton on February 13, 2013 at 3:12 pm

      Amen! Great to hear from you, Charlie!

  10. Ian on February 10, 2013 at 4:46 am

    Love this post, Ruth.

    I’ve never previously observed Lent as I thought it an old-fashioned practice that had gone out with the Dark Ages. However, through experiencing “Silence” (“Invitation to..” was an absolute treat) plus some teachings from another wonderful teacher, Margaret Feinberg, I’m doing it this year.

    I’ve slipped into some ill-disciplined use of time, so I felt the Lord leading me to let go of that, so in fact, I will be better able to “return to Him” by exercising greater discipline and structure in my day. So I will work off a more detailed daily planner.

    I’m so looking forward to it and also working through the book that’s still winging it’s way to Australia.

    Blessings to you.

    Ian

    • Ruth Barton on February 13, 2013 at 3:12 pm

      I love how practical and concrete your plan for creating more space for God is! Many blessings! I look forward to hearing more about how God meets you in and through this discipline.

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