Returning to God with All Our Hearts: Preparing for a Holy Lent

Lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday Cycle A: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Guidance on using the lectionary.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
–The Book of Common Prayer

Growing up as a Protestant Christian, I remember hearing folks from other traditions talk about “giving up something for Lent.” Usually they gave up something they really liked such as chocolate or ice cream or candy. I was impressed with their resolve. Even those who seemed to exhibit little interest in spiritual things during the rest of the year were somehow willing to enter into the self-denial that Lent required. I couldn’t help but suspect that they knew something I didn’t.

Now, of course, I understand that they were entering into a particular season of the church year and that these seasons are meant to shape us. I have learned that as we give ourselves to these (sometimes) strange rhythms they guide us into a way of seeing and being in our lives that we might not otherwise choose or even know how to choose.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday—the beginning of the Church’s observance of the Lenten season. It is the doorway into a space in time that calls us to stop whatever we are doing, no matter how important it might be, and enter more intentionally into the disciplines of prayer, self-examination and repentance. 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.

Entering In

The season begins as we receive the symbolic gesture of the imposition of ashes on our foreheads and acknowledge our human finiteness and mortality. No matter who we think we are, the traditions of Ash Wednesday remind 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 confront our grandiosity and help us to stay in touch with the real human condition that we all share.

Ash Wednesday also initiates a season of acknowledging our sinfulness. In very intentional ways, we invite God to search us and know us and (eventually) to lead us into resurrection life. The ashes marking our foreheads carry the same meaning contained in the Old Testament practice of covering oneself with ashes: they are an outward sign of an inward repentance and mourning as we become aware of our sin. This, too, is good for us because we live in so much denial. Facing our sin in the shadow of Christ’s cross and impending resurrection is the healthiest way to deal with our sin.

The inner dynamics of Lent have to do with fasting or abstaining from the ways we normally distract ourselves from what’s really going on in our lives spiritually—the reality of our sin and the deeply patterned behaviors that keep us from our calling to follow Christ. We allow some of the external trappings of our lives to be stripped away so that we can find our true identity and calling in God once again. We acknowledge the subtle temptations to which we are prone rather than pretending we are beyond temptation. We face the spiritual reality of the battle being waged for our very souls.

Ready or Not!

Most years, I don’t feel quite ready for Lent with all of its demands and its disciplines. But I also don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to miss the possibility of having my life stripped down to its barest essence through disciplines of abstinence. I don’t want to miss the possibility for repentance and change. I don’t want to miss the experience of resurrection in the places that I know have been deadened.

In fact, there is something about the season of Lent that causes me to feel strangely hopeful about the possibility of repentance and forgiveness in my own life… hopeful about the possibility of greater freedom in places where I am in bondage…hopeful about the possibility of the Pascal mystery of death, burial, and resurrection taking place in my life.

So ready or not, my heart is also saying that I want to enter into Lent in a way that will change me somewhere deep inside where it matters. I don’t want to just “give up chocolate for Lent” because I like chocolate and God is the curmudgeon in the sky who wants to keep it from me. I want to enter into Lenten disciplines that correspond to the places in my life that cry out for deeper levels of transformation.

Preparing for Lent

Entering into Lent as a season of transformation does require some insight and preparation.

If we are struggling with issues related to ego and pride, we might discipline ourselves to say no to activities that feed the ego. If we struggle with sins of speech or carelessness with our speech, we might consider additional time in silence daily or a longer retreat of silence sometime during this season. If we are aware of an inner exhaustion that we have not been willing to pay attention to, we might choose to say no to caffeine and other stimulants in order to walk all the way into our exhaustion. In the absence of substances that keep us stimulated, we might ask God to reveal the deeper sources of our tired-ness.

If we tend towards the sin of gluttony and know that our eating patterns are out of control, we might consider some level of fasting. If our prayer life has been lacking, we might commit ourselves to more intentional rhythms of prayer. If we sense God inviting us to deeper levels of self-examination and introspection but we know we tend towards morbidity and depression, we might enter more intentionally into community and spiritual friendship during this time—asking for the help and prayers of others.

Giving Up and Giving To

Lent is a time for “giving things up” balanced by “giving to” those in need. The central question that guides our practice of Lent is highlighted in the reading from Joel 2: How will I repent and return to God?  Matthew 6 answers this question by highlighting very concrete disciplines that have the potential to loosen the grip of sin and compulsion in our lives, thus creating more space for God. As we reflect on this passage in light of the Lenten season, we might ask:

  • How will I give? (v. 2, 3)
  • How will I pray? (v. 5-13)
  • Who do I need to forgive and from whom do I need to seek forgiveness? (v. 14, 15)
  • How will I fast? What do I need to abstain from in order to create more freedom and space for God? (v. 16-18)
  • Where is my treasure—really—as it is reflected in how I use my time, financial resources and energy? Is there any specific way in which God is inviting me to “let go” of my attachment to some earthly treasure in order to invest in that which is eternal? (v. 19-21)

Lent for Leaders

Many of us as pastors and ministry leaders are at this very moment preparing to guide others into this most significant season of the church year. One of the great temptations of life in leadership is that we become so focused on leading others—it is our job, after all!—that we cease entering into these seasons of transformation for ourselves. We put off paying attention to the places where God is calling us to the rigors of self-examination and repentance.

There is no doubt that Lent requires something of us. But there can be no feasting without fasting. Entering into the Lenten discipline of giving up something in order to create more space for prayer is the fast that prepares us to fully enjoy the Feast of the Resurrection.  My prayer and my plea is that part of your preparation would be to consider your own Lenten disciplines and bravely ask God, Where in my life do I need to acknowledge my humanness and renounce my sinfulness? What are the disciplines that will help me return to God with all my heart?”

Let us approach Lent, then, as an opportunity, not a requirement. Let us approach it as a joyful season.  “After all, it is meant to lead us into the church’s Springtime, a time when out of the darkness of sin’s winter, a repentant empowered people emerges.”¹

Journey through Lent with words and music

Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books: 2003), p.xvi.

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2017.  Not to be reproduced without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (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, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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[…] Read the rest of Ruth Haley Barton’s post on Lent here. […]

Thank you, Ruth, for another thoughtful, insightful, and deeply meaningful essay. I so appreciate everything you write. It’s Sunday morning in Myanmar, several days after Ash Wednesday. I wish I had read your thoughts when you first sent the piece out, so I could have shared it with my students. I teach a class on Spirit-Led Living here at the Myanmar Institute of Theology (Yangon, Myanmar), and I took 8 of my students to an Ash Wednesday service at an Anglican Church. The course is now over, but I will find a way to share it with them still. But for today, I’m just going to sit with your helpful questions for personal reflection… Thank you again. Please continue writing.

Ahhh…you are so very kind. It is meaningful to me that even though you didn’t get this to your students in time for Ash Wednesday, you are choosing to sit with these questions for yourself. I am, in fact, away writing right now and appreciate your encouragement so much! Writing is demanding work, as you know.

Thanks so much for this article, Ruth! I grew up in a denomination that observed the week long Feast of Unleavened Bread and Passover, rather than Lent, Holy Week and Easter. There was heavy emphasis on getting rid of sin from your life, as symbolized by eradicating all forms of leavening out of your homes (often to extreme measures.) But it didn’t do much to draw us closer to Christ or bring inner transformation. I appreciate your perspective of Lent as an invitation to go much deeper in our relationship, letting Christ guide us to those hidden areas of inner pain and turmoil where he can work his healing touch. How refreshing and hopeful! 🙂

I love your phrase “but it didn’t do much to draw us closer to Christ or bring inner transformation.” How right you are! Can’t tell you how
glad I am that this feels different than that!

Thanks for your thoughtful and biblical thoughts a powerful reminder that the seasons of the church can be so beneficial. May the Lord bless you too in this beautiful time and may you find a freshness and deep joy in your walk with the Master,
Happy Lent (if you know what I mean!)

I know exactly what you mean! Thank you!

[…] Haley Barton in “Returning to God with All Our Hearts: Preparing for a Holy Lent” blog post dated 21 February […]

Truly grateful for your generous sharing especially on Lent and entering into it. Those patterns of behaviours that seemed right, pales against the Truth of God- relentlessly pursuing us to b transformed like Jesus. Really it s about our continued surrender yielding thru prayer self examination repentance until as u said we are stripped to bare our true identity & calling. God bless ur Leadership Ministry for God’s Glory Ma’am Ruth!

[…]  Check out another great article on Lent by Ruth Haley Barton here!  […]

Thank you so much for this story. You have deepened my understanding of my favorite season.

Grateful to hear it. 🙂

Once again, thanks so much for your thoughtful writing and challenging me to think deeper. You have taught me so much, and continue to do so, even from a distance. I especially appreciate the way the article gives practical understanding to “how to do Lent” by listing the “sins or patterned behaviors” alongside the “discipline” that can address that at the heart level. So much in here, I am breaking it down and journalling while meditating on that which God is calling me to enter into more intentionally during Lent. Again, thank you so much! God’s peace, sister!

You’re so welcome, Cynthia. I love that you are taking time for reflection and journalling. Entering in to Lent meaningfully takes wisdom and God will help us. Thanks for the peace; I receive it!

Thank you Ruth
Love this part
I don’t want to just “give up chocolate for Lent” because I like chocolate and God is the curmudgeon in the sky who wants to keep it from me. I want to enter into Lenten disciplines that correspond to the places in my life that cry out for deeper levels of transformation.

Thanks. Me, too! Not a good thing to be envisioning God as a curmudgeon in the sky, is it?

I got your email this morning and thought, “Is it Lent? I have not thought about it!” Indeed it is. I read your thoughts and insights. You have a way of directing thought in a strengthening way. Observing Lent was a big deal when I was a kid. Lent makes Easter much sweeter. I would not want to miss that. It also reminds me of God’s presence in my life from childhood. Thank you.

Love this! Its always amazing to see how God re-integrates everything we have experienced in our lives and blesses it to us as we journey with him . Thank you.

Ms. Barton – thank you and bless you for sharing!! I’m currently leading a small group study of your “Sacred Rhythms” at our church. This is my second time to lead this study, and it’s blessing me even more this time! Your offering to Prepare for Holy Lent offers a wonderful insight and practice as we begin the holiest Sacred Rhythm of all – the Lenten Season leading to Easter Sunday!!

[…] upcoming season in the church and it can explain the practice of Lent far better than I ever could.   I still haven’t quite figured out what I’m giving up for Lent.  But when I decide, it […]

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