The Taser's Edge

Lent Thoughts 1.2.1–Taking Up

I’ve been meaning to do this post everyday since Lent began.  And now it’s here.  I was feeling a bit odd about publishing my Lenten commitments.  It’s my non-Lenty past, I think.  Still playing on repeat the verse I talked about on Ash Wednesday in the back of my mind (Matthew 6 about prayer and fasting and giving alms in secret).

There’s another stream in my mind, however, and I think it came from Duke.  This second stream is the communal focus.  That is, self-examination is one thing, and it has its place.  But the work that God does in us, the process through which God saves and makes us holy and whole is accomplished with the help of others.  Not because God couldn’t do it any other way, but because God seems to want to do it that way, or so the church has discerned for centuries.  God wants us to need each other and to live with each other (and in one another’s ‘personal’ space and  on one another’s personal toes).  So I write these publicly so you can get on my toes and in my space (because a lot of it’s your space too), ask me questions about whether these somewhat weird things actually make a difference, and just plain hold me to these commitments.  I also think writing this post has something to do with practicing Taking Up #2 (see below).

Taking Up: Adding new things to my spiritual life is much more natural to who I am.  I like spiritual disciplines, perhaps just because they make me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile with myself and with my time.  This year, the things I added have as much to do with cultivating my mental health as cultivating my Christian character (and I really don’t believe that those two things are any longer separable in me).

1. Gratitude/Thankfulness–Lots of self-help/psychology/spirituality books prefer the first term, possibly because many of them are coming out of a Buddhist or other not particularly theistic (or at least not believing in a personal, loving, intervening-in-history-and-our-lives God) worldview.  For me, taking up the practice of gratitude is the other side of the thankfulness coin.  Gratitude is the manner in which I receive, and thankfulness is honoring the One from whom I receive.  Both gratitude and thankfulness mean that I truly pay attention to and enjoy what I have been given.  It is a different way of seeing the world.  The practice of gratitude/thankfulness quickly runs over into the practice of enjoying, or finding enjoyment, in everything around me.  Some of you know how serious I can be or seem to be, how much I sometimes need to remember what it’s like (and how important it is for my overall health) to play, how much I need to enjoy (and stop all this darn thinking).  I’m working on it.

2. Generosity–Although I certainly look up to other people for being more generous monetarily than I am (I’m thinking of my brother Zack and my friend Dave as particularly good models), I think that for me that way of being generous needs to come out of a different kind of personal generosity.  When I say that I want to practice generosity during Lent, I mean that I want to be more generous with myself.  I want to be more free in giving myself to God, to other people, and to myself.  All of these things involve personal risk, and that is something which I want to step forward into, as uncomfortable as it is.  I’m thinking of my CPE interns group from last semester and the CPE residents group which I will begin meeting with in June.  I’m thinking of my small group from church.  When I offer of myself generously, other people are freed to offer of themselves generously.  Everyone experiences freedom.

This, of course, also has to do with offering grace and forgiveness.  Personally, while I certainly can use some work on even admitting that I get angry at God (which I do–hoppin’ mad at times), let alone offering God the graciousness that God continually gives me; and while forgiveness of other people always takes some time and effort (and especially time…and effort), my unforgiveness is mostly focused inwardly.  If I were as quick to forgive myself as I am to forgive people who wrong me, I would be in a much better place mentally and spiritually.  So, I’m hoping that generosity will bring healing in several ways.

3. A Penitential Order: Rite II (p. 351 in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer)–It hasn’t been clear yet, but I am trying to practice all of these things everyday.  Still having trouble figuring out what that means with the first two, other than trying to purposely be generous and thankful a handful of times each day.  With this third commitment, it’s easier to know what I mean.  Each day I have been using this order as my morning prayer.  I’ll usually add a Gospel reading or something to it, but this liturgy forms the core of my morning devotions.  I’m intending to copy it out into the next post, so you can see what it is.  One thing that has been very powerful for me is in seeing how reading and meditating on the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) can actually be a very real way in which God goes to work on my life.  I have always found it a bit weird that Christians still make a big deal out of the Ten Commandments, but submitting to this practice has helped me to begin to see how much worth there is in having our hearts investigated by the Spirit through them.

Lenten Devotion 1.1

So what’s the deal with Ash Wednesday? (Yes, other than the fact that noseless people like the fellow to my left observe it.)  Today you may be wondering this very question.  Many of my kinfolk do.  Their problem and possibly yours:

Matthew 6:1, 16-18: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven…And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting…But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Interestingly enough, this is the prescribed Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday not just this year, but every year.  And today Dr. Warren Smith preached directly on Christians who respond to Ash Wednesday as either “hypocrites” (who really do want them ashes to show off their holier-than-thouness) or “cynics” (people like me and plenty of people I know who just don’t get how putting ashes on our heads jives with our practicing piety in secret).  His simple and fairly convincing procedure to figuring it out?  A mixture of exegesis and exploration of intent.  We aren’t wearing ashes because we are fasting, but because we are entering a season of repentance.  Wearing ashes isn’t supposed to mean we think ourselves holy, but that we see ourselves in need of repentance, in need of God.  And I think it’s good for most of us to be looked in the eye once a year and personally humbled: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (I realize that might be a bizarre sentiment to some, especially non-Christians, who read this blog, so ask.)

My problem, however: even if we are well-intentioned and mean the right thing by wearing the ashes, do non-Christians (and the many Christians who are not a particular kind of Christian) understand our intentions?  When Duke undergrads get on the bus, and there are a handful of people scattered throughout the bus with ashes on their heads, what does it mean to those undergrads?  Several may know that Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which is a season leading up to Easter.  Others know Ash Wednesday as the day after Mardi Gras.  Still others know that some and not other Christians get ashes on their head once a year for some reason.  Who knows why?  Christians do a lot of things, after all.

But I am a Christian, a theologically well-educated one, one who cares about the historic forms of Christian worship and who belongs to a liturgical denomination and local church, and I am still conflicted about what the imposition of ashes communicates.  I am convinced that the ashes do plenty of communicating to non-Christians, and I cannot believe that the intended message of the ashes is actually being communicated to anyone outside of a very small group within the Christian community, most of whom already also wearing ashes on their foreheads.  It doesn’t matter if Eucharist and baptism don’t make sense outside the church, because they happen in the context of Christian worship.  Ash Wednesday goes straight out into the public sphere.

Now I say all this, but I am really looking forward to my first observed Lent this year (although I don’t know if I can call it observed since I didn’t get ashed today).

And there is some solace for me: the Orthodox don’t do Ash Wednesday, either (funny, in a decidedly non-haha way, considering that I quoted an Orthodox theologian in my last post, and yes, I know I’m not actually doing Orthodox Lent, either).  Then there’s also the good friend of mine, who really is a worship/liturgy nerd, told me that he doesn’t really get Ash Wednesday either, and that he thinks he might just go along with it.  If there are others of us out there, sit it out next year (lie like me, and claim you’re Orthodox, if you need a good defense) and for as long as it takes to figure out what your forehead is saying when you step out of the church building.  And if you’re a Christian who’s always been weirded out by Lent because Ash Wednesday is an offputting gateway, consider trying the rest of Lent first.  Really, you can.  I promise it still works.

To you and yours, have a Happy solemn Lent!.