Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Stomach full of Ashes.

It's hard to write an Ash Wednesday post when you've never actually participated in the holy-day. Coming from the Southern Baptist tradition, where our church calendar consists of Christmas, Easter, and the clockwork schedule of potluck suppers and ice cream socials, this was never something I experienced growing up.

I was invited to go to an Ash Wednesday service tonight. I didn't go, and now wish I had. I don't even have a really good reason for not going, other than being the proverbial stranger in a strange liturgical land. Even that's not a good reason. One would assume that being off-balance and unsure of oneself would be a boon for such a mass. But I let the moment pass, and now have to wait a year for it to come 'round again, like a missed Valentine's Day.

I've never given anything up for Lent. I like the idea, but would always forget to decide on the matter until the day of or after it begins. By then, my attitude is usually that I missed the window of opportunity--as if self-denial can only be instituted at certain times on the calendar, like changing your insurance coverage at work. Truth is, I probably use my forgetfulness as an excuse to avoid the difficult decision to die to self in some small, symbolic way.

Since my first-hand knowledge of this subject is thus so small, I would ask for your indulgence as I continue blindly in this vein.

Lent, as I understand it, is to commemorate and honor the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent in the desert, being tested and tempted by the devil. Now, I don't feel comfortable whipping up a tidy homily on the subject, but I notice a couple of things as I read this story.

Jesus was driven by the Spirit of God to go on this journey. He was hungry. And "behold," after defeating the temptations of the enemy, angels ministered to his needs.

A few things. First: If Lent is to remember Christ's desert exile, then it is the Spirit of God, and not necessarily our need to suffer, that drives our sacrifice. I think this keeps us from feeling like we're not doing enough or being spiritual enough. I also think that this dislodges the Lenten fast from its place in the liturgical year. Fasting of any kind isn't just for springtime; it's whenever the Spirit of God says, "Do it."

Second: Jesus was hungry. I forget this too easily--that Jesus humbled himself enough to become really and truly human, and as such, He experienced all the same things we do. He was cold. He was tired. He was sweaty. And from time to time, He was hungry. After His 40-day fast, He was famished.

(When I get really good and hungry, I get super-cranky. I'm a bear to deal with. Since Jesus lived without sin, He must not have reacted the way I do, when He was hungry. This tells me that I can't use hunger as an excuse when I'm being a jerk.)

Third: "Behold." I love this, for some reason. In Matthew's account of Jesus' temptation, after Jesus defeats the devil using the Word of God, the Tempter leaves. And then it says, "Behold, angels came and were ministering to Him." The word "behold" isn't used in the rest of the story. It wasn't used when the Tempter showed up. I don't know why this is, but if I were to guess, I'd say that when we're going through a difficult situation, a test or trial, being rescued and restored always feels like a surprise, even if we know it's coming. Jesus knew that He would make it through without sinning, but still, Matthew says "behold." It's like he's clueing the reader in somehow: The tempter leaves and then, check it out! Angels came and restored Jesus.

My family's dealing with some stuff right now, related to my dad's job situation. And it's hard, when you're going through that type of valley, to see through to that "behold!" moment. Maybe Lenten discipline is like that. You know it will end eventually, with the celebration of Christ's resurrection and the hope of our own. But it gets hard to see, until that behold moment comes when you reach the other side.

I don't know if that makes sense at all. I'm probably talking nonsense.

I'm hungry. I haven't eaten today.

A few weeks ago, I heard a pastor talk about his men's group and how they will set aside certain times and seasons in which they'll fast one day a week. That sounded kinda cool to me, and I thought, "I should do this." I've been reading about spiritual disciplines, and the idea has been in my head as of late. And generally, if I get the idea in my head to fast, I'm pretty sure it's of God, since my flesh wouldn't come up with something so crazy. So I started it last week and decided to do it for 5 weeks.

And here we are, on Week 2, now embarking on the Lenten season. Imagine that.

So here's my novice attempt at Lent: I'm extending the 5 weeks to 7-8 weeks (I'll need to double check the exact length). Fasting one day a week, drinking only liquids and trying not to drink for sustenance (no large chocolate shakes or Slim-Fasts, in other words). Trying to focus on those days on Scripture, prayer, and obedience.

[Point of order: Am I violating Jesus' Sermon on the Mount fasting instructions by blogging about this? I don't think so, for a few reasons. A) You readers will be the only people who know, and I can only think of one or two people I see on a weekly basis who would read this. If you're one of those, I ask that you not even mention you saw this post. Pray for me, but don't bring it up. B) I'm not looking for com-box kudos; I just want to share what God's pushing me through in my life. I say "pushing" because something like this takes a divine shove. So, I don't bring it up to impress you people; and God knows my heart in this and will judge me accordingly.]

What I hope to gain from this is a better sense of what it is to rely on God's strength and grace. And honestly, I need to re-order my life. Things are starting to spin out of balance. Have you ever overfilled one side of your washing machine, so that it spends the whole spin cycle clanging and thumping? That's my life these days--gentle agitation, followed by clanging and thumping.

Last week, I realized that I don't talk to God enough. I almost wrote "as much as I should," but there's no objective pass/fail level of prayer. But I recognized in myself that what I need is more. More prayer, more study, more silence. I don't meditate on God's word enough.

And what am I learning today? I'm hungry. Much hungrier than I was last week, for some reason. Food has filled my thoughts for a good part of the day today. I was tempted to succumb and eat many times. But then I got home, and started writing this post. I pulled out my Bible, and started reading the story of Jesus' temptation. And I saw that He was hungry. Yet His first response was to feast on God's word.

That first temptation hits me hard. Bread, or Scripture? Honestly, there have been a few times tonight that, if given the choice so directly, I might have lost the battle. But Jesus' response to the same offer shows me that I need to recognize and cultivate a hunger in my soul. I've got to be more hungry for God than I am for food. That, if given the choice between a sandwich and a Psalm, I'll seek that which brings true life. Later on in the Gospels, I remember Jesus' disciples asking him if He wants something to eat, and He replies, "I have food you don't know about." The disciples thought he meant that he had a snack stashed in His robe or something, so Jesus clarified, "My food is to do the will of the One who sent me."

That's why I'm going to keep telling myself tonight. I have to feed on the Will of God. And what is His will? To submit myself to Him, so that He can re-form me into the image of Jesus.

(Also, today I'm learning that, when the pressure's on, the real you comes out. And the real me isn't a very nice person. I was rude, and I was disrespectful today. Thankfully, I have understanding coworkers. But talk about conviction; I'm a jerk. Hunger doesn't make me a jerk; hunger pulls away the veneer of politeness to reveal the jerk that's always there hiding.)

Maybe you're not doing any Lenten fast. That's cool. But let me challenge you: take a second and think about what you feast on most. Realize that you too are being offered the same choice. And choose to feast on the Bread of Life, who is Jesus, the Word who was in the beginning and was with God and was God.

May you be ever more hungry for that good Bread, and may you feast upon it with joy.

"Happy" Ash Wednesday. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. Repent of your sins, and rededicate yourself to God. And then believe that He is faithful and just to forgive your sins, to cleanse you from all unrighteousness, and that He can breathe new life into your dead bones, so that you may feast on His presence and be filled.

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