The thought of Lent typically leads me to the ideas of repentance and introspection. My constant temptation is to quickly descend into self-loathing and despair. I am quick to pick out a few glaring sins that don’t bring much brokenness. These usually consist of me apathetically confessing speeding, gossiping, or jealousy. Rarely do I take time to look at the root of these sins or ask myself questions like: Why do I delight in someone else’s misfortune or why do I want ill for someone because they pose a threat to me? Other times my confession leads me on a downward spiral into self-hatred and contempt. This kind of confession serves only to pull me further from God and others. When my self-contempt is high for several days, I usually just punt the schedule and goals that I have set, like praying more or reading my Bible regularly, based simply on the conclusions I have drawn about myself.
This year I find myself in a different place. Now I don’t want to see my sin because I am actually happy where I am. Will and I have had an amazing year, and soon (please Lord, soon) we are expecting our first child. What could be better? Life is going along so well I don’t want to be disturbed by this idea - that maybe everything isn’t as great as I would like to think. I still want to resist the call to engage what lurks below like: my loneliness, my failures, my misunderstandings, and my losses.
Yesterday we attended an Ash Wednesday service. I entered the dimly lit sanctuary that smelled of caged air. I slid into the pew as my hands skimmed the cool bench. I couldn’t help but notice how hollow the space felt. It was as though it had been shut up since last Lent. As the service started, the pastor read the words of the liturgy to which we all responded in our appropriate places. The words felt as heavy as bricks. Our flow of reading and response was interrupted ever so often to sing a most solemn song of our mortality. “Out of my bondage, sorrow and strife Jesus I come.” We return to our rhythm only to be interrupted again by the sober chorus-“Out of my bondage, sorrow and strife Jesus I come.” The recurring sequence paused for a moment as we filed in line to receive the sign of the cross. I moved slowly taking the smallest steps I could as I waited to make my way before the pastor. As he pasted the ashes on my head he recited, “Rachel, from dust you came and to dust you will return.” It was depressing. I didn’t want to think about the fact that my time on this earth really is limited. My gut reaction was, "No! I want to stay here! I want my home to be here! I have a husband I love, and a child on the way. I don't want to go anywhere. I need this life to last for eternity!" My thoughts startled me. I had become so consumed in my world that I had completely lost sight of eternity. I had forgotten that redemption, reconciliation, justice, love, healing, and equality are all held in the arms of a new heaven and a new earth - a coming place where we dine with one another without hatred, greed, pride, jealousy, failure, loneliness, abuse, or unmet longing. It is a place far better than my best day here on earth.
But the real problem with both of those approaches is that they keep my Lenten focus on myself, or, at best, myself and God. We often use these private confessionals as a time to focus on petty sins so we don’t have to deal with the sin that is rooted in our relationships. We can stay comfortable while still feeling a sense of spiritual accomplishment about our time of repentance.
But in reality, it is in these times of acknowledgment and confession that we are able to invite others into our grief, suffering and sin. This is the call of community, especially in the Lenten season. In community, we are able to experience the power of reconciliation and forgiveness, a power that will hopefully lead us to a more eternal perspective.
I don’t mean to imply this is easy or even happens often, but I do believe this is the way in which we engage the suffering, loss, and failure that are highlighted in Lent. How do I mend a broken relationship that fell apart 3 years ago? How do I reconcile with a parent that refuses to examine the harm he has contributed to the breakdown of the relationship? How do I continue to examine my own faults and shortcomings in these situations? Lent is frightening because it demands that we deal with the realities of sin, both personal and general, that keeps us from relationship. Here we must have the courage to change the areas of our life that have fallen deep to darkness.
As I continue to question and figure out the importance of Lent I have realized that there are two important aspects I have learned so far. First, I need to take the time to sit and evaluate my relationships and the part I play in bearing death instead of life. Secondly, that I need these communal moments with other to be reminded of the hope I have in Jesus that one day all will be made right. Maybe Lent isn’t so much about me confessing my sin but being aware that sin is all around me threatening to separate me from communion with God, others, and myself.