Ashes to Ashes

Holy in the Ordinary(Creative Commons Image by MTSOfan on Flickr)

Oh wow, preachers. The beginning of Lent. Are you ready? I am imagine you are. Your Lenten theme is in place. Small groups are lined up. Soup suppers are in control. Dramas are written. You are READY!

Yet, when I sat down to write this column for Ash Wednesday, I was reminded of a cartoon. The first picture/caption is “Christ is Risen!” with the pastor decked out in all of the expected Easter regalia, at least in my denomination — alb, white stole, cross — and surrounded by lilies and white paraments. In the next frame, we see the pastor collapsed in a heap with the caption, “And the clergy is dead.”

Is that ever the truth! Lent is hard. That’s probably the understatement of the year, right? It’s a sprint to Easter. You know that. But how do you get from here to there, and maybe without collapsing in a heap?

Recently I was asked by the marketing department of Luther, “what does Lent mean to you?” I fear they may never ask me again to respond to their questions. Because here’s what I said about Lent — “If it means giving up things, constant reminders of how worthless and temporary I am, any glorification of suffering, then it means nothing to me. If it means embracing the importance of self-reflection when it comes to your identity as a disciple, who you believe Jesus to be, what (if anything) the cross really means to you, how you understand the meaning of the resurrection, and that you take the resurrection forward to the meaning of the ascension, then Lent has meaning to me.”

Do you feel that Lent needs to conform to ecclesiological and liturgical determinations? Do you feel obliged to present and preach Lent in a certain way, with a certain ethos, so as to create a sense of appropriate contrition and confession? The right mood of penitence and remorse?

What does Lent mean to you? If you haven’t answered this question in recent years, then maybe that’s why Lent seems less than appealing. But it seems worth contemplating, especially when we are asking our parishioners to do the same.

The goal of Lent is not to get through it. What does Lent need to be for you this year? I wonder how your members would respond, to hear from you what Lent means for you, what you are doing, or not doing, as the case may be, to mark this liturgical season or to make these forty days meaningful.

I have a feeling that they would be relieved. “Wait. I don’t have to berate myself with my inadequacies? I don’t have to think of myself as a worthless soul, whose only redemptive value is in what God sees in me? Wait, I don’t have to give up all kinds of things, things that actually give me joy? Maybe I could embrace things, do more of the things that matter to me?” This could be a different kind of Lent.

You, we, model Lent for those to whom we minister. I get that many of you will read this and say, well, that what’s Lent is all about. It’s about discipline. Determination. Denial. Then maybe you will just stop reading. That’s ok. But for those of you who wonder, can Lent be different? Can Lent be about … ?

How you preach this Wednesday, this Lent, indeed sets the tone for imagination about this season in the church year. What your parishioners hear what Lent means for you and not a third person, ecclesial explanation of what Lent should mean, could make a difference. What if you invite them into their own imagination for and commitment to this season that might be shaped by their own place in life and place in faith and not what they perceive the church needs them to think?

I wonder. If you actively engage and invite those in your church to imagine Lent in the way they need to, maybe that will give you permission to do the same.

This season needs to be about you as much as it needs to be about those to whom you minister. Because as soon as you detach, as soon as you offer a third person, “This is what we should do for Lent” your people will say, “well, why?” Can you answer that question? If you can’t, then rethink what you are doing for the next six weeks and what Lent means for you.

Preach Lent. Preach the season. Preach the lessons through the lens of liturgical determinations. But then, and maybe before, answer yourself, “why Lent, why the season, what difference does it make?”

Because then those listening to your sermons will actually hear you and say, “Wow. Maybe this really matters. It doesn’t have to matter in the way it matters to Pastor … But now I can imagine for myself what it matters to me.”

And then maybe, when you arrive at Easter Sunday, you will recall the cartoon I mentioned above and say, “Actually I am not dead. In fact, I think I have been resurrected.”