Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Praying Our Truth: Ash Wednesday Meditation on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

With heartfelt thanks to Sophia for her recommendation of the Upper Room website for a lovely, concise introduction to the Examen.

When my children were younger we had a particular family tradition that marked the beginning of the season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday after dinner we would each write something down on a piece of paper. It might be some aspect of our character we hoped to improve during Lent, or perhaps some small pleasure we planned to give up, or even a spiritual discipline we intended to take on. After writing these down, we put our pieces of paper in a metal bowl, struck a match, and watched the flames rise high and the paper burn. After our words had become ash, and after the ashes had cooled, we marked one another’s foreheads with the ashes, while reciting appropriate words. One year, when Petra was about three years old, we said, “Repent and believe the gospel.” First, Larry marked my forehead with ashes, saying “Repent and believe the gospel.” And so we went around the table, each of us saying the same thing as we marked one another with the ashes. Finally it was Petra’s turn. She put the ashes on her thumb, walked over to her father’s chair, solemnly made a cross of ashes on his forehead, and said, “To the hospital.”

Of course, Petra got it pretty much exactly right. During the season of Lent, we do indeed surrender ourselves to a kind of cure for our souls, if not for our bodies. In these forty days preceding Easter (forty days, not including the Sundays), we recognize that, indeed, we are not well. We are sick. We need help. We need care greater than that we can give ourselves. We need the Great Physician. We need, as the prophet begs us, to turn back to God, with all our hearts. We need, at least in a spiritual sense, to get ourselves to the hospital.

This notion doesn’t necessarily sit well with us. After all, we’re all good people, aren’t we? We strive to live decent and honorable lives… I mean, here we are in church, for heaven’s sake. On a Wednesday. At dinner time! That in itself speaks loudly and clearly of our faith and values. Here’s the problem with that perspective, reasonable as it seems. The moment we begin to suspect we’re really pretty good folks is the moment we are in real danger of slipping away from God entirely. One pastor wrote recently that the greatest threat to Christianity is not evil, but good. “The elders, chief priests, and scribes were all very good people,” he writes, “and very good people often have no need for Jesus.” (1) When we are convinced we are good, there begins to grow in some dark, unexplored corner of our hearts the conviction that we don’t really need God so much after all.

And so, we are confronted with the regular, seasonal reminder to turn back to God. Necessary even for us “good folk”… maybe more for us than for anyone. For at least a thousand years, the church has recommended a three-pronged program of attack to aid us in turning back to God: almsgiving, fasting, and prayer.

Let’s start with giving. If there’s one thing that should strike us about the reading from the prophet Joel, perhaps it’s this: the project of turning back to God is never a solo flight. One of the great protestant reformers remarked that “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” The call of God in scripture is almost always corporate: we are called as a community. And so one of the ways in which we are invited to observe Lent is by charitable giving. By giving to those in need we remind ourselves of our connection to them, of our common calling with them as the beloved children of God. St. Sociable has a strong and wonderful tradition of participating in the One Great Hour of Sharing. This is an annual offering through which our gifts help people to find safe refuge, to start new lives, and to work together to strengthen their families and communities. This year the Presbyterian Church (USA) is challenging its congregations to double their giving to the One Great Hour of Sharing, an extreme response in a time of extreme need. This is the first Lenten discipline: giving.

The second Lenten discipline is fasting. Fasting, in its simplest form, is the giving up of something… traditionally, some kind of food, but not necessarily. We can fast from TV or tabloids or even the internet. We can choose to give up meat, or alcohol, or soft drinks. The hardest fast I ever did was giving up wearing jewelry for Lent. The purpose of fasting is to allow God to fill the void we have created in giving something up. If we experience the emptiness of an hour without the distraction of the internet, or chocolate, for example, it affords us an opportunity to instead invite God into that hour, to, perhaps, open our bible and read in that hour. If we tear our hearts away from our favorite time-wasters, we have a slightly better chance of turning them back over to God.

And finally, prayer. During the season of Lent we are invited to spend increased time in prayer, deepening our connection with God. Prayer is both the easiest and the hardest thing we are asked to do in this season. Easy because, there’s no expense, there’s no fancy equipment, and there’s no self-denial involved. Hard because in prayer, in the pursuit of drawing nearer to God, we come face to face with someone we might not be so interested in meeting: ourselves. And so… it is prayer that will be the focus of our Lenten series this year. Each week we will focus on a particular kind of prayer, just as each week we will focus on a particular kind of music. Tonight, in view of Ash Wednesday and the call of the prophet to turn back to God, I thought it might be good to spend a bit of time on prayer of confession, what I’ve called “praying our truth.”

When I was a child, I spoke like a child and thought like a child. I was the product of a tradition that encouraged face-to-face confession with a religious professional. So, I learned to make lists of sins. “Bless me father,” I would say, “It has been two weeks since my last confession. In that time I have: lied twice, hit my brother once, stolen cookies three times when my mom told me I couldn’t have any, and talked back to my mom once.” I carried this idea of confession into my twenties… lists of sins.

That’s not to say lists of sins might not be useful in some way. It’s always good to know what our weak spots are, so that we can try to avoid what has been called “the near occasion of sin.” But ultimately we are called to a deeper kind of self-examination. I think, too, we are called to a gentler kind of self-examination. I’d like to share one method with you. It’s called the “Examen,” and it comes to us via the tradition in which I was raised. But its use has been adapted by Christians of all varieties and flavors, and I think you’ll see why.

We are encouraged to do the examen on a regular basis. Many people do it at night, the last thing before they go to sleep. The idea is to examine a set period of time… one day works well.

Begin by reminding yourself that you are in the presence of God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. You are in the presence of God, who calls you “Beloved.” If you like candles, light a candle. Take some slow, deep breaths, and close your eyes.

Know that God’s Holy Spirit is all around you. When you breathe in, breathe in the Spirit. When you breathe out, let the love of the Spirit fill the room.

The first part of the examen is this: Ask God to bring to your awareness the moment of the day for which you are most grateful.

~ If you could relive one moment, which one would it be?
~ When were you most able to give and receive love today?
~ Ask yourself what was said and done in that moment that made it so good.

Now breathe in the gratitude you felt and receive life again from that moment

The second part of the examen is this: Ask God to bring to your awareness the moment today for which you are least grateful.

~ When were you least able to give and receive love?
~ Ask yourself what was said and done in that moment that made it so difficult.
~ Relive the feelings without trying to change or fix it in any way.

Now take deep breaths and let God's love fill you just as you are.

The third part of the examen is this: Give thanks. Give thanks for God’s presence in your life. Give thanks for those moments for which you are most grateful, and even for those moments for which you are least grateful, because God is able to use those moments to help you to grow in faith, hope and love.

That’s it. It shouldn’t take any longer than 10 or 15 minutes. Most grateful. Least grateful. Thank God. And in that time you will have shared intimately with God the truth of your day, of this tiny slice of your life. And God will have refreshed you and given you a taste of the tender mercies that are available to each of us.

To the hospital. Each Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our need for God, even if we are basically pretty good people. Each Lent we are reminded of God’s boundless mercy and steadfast love as the context for praying our truth, even when that truth is hard. Each moment of our lives we have the opportunity to turn, and to turn again, back to God with all our hearts. Amen.


(1) Brian Stoffregen, “Exegetical Notes by Brian Stoffregen,” at CrossMarks Christian Resources,


Choralgirl said...

Would you be my pastor? :-)

Never a solo flight...fantastic!

Sophia said...

Oh, nicely done, Mags. It is so rare and so helpful to give people a concrete spiritual step they can take in a sermon.

Our Ash Wednesday service was lovely, but I left a little frustrated because the rector contrasted "Lent Lite"--as he called the traditional give up practices--with addressing a more deeply rooted area of personal sinfulness. He didn't completely diss Lent Lite, which is good, and said some years it's what we are all up for....But he gave not one hint about how to begin looking at and addressing the deeper stuff!