Growing up there were traditions within the church I never really understood. When it came to Lent, the only thing I understood about it was the day before it started involved pancakes! A work colleague remarked after I mentioned what day it was yesterday that, “Every day is Pancake Day; I don’t one day in a year to tell me it’s Pancake Day!” And okay, fair enough, point taken – in more ways than one.
Having grown up with a Canadian grandmother and a diet of flapjacks, maple syrup and bacon, neither do I!
In reality, I made the remark as a self-reminder Lent was here, something I had been preparing myself for since the year started.
I grew up in The Salvation Army tradition, which was born out of Reformed Methodism, and it surprises me somewhat that Lent wasn’t overly observed. Maybe it was and I never really paid that much attention to it. Palm Sunday was always observed and I knew there was some linkage to Easter, but the Army traditionally never placed a high priority on religious sacraments. It doesn’t reject or ignore them; I have been present at occasions, like a retreat or Good Friday, where traditional sacraments like communion and water baptism have taken place. For the follower of Jesus who wears a Salvation Army uniform, serving the poor and marginalised is as much of a sacrament as breaking bread at communion.
This year I have decided to observe and explore Lent, and not as an act of religious practice or devotion. The desire is to understand what it means for a follower of Jesus both privately and publicly, regardless of the denominational t-shirt; in an active relationship with God. It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that it has to produce a proactive response. In other words, new outcomes – inwardly, outwardly and upwardly. It all means nothing if it doesn’t produce long-term change.
After experiencing the darkest period of my life, Lent seems a good opportunity to find a way to make sure light stays on. The last three years were not simply a case of “a long dark night of the soul” – it was a pure blackout – it looked like the lights were out forever. I could not see at all and it gave me a feeling much heavier than depression. My hope was gone and I had moved into a position where I was at best an agnostic.
What was going on? If I could sum up my life story in five words it would be, a long quest for truth. And that’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – absolute truth, not relative truth, and this quest had reached its highest point. I either had to accept that, like C.S Lewis once said, God was indeed God, that in him there was not only truth, there was grace and there was justice, and there is total light. God not only existed, that he deeply cared about stuff I cared about: justice, social justice, equality for women, the environment and hope for the poor, marginalised and oppressed.
I believe we’re not meant to live in and with darkness. It’s for this reason that as I observe Lent, I’ll be journeying through the Gospel of John, where in starts off from the outset, “In him was life, that life was the light for all humanity. The light the shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” And it must be said, in the lead up to this, I had been reading through some parts of the Old Testament where I had had some objections to it – like Deuteronomy and Joshua – and that is a post on its own.
What I am seeing though is Lent offers a yearly opportunity to not only have spiritual reflection, but it allows for spiritual inspections. This is something which should be an everyday occurrence. The problem is when life is busy, it’s easy to ignore our inner dimensions and the conditions of our soul – regardless of our vocations and life callings. Even during Lent, something can happen which makes life challenging. It doesn’t matter how long you have followed Jesus for, the Holy Spirit will always draws us back to a place where we need to have a good check up, because if we don’t, that’s when it goes wrong. That’s when our spiritual lives can perish – yes, it can die.
Usually it takes something to fall over before we realise there is something wrong; our spiritual health needs the same kind of attention we would give to physical bodies and psyche (mental); like the body and mind, when sickness enters into our spiritual lives, the symptoms present themselves in a variety of ways: temptations (old or new), relationship breakdowns, inability to connect with God either through prayer, the Bible, and total withdrawal from community (the church) all present themselves.
What I have learned is the constant need to look for traces of the old in me that needs to be exchanged for the new: because if I can sum up what is Jesus is doing with the world in one verse, it is, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5)
So with this Lent period, there is a lot of old to exchange for new: a new self and attitude (Ephesians 4:22-24). The new year has started today.