Listening is a powerful human experience. During a colleague’s recent hospitalization, I became newly aware of the difference between a doctor who acts on their own assumptions and one who listens to the patient’s experience. This difference can be annoying. Or it can be the difference between life and death. And it seems to parallel an essential aspect of Lent. Is the purpose of these set aside days between Ash Wednesday and Easter to demonstrate what we think we know God wants, or is it to set aside our accumulated assumptions, no matter how well intentioned, so that we can listen with fresh ears to what God is trying to communicate to us here and now?
The prophet Isaiah observes from a God’s eye view that “day after day [God’s people] seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God…” Isaiah 58: 2
God’s experience of humanity makes me deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps I can make up for it by buckling down on my spiritual practices, upping my game. And God responds, in the prophet’s words, “look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast day, a day acceptable to the LORD? Isaiah 58: 3-5
In other words, is Lent about me and my Godward assumptions? Over centuries of practice, Lent has become a season where many of us attempt to prove our spiritual worth to God (and each other). I am able to…. give up chocolate…. cuss less…. pray more often….dedicate my reading to a spiritual classic or thought provoking new inspiration. None of these are bad. Some are very good. But they’re not at the heart of Lent where God yearns to find space within us for authentic encounter. Lent is meant to be a self-emptying opportunity, when I draw near to God in a process that may burn and pull, seeking to dislodge obstacles, excessiveness, the unholy from my life before a truer, purer delight can be born.
I find the prophets words deeply challenging when God’s choices and their actual implications for me are made explicit.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Isaiah 58: 6-7
These are not metaphorical musings. These are evidence of the real desire of God’s heart to build beloved community. These make demands of me, not just my money or my ideas (my, my, my) but how I will spend the days God gives me and with whom. They are the prescription of our Holy Healer.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. Isaiah 58: 8-10
This Lent I will be using the little pocket book, ‘Five Means of Grace: Experience of God’s Love in the Wesleyan Way,” by Elaine A. Heath, as my guide. Not to prove anything to myself or anyone else, but to help me listen to the still small voice that promises:
The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. Isaiah 58: 11-12
Karen L Munson
A pastor and artist, I'm wondering while I'm wandering through God's marvelous creation.