“Almighty and everlasting God, who hates nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent; create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Those are the words of The Collect for the first day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday. That’s today. This prayer is to be read daily throughout Lent.
I am not Anglican, or Catholic, or Lutheran, or anything of a high-church nature. I am a garden variety non-denominational Protestant Christian–an Evangelical, but I have been blessed in recent years through use of The Book of Common Prayer and guided for many years by the work of fellow Christians who were raised and nurtured under its discipline. I’ve been busy lately and so was taken a bit unaware last night by the fact that Lent begins today.
Over the past few years more and more garden variety Evangelicals have been participating in Lent. This phenomenon has been accompanied by lots of discussion. Some people see it as “pagan” or “popish,” others see it as silly and unnecessary. We live under grace after all. Those who participate year after year say that they find giving something up for Lent focuses their minds and helps them to think more about the significance of Easter. I have a hard time seeing anything wrong with that. We have much to distract us. Something that brings focus sounds good, healthy.
So, what to do? I think I have found my answer for this year though it is strange, rather unorthodox, and wrapped in another seemingly unrelated story. This story begins with a neighborhood on-line community in which our subdivision of townhomes participates. It’s supposed to be helpful–to give us a chance to stay in touch, to inform one another of things for sale, neighborhood alerts, missing pets, activities going on at the pool and clubhouse, news about our little lending library–things of that nature. In reality, it is often an opportunity to let off steam. I cringe whenever I see a notice pop-up on my email, and open only with caution. People use it to complain about the neighbors. It gets quite ugly.
Last weekend someone put their recycling out on Saturday in anticipation of pickup Monday. I can think of lots of reasons why a person might do this–going out-of-town, taking care of a sick relative, going into the hospital themselves for surgery, on and on. Anyway, Saturday was very windy, boxes and plastic jugs were blown down the street and on Saturday evening one of the neighbors posted a polemic aimed at the offender. It ended by declaring the person to be an idiot. For some reason I was particularly upset by this post. It seemed so unfair, so nasty, so UN-neighborly. Why not shut your mouth, or your computer, and go out and pick up the trash?
Last night I began to contemplate Lent. I’ve been reading a book for work, part of our professional development. It’s called The Mentored Life and it’s by James M. Houston. It is very good. I like it because it is making me think and because it addresses several things I have wondered about from the medieval period which I teach. I have a lot more thinking to do, but one thing that stood out to me from my recent reading is the need to be careful about being too “interior,” too self-focused. This self focus, learned from Greco-Roman culture, may be what led to the idea in the Middle Ages that we humans could fix ourselves–could, by personal sacrifice and ascetic living, earn God’s approval and become better Christians. Since this is what I have been chewing on these last few snow-bound days, I was having trouble with the idea of giving something up. Besides, having lost 65 pounds in the last year and a half, I don’t have a lot more to give up in the traditional sense. I thought for a while about DOING something instead. The problem there is that one of the reasons for some type of fasting during Lent is to give more time for contemplation of Christ. Adding an activity seems to defeat that purpose. I prayed about it and went to bed.
This morning I opened my email to two new posts in our on-line community. One was a complaint about some “awful” person who had shoveled the front walk of another neighbor–this was acknowledged as thoughtful–but in the process managed to deposit some of the shoveled snow under the car of the offended party. The subject line was “sort of angry.” The second post was about the totally inadequate scraping of snow by the plows yesterday. A picture of the city street was included. I got up and got ready to walk the dogs with my spirit in a stir. I was already thinking about giving up social media for Lent, maybe I should also remove myself from the neighborhood on-line community. I huffed around the house getting my boots on, stuffing plastic bags in my pockets, wondering if I could make it up the icy street while being pulled by a greyhound that really needs to go. That’s when it hit me: my plan for Lent. It began because I noticed the plank in my own eye.
If I were to post an angry note on the neighborhood site, it would most assuredly be about dog poop. Even though we have recently installed pet stations complete with bags, piles of poop continue to be abandoned by dog walkers. This irritates me. How hard it is to pick it up and throw it in the can provided? I thought back to Saturday, the wind and the trash, and I thought about my solution: just go out and pick it up! That’s when the plan came into focus. Beginning today and at least until Easter, I am going to take an extra bag with me each time I walk the dogs, I am going to pick up a random pile of poop, and deposit it in the can. In this way I will be DOING something for Lent, but I will also be giving up something–my frustration and my anger. This will leave me more free to contemplate the season and God’s amazing sacrifice for me. I started this morning. It was kind of like a treasure hunt. Picking up dog poop can be a holy calling. Getting angry and going off on people doesn’t change anything. God didn’t just get angry with us and tell us off. He came and died to fix our mess; in fact He took our mess upon himself. Hallelujah!