In the movie "Lord of the Rings" there is a moment right as the invading army arrives that Gandalf says, "And so it begins, the battle for middle earth." It is a stunning moment both for its simplicity and brevity, on the one hand, and the monumental import and meaning of the words, on the other. Great and sublime moments have a beginning. The birth of a child. The opening of a new business. A marriage. The first day of school. Each beginning contains a mystery, what will happen?
Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the Christian day of repentance above all others. Some find such a concept offensive. Times and seasons, to them, are an empty practice. For others it is a way to focus more intensely. We are not able to do everything all of the time. Multi-tasking is limited. Seasons provide a support system for our overwhelmed mind and heart. A time of focus on one or another aspect of the Christian life with greater intensity allows us to go deeper.
Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance, begins the season of Lent. Lent literally means Spring. This is the Springtime of the church. A time of new growth. Lent began at midnight, 00:00 on the clock. I spent the first five hours of Lent asleep! (Sort of a symbol of my spiritual life?). At 6:30 we had eucharist with the distribution of ashes. Some 25 of us gathered. The first day of Lent was 1/4th over before our liturgical kick-off event. There are many themes from the Scripture readings assigned today and many themes in the prayers and exhortations in the Prayer Book. It is not always easy to combine the different themes and balance them. One task of a leader is to do that for the group.
Our parish focus will officially be our mission statement. It is something much influenced by the Rule of St. Benedict. It is also a description of piety (or godliness), understood as "the spiritual life" or "the spiritual disciplines." Our parish is a eucharistic worship community, committed to pray, work and study. The purpose of this is to glorify God. The major work of the church is two fold (inreach to disciples, outreach as apostles) and is modeled after the ministry of Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom, He taught, healed and exorcised. Our lenten practices (self denial and discipline) need to be conformed to a Gospel inspired mission statement. If you do not have a mission statement maybe this Ash Wednesday is a perfect day to construct one.
In light of our limitations, it is best to focus on smaller areas and do them well. I was reminded this morning by a dear and holy friend, that we live in a culture of "self-improvement." We see the world from a stand point of self perfection. Even the church is busy with programs, exercises and processes which will make us more efficient and more effective. While not bad, this is not the Gospel. He reminded me that our goal is not self-actualization but self-gift and self-denial (the Cross). He reminded me that our goal is not perfection (like we ever reach that!) but redemption and sanctification. It is not about what we do as much as it is what God does with us.
Outcomes are certainly not bad. Any reading of Scripture includes a multitude of stark reminders that we are to be judged, that what we say and do matters, and that God wants us to be our best self. It is, however, vital that we are clear on what "best" means.
I intend in the days ahead to reflect on the Lenten journey with a focus on the things above (in bold). It is not the only way to envision the life of faith, but it is a good way. Today's theme is God focused. In the end, glorifying the God Who made us and loves us needs to drive all we do. It is in His hands. We are never able to completely become who and what we should be. Yet, our failures acknowledged and repented from, we have hope and joy because the Triune God will transform us. A little bit at a time, but eventually wholly (&holy) and completely. What better thought on this "first day of church Spring" and what better source of peace and joy as we begin the journey of Lent?