Thursday, March 11, 2010

Permission to Smile at Lent

It really is ok to smile during the season of Lent. This season which begins in a somber way on Ash Wednesday is a time when we call the church to “get serious” about faith and commitment. And, since we United Methodists are latecomers to the liturgical days like Ash Wednesday, we aren’t quite sure what to do.

We certainly never had Ash Wednesday when I was a child, but then that was in the dark ages. After liturgical renewal in the seventies, we decided that it was a good idea to have a common lectionary. That is, most of the mainline Protestants and Catholics read the same lessons on Sundays. With this renewal, we had, in addition to Christmas and Easter, things like Christ the King Sunday, and Ascension Sunday, and Ash Wednesday with Lent.

So, we get a good crowd in the church on Ash Wednesday and we mark everybody with ashes made from last year’s Palm Sunday palms. Sure it’s somber and serious. Who can make light of a day on which we remember our mortality and sin? So, I find myself with other clergy calling the flock to really “get serious” this time about it all.

Some are “giving up” something like caffeine and chocolate. Some are doing some act of service in addition to what they already do. Most of us are spending a little more time thinking and praying about bringing our lives under the shadow of the cross again.

However, it is ok to smile. Usually when we hear the message to “get serious” the only thing we get serious about is ourselves. We focus on me and my own shortcomings. We ask: “How can I change?” We act as if we’ll be better after wallowing around in our sin or analyzing ourselves to see if there is room for improvement.

At this stage in my life, self-improvement is an oxymoron. Sometimes I stroll through the self-help, self-improvement, section of the book store just to see what is there. One thing is sure: concentrating on myself doesn’t change me.

Christian faith tells us, maybe especially at Lent, that we are being changed and shaped. The question is: what or who is shaping us? Are we being shaped by our culture's attempts to get us to see everything in consumer categories? Or, are we being shaped by the Spirit of Christ?

Lent is more about bringing ourselves as much as we can under the influence of Christ and the cross. The grace which saved us in Jesus Christ was a gift and the grace which makes us into what God’s wants us to be is a gift.

Sure, there is much to learn. There is much growth to be had. There is much serving to be done. Lent is that time when we walk with Christ in the story of Holy Scripture and as we walk that journey it comes to us that it is our story. During Lent it becomes more of our story and draws us into that life that is filled with grace and joy.

The scriptures that set the tone for Ash Wednesday are those verses in Matthew 6 which warn us about being hypocrites and parading our piety before others for the sake of being noticed. I don’t find many actual hypocrites. That would involve a conscious “let’s pretend.” The people I know are really trying to “be serious” about their faith. So, while you’re trying to really “get serious” during Lent, remember that the cross and Jesus and everything else is a gift of God, by God’s grace.

It’s OK to smile during Lent.

Dave Nichols

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Thanks for checking out my blog. I'm new to this, as you can probably see. But, I, like you, have convictions and ideas worth sharing. I hope this will be an opportunity to connect with others who are Christian and/or religious. I am happily United Methodist. I am committed to the basic teachings of our church, and to the compassionate outreach to the world.

I hope these pastoral ponderings will generate something in you that is hopeful.

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A graduate of Newberry College and Duke University Divinity School.  I have served as a pastor in the United Methodist Church since 1975.

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