Today is Ash Wednesday; the beginning of the season of Lent. This season is one in which we as the Church and as believers journey with Jesus towards the cross. We are reminded of our own mortality as well the mortal death that the Son of God faced in order to bring us life. It is a season in which we are encouraged to engage in confession, repentance, and discipline so that God's grace might shape us into a more Christ-like people.
So let's begin with confession. I don't pray like I should. I don't like admitting it and its something a pastor should probably never have to say, especially not the pastor of a church where prayer is valued as highly as it is in this one. But I guess that's the thing about confession; you've got to make known those weak and not-so-great parts of you that you would rather hide. I struggle with prayer and I've struggled with it for a long time. In fact, its difficult to think of any significant portion of my adult life where it hasn't been a struggle. I've read books, heard opinions from people I respect, taken classes, and tried numerous different practices of prayer. I think it is even safe to say that many of those things helped for a time and helped me to grow in certain ways. In spite of that, I'm back where I always end up; a place where I'm not praying on any kind of regular basis. Of course, there are the prayers I lead as a pastor and I think those times of corporate prayer are extremely important, probably even more important than times of individual prayer. But I also know that Jesus had to withdraw to lonely places to pray. I confess now that over the last several months I have not been making those lonely places a priority in my life.
Repentance. I feel some level of guilt over my poor prayer life but I've got to be honest, I'm pretty convinced those feelings don't come from God. We often talk as if guilt is God's tug on our conscience to get us back on track and there may be some level of truth to that but I think we must admit that guilt has been an unwieldy tool in the hands of Christianity. More importantly, this kind of guilt stems from an unhealthy image of God; a portrait of God that looks something like a perpetually disappointed parent. I think God probably hates that we so often see him in this way. Instead, he wants us to remember that he is the loving father in the story of the "prodigal son", always welcoming us back home. And if that is the proper image of God, then I think that the son who decides to return home is the proper image of repentance. Luke never says anything about the prodigal feeling sorry for what he has done. Instead, he says that "he came to his senses" and decided to return home. His return home is his act of repentance because it shows that he recognized the error of his way, changed direction, and started heading down the right path. The father doesn't hold it over the son's head that he ran away. He welcomes him home because he realizes that the son's arrival is his repentance. He wouldn't have come home if hadn't already recognized the error of his ways. I recognize that my prayer life needs to be more than it is and I am turning away from the lazy and indifferent approach I have taken toward it recently.
Discipline. If repentance is not focused on guilt but a change of direction, then discipline is not a matter of punishment but of taking steps down that new path. Often people will choose to give up something as their Lenten discipline. This is something I've done for the past two years and I have found it to be an important means of spiritual formation. The spirit of Christ's life on this earth was one of service and sacrifice. Therefore, I believe that Christ's Spirit speaks to us when we engage in these practices, no matter how small. However, this year I intend to adopt a different discipline for Lent. Instead of giving something up specifically, I am making a commitment to seek those quiet places of prayer at least three times a week. I'm not going to say for how long each day or which days or what time of day or what kind of prayer practices I will engage in or anything like that because I know from experience that those things lead me down a road to a legalistic prayer life and therefore ultimately back to where I am now. But I will say that this commitment will at least mean getting out of my house, my office, or whatever other place there is that will provide insurmountable distractions three times a week throughout the season of Lent. Because saying 'yes' to a serious time of prayer, automatically means saying 'no' to the many things that clamor for my attention. This commitment means seeking those quite and lonely places.
I believe that the Spirit of God will meet me in those places and shape me to be more like his Son to the glory of the Father.