Lent: A 40 Day Process of Transformation
When my children were little, they all went to Little Red Hen Preschool. My youngest child, Juliana, had a wonderful teacher named Mr. K. One day when I was dropping Juliana off, Mr. K. said, “Mrs. Forsberg, you look beautiful today in that dress.” Usually I wore jeans or sweat pants. “Oh, thank you,” I said. “I am dressed up because I have a funeral.” “Oh, I am sorry,” said Mr. K. My funeral dress was a green and black paisley dress, because as a Christian, I do not think we should wear total black for funerals, as if we have no hope. This dress was tasteful, but it was all about life, vivid green, bursting forth from the black, like plants in dark, rich soil. A week later, I brought Juliana to Little Red Hen, wearing the same dress. “Again, Mrs. Forsberg, you look very beautiful today, all dressed up.” “Another funeral,” I said. Mr. K. looked concerned. “I am SO sorry,” he said. I nodded. A week later, same dress. Mr. K. looked at me, very puzzled and concerned. “I hate to say anything about the dress. Do you have another funeral?” he asked. I nodded “Yes.” Then I realized, “Mr. K., do you know what I do?” He shook his head “No.” “I am a pastor of a church.” The puzzle pieces fell together as Mr. K’s face registered his epiphany. “I see!” he said.
Being a pastor from a young age – 25 years old – has brought me very much in touch with the reality of our mortality, yes, more than most people my age. Most people, I think, try to avoid thinking about their own mortality most of the time. Ash Wednesday is a wake up call for all of us. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. Part of being human means that each of us will face death: death of those we love, death of our hopes, and dreams and aspirations, death of all that we know, our own death.
Yet how our culture tries to trick us into thinking it will never happen to us. Yesterday Ted and I saw a commercial – a woman my age or a little older. “Do your cheeks look like apples? If not, get this injection, and you will look young forever.” Who wants apple cheeks? Really?
We are delusional. Just in this past week, I have had experiences with people my age, and five-ten years older, who have lost a parent, and seemed shocked. They do not know how to handle death. One family made all the plans for me to do their mom’s funeral, without asking me! Do they think pastors are eternally available for their every need? As it turns out, I had another funeral at that time. “Well then we will find someone else to do it.” I knew their mom for 27 years – half my life. I loved her. They are going to find a stranger who doesn’t know her because they are clueless about death, even though their mom was in her late eighties. They didn’t think about it?
Ashes whack us all upside the head and remind us: “You are not immortal. Those you love are not immortal. Part of every life includes death. There is no detour. You cannot avoid it.”
In the Hebrew bible, ashes were a sign of repentance. Repentance in the Hebrew bible meant “turning” – turning away from our delusions, turning away from our “sins,” which means turning away from everything that leads us away from God, and turning toward God. Returning to God with all our hearts. Ash Wednesday we wake up to our mortality. But we also wake up to the one thing that is immortal: the soul dimension of life, the spiritual dimension of life, the God dimension of life. This Friday and Saturday I will teach my first class at Salve Regina University. It is a comparative religions course, called “Life as Spiritual Adventure.” Same title as this blog. In the introduction to one of the books for that course is a quote by Aldous Huxley, author of The Brave New World. It turns out Huxley wrote another book called Perennial Philosophy, which I am trying to find. In that book he says that all of human life is constantly changing, temporary, impermanent, but that there is another dimension which is infinite. All human beings share this capacity for the infinite. The purpose of this human life is to awaken to and then focus on the infinite.
Lent is from the Anglo-Saxon word which means Spring. Spring is my favorite season because it is about death and life, smacked right up against each other. Summer we just see life. But in Spring we have dead leaves from fall, dead branches knocked down from heavy winter snow, hard-packed grey earth, and cold that seems like it will never let go. But then there is a yielding, an opening, a warmth that grows and one day cracks things open. Green appears, little at first, tender buds and shoots. As much as I try, I can never pinpoint when the tipping point happens and suddenly everything is bursting with green, vibrant life! Lent is like that.
Lent lasts forty days. It takes forty days for something to really sink in, to become a habit, a practice, part of the fabric of our lives. Biblically there are a lot of 40’s. Noah was in the ark for 40 days. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments. Elijah went for 40 days in the strength of the spiritual food Gave gave to him. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before he began his ministry, the fulfillment of his life’s purpose. Yoga studios bid us to commit ourselves to a 40 day process of transformation. Lent bids us to commit ourselves to focusing on the infinite for the next 40 days. The Sabbath is not included in the 40 days, because every Sabbath we celebrate the resurrection, no matter what season we are in, even Lent!
Jesus offers us three spiritual disciplines for these 40 days: fasting, almsgiving and prayer.
Fasting is not really big in our culture, unless you are trying to lose weight, to do a cleanse. But there are many different things from which we might need to fast. The purpose of fasting is to wrench us free from whatever it is in our lives that has us in an unhealthy grip. So we may need to fast from whining and complaining. How about a fast from a negative attitude? How about fasting from being judgmental? Fasting from anger or resentment? Maybe we do need to fast from sugar or chocolate or alcohol or cigarettes! Whatever has us in its grip and leads us away from that infinite dimension of life, THAT is what we need to fast from for these 40 days.
In this “it’s all about me” culture, almsgiving is the next discipline we are to commit ourselves to during Lent. Almsgiving literally means to give to the poor, to give to those in need. But maybe you are poor. Maybe you have no job, no money. How can you give to the poor? We all are rich in something. Maybe you are rich in time. Maybe you are retired, or unemployed, so have a lot of time right now. Give of your riches of time to those who need time: your family, your marriage, your elderly relative who is in a nursing home, a child who needs mentoring, a difficult person who needs companionship. Let this be your Lenten discipline. Whatever your riches are, time, talents, money, health, experience in some area, give to those who are needy in that area. Let these 40 days of Lent wrench you out of your puny self, your self-absorption, into seeing the needs of others, and for 40 days at least, putting the needs of others before yourself.
Finally, Jesus says to pray during Lent. For the next 40 days, commit yourself to spending time in communion with God, the Infinite One, each day. Some of us pray in silent meditation. Some of us walking, or running, or praying with rosary or other prayer beads. Some of us pray with scripture. Some with music. Whatever it is that brings you into communion with God, that wrenches you from the temporary, constantly changing, impermanent dimension of life and brings you into connection with the Infinite, that is prayer.
Linda Forsberg, Copyright February 18, 2015
Photos: Church Windows in Kauai, HI; Ted, Turkey; Linda tomb of Saint Tekla, Turkey; Linda at Caravansarai, Turkey; Linda a Glacier National Park; First Lutheran Church at Easter time; Linda at Death’s Gate, Turkey; Betty and Vicar Brett; Charlene at yoga; church window, Kauai