In the summer after my sophomore year in college I chaperoned our church’s youth group pilgrimage to the UK. Hot on the heals of heartbreak, that summer was a pivotal one. I got in shape, I got the travel bug and, on that trip, I started to feel like a grown-up. We visited standing stones and cathedrals alike on that journey. The experience strengthened my conviction that my God, by any other name, would smell as sweet.
For all my self-asserted openness, I’m still looking for the church I grew up in. I like knowing when to stand up, sit down or kneel. I like a Sunday School class that’s “meaty”. I want a sermon – not announcements. I want love and comfort and growth. I want a religion that’s tailored to my spirituality. Maybe that’s why I’ve prayed more during yoga practice and less in the pews of late. Or, maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough for a new church. Whatever the reasons, these days I find myself experiencing the bulk of my spiritual growth outside of my comfort zone – and it feels good.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and I may not make it to a church service. Lent begins whether I’m there or not, anyway. Lent begins for those who observe it not because it is on the liturgical or civic calendar, but because they choose to observe it. They choose to prepare themselves to strengthen and celebrate their relationship with God.
I don’t want to use this space to talk about my personal Lent commitments; I want to share this idea of preparation. I encourage those of you who have observed Lent in the past to consider your decisions this season. This is not about giving something up. This is about preparing for a relationship. Self-denial is only effective in Lent if the thing you’re denying yourself distances you from God or if the time and energy spent doing it can be redirected to your preparation. Don’t give up chocolate. Instead, make a commitment to spend thirty seconds in prayer every time you want but don’t have a piece of chocolate in the hopes that this regular prayer will become a part of your daily routine. Put some thought into your commitments. Tailor them to your spirituality.
For those of you who haven’t observed Lent before, I encourage you to consider experiencing some spiritual growth outside of your comfort zone. You don’t have to start tomorrow. You can run your Lent from May 17th to June 1st for all anyone else has to do with it. Call him God, call him Allah, call him her – it makes no difference to me. Just prepare yourself. Prepare yourself for a relationship with your God and do so thoughtfully – the rewards will be greater for your efforts.
Here’s a prayer I learned on that pilgrimage that I have turned to time and again. The strength of the words never fail me. I find them even more poignant with my Lent approaching. They help me prepare. I hope they have a similar effect on you.
God, thanks for welcoming me again. I look into my heart, and I am not proud of what I see there. I look into my mind, and it is cluttered with worries and concerns and important business. I look at my hands and they are full of the things I think I need for my comfort and security. God, you welcome me before I am ready, while I am still in a mess. But you do not care about the mess. You can see deeper into my heart, to the beauty and potential you have made there. You know what my mind will be like when I have learned how to stop being so serious and worried about life and work. You know what my hands will hold when I have learned how to empty them for you to fill. You love me and you love each one of us with the same enthusiasm and hope. You know what we can be. Help us to empty our hearts and minds and hands of all that is unnecessary and teach us how to care for and welcome one another every day with the same affection and generosity with which you welcome us.