Ash Wednesday, the day when the church calls us to observe a Holy Lent, feels like a serious day. But I have to admit that I've had a few chuckles as we've approached this Lenten season. One came when the Girl Scouts who attend our church chose this past Sunday, a mere four days before the start of the Lenten season, to deliver the Girl Scout cookies they cajoled us all into buying weeks ago. Clearly the Girl Scout manual does not come with a Christian liturgical calendar!
The other came when I dreamed about a giant candy bar last night.
God getting through to me about sugar addiction? Perhaps!
I find myself having to answer the sweet girls' questions about Lent for the first time. Well, she may have had questions last year, but I don't remember them being so curious. She's eager to know why we do what we do. Why do people eat pancakes the night before Lent starts? (We had our annual pancake supper at the church last night, which always coincides with the start of the spring semester of our kids' program...it was wonderful last night, with over 20 kids in attendance and a terrific Bible story told by a gifted lady in our congregation who used "Godly Play" to relate the story of the exile...we're teaching Daniel this term.)
But the sweet girl is curious, not just about pancakes. Why do we give things up? What things? Why only things we really like? What's the point? I've told her that sometimes it's not just about giving things up; sometimes it's about doing new things or finding new ways to give. But whatever we do, Lent is about preparing our hearts and finding more room in our lives to focus on God.
I certainly mean those words. But how am I going to do that in the next few weeks?
It's always a good question. One thing I've found helpful in recent years is taking on the reading of a new book, usually a work of devotion or theology or Biblical scholarship, something that I try to read at very slowly, sipping it in ways that help feed my soul and sharpen my vision. This year I'm not sure yet what I'm reading. I'm considering a little book called The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (meditations on some of the prayers we pray "collectively" in the Book of Common Prayer throughout the year). I'm considering some Eugene Peterson, either a re-reading or first-time reading.
I'm also considering reading more from Julian of Norwich.
I assigned some chapters of Dame Julian's Revelations of Divine Love to my church history class this past week, as their primary source reading. I read most of Julian's book years ago when taking a Spiritual Direction course in seminary, and remember being moved on profound levels by various parts of it. I also recall bogging down and not finishing other parts.
Reading from the first chapters the other evening though, I was struck by how rich it felt, how easy to take a sip from just a few paragraphs or one short chapter and come away enriched with so much to think about and pray through.
I had forgotten that she had asked for three "wounds" in one of her petitions. Interesting that she calls them wounds...they sound like gifts, these requests, and yet one senses that Julian realizes the potential cost of having them really worked by God into her life.
This is what she asks for: "the wound of true contrition, the wound of genuine compassion, and the wound of sincere longing for God." (Another translation reads "kindness" for compassion and "steadfast love" for sincere longing.)
There's enough there to chew on for many Lents, and perhaps many lifetimes. What a simple prayer, what simple-seeming requests, and yet those are qualities in most of us (certainly in me) that can take a lifetime to grow. I'm hoping I have the courage to pray so simply for God to shape and grow such things in me this Lent. True contrition, genuine compassion, steadfast/sincere longing for God.