Refocusing for Lent

Ash Wednesday: Isaiah 58:1-12

As many of us prepare to receive the sign of ashes to begin our Lenten journey, the Prophet Isaiah offers wise words to put our action into perspective. To bow down on our knees and wear ashes, to dress humbly and go without food, is not acceptable to God if the purpose is to call God’s attention to our faithfulness in participating in the rituals.

We live in a world where there are no sinless options, and our motives are often mixed. We are all colored with the brush of a society where others have to work to provide us with our day off. Our self-interest, God’s interests and the interests of “the least of these” are often confused and conflated, both when we ignore the needs of the poor and when we provide easy service to make ourselves feel better.

The fast God desires – today and everyday – looks more like this: Seeking to end injustice even when that means ending the extra benefits I receive from that injustice. Making my daily bread feed not just my family but some others who are hungry. Not turning my face from those who are homeless and ill-clothed but seeing them as my brothers and sisters. Daring to ask why we place heavy yokes on the shoulders of many people in the name of self-sufficiency.

We, of course, cannot live this acceptable fast perfectly, or even well. Even with our best intentions we quietly slip back into our own lives and motivations. That is why we need Ash Wednesday. We need to come together with others, with fellow travelers and fellow citizens, to be reminded that God desires better for us and for all God’s children, and that God has empowered us to do better.

One of the prayers in the Ash Wednesday liturgy has us pray these petitions:

For self-centered living,and for failing to walk with humility and gentleness:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,
have mercy on us. 
For longing to have what is not ours,
and for hearts that are not at rest with ourselves:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,
have mercy on us.
For misuse of human relationships,
and for unwillingness to see the image of God in others:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,
have mercy on us.

The discipline and journey of Lent is not about denying ourselves some of our favorite pleasures nor even about taking on new service to others in need (although both can be very helpful practices). Lent is about refocusing our internally directed vision and seeing with new, clear eyes. Seeing that I am not God. Seeing that the reflection of God that is in me is in everyone I meet. Seeing that I already have so much more than I could ever lack.

May you see God and yourself more clearly this Lenten season.

(Prayer quoted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

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