Pastoral letter: Feb 10, 2021
LENT AT INCARNATION
Last year, the first Sunday in Lent was our last Sunday worshiping together, in-person, in the church. As the reality of the pandemic and those early lockdowns sank in, many Christians (including me!) abandoned their Lenten disciplines. Fasting? Giving up Netflix? Giving up social media? Giving up wine? It suddenly all felt like too much when our lives had been so suddenly and radically curtailed. We were lonely, frightened, and deeply distracted. A tweet by Andy Crouch summed it up well: "Honestly hadn’t planned on giving up quite this much for Lent."
One year later, we find ourselves in much the same place. Lockdown restrictions have eased somewhat, and there is hope on the horizon as infection numbers drop and vaccinations rise. Yet social distancing, masks, and limited human contact have become a way of life. As we look to Lent 2021, how can we possibly think about Lenten disciplines, about adding further restrictions on our already restricted lives?
I want to suggest that Lenten disciplines may be exactly what we most need at this stage of late pandemic fatigue. Many of us are limping into this season weary, lonely, and longing. This is precisely the space in which spiritual practices can become powerfully simple invitations for God to meet us, fill us, and form us in helpful and surprising ways. Over the next week, I invite you to spend some time in God's presence asking and reflecting on these questions: God, what do I need from you this Lent? What do I want from you this Lent? What spiritual practices will help me receive it?
The traditional Lenten practices are prayer, fasting, and acts of charity. Below are some suggestions on how you might incorporate them this Lent. For further ideas, you may want to revisit our sermon series on Spiritual Practices from two years ago, which featured not only our clergy but several wise voices from our congregation.
There are many ways to incorporate prayer into your Lenten practice. One simple suggestion is to join in the church's existing prayer times during Lent: midday prayer on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and men's and women's prayer times on alternating Fridays. Information and links to join are available on the Virtual Worship page. Or you may wish to pray the daily examen, as Katie's recent blog recommended.
In addition, our children will be participating in a sacramental formation course throughout Lent in preparation for baptism, communion, and confession. As they do, they are encouraged and provided with resources to adopt a creative prayer practice at home. These practices include hand-knitting, embroidery/needlework, whittling, the Anglican rosary (either beaded or outdoors in the garden), prayer walking, clay building, illuminating scripture (calligraphy), and silence (check out Josie's helpful video!). Perhaps you would like to adopt one of these practices along with the children, or a new creative practice of your own.
However you choose to pray, we ask that you remember to pray for our children's spiritual formation in this season as they prepare for and learn about the sacraments.
Fasting is simply the act of abstaining from something. The point of fasting is not self-improvement, healthy eating habits, or weight loss, but giving God access to more of ourselves, our bodies, and our calendars. We willingly give up one of God's good gifts for a season so that God might fill that space with himself. As a congregation, we fast from the word "alleluia" during Lent. Common Lenten fasts include meals (e.g., lunch on Tuesdays), meat, alcohol, sweets, television, or social media. I strongly encourage you to choose simple, doable fasts over feats of self-mastery. There is no prize for the most difficult fast, and it becomes very easy for the focus to become one's own sense of achievement or failure rather than God himself.
Some people also choose to adopt a new practice, either to replace what has been given up or instead of giving up altogether. For those with a tendency toward perfectionism, this can sometimes be a more helpful discipline than giving something up. A "fast" like this may include reading a Lenten devotional, adding a time of scripture meditation to your day, or any of the suggestions for prayer and acts of charity from this blog.
Acts of Charity
Lent is also a traditional time of service, the kind of fasting described in Isaiah 58:6: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” We will collect a special offering during Holy Week to give away to an organization ministering God's love outside our walls (we'll announce the recipient later in Lent).
But until then, there are many ways to give and serve throughout Lent. Sign up to bring a meal to new parents in our congregation. Give or volunteer for those heavy-hit by COVID in Arlington. Read up on our outreach partners and commit them to your prayers. Consider reading a new book or listening to new voices on an issue of justice and allowing that to inform your prayers and financial gifts (as Katie recommended last week, it can be an especially fruitful practice to seek out voices different from our own with whom we may even disagree). Our staff and many in our congregation love to suggest resources; just ask!
Lent begins this year on Ash Wednesday, February 17. On this day we humble ourselves before the God who formed us from dust and receive ashes on our foreheads as a visible reminder of our mortality. Could there be a more counter-cultural act in the midst of a global pandemic than choosing to remember we will die?
Please join us for this simple, powerful service at 7am or 7pm over Zoom, and then swing by the church sometime between 8am-1pm to receive the imposition of ashes. Katie and I will be outside and masked, and will maintain physical distance for all but the brief moment of ashing at arm's length. This is one of the most impactful moments of the church year, and we encourage you to make space in your day to attend. Link to join on the Virtual Worship page.
Finally, if you'd like to learn more about the season of Lent, this "Rookie Anglican" guide is a helpful place to start. And Katie and I are always happy to talk, pray, answer questions, and recommend further resources.
I am praying for each of you as we approach Lent together.