The Practices of Lent

A number of respondents to one of my recent posts noted that I downplayed the realities of sin and confession in my understanding of the spirituality of Lent. I took their critique seriously even though I also take the reality of sin seriously.  Sin is serious business: we can’t separate our relationship with God from our relationship to creation.  When we hurt ourselves or another creature, we are hurting God and when we forget the divinity moving in all things, we ultimately harm ourselves and others. Lent involves becoming aware of the detritus – whether we call it sin, imperfection, ambiguity, lack of commitment, dis-ease, guilt, and shame – that stands in the way of celebrating divine abundance in ourselves and the world.

Practicing self-awareness is at the heart of Lenten spiritual practices.  I honor the beauty of all things; yet, I have always appreciated the wisdom of a saying attributed to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, “I’m not ok and you’re not ok; but it’s ok!”  The inherent perpetual perishing and partiality of all things invites us to mindfulness and self-awareness of beauty and ugliness, of celebration and desolation, of wonder and weariness, of turn toward and away from the divine possibilities in this one precious, holy moment.  As always, there are many ways to listen to your life and the world around you, as you seek to awaken to the “sacrament of the present moment.”  (Pierre du Caussade)  I will note two interrelated practices that speak to me today:

  • Praying the news
  • Praying with your eyes open

Praying the News.  It has been said that the difference between ignorance and apathy is “I don’t know and I don’t care.”  We are deluged with information on such a mass scale that many of us experience emotional overload.  We become desensitized to violence and suffering, and often feel utterly impotent to affect any changes in the world.  If prayer makes any difference in our lives, its role is to help us notice and to see more deeply into the everyday realities around us.  If God is at work in all things, then surely the news reveals both the presence and absence of God.   The news can deaden or awaken us, alienate or join us, encourage passivity or activity.  Not just watching but praying the news opens our hearts and energizes our spirits.  We may through prayerful awareness go beyond polarization to transformation and hatred to reconciliation.  We may discover that we can make one small step that will lead to greater commitment in responding to some of the unnecessary, yet human-created tragedies in our midst: climate change, gun violence, violence toward undocumented immigrants, sex trafficking and child and adult slavery.  We may not be able to do much on our own, but one act at a time can transform the world.

Praying with Your Eyes Open.  Centering prayer is an essential aspect of my spiritual life.  In centering prayer, I close my eyes and focus on my prayer word, using my prayer word as a search light to illumine the divine presence within and beyond me.  Centering prayer involves withdrawing to move forward in the dynamic rhythm of inner and outer journeys.  Another way to pray is simply to keep your eyes open: to observe the holiness, wonder, and pain of each moment; to see the deeper realities of world around us; to discover divinity in the profound interdependence of life.  In praying with your eyes open, just experience the world without judgment or emotional detachment; stay in the room and in your environment opening to this holy, unrepeatable, perpetually perishing moment.

While each season of the Christian year has its own emphasis, all of the seasons open us to experience wonder that inspires us to transform ourselves and the world.  Lenten “sacrifice” is about something much more important than body-denial and turning away from the senses, it is about opening our senses to experience the sacrament of the holy in each passing moment.

 

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About Bruce Epperly

Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., serves as Pastor at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. Prior to coming to Cape Cod in 2013, he served on the faculties and often in administrative and chaplaincy roles at Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. Bruce is currently a professor in spirituality, ministry, and theology in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. He has served as pastor or interim pastor of congregations in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. He is the author or co-author of over 35 books in the areas of theology, spirituality, ministerial excellence and spiritual formation, scripture, and healing and wholeness, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job; From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure; and A Center in the Cyclone: Clergy Self-care in the 21st Century.