Ash Wednesday Readings:
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
This is the first meditation in a series of Lenten reflections and suggestions for spiritual practices. I invite you to spend some time each week in the lectionary readings, which are rich and rewarding instruction from God for your fasting, confession, and prayer. The lectionary is a reading plan following the seasons of the church calendar which includes an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an Epistle, and a Gospel that share a common theme. As you read: spend time in silence, journal, worship, and sit in the presence of God whose love is precious and abundant. “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.” Psalm 36:7-8
The start of the Lenten season, the 40 days of fasting and prayer before Easter, has often focused on the question: “What are you giving up for Lent?” Which can result in a list of food items or social media that we think we could do without for both spiritual and personal benefit. What we often come up with, as the prophet Isaiah says, is “the kind of fasting that won’t get your prayers off the ground.” Isa 58 (MSG) He challenges the practice of fasting in his ancient day by citing an example of employers who derive pleasure from their fasting, but who are hard-hearted in their oppression of their workers. The people want to know why God has not seen their fasting and he answers:
“Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:a day to show off humility? What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
Share your food with the hungry,
invite the homeless poor into your homes,
put clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
be available to your own families.” Isa 58 (MSG)
Wow! May this list challenge us to action. As you consider how to do what God suggests for a fast, think through these heart attitudes to get started:
Say Neither More nor Less. “It was my concern from day to day to say neither more nor less than what the spirit of truth opened in me, being jealous over myself lest I should say anything to make my testimony look agreeable…” John Woolman, a businessman Quaker living in 1700s colonial America. The Journal.
Reflect: Woolman’s humility is challenging. As you think through ways you will pray and fast during Lent, let the words of Jesus be your guide: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” Matt 6
Let Go of Ugly Attachments. “I was held back by my old attachments. They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, ‘Are you going to dismiss us?’ “For I felt that I was still the captive of my sins and in misery I kept crying, ‘How long shall I go on saying tomorrow, tomorrow?’ Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?’” St. Augustine. Excerpts from Confessions.
Reflect: Let Augustine’s honesty before God guide you to see any habits, material possessions, or other influences that have held you captive and then confess: “Against you, you only, have I sinned.” Ps 51 Genuinely commit to let go of any relationships, agendas, or things that keep you from attachment and trust in God alone.
Break the Yoke of Injustice. Years before the American Revolution, John Woolman helped lead the Quakers to reject slavery. Woolman wrote: “My mind is often led to consider the purity of the Divine Being and the justice of his judgments…Many slaves on this continent are oppressed and their cries have reached the ears of the Most High! In infinite love and goodness, he has opened our understandings from one time to another concerning our duty toward this people, and it is not a time for delay.”
Reflect: Again Woolman leads us in asking: What cries of oppression is God hearing today? Pray for compassion to comfort and support those who struggle. Look in your community for a volunteer opportunity to give your time and resources. “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free?” Isa 58. What might be required of you to both listen and act?