Lent is the most solemn season of the entire Christian year. In keeping with that mood, our music is less bouncy. We have dropped the alleluias from the service. We have expanded our confession of sin. The silences in the service will be a little longer.
These changes in the service are designed to help us all to accept the Church’s invitation to observe a holy Lent.
But most of the true work of Lent you will have to do on your own, with the sacramental support of the Church.
The invitation to observe a holy Lent in the Ash Wednesday service offers several suggestions for the work we might do. This morning, I want to focus especially on the invitation to engage in self-examination.
Self-examination is not something our culture promotes. Our culture distracts us from the kind of soul work that is so central to Lent. Our culture encourages us to focus on the flashy exterior—physical beauty and clothes and the material stuff of our lives. Our culture encourages us to be positive, or at least to have the courtesy to act positive. Rarely do we receive any encouragement to be be truly honest about our pain or our loneliness or our fear.
But the Church encourages us to turn away from the flashy distractions, at least for a time, and instead to engage in true self-examination.
Now, we could all rattle off some of our less desirable behaviors, and Lent is a good time to address some of them. But true self-examination aims more at our hidden sins, at those parts of our personalities that we may not know exist, at the root of unhealthy or unloving behavior patterns.
That kind of self-examination is not easy, almost by definition. It is hard to uncover things that we do not even know are hidden! Most of us need help.
My own most successful efforts at self-examination have come in the context of my marriage. [I note here that Carrie gave me permission to share what follows!]
At one point, when Carrie and I were going through a difficult patch, I went for a walk with a friend. I explained to him what an excellent and devoted husband I was. He listened patiently. I explained how difficult Carrie was being. He kept listening.
Finally, I asked him what he thought.
He was way too smart to answer. Instead he asked me why Carrie’s behavior bothered me.
I was shocked. I assumed it was obvious why her behavior was wrong-headed. I just wanted him to help me understand why an apparently decent human being acted that way.
But he wouldn’t go there. Instead, he asked about my role in her behavior.
That was when I cut the conversation short.
But my friend was doing me a great favor. He was inviting me to stop thinking about the apparent problems of somebody else and instead to engage in true self-examination. After all, I couldn’t change Carrie. But there was a chance I could change myself if only I could figure out what needed changing.
I have tried to hold on to that lesson in my relationships with other people and also when I try to help other people in their relationships with each other. There is no point in working on the people who are not in the room, no matter how wrong-headed they may be. The ONLY thing we can do is to think deeply about our own wants and needs, our own wounds and strengths, our own goals for the relationship.
I knew I wanted to make my marriage work. I knew that there were ways it was not working well. My friend helped me to see that, instead of blaming Carrie, I should think about myself, my role, what I could do differently and better. Particularly when I had a strangely strong reaction to something Carrie said or did, I needed to examine more carefully what was going on inside of me.
So here is one relatively minor example. It used to bother me whenever Carrie didn’t wear the jewelry I gave her. I thought to myself, if she really loved me, she would love my gifts.
With help from my friend, I came to see that my gifts to Carrie were not really gifts at all, at least not in the true sense of that term. I was giving her a piece of jewelry, and I expected something in return.
I think we all do that a lot. When we give someone a gift or do someone a favor, we routinely attach all kinds of strings. That is not necessarily bad, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we are being generous when we do that. We are engaging in an exchange.
What I wanted back from Carrie for the “gifts” that I was giving her was for her to make me feel good about myself. But I didn’t tell her that. And I ignored the many, many ways she showed me her gratitude and love because she wasn’t doing it the way I wanted. And I resented what I took to be her ingratitude.
And here is the point. This was all happening inside of me. Carrie had no idea about any of it. So when I got sulky after giving her a gift, she did not understand why I was acting that way. And neither did I, not consciously.
The ONLY way we could fix this unhealthy dynamic in our relationship was for me to engage in self-examination. When I did, I saw my blindness towards Carrie’s appreciation and love. Worse still, I came to see that I was doing exactly what I thought she was doing, when she wasn’t doing it. I was failing to appreciate her!
And, I quit buying her jewelry.
I say this on this first Sunday of Lent to encourage you to take some time for genuine self-reflection.
Think about someone who irritates you or has hurt you. You don’t need to excuse their behavior. Unlike Carrie, they may really have done something bad. But you can’t change that, and you can’t change them.
Particularly if it seems like you may have overreacted, like your hurt may be greater than their offense, reflect on what is going on inside you. Pray about it. If you have someone you can trust enough, talk to that person about it. If you are the kind of person who keeps a journal, write about it. See if you can dig down to the source of your hurt, which may be entirely unconnected to the person who irritates you.
Then think about how you would like to be in relation to that person. Some relationships are not worth a lot of trouble. But a lot of relationships are. And if you can change your own behavior even a little bit, you may well find that your relationship improves dramatically.
Most importantly, do the same thing for your relationship with God.
That is the first step in true repentance: to become aware of the conscious or unconscious ways we ignore or reject God’s love, the ways we turn away from God, our tendency to hold onto our wounds and our pride rather than opening ourselves up to God’s redeeming and reconciling love.
Jesus invites us back into relationship. God’s arms are open. God longs to embrace us. Lent is the perfect season for us to let go of whatever is holding us back and return to the intimacy and unity with God for which we were created.
May we accept Christ’s invitation this Lenten season. Amen.