This pastor’s letter is the text of the message I offered at our Ash Wednesday service, which we celebrated jointly with the Virginia United Methodist Church. A couple of tiny modifications were made for the newsletter.

Lent is a journey through the cross to Easter. It’s a journey of resurrection, from darkness and dormancy into new life. Some people find it meaningful during this time to remove some aspects of ordinary life – to give things up – so they can refocus their attention on what new things God is doing. Others will find meaning in adding new disciplines – times for prayer, reflection, or exercise – that help us till the soil for the new life God is planting in us.

The prophet Isaiah asked a pointed question of the people of Israel in Isaiah 58:1-12: What good are your fasts and religious observances? God might be asking us the same question right now: What good is your worship, your discipline? Why should God be pleased with this season of contemplation, self-denial, and gloomy worship music we call Lent?

That’s not a rhetorical question with just one correct answer. It’s a real question that we should consider in our hearts, our families, and our life together as the church. What good are the things we do to prepare ourselves for Easter? What does God get out of them? What do they do to build us up? How do they demonstrate loving care for our neighbors?

That’s the kind of fast day God wants, says Isaiah: “to break the chains of injustice, / get rid of exploitation in the workplace, / free the oppressed, / cancel debts” (Isaiah 58:6) These are the practices that gladden God’s heart, that bring us closer to Holiness, because they demonstrate service and love for God’s people. We are certainly free to take on additional disciplines this Lent, because they can help sustain us and prepare our spirits to receive God’s new life when Easter comes, but the measure of any practice has to include how it directs our hearts to care for the people around us.

Darin at Virginia UMC made us a “Lenten Calendar” for the six weeks that begin on Sunday and end on the eve of Easter. Each box contains a phrase from Isaiah describing the kind of “fast” God calls Christians to. For each of these weeks, I invite you to focus on this action as a “fast,” a prayer you enact as an offering to God. These are practical prayers. They have deep spiritual meaning, but you’ll only find the spiritual meaning by doing what they say.

These phrases are written as calls into a new way of living and being with God and God’s people. Because we’re not yet living with God as closely as we could, they might look like commands, wrongs for us to correct, or impossible ideals. That’s okay, but that’s not what they’re intended to be. They’re intended to be invitations, reflections of God’s desire to embrace us more closely. It might take some extra work for us to see them this way, but that’s what they are.

So try this: Each Sunday during Lent (or another day before Sunday if that is when it happens), sit down with your Lenten calendar. Sit down by yourself, or even better with your household or the people you spend the most time with, and read the phrase from Isaiah for that week. Then ask these questions:

  • What about this invitation makes me uncomfortable? What about my life is not yet in line with this way of being? Where do my choices and actions exploit others, exclude the hungry and poor, keep me away from my family, and so on?
  • How am I called to repent (change my direction) in order to live out this invitation? What small first steps can I take that might lead me toward this action? (Write this practical step in the box as a symbol of your willingness to be changed.)
  • How can God use my life circumstances and my community – family, friends, and church – to lead me in this new direction? Ask God to set these conditions in place. Ask those close to you for the support you’ll need.
  • Where might I look for God’s affirmation and welcome as I answer this call? God is calling us to a new relationship as we begin again during this season.

May these questions, and more importantly the actions that we take to answer God’s invitation, guide us and support us in this season of Lent and bring us into a new resurrection life!

In Christ’s peace,