I decided to pay attention to Lent this year, which is something I have never done before. The LDS church doesn't use the traditional church calendar, other than Easter and Christmas, so we ignore the other days like Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, etc.. I wanted to pay more attention to those this year in order to deepen my spirituality and my appreciation of Jesus.
This involved several things. We attended Episcopal services on the major days, beginning with Ash Wednesday. I found a book with daily Lenten devotionals which I kept up with. I also tried to fast once a week. Usually these were not complete fasts, because I was open to the spirit on many things. Many times I would make it until lunch time and end up eating a roll or a piece of bread, as a reminder that Jesus is the bread of life. One exception to this was Good Friday, which was a complete fast. I thought about breaking it, but the symbolism I felt was not Jesus as the bread of life, but Jesus absent from the world because of the crucifixion. For once I was on my own. There was no one to rescue me from my fast. I had to go it alone and not eat.
Rather than abstaining from water as the LDS church teaches, though, I drank as much water as I wanted. For whatever reason this eliminated much of the real discomfort I usually experience with fasting. I was hungry, but not so weak, and I didn't experience headaches. In fact I mowed the back yard on Good Friday, not having taken in any calories for 22 hours.
During my weekly fasts I would also set aside 30 - 60 minutes for prayer and contemplation, based on the book I was reading.
I also picked two things that give me great pleasure, and I chose to give them up: caffeinated sodas in general, and drinking sodas at work, which I do as a means of stress reduction.
How did this practice work out? It was a tremendous spiritual exercise. No matter what happens in my relationship with the LDS church I will definitely participate in Episcopal services and do Lenten devotionals next year. I'm not sure I learned anything I didn't know before, but I felt it a lot deeper. To a small extent I appreciated some deprivation and tried to translate that into a hunger for Christ in my life. I reflected a lot more on my need for a savior, rather than on my ability to perfect myself. I contemplated more on how Jesus wants us to be involved in the world and with the temporally and spiritually disadvantaged, rather than on what I should be doing to sustain my ward and family, who are already comparably well off. To a small extent I empathized with the poor and tried to see them as children of God more. I spent a lot of time thinking about why God made gay people and what that means for us. I came to appreciate that God created me with my weaknesses to help me feel my dependence on Jesus and my need for a Savior, rather than playing some game where I am born with these weaknesses and then have to overcome them all and perfect myself in order to be "worthy" of his love, like some sort of perverted Survivor game.
In some small way I participated in the deprivation Christ did during the forty days in the wilderness and in the real personal sacrifices he made for us. As he was tempted by the good things of the world he forsook, I was tempted. I felt hunger and deprivation, as well as a sense of anticipation for the end of the cycle, much as we feel anticipation for the Second Coming. I felt a sense of doing without in the present as well as the sense of coming fulfillment in the future.
One thing I came to appreciate is that, although the LDS church is Christian, it is not Christ-centered to the degree many other churches are. While we are focusing on modern prophets, priesthood, restoration, and separateness, they are focusing more on the person of Christ and his mission to the rest of the world. I find the LDS messages and practices to be somewhat hollow compared to the Christ-centeredness to be found elsewhere.
We are so focused on the Gospel and the life of Jesus Christ as some kind of checklist for things to do that we miss the mysteries and joy of the season. The mystery for me is how God could love me and the people around me so much that he created me and sent a Savior on my behalf. And why he chose such a sorry lot as human beings in order to display his glory. The joy is that he did.
In the Episcopal services of Saturday night and Sunday morning we reviewed the stories of the creation, the flood, the exodus, and the resurrection. The thinking person can easily see the pattern of creation and redemption in this as God creates us for his own purposes and then establishes the pathway to eternal life.
We spent four consecutive days remembering the creation, crucifixion, and resurrection, whereas in the LDS service we would have spent about forty minutes, including the youth speaker, and then moved on to our study of the Old Testament and the teachings of Wilford Woodruff.
I also wanted to include some my thoughts on the major days of the Lenten season, based on the Episcopal services we attended. We skipped Good Friday out of respect for my son, but we made the rest of them. The Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday entries are cut/pasted from things I wrote on the internet.
We went to a service that included these words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." as the sign of the cross was made with ashes on our foreheads. Not something I've done before, but it seems to put the current subject into perspective. We have just one life to live, and it's a relatively short one, so we need to choose wisely what we devote it to.
My wife and I wanted to do something different this year to celebrate Easter, so we have been visiting a local church that does follow the calendar. Last night we went to a Maundy Thursday service, the first I had ever been to. One of the interesting aspects of that service was that, as part of telling the story of the Last Supper, they set aside some time for foot washing. The priest washed the feet of the deacon, the deacon washed the priest's feet, they washed two other's feet, and then each who had had his feet washed proceeded to wash the feet of another.
I wasn't at all comfortable with foot washing, so I sat and watched and contemplated. Before they had told the story of Jesus and Peter, where Jesus had basically told Peter that he was not really a disciple unless he allowed Jesus to wash his feet. The sermon had also emphasized the importance of being a follower of Jesus, and not merely a worshiper.
So, given all that, why was I unwilling to participate in the foot washing? What about it made me so uncomfortable?
As I thought about it, I realized that washing somebody else's feet wasn't the problem. After 22 years as a parent, as a former Marine, as a dog owner, I will stick my hands in about anything.
My problem was that I was unwilling to allow somebody else to see how nasty and dirty my feet might be. I hike a lot, and that messes up my toenails. I might not have been careful about scrubbing my feet that morning, and there might have been actual dirt on them that somebody might see. They might see what my feet look like and think less of me. I was basically unwilling to allow myself to be served, because somebody might think I was less than perfect in a way that I would find embarrassing.
The very nature of the gospel requires us to open ourselves up to others and to reveal our weaknesses. Often our greatest ministry to others is through sharing our weaknesses rather than our strengths. By sharing our weaknesses with others, we make them feel comfortable sharing theirs with us, and thus we are able to lift up another and build true Christian community. Also, true service to others is a chain. Others serve us and show us how its done, and then we in turn can serve, and the cycle of service is born. Refusing to allow ourselves to be served breaks the chain, out of mere personal pride and fear of revealing our weaknesses.
Jesus is quite clear that we have no part in him if we don't humble ourselves as little children, and this includes swallowing our pride and allowing ourselves to be served.
Sometimes the deep lessons available in something as simple as foot washing are just awe-inspiring.
This was a long service involving chapters and chapters of reading, recapping the major biblical stories of our human history. My wife and I were possibly the only people in the congregation not involved in either the singing or reading or the eucharist in some way.
It definitely got the point across, though, of the death and resurrection of Christ as the climax of the story, rather than as isolated events. It helped us to remember where we came from and to appreciate God's grace and involvement in our lives.
Easter Sunday was an experience of real exultant joy. The other services were attended by a relatively smaller group of the faithful, but the building was packed for Easter. The music was exuberant, the singing was loud, and the joy in the resurrection was tangible. The sermon recapped the previous night's sermon, focusing on the meaning of the empty tomb in our lives and the resulting defeat of death and sin. The message was one of hope, joy, and the Good News of Jesus Christ.
In summary Lent was a wonderful season for me this year, and I look forward to the continued spiritual growth of exploring other faith traditions.