2019 Lenten Discipline: The Law and the Prophets

Happy March, friends and readers!

Did you know that the word "Lent" refers to spring? It comes from Old English. Of course, as often happens, the church took a secular word and brought it into churchy use for the season of Lent, the 40 days (not including Sundays!) that come before Easter.

I struggle with Lent sometimes. I was born half-Catholic, half-Lutheran, at least 10 percent neurotic -- and I always wonder if I ought to give something up for Lent. In the past I've given up chocolate, swearing, and even alcohol -- but to be honest, it was usually a self-serving practice. When I was pregnant with both of my sons, I conveniently "gave up drinking for Lent," because I wasn't yet ready to tell people about my pregnancies.

I know some people who are giving up shopping, some people who are giving up Netflix, some people who are giving up plastic (actually, that's a good one). And I have this piece inside of me that yearns for a deeper life, a deeper spirituality during Lent -- a morning that begins with meditation and Bible reading instead of my 3-year-old shouting in my ear: "Get up, mom! I want breakfast!"

Did I mention I am not a morning person?

Anyway, all that to say - today is Ash Wednesday. Tonight I'll be preaching at Easter-by-the-Lake, and I'll have the opportunity once again to administer that ashy cross on peoples' foreheads, saying to them the words that scared me as a little girl: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Sharing Ashes to Go with Pastor Bob Mooney at the Messiah Preschool in Yorba Linda, Calif.

For a brief meditation on what Ash Wednesday is, and why it matters in the 21st Century, I wrote this piece while pastoring in Chicago and hearing about ashes-to-go. Solidarity with suffering Christians around the world and a reminder of mortality has always been an important part of my faith; so much so that I have a small tattoo of a black cross on each wrist, reminiscent of the tattoos worn by Egyptian and Middle Eastern Christians even if the face of persecution for their Christian faith.

Here's an excerpt from the piece:

Sometimes it seems the cardinal sin of American society is to admit our own shortcomings. We lie about our age, our credit score, our relationships – engaged in a never-ending competition to outlast others until death: physical death, emotional death, death of relationship – hits us in the face and we are lost.
 The ashy cross stands as a sooty affront to the exceptionalism that says I will never die because I am better than you. The ashy cross, worn by young and old, rich and poor, black and white alike – symbolizes for some of us the need to remember our shortcomings and for others of us the redemptive power that even as we are surrounded by death – out of even this ashy cross will come new life.
I was marked by the sign of the cross and I heard Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. 

In a faithless, hopeless world – these words are words of death. The dust is death and life is meaningless and it will all blow away.
In a world marked by the Cross of Christ – these are words of life. Dust is God’s building block for life: once we were created out of love and dust and as we embark down this journey of sin, repentance and forgiveness – of ourselves and of one another – we know we will return to that dust again of love, a creative, blowing dust in which ashes are fertilizer and poppies grow on Flanders Fields and lilies bloom in Jerusalem.
After Ash Wednesday, I long throughout Lent for spiritual practice and discipline that is all-too-often discarded in the busyness and hectic nature of modern life. In interest of that, I want to begin today a new Lenten discipline for the blog! Each Wednesday, beginning today and throughout Lent, I will use this space for a brief meditation on the traditional Lectionary Old Testament text, typically from the Old Testament prophets. 
I chose this because it's easy for me to go to the New Testament gospels or letters, but in a time of Lent, I need the challenging words of the prophets to propel me toward justice and encouragement, even at a time when God's justice seems far away.
Each week, I will share the text -- and then offer reflection questions and a prayer. I hope this is helpful to you in your Lenten walk, and that it's something that can be shared with your family, friends, and maybe even your church.
Ash Wednesday: Lent Week 1
The Prophetic Text: Isaiah 58:1-12
Is. 58:1    Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins. 
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God. 
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers. 
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high. 
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is. 58:6    Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? 
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. 
9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

 If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday. 
11 The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail. 
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

Reflection: This text is incredibly rich, with familiar phrases that you may not have known came from the Prophet Isaiah! Christians are called to stand in the breach, in that uncomfortable place where people disagree and foundations are shaken -- to repair those foundations and to be repairers of the breach. This reminds me a little bit of the work I've been called into in Red State Christians, to create space for dialogue and empathy in the midst of a divided America.

Notice also that Jesus quotes the Prophet Isaiah later on in Luke 4, in one of his most famous sermons - and a declaration of his purpose. Jesus says that the fast he has chosen, not one of chocolate or swearing or even alcohol or plastic - the fast Jesus has chosen is one of activism and justice. He is called to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke that holds people down and oppresses them, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke. Isaiah mentions the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the naked - as those to whom God is particularly called. And notice too he mentions the importance of honesty and transparency even within our own family relationships.

The end of the passage is one of hope, a promise that the LORD walks beside as we dwell in the difficult breach, standing in solidarity with those who suffer as Jesus suffered, and as we suffer ourselves, we are promised living water, restoration, rebuilding, and rising. 


Isaiah suggests that Christians should "raise their voices like a trumpet" to expose the dangers of sin and hypocrisy even in the midst of believers. Do you think you can do this? Why or why not?

What is stopping you from raising your voice? What are the dangers?

What does it mean to fast without seeing? Can you think of times or places where you participated in religious practices but did not really believe in what you were doing?

Verses 6-7 offer challenging ideas of what it means to participate in "the fast I have chosen." What does it mean that God is called to the poor, the hungry, the naked, and the oppressed? 

What is God's promise to those who answer Isaiah's call to work for justice?


O Lord, throughout these 40 days, I want to hear your voice. I want to know how I can respond to your call to work for justice and to stand in solidarity with the poor, the hurting, the exposed, and the oppressed. Thank you for standing with me when I am poor, hurting, exposed and oppressed. God, help me to be honest and open as I listen for you and for those around me, to do your will and work for restoration, according to your promise of resurrection. In Jesus' name, AMEN


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