I spent Ash Wednesday in Manhattan. In a nostalgic moment, I stopped in at a church where I had served, a big place on a big New York avenue, with an aisle about the length of a football field. As in many churches, ashes were being imposed all day long. I sat and watched a steady stream of New Yorkers in glorious diversity, a vision of the kingdom of God, coming to receive ashes and to be told they were dust. It caused me to recall times when I had stood up front and imposed ashes as part of my ministry in that church.
We offered ashes continuously from 7am to 7pm. One year, I had the last hour-long shift. At about 6:59, we were ready to call it a day, I spied a young businessman, dark three piece suit, attaché case in tow, sprinting pell-mell down the aisle. When he got to me, I told him: “Relax. Take a deep breath. I’m not going anywhere.” He looked at me as he kneeled and said: “You don’t understand. I gotta make this quick. I’m double-parked.” Ashes delivered, he sprinted back down the aisle.
As I watched him, I thought he was trying to do what we all try to do: Fit a spiritual life into a full life. Not always easy to do.
As I enter into conversations with congregations about spiritual growth, about what helps spiritual growth happen and what gets in the way, one of the persistent answers I hear when I ask about obstacles to spiritual growth: the busy lives we lead. That can happen in church, where too often we confuse church activity with a deepening relationship with God.
My current work with congregations is based on insights from a huge, bustling, seemingly successful congregation, thousands in regular attendance. The church had grown, based on this model: More church activity = greater spiritual growth. But was that true? This church discovered, after many years, that the model was flawed. Many of the most active, many of the busiest folks in church were spiritually stalled, depleted, annoyed, thinking of leaving, done. So why am I telling you this on this Monday morning?
Lent is a season for spiritual growth. That growth may have a lot to do with the less we do. I know well that for many churches, programming cranks up at this time of year. I don’t wish to discourage participation. But maybe giving up something for Lent will have to do with clearing something from the calendar, carving out time for silence, prayer that involves more listening and fewer instructions to the Almighty.
I commend a book by Bill Hybels called Simplify. It points to the spiritual growth that comes by rigorous assessment of very full lives, an attempt to simplify what we make too complicated, doing fewer things better. Speaking from my experience, activity (especially religious activity) may be an attempt to prove to God that we are worthy of attention. God is not impressed. The fact is, the gospel is that we are already beloved.
Saints of our tradition knew this, making time for silence, for prayer, following our Lord’s example. I’m always amazed at the number of times we read in the gospels that Jesus goes off for solitude and prayer. Didn’t he realize how much he had to do to save the world in three years? Martin Luther was asked how he could spend so much time in prayer when he had all of Europe to reform. He said: “I have so much to do each day that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” In their collaborative book, The Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama playfully compete about who wakes up the earliest to pray (The Archbishop at 4am, the Dalai Lama at 3am).
So how about you? Take the gift of Lent as a chance to simplify, to be quiet, to listen to what the Spirit is saying. You may have to be quite intentional about it. It may be inconvenient. It may seem outwardly unproductive. It may be counter-cultural, and even get you in trouble.
But try it, even if you get a ticket for being double-parked. It’s worth it.
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