Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday! What are you giving up?

‘What are you giving up for Lent this year?’ It’s a question I’ve been hearing all week. All during the time leading up to this special day… Ash Wednesday… I pondered what I was going to give up. People from all walks of life, and from all denominations, were proudly declaring what they’d go without. I’m not meaning to imply that my dear friends are hypocrites, but I was drawn to today’s reading, especially as it pertains to fasting, as I listened to them.

‘I’m giving up cigarettes’ said one, and another joked and said ‘I’m giving up sex!’ Yet another said ‘fattening foods and beer.’ Some people resolved to do more for the poor this Lent, and others vowed they would spend more time with their family. All these are really good things to try to accomplish, and I wish them the best of luck. But then I’m drawn back to that verse, where Christ is telling us that declaring to do something then running around telling everyone we’re doing it… well, are we really doing it or just saying we’re doing it so we look good to others?

Of all the things I could give up, I choose to give time. I’m giving up time to God. Instead of spending a few hours doing ‘me’ things, I’m giving God those hours in prayer. My prayer closet… which happens to be my office… is going to have a lot of activity.

Hmmmmmm… prayer time? You gotta be kidding!

I challenge you, each of you, to give up a half hour to God this season. Not 3 hours. Not 2 hours. Not a full hour. Just 30 minutes. It’s a lot harder than you think! No reading the bible. No watching TBN or any of the other Christian stations. No Christian music… no radio in the background. Nothing that could distract you. Just you… and God… alone for 30 minutes a day.

So why is the alone part so important? Christ says ‘When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.’ Are these verses an admonishment about public prayer, where two or more are gathered in His name? I don’t think Christ was contradicting himself when he spoke these words… I think Christ was trying to tell us that, when we go to our prayer closest and pray to our Father in secret, we aren’t distracted by outside things or the need to look good. There is no competition to pray the most eloquently or the most fervently. There is no ego involved at all. We are sequestered with God, and in a humble, quiet state. Scary thought, if you’re one of those people who is used to being distracted by rosary beads, bible verses, music or moving images on the tv screen.

Some people pray constantly, on the fly. They pray while they’re stuck in traffic, or when they’re doing dishes. They pray as they rake hay, prepare dinner, wash the cat… that usually requires extra prayers for patience… or as they tuck the kids into bed. If you’re one of these kinds of people, someone who prays when the free moment hits them, you have my respect. It’s hard to fall into human trappings when our minds and lips are busy for God.

Most of us only pray at set times, when we remember to make time for God at all. Many people nod to Him in the morning, and then don’t check in until they go to bed. Many don’t check in at all. We run through our week, and come Sunday we offer our little hour up to the Lord. That hour is filled with all sorts of entertaining things. We visit with friends, we sing, we recite our prayers, we sing some more, we kneel, we bow, we take communion. Somewhere in there is a quick homily. If it’s a good day, there’s donuts and coffee in the parish hall. Oh my, isn’t Sunday fun?!

Our first reading today, Joel 2:12-13, reminds us ‘Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.’

Our second reading, 2 Corinthians 5:20, then says ‘Brothers and sisters: We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.’

It’s hard to be an ambassador if we don’t take the time to talk to God daily and get some Spirit filled instructions. It’s even harder to hear God if we don’t take the time to give our whole heart, and to purify ourselves so that we can be an empty vessel waiting to be filled by that Spirit. To do so, we have to put aside our egos and give God some of our precious time. God isn’t just God on Sundays; God is God every day. The best gift you can give to the Lord is not your abstinence from junk foods, alcohol, sex or other activities. The best gift is the gift of time, time spent in honest and unhindered prayer with our Creator.

I leave you with today’s Gospel: Matthew 6:1-18
"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
"This, then, is how you should pray:

" 'Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.'

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

For answers about Ash Wednesday, you can visit
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