Lent is historically a 40 day period of fasting from something we love in the hopes that the sacrifice will bring us closer to God. Unfortunately, giving up dessert or losing 20 pounds will not bring us closer to God. We have to work a little harder and think a little deeper than that. Typically, the people who will show up for church on a Wednesday night are ready for that challenge.
Repenting is difficult work, and does not need to be an individual action. Our scripture this year, Joel 2: 1-18, calls us to gather all the people together that they might turn towards God so that no nation might rule over them. We are not called to sit individually with our fast, but to be together in repenting from the worldly things that keep us from being united as people of God.
Ash Wednesday is not designed to be a cheerful service, but one grounded in reality. We have forgotten the power of faith, of true church, and we take it for granted. Some of the most faithful places in the world are those where being a person of faith is a risk. I guarantee that in places where houses of worship are bombed on a regular basis, no one is arguing over carpet colors or complaining about a hymn being too ‘contemporary’. in these places, church is not a place for obtaining personal power or getting ones personal needs met. It is a place for community and worship, centered around God.
Lent was historically a 40 day period of discernment and living as a “Christian” to see if these potential community members were ready to commit to the lifestyle required. Easter was the only time new members were welcomed, so this was a vital 40 days for the church. Quality mattered. With the onslaught of statistics, quantity is now the priority. It’s easier to count people than commitment.
The early church was an organization under fire. Those who joined had to be committed to the faith, to preserving it and to sharing it. They risked being killed for their faith, abandoned by their families, cast out from their previous life when the values of their faith clashed with it. They also had to keep their mouths shut in places where worship had to be conducted in secret. Quality of the community members was vital.
The focus on quantity over quality of church members has decreased the effectiveness of our churches to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world. For Lent, we are asking our people to commit themselves to a renewed relationship with God, ideally as a community.
Remind them of the challenges of being a person of faith around the world. If you have the ability to use visuals, show images. Saint’s Church in Alexandria, Egypt in 2011, St. Mousa Church in Minya, Egypt, the Nigerian church bombing on Christmas Day in 2011, a Christian church in Kirkuk, Iraq in 2008.
Does worship mean enough that your people would come if it meant risking their lives? If the faith was outlawed, would they take the chance to worship underground, risking arrest? Would they be part of the community of faith if it meant wearing special clothing so that everyone would know they were Christians, and expect them to act accordingly?
What is their commitment to God? What of this world keeps them from the deep commitment to faith that we see around the world? Perhaps 40 days of praying for the persecuted around the world will be beneficial. 40 days of reading the stories, of seeing the photos, of learning what is means to worship under distress. Give up time, adding in a practice of education and prayer, allowing your heart and mind to grow in compassion and love and hope for God’s people.
Tell them to enjoy that dessert; drink an extra cup of coffee while they do something meaningful for their faith. Empower your people to find new ways to grow in relationship with God and God’s people. Repent of the belief that faith is an individual pursuit. Repent of taking worship for granted. Savor the freedom we have to worship. Blow the trumpet in Zion.