Pastoral Perspectives

Entering Lent

We are in the second week of Lent.

Lent was not something that I – like many evangelicals – thought very much about. But in the last four years, I have begun to pay more and more attention to it.

When I started talking and writing about Lent several years ago, people said to me: “Isn’t Lent for Roman Catholics? What are you going on about?”

Well, Lent isn’t just for Roman Catholics. That impression exists only because not too many evangelical churches have strong liturgical traditions, at least not in the way the Roman Catholic Church has kept its rites and sacraments.

Sceptics are entitled to their doubts. I am observing Lent again this year.

Many evangelical churches, of course, do understand the spiritual value of keeping the Lenten season. The journey through Lent, many Protestant groups believe, makes Easter more meaningful.

It hasn’t been easy this year. Firstly, Lent came early, and nearly caught me out. I was annoyed. I’m an inveterate planner, and planners hate surprises. Not only did I fail to dig through my hard drives for all the poetry I intended to read again, pre-Lent, mind you  – T S Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, for instance – I was still stuck in Lunar New Year mode.

Ash Wednesday arrived the fourth day of the Lunar New Year. The start of Lent, Ash Wednesday leads us down forty days, skipping the Sundays, till we arrive at Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the day after Jesus’ death on Good Friday. It’s the day before Easter Sunday.

The fact that Lent washed the heels of the not-yet-departing Lunar New Year celebrations troubled me. Was I ready, knee deep in new clothes and old culture, to switch mental gears? How do I, and other Chinese Christians who want to observe Lent, turn away from a time of pineapple tarts, kuih lapis and high spirits to enter a time of abstinence, sorrow and preparation?

Could I exchange, without a battle for honesty, the excess and gaiety of Chinese New Year for the ashes and darkness of Lent? Mind you, I have never cared very much for gong xi fa cai – the hollow greed of the greeting never fails to dent my smile when somebody shrilly tosses it at me – but replace that with a call to weep?

My heart sank. I hadn’t even eaten my quota of tarts.

Still I was determined to keep Lent. So I began. And I’m on the journey.

This year, I savoured the irony and struggle of Lent in new ways. On Ash Wednesday, I read Joel 2:12-18. Now, Joel 2 is an oft-offered text for the start of Lent. Again, the verses led me back to a time of upheaval in Israel. The land had been ravaged by locusts, the crops were failing. People were hungry and starving. The prophet Joel wept because he was convinced that the people had brought the calamity upon themselves. They were unfaithful. Israel had to repent its ways.

But Joel wasn’t interested in animal sacrifices or public displays of remorse, the time-honoured tearing of garments to demonstrate grief. No, Joel said instead, “Rend your heart and not your clothing.”

So Lent is a call to look into the condition of our hearts, and weep for what we could have been and are not. Lent is a time to grieve for what we should have done and did not.

I kept these reminders in my heart the first few days of Lent. I know I want to open my heart to things I am refusing for some warped, obstinate reason to even consider. And I want to reconcile with every person I have hurt (Or at least the ones I know of.) I want to rend my heart so that God can cut away my unforgiveness. I want to rend my heart to show Him the wounds I have never allowed anyone to touch.

On a superficial level, these reminders were easy for me. I have heard them before. They’re not easy to practise, but they were familiar.

By Ash Wednesday, I had gone through Chinese New Year in a cloud. I’d been driven half by duty, and mostly carried by obligation. Did you find the routines wearying? The greetings and mingling forced? The partying dissolute? The traffic stressful? The ang-pow post-mortems ugly?

There were people and relatives I was genuinely happy to meet, but many moments, I caught myself longing to return to my life again.

Now in the second week, and looking back, I realise I had been a grouch. This was my first lesson this year. Lent, for all its solemnity, has no patience for grouches.

More than that, I’d been prideful. Prideful that I liked Lent more than Chinese New Year. Proud that I was better than the people and relatives I found shallow. When you’re asked to rend your heart, you can’t disguise your pride. It’s there.

So in the first week, Lent had smitten my presumptions. Hard. What lies ahead?

How else am I keeping Lent this year?

Well, I told myself there were many things I could do. I could pray more. I could spend more time in the Word. With my kids, I could hold my tongue more. The life in Christ calls us to all of this.

And during Lent, we could fast. From movies, video games, social media, chocolate, candy, caffeine, our anxieties, our attentiveness to celebrities, our lust for power,  our paranoia, and all the things that eat up our time –  this list is longer than the line people wait in to buy that famous bak kwa.

I have no Facebook account but I’ve no delusions about how hard it probably is to fast from Facebook. How may a young person raised on Facebook find the courage to turn her face from the latter’s endless posts and comments, to enter a wilderness of forty days? Not easy. Our addictions run deep.

Well, this is my fourth year keeping Lent. I have decided to fast from food. I am turning away from food for ten hours of every work-day. That’s six days a week.

At first, I was afraid fasting would be too hard. But the strange bodily sensations and sounds that alarmed me the first several days have become another rhythm, and a river of lightness bears me up.

I’m fasting this year, not because I’m challenging myself. I love challenges, and I know my heart well enough to see that challenges entrap and deceive me. I’m remembering, too, that Christian fasting is a fight, not against, but for the body.

The latter is important to remember because, while Jesus is God, He was also man. He had a human body.

Is that ache in my eyes connecting me to the hunger Jesus felt when the Spirit drove him into the desert? What am I learning – now that I’ve discovered that it is possible to make room for an experience that is new to me, but unrelentingly present to the hungry of the world?

My daily fasts are turning my heart to the Cross. The ache reduces me, reminding me I am dust, and that I need God, and other people.

One day at a time.

Yesterday, settling back in his chair, my patient James stared hard at me, and announced: “You look different.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. Just different.”

“I’m fasting. It’s Lent.”

James is Roman Catholic, lapsed many years, and he understood immediately. His face breaks into a wide smile. “You know what? I think I’ll try to give up cigarettes!”

I had been at him for a year about his smoking. Not because of Lent but because I’m his doctor.

In that split second, I felt an unfettered joy. The days will roll on, and the dark tones and slow paces of Lent will surrender to the blinding brightness of Easter. But even before the stone rolls full away, God has reached down to surprise me with joy, prising open my heart and telling me that I am free to give myself to another as a gracious gift from Him.

Elder Lee Chung Horn

February 24, 2013