Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday: One is not a Christian alone

"'A Christian alone is no Christian.' And, I think the New Testament gives us every reason for thinking that a single apostle or disciple is no disciple. We cannot do these things alone, and that is why again and again in the New Testament, we find the Lord sending out his representatives and ministers in a group of companions." The Most Reverent and Right Honourable Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, God's Mission and a Bishop's Discipleship, 17-19 July 2008, p18

Someone gave me a copy of the remarks made to the bishops at the Lambeth Conference by Archbishop Williams. I began using the text with my daily meditations prior to my ordination as bishop and have continued to do so in these first months of my episcopate. These particular words of Williams' came back to me as I reflected on a comment I read: "you don't need to be a part of a denomination to practice Lent, in order to spiritually prepare for Easter." Actually I think this is true, anyone can prepare for Easter by practicing a discipline during Lent. Lent is not meant to be a solo journey.

The first Christians very much participated in self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and mediating on God's Holy Word so as to restore themselves. This much is true. But they did these things to restore themselves to the greater community and to restore the fellowship of the church!

I can certainly fast, give up something, or take on another, but this exercise in solitude does not reflect fully the incarnation of Christ in my life. I need others to join with me in this work. I am fasting, but I am fasting with a community of faith that is going through the same discipline at the same day of the week and at the same time of day. I will do the self-examination and repentance alone and then with a confessor, but that is so that I may live more fully with others and see Christ in them. I read and meditate on the Word of God each day in my personal prayer time. However, it is only when others share their ideas about scripture with me that my limited vision is opened up to the greater kingdom. Each discipline serves to renew my life in Christ, but it also serves to renew the community's fellowship and life as the body of Christ.

Sometimes it is actually easier to take on our devotions of Lent privately than it is to take them on publicly. We are not as accountable when we live our spirituality in private. And, the community does not benefit from the observance in quite the same manner. The Benedictine rule offers a sense of daily life ordered by common prayer, discipline, and work. It not only benefits but thrives from this manner of sharing. This year my Lenten discipline was written down and delivered to every home that receives the Houston Chronicle. There will be no anonymity for me this year!

I would offer something new to add to your discipline this year. Take on a discipline. Then tell everyone. Place yourself in a situation where you have to speak about it. Encourage yourself by keeping yourself accountable and encourage others by keeping your discipline and listening to theirs. Make this year's observance of Lent a communal discipline that the Church may be enlivened and enriched by your spiritual work.

Now some will counter that Jesus says to be careful not to practice one's piety in front of others so as not be a hypocrite. I couldn't agree more. The work of a disciplined Lent shouldn't be to bring attention to one's self. Your discipline should though bring you closer into community.

Most communities share anxiety like a virus. Lenten disciplines are a tool by which Christians rediscover hope; hope for one's life and hope for one's community. Remember Lent is about preparing for the resurrection on Easter morning. Imagine the hope that could be shared by contributing to the larger community your disciplined journey through Lent and what you learn as you walk your particular pilgrim way.

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  • "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
  • "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
  • "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
  • "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
  • "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
  • "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
  • "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball