A couple of days ago, on Ash Wednesday, we offered two services designed just for children. The services were informal and interactive. The intent was to teach the children about Ash Wednesday. Why do we impose ashes on our foreheads and why do we practice the season of Lent? The 11am service was offered for our four year olds in Chapel Day preschool and the 4:30 service was offered for children of all ages and open to the entire community. We sat on the floor and had a lively discussion about hurt feelings. We talked about the need, sometimes, to say we’re sorry. Anna, the preschool teacher, reminded the children that not only have they have learned to say they are sorry but they have learned to show others that they are sorry. The children are learning that our actions speak louder than words. I asked the kids what they do to show someone they are sorry. The kids said things like, “I hug mommy when I’m sorry.” Or,” I kiss mommy when I’m sorry.” Or, “I make a gift and give it to the person,” or, “ I make a cupcake and give it to them.” We then looked at and touched the dried palm fronds from last year and then looked at and touched the crumbly ashes from burned palms. Finally we looked at the finely sifted ashes and dipped our fingers into them, making the sign of the cross on our foreheads as a mark to remind ourselves that Lent has begun.
Lent is a season to focus, intentionally, on the broken places of our lives and work to repair them, to say we’re sorry, to change our behavior, to turn and return to a right relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves. Forty days is long enough for this intentional focus on our behavior to establish some long lasting changes in what we do habitually.
Changing habits is a process. Charles Durhigg wrote about this process in his book, “Habits,” saying this: “Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits…..At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.”
The key to changing habits, Charles Durhigg states, is in finding the trigger, particularly the trigger that elicits pleasure in that habit and changing the trigger. Our kids, by saying sorry and putting sorry into action, are learning that reconciliation feels good. That “good” feeling that comes from reconciliation can become the motivation to navigate the profoundly intense and scary terrain of hurt feelings and misunderstanding. Feeling the pleasure of taking time to pray, in silence or with words, can instill in us a new behavior, a motivation to take time every day to be with God. Perhaps your prayer time will come as you take a walk, or read, or listen to music, or practice yoga, or just sit in silence. Lent invites us to create new habits, new patterns of behavior, and practice them through the season until they become a part of who we are.
Last week I spoke about the impact of a phenomenon called Trophic Cascade. Trophic cascades are powerful indirect interactions that can control entire ecosystems. Trophic cascades occur in nature when predators limit the density and/or behavior of their prey and thereby enhance survival of the next lower trophic level.[i] I cited the example of wolves being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and how the wolves impacted the ecosystem on every level. I suggested that trophic cascades can also happen in the spiritual realm as well.
I also cited a concept from sailing: “a one degree of change in direction can completely alter where one ultimately lands.”
We are all on a lifelong journey. Each one of us influences the lives of others. Altering one small thing in our lives can have a global impact. Imagine what is possible if we engage in the Lenten practices practices listed in the Book of Common Prayer in our Ash Wednesday service: prayer, self-examination, repentance, study, and fasting?
As I have said, prayer can be as simple as taking time to be quiet with God, using words or not. Self –examination is an intentionally deep look at how we are living our lives and the areas where we can make improvements. Repentance means to turn and return to God, eliminating those behaviors, those habits, that keep us, and distract us, from God. Fasting can be a fast from food or drink, as a daily reminder of the habits that distract us from God. Or fasting can be an invitation to slow down and pray, slow down and become more mindful of our habits and behaviors. Fasting might also mean fasting from being staid, too slow, and therefore taking on an activity for Lent that might build new habits, new behaviors that serve to deepen our relationship with God, others, and even ourselves.
Our reading today from Genesis is part of the creation story. It contains elements that guide our Lenten practices. The first humans have eaten the apple. This bite symbolizes having their eyes opened because they have eaten the fruit of knowledge. Having their eyes opened in this way is not about physical ability. This seeing involved perception and understanding that covers a range of experiences. This seeing means humans will understand the difference between good and bad.
The creation story tells us why God created us and what our purpose is. God created humans to tend to and protect the garden[ii]. We are created to tend to and protect all of God’s creation. This is our mission. Paul makes reference to our mission in his letter to the Romans; our mission is to tend to creation by ensuring that all people are able to live in right relationship with one another and with God.[iii] This means all people are to have the resources to have their basic needs met – food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, and a job that provides a living wage. The reading from Matthew continues this idea and builds on it. [iv]We learn that our mission, as servants of God, called to tend to and protect all of creation, is a mission of love. Love is a verb, love in action is how we live into the very thing that God created us to do, to tend and protect creation by loving one another as God loves us. Love is justice. Love is, as the children said, using words and action to reconcile the broken places in our lives.
Tending to and protecting God’s creation may only bring a one degree of change in our lives, but the potential is for a spiritual trophic cascade of compassion, hope and love. May this be a holy Lent for each of us.