It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools. -Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 (NIV)
On Ash Wednesday most of the liturgical Christian traditions begin the season of Lent. Traditionally Ash Wednesday is a day in which we remember that we come from dust and are returned to dust. This life is a limited time offer. What are we doing with it? Are our lives being lived in response to the grace and glory of God?
The only caveat to going to a house of mourning- or being in that place of reflecting on our own mortality- is that while it is good and sometimes needful to visit, don’t stay there. Reflection upon the end of this life is meant to bring us to appreciate and live fully the life that we have. The season of Lent is just that- a season- in which we focus upon what is truly essential. Hopefully along the way we discover what is not essential, and that which would be better for us to give up. More importantly, hopefully, along the way we also discover that part of following Jesus is taking up our own crosses.
In our times of loss and sadness we learn what is really important and what is really lasting. Our social status doesn’t mean anything. Neither do our possessions or our accomplishments have any lasting value, save the ones we give in the service of God. No one regrets not having spent enough time at the office on his or her death bed.
In our times of loss and sorrow we should cling first of all to Jesus. He is always there for us even in our most profound loss, our deepest sorrow and our most cutting and agonizing pain.
Sorrow and pain do not last forever, but the love and care of God is constant. His understanding transcends the confines of this world as well as our ability to express it.
We learn much about priorities when we go to a funeral or a visitation to honor the dead. We learn about who and what the deceased cared about. We learn about the family dynamics of the deceased- sometimes for good, and sometimes for ill. Most of all we learn that life is short and fleeting, and as Solomon, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes points out, “chasing after wind.”
During the season of Lent we will spend much time on the theme of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are not punishments, but good exercises to take up. There are many practices that can be considered spiritual disciplines, but in our Lenten studies we will concentrate on seven of them: worship, prayer, fasting, meditation, study, service and surrender. These disciplines do overlap at times, and that is OK. Some things we do to grow closer to the heart of God may combine worship and service, or prayer and fasting. That is perfectly fine. Spiritual disciplines are simply things we do to connect with God, to invite Him to transform our hearts and minds, and to live according to His purpose.
As God’s people are commanded in the Shema from the Old Testament:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NIV)
Jesus expanded on this theme:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)
Spiritual disciplines- worship, prayer, fasting, meditation, study, service and surrender– are all ways to love God and our neighbor with our minds, hearts, souls and strength. Some of the disciplines are easier to practice than others depending on our strengths and weaknesses, but all of them serve to bring us closer to the heart of God. As we journey through the season of Lent, and from time to time visit the house of mourning, we can also explore the spiritual disciplines and discover what they reveal to us about loving God- and the love that God has first and always had for us.