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A Lenten Memory

Ash Wednesday • February 18, 2015

The little rectory where my father grew up was filled with smoke from the buckwheat pancakes that the men were flipping in the kitchen on that Shrove Tuesday evening. The women were giddy from the unaccustomed role of being served—not serving. And, we, the children were rambunctious and excited at the idea of eating all we wanted of pancakes, syrup from our maple trees and delicious sausages.

It was 1947 at St. John of the Cross Episcopal Church in Bristol, Indiana. Lent was about to begin.

On the next evening, Ash Wednesday, not a trace of the Shrove Tuesday celebration remained, not even the scent of maple syrup lingered in the air. As we knelt at the altar rail to hear the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” and to have ashes smeared on our foreheads with the sign of the cross, we children felt the solemnity of the act even if we didn’t exactly understand the meaning of mortality and penitence.

What I did know was that the next thirty-nine days of Lent would not be much fun. First, there would be no desserts—no raisin filled cookies, no apple pie, no peach cobbler. There would be a lot of meals based on canned fish instead of fried chicken. Ugh! And we were not to complain about our sacrifices. We all had to fill “mite” boxes with coins to offer on Easter Sunday for the poor people in our companion diocese. It wasn’t an easy task for a little kid.

But, those practices weren’t a surprise. We had done these things every year for as long as I could remember. However, this year was going to be different. After we got home from church that first Sunday in Lent, Pop called my four brothers and me to the living room and lined us up in front of the fireplace. My mother was excused—lucky her! I wished I could escape to the hayloft and read comic books. My father explained that we were going to learn some hymns to sing at the rest home down the street from the church. We would be practicing these hymns on Sunday afternoons during Lent and then on the Sunday before Palm Sunday, we would sing for the residents of the rest home.

Well, it soon became evident that none of us could sing worth a hoot. So our Lenten discipline was reduced to only two hymns which we would say and not sing. Those chosen by my father were “O Saving Victim Opening Wide the Gate of Heaven” and “Onward Christian Soldiers”. The first hymn wasn’t too hard—only two verses. But, Onward Christian Soldiers went on and on. Additionally, we were expected to march in place as we recited the hymns, and all while we were supposed to remember the words and not mumble. We were to have clean faces and big smiles. Quite a challenge! Talk about chewing gum and walking at the same time!

For some unknown reason, our Lenten practice of reciting hymns at the rest home lasted only one year.

When I hear someone say they loved Lent as a child, I think they did not attend our church nor were they a member of my family! … click to continue reading

Yet, in spite of my resistance, something must have stuck. Here I am, a priest in this church calling you to observe a faithful Lent.

When we were children, we spoke and acted and understood as children but now we are adults. We have the opportunity to view our lives from the perspective of adults. We have the opportunity to examine our lives and our Lenten practices based on greater knowledge and deeper life experiences. We have the opportunity to make choices.

In the Episcopal Church, as in many other Christian churches, we don’t skip from the celebration of Christmas to the celebration of Easter. We don’t believe there can be an Easter without a Good Friday. And especially for the forty days of Lent before Easter, we believe we are called to remember our mortality and the need to repent and to turn from our imperfect lives to new lives. I read something this week that gave me a chuckle but that also had significant message. If you are driving from Chicago to New York and you head west, you will never arrive. You need to turn around to reach your destination. The meaning of “repent” is to turn around and lead a new life—to sometimes make different choices—to focus on things done and left undone.

Upon reflection, it is ironic to me that I choose to sing at the Peachtree Retirement Center each month beside people who have beautiful voices. My voice is no better than it was when I was seven but now I realize that it is our presence and our love for the residents and not our voices that make this commitment so meaningful both for us and those who listen and sing with us. I think my father knew that all along. He planted the seed in spite of my resistance. Can I do any less?

Dear People of God: I invite you to the observance of a Holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. - hide text

Betsy Porter+

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