Lent is a bi-directional season. Or at least it should be. That isn’t how we usually experience the season, however. Too often, we see the Lenten journey simply as a journey inward. It is a self-reflective time, an inward self-examination guided by the question Methodists have asked since the beginnings of the movement: “How is it with your soul?” A powerful and important question, to be sure, and Lent is the perfect time to take this inward journey and to spend some time in solitude and reflection.
While that is a great start or an important component to a powerful Lenten experience, it can’t be the whole story. Examining your soul is more than just looking inward; it is also considering the state of your soul as it walks about in the world. How goes your soul – which is saying, “How do you live in the world around you? How do you impact, or better, how does your faith impact your community, your church, your family?”
This isn’t new. Historically, the church has talked about the spiritual disciplines in two directions. There were works of piety or what we might call the inward attention to ourselves, and there were works of charity or the outward living and working in the world around us. Like the great commandment, these two sides of the same coin cannot ultimately be separated. That is why this series is about doing both – looking inward and moving outward. We are learning to live inside out.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? - Isaiah 58:6-7 NRSV
You might call this verse from our Isaiah text the signature verse for the series, or at least for this first worship experience in Lent. Here we have a very personal or even individual discipline – fasting – turned around to becoming an act of charity, an outward act. This is what we mean by learning to live inside out. How do we take what is often understood to be self-improvement behaviors or practices and turn them into community builders?
So, how can the worship team and worship leaders help worshipers understand this connection? How can we maintain this bifocal vision of living inside out? By leaning into the connections between our life of faith and our impact on the world around us. The prayers we pray contain both an inner examination of our souls – confession, repentance, commitment – and an outer drive to bring the kingdom – service, justice, reconciliation. Let’s not only look to ourselves, but to the world around us. Let us not simply be convinced that we have hope; let us proclaim hope to the wider world.
Ash Wednesday is an inside-out act of worship. We come and confess and are reminded of both our sinfulness and our mortality. And yet we are given a visible mark in the imposition of ashes, a way of letting the world know that we are people of faith. Our hope is that such a symbol is a welcome sign, a sign of acceptance and hospitality. Indeed, our pledge to God is that we will live in such a way that we bring honor to the name of God and glory to Jesus the Christ. We live outwardly the inner beliefs that we hold.
Not that this way of living in the world is easy. That is part of our confession too. We acknowledge that too often we want to keep our faith inside, for ourselves alone. But we hear Isaiah’s call to move beyond our inward focus, and we are learning to live inside out.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.