Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Lent is for Beginners
So today is Ash Wednesday. Alone, it is not a big holiday for me. I don't go for the ashes or the ritual around it. For many folks, of course, it is a big day. If it is for you, I wish you well.
That said, I love Lent. I enjoy the naturally contemplative mood of the season. It also marks the beginning of the coming of spring. Today feels like spring, too. What a relief after the long weird winter. Here at the parsonage there are already a few flowers poking their way through the dirt. Some trees are showing signs of early life. My hop plants are beginning to show some activity as well. Of course, with a good cold snap all of this new life will go horribly wrong. Still, on this Ash Wednesday it is nice to see the frozen parts of the earth loosen up just as our own frozen parts are beginning to feel the thaw.
So Lent is a time for beginning and for beginners. The more open we are to the changes around us, the better these changes feel. The better we feel as we move about in the light once again. Today instead of ashes and church I took the boys for a hike. How great is that? Still, there is more to this season than openness.
This afternoon I will spend a little time practicing the mandolin. Son #1 and I have lessons to go to after my wife comes home. He is taking the guitar to add to his musical experience. He already plays the trumpet. For my son, lessons are a usual part of life. He is a kid. Kids go to school where they expect to hear from "experts". Parents teach them, too. For me, it is different. This "lesson thing" underscores how little of this sort of learning I do now. I am older now and put myself forward in some aspects of life as a sort of expert myself. There are things I know a great deal about, after all. Part of the challenge of being this sort of person is that we (or I, at least) forget that being good at one thing doesn't mean we know squat about something else.
So it is with the mandolin lessons. I am learning discipline. Somewhere floating in the blogosphere is a piece I wrote about being a beginner at the ukulele. At the time, I chose not to take lessons. Instead I fell back on my previous--somewhat faulty--understanding of the guitar and learned enough to play at church during the summer services. This worked well in many ways. However, there is also something to be said for starting from the beginning with someone who can help you get the most out of the experience. By taking lessons I learned, for example, that I had concentrated too much on my left (chord-making) hand and had neglected the simple act of strumming in rhythm. I had also never really bothered to learn to read music or understand what makes a seventh-chord different from a major-chord or a minor-chord, or a ninth. In some ways I had built the second floor before the first. I made the attic before the foundation.
Both my approaches--to the mandolin and the uke--are those of the beginner, but they provide different sorts of perspectives. One (the self-taught uke) is built on the freedom to both explore and to fail. It is a celebration of the wonder of musical discovery. I learned to play this way in the midst of summer when we are surrounded by life and possibility. The other (the mandolin lessons) has to do with depth of understanding, seeing how things connect and how I connect to them. It is a practice built from the ground up. It also requires humility. This is the sort of beginner I want to be in Lent.
I hope that you also find a Lenten practice that makes demands of you even as it rewards your efforts. I hope, too, that it makes you humble. This is a time of year when we have the opportunity to re-orient ourselves. We have the chance to better understand our place in the order of things. It may feel funny at first. We experts don't like admitting what we don't know. However, persistence will bring growth. Growth will bring understanding. Understanding will bring a sort of deep joy and connection that we cannot achieve another way.
We are all beginners all the time. We can try to hide that fact or we can embrace it in all its fullness and mystery. Happy Ash Wednesday. Blessed Lent.