Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

And For Lent This Year...?

“What are you giving up for Lent?”

I first heard the question when I was a boy.  My Roman Catholic friends were particularly concerned that they give up something that would “count.”  Ice cream sundaes were always on the list, with candy a close second.  As we got older the list broadened to include bad habits and sometimes bad attitudes.

The question has been put to me over my years in the ministry, sometimes in earnest, sometimes nervously and sometimes in outright scorn. I’ve heard it asked with a heavy heart, and as an expression of irony.  My answers have usually been composed as much in response to the tone of voice as to the question itself.

I have dozens of personal shortcomings that provide possible answers.  “About 10 pounds,” is a reply that comes readily this year.  “The clutter in the barn,” is a close second.  A little more reflection, and I’m proposing positive projects, such as reorganizing all our books, or staying in closer touch with friends.  All of these things can be undertaken over a seven-week period of self-examination and improvement.

That’s when I suspect something’s a little off, and then it hits me: many possible Lenten “fasts” bear a striking resemblance to New Years’ resolutions, except that they’re intended for a shorter period.  Like New Years’ resolutions, they represent things I ought to do, but just never get around to, or good starts I make, but fail to sustain.  They belong to that class of self-improvement projects that sit in the back of my mind as a To-Do list of “oughts.”  And they usually remain on the list of “never-haves.”

Is that really what Lent is all about?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
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
to bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not hide yourself from your own flesh?

These words from the 58th chapter of Isaiah point toward a whole way of being, directed to living in the love of the God who is Love  There is no scorn, contempt, amusement or irony in Isaiah’s prescription, and there is no thought of earning God’s love either.  Isaiah speaks of faithful actions as if they are simply the normal works of a heart that loves God.

Too often we reserve our spiritual actions for moments when we feel isolated from God, or times like Lent, when we judge we are expected to make some religious gesture.  However, that is not only insincere; it is ineffective.  More than half a century ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was martyred under Hitler, wrote of just this problem:

God cannot be used as a stopgap.   We must not wait until we are at the end of our tether: God must be found at the center of life: in life, and not only in death; in health and vigor, and not only in suffering; in activity, and not only in sin.  The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Christ.

Christ is the center of life, and in no sense did he come to answer our unsolved problems...the responsible man [or woman] seeks to make his [or her] whole life a response to the question and call of God.

Lent, as a season makes sense if we see it as an opportunity to restore God at the center of our lives.  With that as the goal, many of the traditional Lenten disciplines can have merit and be productive.  A literal fast can help us to be more mindful of God.  So can a discipline of prayer or study of scripture.  Bonhoeffer charges us to approach the traditional disciplines not as a means of courting God’s favor, but of learning to see our lives from God’s perspective.  This shift of focus changes the questions, and that opens the door to maturing in faith.

Where have you used God as a stopgap?  When have you seen God as primarily interested in life after death?  When have you thanked God for things that have gone well?  Do you seek God’s guidance in good times, and in the decisions of daily living?  How do you seek to conform yourself to the mind of Christ, and do you make time to consider what that might mean?  The key is that we see the season not as a chance merely to tame some old vice or bad habit, but as a time to take stock of all our living, and trust God to lead us into whatever changes are called for in our pilgrimage at the present time.  Then we can begin to understand the fast prescribed by Isaiah, the outcome of which is one of the great promises in all scripture:

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in…
you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Howard MacMullen © March 2011

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