Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Discovering Lent (Dialogue Column 1.29.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Oftentimes, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I knew very little about the season of Lent. I had heard vague mentions of people giving things up for Lent, and I knew people who knew people who wore ashes on their foreheads all day one Wednesday a year. It all sounded very cult-like to me at the time. Actually, it sounded like some exotic ritual that I might read about in National Geographic. Sure, it might be good enough for the Bushmen of Borneo, but it had little to do with religion as I understood it.

I guess it wasn’t until seminary that I began to think about Lent. I recall overly somber chapel services carried out by Baptists who were experimenting with the “high church” practices of the Presbyterian seminary across the street. It was as if we liberal Baptists were not only trying to leave behind the theology of our youth but also the stripped down worship services we grew up with. Although we were perhaps overzealous when it came to the traditions of Lent (even liberal Baptists like guilt), our attempts to have a season of repentance and preparation for Easter opened up a new world for me. Thanks to Lent, Easter became more than just a Sunday to hunt eggs.

In the years since I discovered Lent in seminary, I have come to look forward to it. Lent runs throughout the forty days prior to Easter (not counting Sundays). During those days, we are asked to go on a journey with Jesus that ends up at the cross and then to take a few steps beyond it to the empty tomb. Along the way, we are confronted y with just what it means to follow this man Jesus. We are asked to take new things on and give old things up. Each decision is taxing and each step forward an effort. After a season of reflection and change, it is a relief to finally move past the suffering of the cross, that reminds us of all the pain in the world and our part in it, to the empty tomb, which reveals that God’s grace is great enough to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Lent seems like the perfect antidote to our twenty-first century life. Everything in our culture seems to value a person based upon what they earn, own and spend. Every bit of advertising that flows over us stresses yet one more way to find self-fulfillment. Yet, the season of Lent calls us to do just the opposite. During these forty days, we are called to look beyond ourselves to the world around us and beyond it to the one who created it. During Lent, we are called to contemplate what we should give up, give away, leave behind and let go. When all is said and done, Lent exists to prepare our hearts and souls to receive what we cannot earn for ourselves: the love of the one who knows us best.

Now that Lent is a part of my year, I wonder what I ever did without it. Growing up, Easter would just sort of sneak up on me, a day that was supposed to mean something but was there and gone too quickly. Now I look forward to its coming and I feel relief that another season of soul-searching is over. It’s not the kind of relief one feels when pain ends, but rather it is the relief one feels when something important has been accomplished.

This season of Lent I am going to be trying some different kinds of prayers, some writing and some authors that I’ve been putting off reading. It’s the kind of stuff I always mean to do but never seem to get around to doing. Lent begins on February 6, Ash Wednesday. I hope to see you along the way.

Last year, as your fresh new minister, I issued a challenge to First Christian Church. I challenged every church member to be present in worship every Sunday in Lent, provided they were in town and physically able to attend. I was shocked last year to see so many of you taking my challenge seriously and showing up. Perhaps you were just trying to humor your new minister. Now that I’ve been here a year, we’ll see whether or not my challenge to you carries any weight. I am issuing the same challenge this year, so I hope to see you in worship during Lent.

Grace and Peace,

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