Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lent: What's the Point? (Dialogue Column 2.24.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, 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.

This week we begin with ashes and walk together with Jesus towards Jerusalem where we will find the cross and the empty tomb. I have to confess that this spiritual journey still seems new to me. Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I knew very little about Lent. I think I heard mention of people giving up chocolate or some other thing for Lent, but I really did not know what in the world all that talk was about. Lent seemed as foreign as something villagers in Papa New Guinea might do. It wasn’t until I went to seminary and discovered the liturgical calendar that I learned the seasons historically celebrated by the church around the world. I find Lent to be wonderful, mysterious, sad and even at times depressing, but the journey is always worth the effort.

I have observed any number of different ways to commemorate Lent from a shame-filled guilt trip to a marathon of self-help. Like so many things we humans do, our Lenten spirituality can become focused upon ourselves rather than upon what really matters: Jesus. The point of Lent is for us to follow Jesus on his journey; even to places his disciples feared to go—places like the cross and beyond. On the way, we learn from Jesus about the cruel nature of our world, the loving nature of our God and all of the things that blind us to seeing the reality of both. We miss the point when we make Lent about us.

Oh sure, there is a certain amount of self-concern that is necessary in Lent, but only insofar as we need to examine our lives for things that keep us from following Jesus on towards Easter. Marcus Borg writes that Lent is a journey into and out of “the land of the dead.” He says that each of us must die to some things if we are to be born again on Easter:

Some of us may need to die to specific things in our lives--perhaps to a behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional, perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad, perhaps to an unresolved grief or to a stage in our life that it is time to leave, perhaps to our self-preoccupation, or even to a deadness in our lives (you can die to deadness.) It is possible to leave the land of the dead. So, the journey of Lent is about being born again--about dying and rising, about mortality and transformation.

This, after all, is what Jesus was talking about when he said those who wish to gain their life must lose it.

The grace of God revealed in Lent is that by journeying with Jesus we can be transformed just as Jesus was transformed on that first Easter. Although we will not have resurrected bodies on Easter as Jesus did—at least not until our time in this life is over—we can become less distracted, less empty, more faithful and more fulfilled people. We can become new people, if we keep our eyes focused on Jesus and don’t get distracted along the way.

It seems to me that now is the perfect time for us to shift our focus away from ourselves and to Jesus’ humility, service and sacrifice. Recent months have demonstrated to us in graphic and painful terms what rampant self-interest and greed can destroy and corrupt. As we reflect upon the damage done to our culture by the greed of a few, we must also admit the damage our own selfishness causes in the everyday worlds we live in. The only way out from such a distorted self-perception is to turn ourselves towards Jesus and follow him onward.

Don’t miss the point of Lent.

Grace and Peace,


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