Can Christians observe Lent in a way that ties social justice consciousness to spiritual Lenten practices of repentance, resistance, and solidarity? The curators of four social media campaigns — #LentenLament, #LentLite, #EmbodiedSolidarity, and #DetoxifyChristianity — are exploring what this looks like in public. “What does it mean to come together, to lock arms together, to really just stand in the gap for people?” Alicia Crosby, executive director of the Center for Inclusivity and co-curator of last year’s #EmbodiedSolidarity campaign, asked.
It would be much easier to let the face of the tomb be a scriptural story, so we could talk about terror and grief at arm’s length. But if we strip the story of humanity, we have no recourse but to fall into Christian platitudes that have no resilience in the face of real pain and grief.
I thought about my own will to division — how I was inclined to cut out from my circle of care those who, it seemed to me, had chosen to elect leaders who relish division, scapegoating, dog whistling, and control. I thought about our Buddhist siblings’ reminder that there is no separation between these hatreds — that to choose division myself is to cut out a part of our general body that is central to the compassion and fierce love through which lasting change comes.
For now, me and my people are protected in America. My tears are fortified by fear and outrage as I think of my Catholic cousin and the wonderful woman he married, whose family hails from India and who practices another religion. They and their two beautiful children could be targeted like Srinivas Kuchibhotla — for what? The color of their skin? The worship of their God?
Unplugging from social media or limiting one’s internet use for a set period such as during Lent can be helpful for some individuals. My research, conducted over two decades, however, shows that some core assumptions on which digital fasting is based can be problematic or misguided.
Scripture is rife with paradox. Live by the Spirit but be firmly anchored in the Word. Seek justice but love mercy. Love sacrificially but maintain healthy boundaries. Be gracious with people but hold to the standard of holiness.
We’re telling ourselves, our neighbors, and this country that we care about the everyday lives of the people, that we’re willing to work to protect them. We’re willing to care for the environment when we recycle and dig in the dirt and support our national parks, we’re willing to protest in the streets when we see injustice, and we’re willing to pray in our homes that the resistance-heart and hard-working hands of Jesus bleeds into who we are in every moment of our lives.
If our fasting from food does not compel us to consider and improve the circumstances of those who are hungry and fast involuntarily, then what purpose does it serve? If our abstaining from shopping for clothes does not cause us to consider and provide for the naked, and if our desire to improve our interpersonal relationships doesn’t catalyze our engagement with those on the margins, how does this season of sacrifice serve the building of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
To adults new to Christian practices of fasting during Lent, the idea can seem facetious — some sort of trendy way of worshipping both Jesus and our own well-defined abs. But for many, fasting has been a way of cleansing not the body but the mind. Temporary self-denial can invite us to compassion for those who are hungry not by choice, to a remembrance of the trials of Jesus, or to better appreciation of food when we do eat. But in the face of a world that already pressures many into self-denial, self-deprivation, and self-harm, the strength of the spiritual discipline of fasting cracks.
THERE IS SOMETHING SPACIOUS about the gospel viewed through the keyhole of repentance. Something to the spare, Spartan spaces that mark a season of penitence. One chapel I know turns its altar so the people can see Jesus’ dying words: “I thirst.” Another adorns its sanctuary with a bare tree, not a leaf on it. The signs are those of severity. We make a hash of this world. We leave it bare. There is no health in us.
Lent says the tree will not always be bare. We will not always be health-less. And Jesus will not always thirst. Augustine of Hippo says Jesus thirsts for those gathered around him—he longs to drink them in, make them part of his body. That is, Jesus’ own murderers, the oblivious passers-by, his fellow convicts (his own disciples are long gone).
Lent is long. If you’re like me or my church, our Lenten devotions have grown a bit tepid by now. These final weeks are good times for renewal. The first weeks of Easter, in the ancient church, were a time when the newly baptized would gather daily to marvel at the wonders of their new faith. So too can we.
It’s been a year of strange happenings, politically and culturally. Our inclination is to lash out. There is plenty of blame to be distributed. Lent asks us to lash in. We are the first at fault, whoever we are. And then to praise. Try though we might, we cannot stop the Lord of life. And neither can anyone else.
Suffering far outlasts any administration, and our commitment to the needs of those suffering must transcend partisanship. One problem with connecting advocacy to partisan political outrage is that often the needs of the people get lost in the desire to “win.” Jesus’s vision of healing a world in pain begins with blessing, not blame, so that we may keep our focus on those in need of comfort.
THIS IS WEIRD, I know, but I miss Lent when it’s over. There is something to what Otis Moss III calls the “blue note preaching” that feels human and humanizing. So much of life is sorrowful. At Lent we can name that sadness explicitly. Don’t get me wrong—Easter is awesome. But as soon as it’s done and the lilies are put away and the crowds diminish, I miss the strong scrubbing brush on our corroded hearts and the promise of God’s unending mercy.
There is a clarity in Lent. Repent! Turn around! Now! This is not at all a negative message. When we repent, we empty ourselves, pour ourselves out, open ourselves up. We are normally so full of self-regard. As a friend of mine says, “I’m always right.” What? “I mean, if I knew something was a lie, I’d stop thinking it.” Donald Trump couldn’t have said it better. The thing is, we all think we’re right all the time. Lent says, “No you’re not. Whoever you are.” Sarah Coakley’s work brilliantly has shown the good news of what scripture calls “kenosis,” self-emptying. This is a dangerous teaching. Women and minorities and people out of power are often abused by being told to make themselves less. Coakley argues that self-emptying in forms such as silent prayer is actually the most empowering thing we can do. Because then God’s Holy Spirit fills us up. Grants us a power we can’t imagine. Makes us fully human.
So repent away, preachers and friends. There is no better piece of good news around.
[ March 5 ]
God Tumbles After Us
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 ; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19, 13-17; Matthew 4:1-11
For many Christians who observe the liturgical season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, an Advent devotional is a beloved companion.
Such devotionals typically include a short Scripture reading and reflection on the birth of Jesus.
But most are “crap,” according to the Rev. Jason Chesnut of Baltimore.
Late October is a time of colorful festivals around the world. Some mark the harvest, others are festivals of lights. Now, and in the coming weeks, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and Yoruba are celebrating different holidays, explained here and shown in the photo essay below.
I like to call Ramadan a personal spiritual boot camp. One not only fasts but also prays more, is more careful of one’s interactions with others, tries to exhibit more patience and love. The hunger and thirst — even the overall sense of exhaustion one feels by the end of each day — is a fuel that pushes a Muslim to do better, to fight the internal impulses towards negativity and sin, and to become a better person. Is that possible without fasting? Maybe. But with fasting it is definitely probable. By the end of the 30 days of Ramadan, one feels invigorated, nearer to God, and somehow optimistic.
What if the hardest thing in my spiritual life is to accept the abundant life that Jesus promises? What if the biggest challenge, for some of us who struggle with the sins of self-loathing and shame, is to receive love and to feel joy? Could—should— penitence look different? Might it mean wallowing less and embracing more?
Without his community of his sisters and family, who have been mourning his death and questioning God for not saving their brother and friend, Lazarus would remain entombed. Without community, we remain bound and entombed. I’m not saying that our actions are as great as Jesus raising someone from the dead. But I am saying that God entrusts us with living into community, so that we may welcome our brothers and sisters out of death and into life.
Here is what Pope Francis said to the world in his Lenten message:
“Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.”
Instead of giving up chocolate or alcohol for Lent, the pope seems to want us to give up our indifference to others.
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Every year on Ash Wednesday, I seek out some member of the clergy to say those words to me. They come from the curse of mankind in Genesis 3, but I find blessing in hearing them in the tale of the loving purposes of God.