Lent

The Foolishness and Weakness of God

In this Lenten season we ask what is truly transformative. What practices are potent enough to dissolve the patterns of perception and response etched in the neural circuits of our brains, constantly reinforced by an environment obsessed with competition and the lure of individual gratification? This month’s scriptures suggest that contemplative practice—the art of persistent gazing—is powerful enough when the focus is Jesus, the sign of what Paul calls “the foolishness and weakness of God.” When the Crucified One is the focus of our gaze, meditation can never be for us what much of our “spiritual-but-not-religious” culture is after. All manner of meditative practices are marketed as ways to soothe stress and “bring balance” to our over-stimulated lives. These practices carry the prestige of spirituality, but may actually reinforce our conformity to what scripture calls “this age,” if they merely palliate some of its toxic effects in our individual lives. 

Shouldn’t spirituality be spurring us to address the need for systemic change, not merely helping us to cope? For radical Christians, contemplative discipline is learning to see Jesus with the eyes of the heart in ways of worship and prayer that expose us to irradiation by his way of self-giving, even to death on a cross. We take the risk of being impregnated with a new self, Jesus’ new self. This core identity in Christ imparts new instincts that enable us to decipher God’s secret solidarity with the poor, excluded, and disempowered.

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Columba’s Church in Washington, D.C.

[ March 4 ]
No One There, Only Jesus
Genesis 17:1-7; Psalm 22:23-31;
Romans 4:13-25; Mark 9:2-9

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New & Noteworthy

Brought to Their Knees
Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America is sociology professor Robert Brenneman’s engaging study of faith and conversion among former gang members in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Oxford University Press

Plain, Not Simple
On Feb. 28, the PBS series American Experience will premiere The Amish, a two-hour, intimate exploration of faith and life in this private religious community. As the outside world presses in on them, what might the future hold? pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/amish

Make Way
The daily meditations and activities in Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit, by Paula Huston, aim to help create space for God in cluttered lives. Written from a Catholic perspective, giving non-Catholics a few opportunities to try less-familiar disciplines or creatively improvise. Ave Maria Press

Empathy and Outcasts
Film and religion scholar Sara Anson Vaux explores how “an icon of power honors the least among us with his art” in The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood. A deep, detailed, and accessibly written analysis of the moral perspective communicated through Eastwood’s major films. Eerdmans

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40 Ideas for Keeping Lent Holy

(Lenten Rose photo by Lynn Whitt/Shutterstock.)
(Lenten Rose photo by Lynn Whitt/Shutterstock.)

40 Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent from House for All Sinners and Saints, the Denver congregation Nadia serves.

Day 1: Pray for your enemies

Day 2: Walk, carpool, bike or bus it.

Day 3: Don’t turn on the car radio

Day 4: Give $20 to a non-profit of your choosing

(Sunday)

Day 5: Take 5 minutes of silence at noon

Day 6: Look out the window until you find something of beauty you had not noticed before

Why Ash Wednesday Belongs Out of the Church and Out on the Streets

Ashes to Ashes image via Tim/Wylio. (http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4366100
Ashes to Ashes image via Tim/Wylio. (http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4366100883)

Repentance has a public aspect and a private aspect. Jesus speaks very clearly about doing one’s repentance in secret -- not chattering on in public about how hungry your pious fasting has left you. At the same time, the church also has a ministry to call -- publicly -- for repentance, to sometimes play the role of John the Baptist. Calls for repentance happen every week, every day, inside religious buildings, inside religious communities.  Sometimes calls for repentance need to happen out on the street corners, too.

Still, this is a strange thing to do, this liturgy outside a hospital.  It does not feel entirely comfortable to me -- but I am not sure anything about Ash Wednesday ever feels entirely comfortable.

On Ash Wednesday, Episcopalians Take it to the Streets

People on the Street. Photo by Jon Candy/Wylio. (http://www.wylio.com/credits/Fl
People on the Street. Photo by Jon Candy/Wylio. (http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/5204148454)

Five years ago, the Rev. Teresa K.M. Danieley had an epiphany of sorts. If people can grab breakfast on the go or pay a bill from their cell phone, she thought, why shouldn't they be able to get their ashes in a flash?

That's why, on Ash Wednesday 2007, Danieley planted herself in full priestly regalia at a busy intersection in St. Louis, smudging the sign of the cross on the foreheads of bicyclists, drivers and bus passengers.

This year, at least 49 Episcopal parishes across 12 states will offer ashes to passersby at train stations, bus stops and college campuses on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22) as Danieley's "Ashes to Go" concept spreads nationwide.

Fat Tuesday and Skinny Wednesday

Sprinkles image via Wylio (http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4129682430)
Sprinkles image via Wylio (http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4129682430)

All the major world religions have an element of self-denial at their core. Jews have Yom Kippur.Muslims have Ramadan.Christians have Lent. 

In a world filled with clutter, noise, and hustle, Lent is a good excuse to step back and rethink how we think and live.In a world of instant gratification, it’s a chance to practice delayed gratification – to fast -- so that we can truly appreciate the blessings we have.In a world where virtual friends are replacing real ones, it is an invitation to turn off TV and computer screens so we can spend time with real people again. 

It’s an opportunity to give up something that is sucking the life out of us so that we can be filled with God, with life, with love again.

Lent (or Why I Need a Break from the 'Like' Button)

Photo via Getty Images.
Photo via Getty Images.

Consciously or not, when we recognize the need to step away from social media, it is because we are questioning who is in control.

If our default is to ask life’s big questions on Twitter before we offer them in prayer, then someone other than God is in control. If we "Like" what someone is doing of Facebook before we recognize everything God is doing in our lives, maybe we need a social media time-out.

Lent is the right time to realign ourselves with the fact that God should be in control in our lives.

A New Hymn for Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday ashes. Image via Wylio, http://bit.ly/zWZxhw.
Ash Wednesday ashes. Image via Wylio, http://bit.ly/zWZxhw.

This coming Wednesday, Febr. 22, is Ash Wednesday. The following new hymn is based on the Revised Common Lectionary’s assigned reading of Isaiah 58:1-12 with its social justice themes.

            O God of Love, the Fast You Choose

  KINGSFOLD CMD (“Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples”)

O God of love, the fast you choose is not some great display.

It’s everything we gladly do to serve you day by day.

It’s not a moment set apart when we will mourn our sin;

For you require a change of heart—  a change from what has been....

Why We Fast

Photo via Paulo Dias Photography/Getty Images.
Photo via Paulo Dias Photography/Getty Images.

In February of 2009, when I tried a month-long Ramadan fast for the book Flunking Sainthood, I felt like a failure for most of the month.

Fasting was not a practice I ever cheated on (weirdly, it was easier for me to give up food completely in February than it was just to be a vegetarian in October of that year, when I did cheat -- how lame is that?). But I never felt like I fully "got" it. I did feel unexpectedly relaxed at the end of February -- and, let's face it, a bit smug that I'd persevered through the experience -- but not much more spiritual than when I started.

I think it's because I had the wrong attitude to begin with.

Randall Balmer answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

The puzzle here is not that readers of the Bible would tilt toward the political left. That, for me, as well as for thousands of other American evangelicals, is self-evident. Jesus, after all, summoned his followers to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to welcome the stranger and to care for “the least of these.” He also expressed concern for the tiniest sparrow, a sentiment that should find some resonance in our environmental policies.

No, the real conundrum lies in the subtitle the editors of Christianity Today assigned to Franzen’s article, which was titled, “A Left-Leaning Text.” Adjacent to a picture of a Bible tilted about 45 degrees to the left, the editors added the subtitle: “Survey Surprise: Frequent Bible reading can turn you liberal (in some ways).”

The fact that anyone should register surprise that the Bible points toward the left should be the biggest surprise of all.

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