by Pastor Doug Kings
How’s your “New Year’s Resolution” diet going? I read somewhere that people usually stick with a NYR diet about two or three weeks. So, if after a month-and-a-half you’re still at it—congratulations!
If not, know that you’re in good company. But you shouldn’t feel bad about it in any case. Most health and nutrition experts agree that diets don’t work! Oh, you’ll lose weight while dieting. The problem is exactly what you experienced: people don’t maintain them. What we need, the experts say, is not a diet but a long-lasting change in our dietary habits.
Lent begins this week and traditionally most people who observe it treat it like a spiritual diet. Follow a new religious or spiritual practice for the next six weeks and at the end you will be a “better person.” Of course, even six weeks is too long for most of us. I remember when mid-week Lent services were a thing, how often the crowd on Ash Wednesday dwindled to a handful by season’s end.
The problem with this understanding of Lent is like the problem with diets—it doesn’t work! First, most of us aren’t disciplined enough to keep doing something we don’t want to do and aren’t really committed to doing. But even if we kept at it for the whole time (worship more often, pray, read a religious book, give up TV or chocolate, etc.) it likely wouldn’t have accomplished anything.
Unfortunately, for centuries “Lenten discipline” was depicted as a religious duty for “serious” Christians. It somehow proved your commitment to other Christians and—hopefully—to God. Secretly, you hoped it earned you some kind of heavenly bonus points, even if you were a Protestant and knew such things didn’t exist (hey, no harm in playing it safe). Emotionally, it might also assuage your guilt if you were feeling especially bad about some recent conduct of yours or if you were by nature prone to such feelings.
Lent is one of the seasons of the church year. Like the natural seasons, each one has a different flavor. Christmas and Easter are the big celebrations while Advent and Lent respectively are their more somber preparation times. Then there are the long stretches in between, sometimes described simply as “Ordinary Time.” Each season becomes unique by focusing, through liturgy and readings, on different parts of the story of Jesus as told in the gospels.
The serious tone of Lent is due to its focus on Jesus’ death. Six weeks is a long time to think about dying. I suspect that, ironically, the elaborate system of Lenten disciplines was established in part to divert people’s attention from that by giving them something to do. With the medieval emphasis on Jesus dying for our sins (which is just one way the Bible interprets the crucifixion, and not necessarily the best), it was easy to hook into people’s guilt and get them to perform various penitential activities. And if it put some extra money in the church’s coffers, all the better.
That most of that has gone away (as it did long ago with Advent) is probably a good thing. Now, instead of suppressing our chocolate cravings, we can simply pay attention to Lent’s story and think, yes, about dying. The season’s tone is dark, not to make us guilty or depressed, but to get us to be honest: about ourselves, about the world, and about our often-self-serving ideas about God.
One of the themes of the Lent story is Jesus’ prediction of his coming death and telling his disciples that they are all coming along. Needless to say, they are less than enthused. In response, Jesus’ sharpens his point by saying that this is what life in God is about. We must all take up our crosses if we are going to follow Jesus’ path.
We can’t expect to find God if all we do is stand out in the sunshine. Sometimes churches imply or even promise that will be our experience if we live as “real” Christians. But that’s not realistic because that’s not the world God has created, as hard as that is for us to understand or accept.
Yes, John says, the light of Christ shines—but it shines in the darkness. And that’s what we are supposed to do. “Let your light shine,” Jesus says, not under a basket for your private benefit, but where all can see and enjoy it, where it can enlighten our neighbors’ darkness.
The way of the cross is not one of self-flagellation or despair but our life journey to, with, and in God. And as it was for Jesus, it is also a journey to, with, and in the human community. For we take on this journey out of love, discovering along that way that our love for God and for our neighbor are not two loves but one.
This is the story of Lent, of how a man named Jesus heard God’s call to set out on a journey of love and to be a light shining in the darkness. And during this season, if we can watch and listen with open hearts, we may come to understand our own life as such a journey of light and love, even and especially in the dark.
Blessings in your life and ministry. Pastor Doug