Several decades ago, I got a panicked call from a freshly-injured friend who needed a substitute to play for a primary-grades Ash Wednesday liturgy. I was available, plus I knew that if I declined, with the season of penitence looming, my Lent would be turned to forty days of guilt. The experience ended up being another instance of That Wacky Paraclete (hereafter TWP) zooming around my life wherever She wants to.
At homily time, the evidently-popular young associate pastor came down into the midst of the students; I did an inner-eye roll in anticipation of the Q&A session that was about to ensue. The opening question was “Who would like to be my best friend?” Nearly every hand shot up. He proceeded to go around and ask what sorts of things they would do together as best friends.
After a minute or two of this, he stopped and said “So, who wants to be my best friend?” Again, the hands went up; he continued, “I forgot to tell you that we’re only going to be best friends about five weeks, and then I’m going to pretend I don’t even know you.” It was the perfect context to help those young ones (and, frankly, me) to grasp the shallowness of a Lenten discipline that isn’t intended to last beyond the forty days. I viewed Lent in a new way that year.
I still search for these sorts of “lenses” to help me view and understand Lent anew, as I participate in its trinity of disciplines, along with whatever other spiritual or physical discipline I’ve chosen. Here are two Lenten lenses I’ll be looking through this year:
The first comes from John Barker, OFM, one of the authors for Living the Word, a Lectionary scripture commentary/reflection resource for which I am the editor. In one of his entries for Lent 2021, he explained how the Jewish prophets’ understanding of mercy was one of relationship, in which the Divine One stands ready to renew mercifully time and time again, as often as we need the relationship restored. This was a concept I knew and understood intellectually, but TWP made it zing the center of my heart; a more adult-level version of that friendship question from years ago.
As I later meditated on this relationship dynamic, it occurred to me how much the surrounding culture has influenced me to commodify everything, including God’s mercy. I realized that I sort of see God as a MegaMercyMart, where I can just go get a bunch or a chunk of mercy whenever I need it. Of course it’s free, so I can pretty much live however I want, knowing that all I need to do is head to the MMM on another shopping trip. Along with cheap grace, I’ve realized that we can fill our lives with cheap mercy as well.
For the second lens, TWP focused the first even further through an online reflection called “Keeping up with the phoneses” by Rev. John Edgerton, a UCC pastor from the Chicago area. The reflection referred to how we continue to refine and advance technology, and how it evolves (like nature, not always in a direct line or perfectly) in our continual attempt to improve it. Though I fully realize that improvements in technology occur largely to get us to purchase new products, transferring this reality to a non-commodified spiritual realm made me think of it in terms of “upgrading toward the reign of God” as a new way to view my Lenten journey, and my ongoing relationship with a merciful God.
My tendency has been to view Lent through the “re-“ words: return, restore, renew, revive, and so on. Nothing wrong with that, except over the course of years it’s kept me looking back (sometimes to an imagined Baptismal Elysium), always in the rear-view mirror. “Upgrading toward the reign of God” has helped me keep a healthy future-looking component to my continuing walk with the Lord. This lens has assisted me in seeing my spiritual life and health in a new and clearer way.
What are YOUR Lenten lenses?
Thank-you, Alan, for a wonderfully insightful post. I have been troubled for years with what I (of Lutheran background) considered trite Lenten practices, which all too often gave me an excuse for no practices beyond the minimal and public-faced. God’s blessings on you for this pastoral help.