Lent has the Same Focus from Many Angles
One of my long-term friends in ministry, who is older than me, serves in parish and economic ministry in southern Virginia, in the heart of coal country. We have drifted into different places down the years, after having known each other first in Pittsburgh in the mid-Sixties. We have also moved into different churches from those in which we began. On the surface it would appear, from our ecclesiastical settings, that we should hold radically different outlooks – but we do not. Our themes and values have been rather consistent both throughout the years and despite various locales and ministries.
These themes have taken on renewed shape and form each Lent. For my old friend and I, Lent has always served as a touchstone for the reality of the Gospel of Jesus. It’s stripped down, in a sense, and cuts to the heart of the issues that brought Jesus to the cross: phony religiosity wherever it exists, bad politics, economic deprivation, and violence masquerading as power. Lent exposes the destructive behavior humans can exhibit against one another in the name of a movement or ideology. In that respect the season itself is prophetic; taken as a whole, Lent hurls of word of judgment into the contemporary situation – every contemporary situation. We see, in the degradation that Jesus eventually suffered at the hands of a coalition of forces turned against him, a model of the degradation that occurs time and time again around the world. If it’s not Uganda it’s the Ukraine. The pattern arises wherever power means domination, rather than the model Jesus taught and embodied, which might better be called empowerment. The key passage is Mark 10, where Jesus reminds his followers that they are not to be dominators like the rulers roundabout them, but rather to enter into servant-leadership, which is the path of empowerment.
When you take fasting in Lent seriously, you cannot help but think of the fact that we live in a country that is oddly imbalanced. On one hand we think of ourselves as a great system of equality; but really, there are people at the lower end of the economic system who are virtually invisible. There are more poor people in America on a per capita basis than there are in many of the countries of Europe. Even Albania, which used to be considered the most impoverished European nation, has a lower percentage of poor people than we do.
When you take charity during Lent as a duty, you think of ways to stretch your own resources in assistance to others. You find charities to which you can donate and you send off money to them. Better still, many people find ways to volunteer closer to home.
When you take prayer during Lent as a discipline, you cannot help but intercede on behalf of others who occupy a different place in the economic order than you do. Prayer is communication with God, but it is also a way by which your own priorities get oriented and re-oriented. As the old expression goes, be careful what you pray for, since you may become the answer to your own prayer.
My friend in Virginia may express his concerns differently than do I, but our concerns remain the same: how can we take the name of Jesus upon ourselves and remain callous toward others who stand in great need? How can we use our power in an inclusive and inspiring way, rather than separating people from one another for the sake of domination? Ultimately the question for all of us is, Are we really being the church or not? Lent exposes us but also calls us to renewal.