Here are some other ways to think about Lent
Lent is upon us again this year, beginning this week. Here are some other ways to think about this season.
Christians are called to live “in but not of the world.” The first Epistle of Peter says that we are “strangers” in our own land. We “resident aliens” are not completely at home wherever we are; we always run against the grain no matter what the society where we live. The original imagery stems from Jewish concern for the “stranger within your gates,” the foreigner who must be given the same rights as the Hebrews and protected with the widow and the orphan. Many Old Testament verses lump these three kinds of people together as deserving proper care, compassion, and equal treatment with those who are, so to speak, of the land. Since we are always strangers we care for the stranger in our midst.
Clearly this command fuels our concern for refugees and immigrants. A Judeo-Christian ethic underlies much of American culture and history. Our compassion toward those who come to these shores seeking refuge from a variety of ills – persecution, ostracizing, economic impoverishment come to mind immediately – has always been a hallmark of America. The words of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” from the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty are watchwords again as we struggle over issues of immigration. Lent is about welcoming the stranger through the charity that is in our hearts, precisely because we know that we are strangers and aliens.
The other side of this is the “in, but not of, the world” aspect. How have Christians enacted this over the centuries? How is it enacted now? Conservative Christian columnist Rod Dreher has proposed “the Benedict Option,” gathering together in enclaves for mutual support in a culture that becomes more problematic and complex each year. The option is named for St. Benedict of Nursia, who founded monasteries based on the earlier rules of Saints Pachomius and Anthony of the Desert, funneled into the West through St. John Cassian. Benedictine monasteries have a threefold rule: prayer, work, and study. They were primarily educational institutions, as were the monasteries that preceded and followed them. Especially in the West, monasteries kept the light of learning aflame in the erroneously titled Dark Ages. Monasteries have always been places of hospitality, especially during Lent, when we need strength for the path.
Here’s another approach to the meaning of Lent: Pastor Johann Christoph Arnold of the Bruderhof (www.bruderhof.com) has penned a book entitled Escape Routes. The Bruderhof is a communitarian movement whose communities pepper the American landscape. This wise set of essays helps us negotiate problems all of us face in our culture. The book speaks to anyone who has ever struggled with isolation and loneliness, ironic hallmarks in our age of overwhelming information and so-called communication. Despair surrounds many who appear to be living perfectly normal lives, and each of us lives with demons from the past that need to be addressed. Arnold’s book moves through these problems, holding out hope for personal transformation, experienced in community with others. Lent is about finding solace in common with others who struggle with these issues.
Every one of us faces issues that alienate us from our culture, from one another, and even within our own selves. Lent is about taking refuge, stepping back, and finding ways to negotiate our culture. Lent is about building the discipline to resist those forces that drive us away from the true North of our lives. Lent is about finding the humility and love deep within us to embrace the other. Lent is about forgiveness for others and for oneself. Welcome to Lent.