This week begins the season of Lent.
For many in the progressive Christian world, Lent can feel a bit weird. It can feel like a return to the guilt-ridden life in churches of our childhood, as if we are being made to feel guilty for pleasure, for joy. We can ask ourselves “what is the point?”
As I reflect on the beginning of this year’s Lenten journey, a few ways of approaching this season stand out as positive ways to look at this season.
First, we can make this season focused on reordering our lives to better emulate Jesus. One often hears in progressive Christian circles that a problem in the wider Christian world is that we are so busy worshipping Jesus as God, we fail to pay any attention to how he says to live our lives. Progressive Christians, by and large, deeply identify with the human Jesus of Nazareth, a man like us who struggled to live out a life of compassion and justice. Beginning with focus on Jesus vulnerable in the desert, being tried by his own inner demons and the dark psychological forces at the heart of society, Lent calls us to deeply identify ourselves with the struggle and life of Jesus.
If we are honest, as much as we honor Jesus as one paving a path of human example for living a truly compassionate life which pushes the world around it on toward justice for all people and all living things, we often are so caught up in the busy-ness of our daily lives, we don’t take time to examine whether we are in fact emulating this example. Rather than focusing on Lent as a time of guilt, self-flagellation and suffering we can let the call to lay aside a practice as a call to simplify our life a bit to focus on this question for awhile. What time-consuming action, attention-getting device, complication of life is unnecessary but gobbling up our attention so much we aren’t taking time to reflect on how we are living life? Perhaps that can be the thing we lay aside these 40 days of Lent and, by doing so, we can begin to examine how our life is emulating or failing to emulate Jesus’ example. Using that extra bit of time and attention to do so can help us begin to adjust how we live our lives, each day of Lent discovering ways to live with more awareness, openness, compassion, and more actions aimed at helping bring a more just world.
Second, we can learn through this practice of laying aside distractions – the old word for which is fasting – something far better and more life-giving than a sense of guilt and failure. Any student of social sciences will be familiar with a classic study of children called the “marshmallow test”. In this study, children were filmed given the scenario of having marshmallows placed in front of them and being told when the tester stepped out, they had a choice. They could eat that marshmallow, with no negative consequence. Or they could wait until the tester returned and get two marshmallows.
The researchers followed the life of the children in the test and found that those children who could wait until they got two marshmallows on balance had more successful lives and better outcomes. Initially researchers thought this meant that children who naturally thought long-term and had self-control do better in life. In recent years, though, another conclusion was discovered: in fact, the ability to delay gratification and wait for a wider, deeper fulfillment can in fact be taught. The choice to put off short-term gratification in order to reach a wider goal in small and big ways trains the brain, re-wiring it over time, so that the person who has over time practiced such self-control develops greater resiliency in life. This makes them better able to engage in hard things – whether that means completing graduate level education, developing the open-heartedness to be a good spouse or parent, becoming able to endure in the face of illness or continue with social justice work in the face of social resistance. Ultimately these practices of short-term renunciation of pleasure for long-term fulfillment help train our systems to better be able to continue and thrive in our own life’s callings.
For me this is very helpful in planning my connection with Lent. I do not have to look at my Lenten practice as punishing myself for being guilty or some sort of loathing of pleasure and life. Instead, what I choose to lay aside is about helping me train my body, mind, emotions, and spirit to be present in this moment, while also keeping my eye on the big picture.
In Jesus’ teachings this big picture is called “the kingdom of God”, a social expression of what Scripture calls “shalom”, a state in which all people of every class and background and all of nature are in harmony, equally able to thrive and become fully themselves. This spiritual vision of Jesus which is both intensely social and political is the bigger picture for which we should try to keep ourselves open. It is the social expression of what Buddhists call “lovingkindness”, in which the web of life and human relations are turned toward being life giving and just.
This brings me to the final way of looking at Lent I am embracing this year: Lent is participating in acts of resistance against oppression patterns in our social systems.
I get this idea in part from the example of British abolitionists. If you read the life of British abolitionists, what you find is many of them chose to change their patterns of life as an act of resistance against the slavery system. One way they did this was boycotting sugar, since sugar was gathered largely through the use of African slaves. Until abolition came to the British empire, these abolitionists chose to opt out of the use of sugar, a seemingly small act, but which done in mass created a pinch in the pockets of the sugar industry. This was a way to break with the patterns of empire.
One way to read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is not just a list of spiritual ideals but as a program for resisting the patterns of empire. Lay aside and refuse to participate with patterns of vengeance. Lay aside and refuse to engage in objectifying others in terms of what you can get from them in terms of sex and pleasure, or wealth and property. Quit striving to accumulate and freely share your property, thus changing your relationship to your society’s economic system which necessarily privileges the few over the many who are oppressed.
Jesus’ examples are intensely practical, politically radical, and if engaged in along terms of modern systems of oppression can help affect social change in addition to heart transformation.
By choosing the things we give up or take on during our Lenten practice to be things that resist the oppressive patterns of society we can like these abolitionists put our spirituality to work for justice.
What might this look like?
It might mean giving up driving everywhere and choosing to walk, bike, or ride the train every day during Lent except in emergencies, as a way of practicing breaking our addiction to oil.
It might mean giving up screen time for increased human interaction and interaction with nature to resist our addiction to isolating online interactions which can for some pull us out of real world interactions.
It might mean intentionally moving our buying and selling from white dominated businesses to frequenting businesses in black, Latinx, or other communities of color.
I could go on…
Lent can be an annual season of resistance. And how appropriate would that be! After all, Holy Week — which is the culmination of the Lenten season – begins with Jesus engaged in acts of resistance against empire: making a parody of the Roman parade celebrating conquest by riding into town on a lowly donkey; Jesus overturning money changers in the temple which prop up the Temple system that is in bed with Rome; and Jesus cursing a fig tree as a metaphor for how cooperation with systems of oppression not only leave us fruitless but ultimately lead to social destruction.
I am challenged, and hope you are too, to consider how this season can help me better emulate Jesus and develop skills in resiliency so that, like Jesus, I can join in a life of compassion and resistance against injustice.
Let us join in this journey today!
Your progressive redneck preacher,