First Week of Lent // #RethinkLent #RethinkChurch

The other day I shared with you some reflections on Lent. Though I discussed some of the ideas around the season, which are highlighted in the Book of Alternative Services prayer, we didn’t discuss many options for Lenten commitments.

Now, this morning (Ash Wednesday), around 8am, I received a text message:

What should I give up for lent?

Lent can be a tough season, as we try to navigate an annual delve into a spiritual discipline. It can be even more disconcerting as, for many of us, it may be the only time during the year we take the idea of structured and consistent practices seriously. There is also a feeling of social pressure, as we look at friends and family who are giving up their favourite things or committing themselves to, what appears to be, mountainous tasks of prayer.

“What should I give up for Lent,” almost seems to say, what is good enough to give up? What sacrifice can I make which balances my will power and time with the right level of piety? It is a perplexing question, and annually I have begun to dread the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”

The question seems to echo the words: Piety. Righteousness. Penitence.

Though the question seems to be one of casual conversation it is imbued with spiritual baggage. And I have to ask, are we to commit ourselves to an annual form of socially acceptable suffering? Is this what God has asked us to be? Hungry? How does this image of ourselves reflect onto our God?

No, this image of a God who calls his children to suffer because Christ suffered is inconsistent with the call to love and reconcile. Frankly, Jesus had some harsh things to say about the virtues we uphold for Lent, and how they can be distorted away from God. (Excepts from Matthew 6, The Voice)

Concerning Piety:

But when you do these righteous acts, do not do them in front of spectators. Don’t do them where you can be seen, let alone lauded, by others. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Concerning Fasting:

And when you fast, do not look miserable as the actors and hypocrites do when they are fasting—they walk around town putting on airs about their suffering and weakness, complaining about how hungry they are. So everyone will know they are fasting, they don’t wash or anoint themselves with oil, pink their cheeks, or wear comfortable shoesThose who show off their piety, they have already received their reward.

I am not saying fasting or prayer is a bad practice, nor do I think Jesus is. The message appears to be that all of these things should be approached with careful thought and humility. Fasting is not for everyone, nor is it an expected part of Christian faith. It is a useful process of self-sacrifice and focus and can take many forms. But Lent is not synonymous with fasting, though we may use it in that way. I.E. “I’m fasting from chocolate.” Further, fasting is not synonymous with righteousness.

Instead of giving something up, recognize what you have. It might seem silly to someone who has nothing to eat that you would give it all up simply because that is what you are expected to do. Try and choose a Lenten activity that suits your person and the relationship you have with God. If you binge on candy when you’re stressed out instead of working through your stress and putting your trust in God, then you very well might feel called to give up candy. Maybe then you should choose to reach for a favourite CD or yoga mat before you reach for the candy.

Choose to incorporate in your life activities that are uplifting and positive reflections of the Gospel message, and messenger, in your life.

I believe this is one of the reasons why there has been so much pushback and a move towards taking up something for Lent. (Read Patty Kirk’s 5 suggestions for things to take-up this Lent.) Lent is an incredible season of potential to rediscover Christ as he makes his way towards crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation–the critical moment in the Christian faith. We want to empathize with Christ’s suffering, but even more so Christ has already chosen to empathize with our own. We want to take the choice seriously, and choose to set aside time each Lent to do that.

Lent is not a time of mourning or suffering; Good Friday is a time of mourning. Lent is when we look at Christ not as a child, not as the one baptized by John, but the figure emerging out of the desert with a story that needed to be told.

#RethinkChurch is a project put on by the United Methodist Church that calls us to “live the questions” during Lent. They have a series of discussion questions that look at Christ’s message of salvation and reconciliation on a local and global scale, as well as discerning your place in the movement of the Kingdom of God closer to the here and now. If you are looking for something to take up, why not take up the discussion? Begin to ask the bigger questions and to invite God into your daily acts.

Rethink Church

Where we are standing // In the breach

There is an iconic image being shared on the web today, one that evokes a number of powerful statements about the place of faith in our global world. 

Orthodox priests standing between pro-European Union activists and riot police, Central Kiev, Ukraine - Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Orthodox priests standing between pro-European Union activists and riot police, Central Kiev, Ukraine – Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

This post is not a reflection on the political situation in the Ukraine, which has massively escalated recently with Russia’s movements. Instead, it is a look at a series of evocative images depicting the integral role faith has when it comes to justice.

The image above depicts a small collection of clergy who stand between the gap of protesters and riot police.  What is the role of faith leaders to act as both a barrier between the oppressed and their oppression, and to speak with authority on matters of justice? Why has this image seen such a heavy response, in relation to the hundreds of other images being shared during this troubling time? What in this image brings out a response in us?

I believe this image, and many more like it, depict an intense sense of vulnerability and, paradoxically, strength. The priests, standing without any protection, depicted against a backdrop of faceless riot police allows us to feel the fear of the pro-EU protesters  as they face the great barricade of bodies and shields. We are only humans, fragile and individual, with lives that can be swept away in a surge of violence. Yet, here are men, human just like you or I, standing in the breach.

They offer up a sense of protection in their presence; calling both sides not to forget there are things greater than ourselves, that actions have consequences and there are certain acts that cannot be undone. There is a peacefulness, like a dam keeping back a strong force.

Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5, The Voice)

There are many kinds of peacemakers in our world, from those who protest on the street for a peaceful resolution, to those who lobby in halls of power and authority on their behalf, to those who condemn acts of injustice. It is harder to see and understand those kinds of peacemakers, as messages become confused and sides are taken.

It is much easier to understand a person standing in the breach, keeping both sides of violence at bay.

The Washington Post has a great article/gallery series showing  Orthodox priests ministering to protestors, to the wounded, walking the apocalyptic-like streets of Kiev, and protesting with crowds outside the EU’s headquarters in brussels. Each photo depicts a man wearing his dark robes and ornate stole, with a face that carries a sober countenance. Yet, there is a diversity in this pictures, as priests are seen caring for all people–those who are mourning, those who are protesting, those who are standing guard, and those who are wounded.

The above photo is powerful because it does not depict a side that is being taken, it displays a refusal to allow either side to cross the breach. It shows men of authority (as any leader is) choosing to put themselves between, not above. This, I believe, is the role of faith in times of uncertainty and violence. Wether it is to shield others using your authority, your presence, or your body, people of faith are called to stand in the breach, yelling like the prophets for justice–calling God’s people, all people–to reconciliation and peace.