Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Turn Out the Lights

Willie Nelson once recorded a song which I believe is most appropriate for this morning, Somewhere down New Orleans way the streets are being swept, the beads are going back into storage, and hurricanes and beignets have been replaced by water and bread. Gone are the outlandish costumes and wild makeup schemes featuring the ubiquitous colors of green, purple, and gold. In their place we see simple frocks and violent slashes of black on foreheads. McDonald’s is toning down its marketing of the Big Mac and trying to entice hungry customers with offers of the Filet o’ Fish. Yes friends, it is Ash Wednesday, the Lenten season is upon us, and the Christian world is moving beyond the festivities of Mardi Gras as it focuses on six weeks of reflection, repentance, and a hope for redemption. For many Christians, the emphasis of the Lenten season will be austerity and piety as they seek to become aware of their need for salvation by fasting. Many have spent the last few days trying to decide what they would “give up” for the liturgical season.  

However, people who have been nurtured in the protestant or evangelical traditions often look upon the practices with a skeptical eye. For centuries, Protestants and Evangelicals have been warned against any religious practice that smacks of the papacy. The idea of setting aside specific times of the year to focus on the spiritual discipline of fasting was seen as redundant since it should have been part of the regular practice of one’s faith. Being marked with ashes as a sign of penitence was too akin to disobeying Jesus’ command to avoid extravagant displays of suffering during fasting. We Protestants have been warned about the sins of wearing of faith on our sleeve lest it be a mile wide and an inch deep. Besides who needs a season of fasting and repentance when the ultra-orthodox fundamentalist followers of Calvin, the Puritans, raised austerity to an almost idolatrous level. Thanks to them, we of the post-modern world harbor the notion that John Calvin would have sucked the fun out of everything, hence Lent just is not necessary.

The problem with that notion is Calvin continually called on the faithful to rejoice and be glad in the day God has made. His was a theology that emphasized gratitude for the many gifts from the fount of every blessing. Calvin did not have anything against people having fun and enjoying life, he just wanted them to be more aware of the world around them and their place in it under the sovereignty of God. Moderation in all things good judiciously avoiding idolatry would be a better way of characterizing Calvin’s approach to daily faithful living.

So where does that leave us modern or post-modern Protestant disciples when it comes to the cultural phenomenon that is the celebration of Lent? Rather than “giving up” something as a sign of our devotion maybe it would be better to take on a new discipline. A dear friend and colleague told me that he will be riding around with five rolls of quarters in his car which he will give to anyone asking for money. For the season of Lent, he will not inquire about need. He will not roll up his window and assume the steely straight ahead stare. He will just give up some of what he has in an attempt to see the world more clearly. Coffee, chocolate, alcohol, or Facebook will not be some perverse idol worshipped by its absence. No, a discipline will be taken on which will open eyes to the sin that has been committed thus reflecting a truer sense of the meaning of the Lenten season. As for me, having been exposed to the sin of sloth which often binds me, I will be writing in my blog every day during the season. With that practice hopefully I will see the world and its brokenness more clearly as I join with its groaning anticipation of ultimate redemption.

Soli Deo Gloria