Monday, March 14, 2011

Lent Trap

I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
-Luke 15:10 (NIV)

“Self-denial is one of life’s great attractions,” begins a Chicago Tribune article from this past Wednesday. The column, by March Schmich (who until recently wrote the comic strip Brenda Starr), seems to have the goal of explaining the season of Lent while simultaneously stripping anything remotely religious from it. Which is quite the trick, since Lent is a forty-day period of renunciation and repentance observed by many Christian traditions in preparation for Easter.
    Only, the column informs us that Lent comes from a pre-Christian, pagan recognition that, after a long, hard winter, there isn’t much in the pantry and so self-denial is pretty much a sure thing. “Lent witnesses to a time when realities of food production were different than they are now,” says a University of Chicago Divinity School professor who obviously confuses a possible origin for Lent with its meaning, in the way that only a seminary professor can. Because, really, is Lent about the fact that until relatively recently you couldn’t find oranges in Chicago in March?
    No, it’s not, and so the professor also goes on to explain that Lent is about how we acknowledge our sinfulness. But, in his world, “sinfulness” means coming to terms “with the recognition that ...we are not only not what we could be, but not what we should be.” And if you’re wondering why that definition of “sinfulness” is problematic, here’s what the columnist, Schmich, goes on to say:

    “I think that's the main reason self-denial — or call it self-restraint — can be so attractive. We all sense, occasionally or often, that we've strayed from our best self. We sense that we could return to that better, truer self, if we could give up, say, gossip or Cheetos or
    Giving up something you enjoy, if only for a while, makes you feel you've got a steady grip on life's steering wheel.”

    See the problem? The column suggests that the main value of self-denial is that it makes us feel better about ourselves, makes us feel that we have control over our impulses and can make ourselves better people through sheer force of will. But we know, experientially, observationally, and intellectually that it’s not true. I can’t make myself better. No one I know can, either. Oh, OK, we can break some bad habits, or trade them in for others, but left to ourselves we human beings don’t have a great track record at self-control. Sure, we can lose a few pounds here and there, or eat better, or stop wasting so much time on Facebook. But get back to “our best self”?
    Forgive me, but I’m not optimistic.
    The point of Lent, the reason for its observance, has always been repentance. The self-denial associated with it is largely symbolic of the spirit of repentance that should characterize us Christians all the time. To put our faith in Jesus is to believe, not that we can save ourselves, but that we need a Savior. It’s to believe that we need his hand, not our own, firmly on our life’s steering wheel. To trust in Jesus is to admit that our big problem is not that we’ve disappointed ourselves, but that we’ve come up short of what God created us to be.
    Repentance is such a part of biblical theology that if you start quoting passages, you almost can’t stop. It’s everywhere, from beginning to end, and along with love and faith seems to be one of the prerequisites for a relationship with God. The problem with the Trib’s view of Lent is the problem of most of our world - with the church often included. Sin is redefined as not living up to our own expectations for ourselves, our consciences, our inner lights, or whatever. And that lets us off the repentance hook. If I redefine sin only in relation to myself, then why do I need to repent? All I need is to give up chocolate for forty days, and be grateful that the bananas in the supermarket look good.
    But Jesus’ message from the beginning was “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 3:2) “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) Jesus came with good news, yes. Very good news. But in order to receive that good news, folks needed to repent. And, still, to receive the kingdom of God in our lives we need to do the same. We have to reflect on how our lives match up to Jesus, and begin to change the things that don’t look good beside him. And not just once. All the time.
    The point of several of Jesus’ parables, including the well-known “Prodigal Son,” is that God and his angels celebrate in heaven when a sinful person repents. God isn’t shocked by our sins, and he certainly doesn’t need us to pretend that they don’t exist. He’s well aware of the predicament in which we find ourselves, and he celebrates when we admit our sinfulness and make attempts to change our lives. The point isn’t that we’ll always be successful, or that we won’t make further mistakes. The point is that we love and fear our God enough to try to measure ourselves by his standards and face up to the ways in which we aren’t what he wants us to be. The Psalmist puts it like this:
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
oh God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17, NIV)

    “A broken and contrite heart” - that’s what Lent is intended to get across. God loves broken and contrite hearts because those are the kind that are ready to receive his forgiveness. “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ the psalmist remembers. And then the joy just leaps off the page: ‘and you forgave the guilt of my sin.’” (Psalm 32:5) And when sinful people who had been “cut to the heart” by the story of Jesus shouted in anguish, “What should we do?”, Peter responded, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38)
    The proper object of repentance is Jesus Christ, and the result is forgiveness. That’s something else the Trib forgot to mention.
    So whether you observe Lent or not, never resist repentance. It’s how we come to terms with the fact that we’re not yet the people God intended for us to be. And it’s how we proclaim the hope that, in Christ, thank God, we’re going to be.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stones in the Dirt

Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

-John 8:10-11 (TNIV)

There weren’t any homosexual students at the college I attended.
     This was twenty years ago, in a small town in the south, at a church-affiliated university. There was no LGBT group because there were no students that were L, G, B, or T. Oh, there were some who came out after college, to be sure. But not while they were students there. Certainly not.
     I’m thinking about this because of the news this week that Harding University, my alma mater, now has homosexual students. Actually, the news is that Harding made the decision to block an underground website on campus that details “the anonymous experiences of gay and lesbian students at Harding University.” Predictably, the decision to use the university’s firewall to block the site on campus has brought Harding a lot of national media attention and criticism. There are accusations of censorship, and claims that Harding’s actions are unconstitutional. 
     For their part, the administration at Harding hasn’t backed down. A statement by the university’s president, David Burks, cites the student handbook’s prohibition of sexual immorality as one of their reasons for blocking the site, and references biblical passages that include homosexual activity within that category. “Harding University holds to the biblical principle that sexual relationships are unacceptable to God outside the context of marriage,” he said. He goes on in the statement to say, “I think it is important for you to know that we are not trying to control your thinking on this. But it was important for us to block the website because of what it says about Harding, who we are and what we believe.”
     As a Christian, it’s hard for me to argue with Burks’ statement. I’m quite sure the students responsible for the website aren’t the first group of students whose lifestyles and impulses have put them at odds with the university’s code of behavior. I doubt that they’ll be the last, either. The university already blocks websites it considers offensive or pornographic, and according to reports the site in question is fairly explicit. Despite the splash this seems to have made in the media, it really shouldn’t be all that surprising to anyone that the university would block the site.
     Besides that, I live in Chicago, where another university president issued a statement on the same day as Dr. Burks’ questioning the judgment of a professor who allowed a sexual act in an on-campus presentation. Maybe there is a place for, if not censorship, then at least some restraint. Maybe it’s OK to sometimes remind ourselves and one another that we can choose how we behave, and that there are times when faith or even scholarship might require us to put the brakes on our impulses.
     Dr. Burks also referenced something else in his speech. He mentioned that the university would not tolerate bullying in any form. I took that as a reference to the bullying of homosexual students and, assuming that’s what he meant, I applaud him for it. That’s the side of the societal debate about homosexuality that Christians, eager to defend the biblical ground, sometimes forget. 
     Justice and righteousness is biblical ground, too, every bit as much as condemnation of sex outside of marriage. And sometimes the ground Christians defend in calling homosexuality wrong is lost immediately in the way some of us lash out against homosexuals, as if they are our enemies. As soon as Christians make homosexuals the objects of our hate, derision, and ridicule, we’ve lost whatever moral traction we may have had. 
     Truthfully, of course, there were gay and lesbian students at Harding, even back in the Dark Ages twenty years ago. They wouldn’t have dared to admit it, though, because back then we had created a place where such an admission would not have been tolerated easily. I hope there wouldn’t have been physical violence, though I hesitate to say absolutely that there wouldn’t have been. There would have been ridicule. There would have been insults. Cold shoulders given generously. Friendship revoked. Some of us, a lot of us, would have looked past the beams in our own eyes and down our self-righteous noses, condemning the homosexuals without a trace of awareness that our own hatred and arrogance condemned us equally. 
     I know this because there were those who we suspected, and we talked about it. We laughed about it, made fun of them behind their backs. And while my understanding of the biblical texts on homosexuality haven’t changed a lot in twenty years, I do realize now how wrong some of my fellow students and I were in our treatment of people who our Father loves. And how my treatment of them may have made it less likely that they could hear the message of forgiveness and hope in the gospel for them.
     The woman in John 8 was guilty of a different kind of sexual immorality, but not all that different. It was still illicit, still with a partner she had no right to be with. Caught in the act, likely left with little to cover herself and nothing to cover her guilt. The mob was sure, certain. They had Right and Truth on their side, after all. So maybe they were a little harsh; they can be forgiven for their zeal in defending the Law. All that’s left to decide is who will cast the first stone.
     Only, it never comes. Jesus reminds the woman’s accusers that they have their own stuff to deal with. In the end, no one is left to condemn her. Not even Jesus, who could have. “Go and leave your life of sin,” he told her. He called her behavior what it was, but he didn’t sit in judgment on her.
     The public discourse will continue. Christians will have to defend our thinking and stances on issues like homosexuality. We will, from time to time, have to stand up and call sin what it is. But may we always do it like Jesus spoke to that woman: as her defender and Savior, not judge, jury, and executioner. May we speak to people from beside them, in the dirt, not standing around them in a circle warming up our throwing arms. 
     I understand why Harding blocked that site. But I pray that the conversation with those students isn’t ended. And I pray that, as I meet people who are battered and broken by sin, that I will drop the stone I sometimes carry so I can take them by the hand and introduce them to Jesus.