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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 hulu.com.
    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.

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