Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Modest but Unconventional Proposal for Lent

No shortage of proposals and plans for observing Lent exist. So why do I feel compelled to offer another? Three reasons:

1. as a psstor I know that at least in my circle of awareness few people actually use these plans and programs;
2. most that I am aware of are too "religious" or "spiritual" and fail to engage participants at the most visceral levels;
3. there remains, as far as I can tell, a genuine hunger for an authentic observance of Lent (i.e. a way to truly experience God).

I propose the following as ways toward a more fruitful experience and observance of Lent:

1. eat a pinch of dirt every day during Lent (and let the taste linger before you drink something to wash it down).

"Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return." This traditional Ash Wednesday" affirmation accompanies the imposition of ashes on the forehead. My proposal is a variation and extension of the intent of this liturgical action throughout the season. I'm tempted to call this "a sacrament of dirt." The handling and taste of dirt brings home in a memorably visceral way the Christian call to humility. Humility, from the Latin "humus,"ground" or "dirt," calls us remember who we are, whose we are, and from whence we come. And to thank God for being God, our Creator and Redeemer.

2. Find a replica of a skull (or the real thing if you have access to one!), place it as the centerpiece of the table you gather at to eat or the coffee table in the room your family regularly gathers. Place under the skull a symbol of your financial
life (currency, a checkbook, a bank statement, stocks, bonds, etc.). In ritual and less formal ways, train yourself to say aloud "Lord, have mercy" every time you see the skull and what lies under it. Include your children.

This is actually a variation of an early church ritual designed to confront and counter greed. In my judgment, our relation to money is and will continue to be the most potent and powerful idolatry Christians in North America have to contend with for the foreseeable future. A regualr diet of affirming again and again our vulnerability to the lures of "mammon"(our money and "stuff")and need of God's help to handle it faithfully can only be to the good. TO have the image of that skull, seared in our hearts and brains may provide the ballast we need to grow in grace in this area of our lives.

3. Watch every episode of "House" during Lent.

No show, in my judgment, better captures the dilemma and difficulties of ministry in our time. Ron Heifetz (Leadership without Easy Answers) has taught us that the challenges we face in the changed and changing world we live in are largely adaptive rather than technical. Technical challenges are life changing a light bulb. We know what the problem is and how to solve it. We just have to do it. Adaptive challenges are those for which we do not know exactly what the problem is or how to solve it; and further much of what we know, being oriented to techincal challenges, will mislead us in addressing adaptive challenges. To further complicate things, the rapid pace of change in our world means that we have to think, plan, and implement "on the run" (as it were).

"House" depicts just this challenge of adaptive change in a medical setting. The genius diagnostician, Gregory House, leads his team each week in dealing with a new adaptive challenge, i.e. a medical situation that defies traditional accepted diagnoses and procedures. House and his team are forced to think and act outside the box, fully aware that they might be wrong; and in most cases, their errors place the patient in mortal danger. Time is of the essence; a diagnosis and prescription that comes too late is of no help. This is just where we are in the church today. Attention to "House" with this in mind can be an extrememly instructuve exercise for us who care about and/or have some responsibility for leading the ministry of God's people.

4. During Lent, read and reflect on a poem (any poem) by Emily Dickinson once a week and read two (any two) short stories by Flannery O'Connor.

No poet better captures the many moods and seasons of the continual struggle between belief and unbelief than Dickinson. And no writer better shatters our easy convictions about things Christian than O'Connor. "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd!" is one of her characteristically pungent and mind-opening deliverances!

5. Continuing with O'Connor, every time you celebrate the Eucharist (which I hope is often) during Lent, remember O'Connor's response to a dinner party discussion of the Eucharist in which some of the socialites gathered there were reflecting urbanely on the "symbolism" of the Supper. Asked what she thought, O'Connor replied, "If it's only a symbol, to hell with it!"

Enough said, I think!

6. When you retire at night, say "Good Night, God (Lord/Father/Mother/Holy One . . ) and recite the Apostles' or Nicene Creed. When you awake in the morning, say "Good morning, God (Lord/Father/Mother/Holy One . . .) and recite the Lord's Prayer.

The rhythm of "evening and morning" reflects the Jewish reckoning of time and carries with it the important truth that we began and begin our lives at rest, asleep, and inactive, trusting the providence and mercy of God to "raise" us (in every sense of the word)the morning. Our life of work and productivity is the latter part of our day, lived by the grace of daily "resurrection" and a reaffirmation of our commitment to God through the creeds.

This will be my Lenten journey this year. Perhaps it may strike others as something they might want to try.


1 comment:

Neal Locke said...

Hey Lee -- I just tagged you in a pass-the-post Presbyterian MEME. You're it...

Flannery O'Connor was the first thing I read my daughter when she was born this past December.