The season of Lent is traditionally marked by repentance, reflection and renewal. This year our communities, nation and world desperately need all three. Lent has arrived against the backdrop of more than one moral reckoning:
- As the Catholic Church appears to be more ready than it has before to confront its priestly abuse scandal in a meaningful way that may actually foster the institutional and cultural change needed to protect its most innocent members.
- As the Protestant Church – from the Southern Baptists to non-denominational conventions – is rocked by the #ChurchToo wave that is calling it to account not only for abuse of minors but also sexual assault and coercion of adult women by its male leaders.
- As the United Methodist Church seems on the brink of fracture, disregarding the wisdom of its bishops and rejecting a plan that offered a viable opportunity to make space for all of its followers, as now their journeys diverge on the issue(s) of human sexuality.
- As music icons Robert Kelly and the late Michael Jackson are exposed for their decades of elaborate and systematic abuse of children and youth, shattering any remaining glow that may have surrounded them because of their musical and performance genius.
- As the United States is being forced by newly elected Congresswomen to confront the ways in which its “special relationship” with Israel has made it complicit in the long-standing oppression of Palestinians and Arab Israelis.
- As President Donald Trump continues to be Trump, even as his once loyal allies betray him one-by-one and reveal just how deeply corrupt his circle of power is. (It’s so much worse than we all thought.)
If we ever needed a season of repentance, reflection and renewal, we need it now.
“If we ever needed a season of repentance, reflection and renewal, we need it now.”
Collectively, we need to come to grips with our brokenness and the damage that our expressions of that brokenness have done to so many for so long and in so many ways that were kept hidden. Individually, we need to look in the spiritual mirror and examine how each of us has been complicit in those expressions of brokenness, either by active participation, by our silence when we should have spoken up loudly, or by our refusal to believe the victims because we did not want to confront the truth about people we love and hold in high esteem.
Repentance is a powerful exercise, if it is done with a sincere heart and a contrite spirit. It is a powerful exercise because it concedes to the deep-seated and potentially volatile imperfections inside us all – at an existential level. It is a powerful exercise that forces all of us to step down from the pedestals of self-righteousness and perceived righteousness and confess instead that we are all still “working out our own salvation,” as the Apostle Paul famously observed. That “working out” is a process, and it is one that is not in any fashion immediate, but infinitely gradual and deliberate, and at times excruciatingly painful.
The Bible says that we have this treasure in earthen vessels, but moments of moral reckoning, such as the one we are enduring now, remind us just how fragile earthen vessels really are; like jars of clay, we will shatter when dropped by accident – or when thrown by malicious intent. We will not hold up under duress that is caused by environmental conditions or actions that are aimed at our destruction. The spirit within those jars can be made stronger and stronger. But the vessels are frail, and they are vulnerable. We must handle the jars of clay in which we live – and in which our neighbors and friends live – with the utmost of fiercely loving care and concern.
“We must handle the jars of clay in which we live – and in which our neighbors and friends live – with the utmost of fiercely loving care and concern.”
The season of Lent challenges us to reflect on all of this, to reflect on all it way down in the depths of our being until we reach what Tillich called the “ground” of our being. Only here can we finally see how brokenness is sin, how sin has separated us from each other, and how sin has fractured our relationship with the only One in whose sight we can ever be fully known.
This sort of self-examination is not natural, and most of us are not trained from birth how to do it. For many of us, it will require us to do something new, something more, something that will expand the horizons of our spiritual growth and development beyond the shallow experience of the spare rituals that so often plague organized religion and the institutional practice of the Church.
As challenging as it is, I firmly believe that if we can do this, there is a transformative power that is available for us. There is an opportunity that, in fact, represents the ultimate end and telos of Lent: our renewal and redemption from sin and the brokenness that it brings. This renewal and redemption is at once individual and collective; it is personal, but it is for all of us together. It is the sort of thing that will change “hearts and minds” (which is the more difficult work), and not just laws and policies (the easy stuff). And that will change who we are as a people; and it will bring us closer to the chosenness that is our inheritance as followers of Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice and victory over sin is consummated by the work of the cross.
One single Lenten season probably won’t do it. Working out own salvation will take longer than that, I suspect. But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start sometime. Why not now?