Dangerous Lent

Lent is a dangerous season that calls us to acknowledge the shadow side of our humanity and to confront the “hard sayings” of Jesus.

By Bill Leonard

In my Baptist upbringing we didn’t pay much attention to Lent. Ash Wednesday, for example, was just another prayer meeting night. Yet, we did not disregard the classic Christian struggles -- repentance, confession, humility, mortality -- that bubble up during the Lenten season.

Rather, they overtook us at seasonal revivals, when sinners saved and unsaved were called to conversion, repentance and renewal. People got saved “hard” at those revivals -- “testifying” to all sorts of sins, omitted and committed, that had weighed them down and held grace at bay far too long.

I recall sultry summer nights when as a teen I sat in revival services, filled to the brim with adolescent testosterone and evangelical zeal -- both of which can kill you -- listening to the public confessions of folks who were leaving their sins behind, but not until they recounted them in colorful and dramatic detail to the rest of us. At the revivals, ashes weren’t distributed on the forehead. They were strewn all over the heart.

It was not until I attended Texas Wesleyan University that Lent entered my liturgical radar, carrying me along that paradoxical path that winds through Golgotha to Good Friday. The Methodists knew Lent as an annual reminder that even those who claim to be “in Christ” are at once lost and found, repentant and without remorse. Martin Luther said it well: we are each one of us, simul justus et piccator, simultaneously just and sinful, every day, all our days.

The Methodists, especially my great mentor and first religion professor Alice Wonders, taught me something else: Lent is a dangerous season that calls us to acknowledge the shadow side of our humanity -- our arrogance, insensitivity and abiding narcissism.

It also compels us to confront the incurable disease, the inescapable tragedy, the unanticipated emergency and the immediate fact that “death is ever before us.”

Lent forces us to confront the “hard sayings” of the Bible, ancient insights into the way God apparently sees things, promotes virtue and demands obedience of those who dare to claim the Spirit.

Lent drags us into a moral and spiritual wilderness that we’d just as soon avoid. It points us toward an inward and spiritual grace that is itself comforting and disturbing. At its best, Lent is dangerous territory of spirituality and action.

The prophet Isaiah asked: “Is this the kind of fast I require, (saith the Lord) ... that a person should bow his head like a bulrush and use sackcloth and ashes for a bed? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Rather is not this the fast I require: to loose the fetters of injustice, to untie the knots of the yoke, and set free those who are oppressed, tearing off every yoke? Is it not sharing your food with the hungry, taking the homeless poor into your house, and clothing the naked when you meet them and never evading a duty to your kinsfolk?… Then when you cry the Lord will answer.” (Isaiah 58: 5-7, 9) To validate your fast, Isaiah says, take action in behalf of those most vulnerable.

In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day said the Catholic Worker Movement that she helped found began because: “We felt a respect for the poor and destitute as those nearest to God, as those chosen by Christ for his compassion. [Because] Christ had lived among them.”

Jesus’ life with, among, the poor calls and judges us, especially during Lent.  

Teaching an Appalachian religion, multicultural immersion course last January I accompanied 16 students from three seminaries to the Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, N.C. There a young United Methodist missionary named Brian Combs told us of his three-year work with homeless in that mountain town.

The Methodists provided him and co-pastor Shannon Spencer with the use of the Haywood Street Church, a building that had been vacant for a decade. Every Wednesday they have worship with several hundred folks, and then feed upwards of 250 people whose meals are cooked and served by the homeless and other helpers.

The congregation maintains a clothes closet, vegetable gardens and even a columbarium as a final resting place for those who die on the streets and in poverty. Their next project is to construct a respite care facility in the church for tending injured folks so they won’t have to keep running to emergency rooms when wounds and surgeries are unattended.

The Haywood Street Congregation offers new freedom for homeless folks many of whom have been shipped/exiled to Asheville from other towns in the region. Brian Combs says that his concern is to go “on the streets and hang out and … listen to what the homeless are saying,” then work with them where they are.

That’s a great and dangerous calling. Isaiah and Dorothy Day would be pleased; Jesus, too, along his deadly way to Golgotha.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.