Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Giving up "choice" for Lent

Here's an article about Lent I found interesting.

GEN-X RISING: Giving up our right to choose for Lent Andrew C. Thompson, Mar 5, 2007
Andrew C. Thompson By Andrew C. Thompson Special Contributor (From UMC portal) Andrew is a friend of mine from college and a member of the Arkansas conference.

The pastor's voice was gentle but determined: "I am asking the church to fast every Friday during Lent. I want you to spend the noon hour in prayer and to give the money you would have spent on lunch to the poor." "Wow," I thought as I sat in the pew on the Sunday before Lent. "She's not giving me an option. She's telling me what to do." In our tradition, it was not always rare for pastors to tell their congregations what they should do for the good of their souls. In fact, it was expected. But, oh, how times have changed. Nowadays, it is seen as presumptuous for a pastor to actually tell his people how they should go about living holy lives. Living in a world that relentlessly sends us the message that we deserve to get what we want, we tend to balk at anything resembling a command. That's the case even in the church, where the whole idea is that we are coming as sinners who stand in need of serious help. And that presents a real dilemma for pastors, who are charged to preach a gospel that is foreign to notions of selfish individualism and self-oriented pride. Unfortunately for the people called Methodists, our willingness to buy into the rabid individualism of American culture has contributed to the decline of our church life. Instead of coming together in an attitude of self-sacrifice and self-giving, we tend to gather as individuals who never get past thinking of our individual "needs." When some prophet in the church actually has the audacity to speak an honest word from God, we become indignant. Then there's Lent. Traditionally, Lent is a time of sacrificial preparation for Easter. We give up things we enjoy to remind us of Christ's sacrifice for us. Or we take on a spiritual discipline to draw us closer to God. But the creativity of our sin knows no bounds. We are so geared to think about ourselves that our "sacrifice" often becomes something we've been wanting to do for ourselves anyway: "I need to lose weight, so I'll give up chocolate for Lent!" Or if we want to take on a new discipline, we sample from what we find interesting on the buffet of Christian practices: "I want to be more spiritual, so I'll commit to reading the Bible three times a week!" Ironically, that's not really sacrifice. It is just a creative form of self-indulgence. We may not admit that we're doing it for ourselves. But if we look candidly at our motivations, we'll see a whole lot more "us" than "Jesus." Choosing our own spiritual practices -- whether giving up a vice or taking on a virtue -- plays into our worst tendencies. We inevitably choose in a way that reinforces our already egocentric desires. That's not an exaggeration. It's just the reality of sin. So it was particularly odd to find myself on the receiving end of a pastoral instruction on that Sunday before Lent. My pastor didn't ask us to choose something to give up for Lent. She didn't encourage us to think about what spiritual discipline we might try out for the next 40 days. And so, to her credit, she didn't play into the most subtle tendencies of our pride. She just told us what to do. As our shepherd (because that's what "pastor" means, after all), she told the sheep in the room what was good for them. And she expects us to do as we're told. That's refreshing. And it's gutsy, too. Just imagine a person going to her pastor or trusted friend and saying, "I want to be a disciple of Jesus, but I don't know how to make the right choices on my own. Will you tell me what to do to live a life of personal piety and social holiness?" Think how strange that appears for our typical Christian practice. How out of step it seems with our culture of individual choice. Now imagine that such an attitude might be exactly what we need to become true disciples.

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