There are several posts about Lent around the Presbyterian blogosphere this week. So far, all of them basically say "don't just give up something for the sake of giving up something, and don't be self-righteous about it...take something on! Do justice! Make the world a better place! Even if you do give something up, balance it with a new service project!" And they are just as emphatic as I am. And they're not wrong: there is a lot to do, and scripture exhorts us to do justice and love kindness, to fast by letting the oppressed go free and feeding the hungry.
And that's all good, believe me. I want us to do those things. Just about every sermon I preach involves some variation on "so get off your behind and do something already."
But my experience as a Presbyterian has led me to 10 years of asking the question: how is the church different from the Rotary Club? And this is the question I return to every Lent, when we are enjoined to abjure that Catholic Practice of giving up chocolate or alcohol or meat in favor of adding in more volunteerism.
Both the Church and Rotary (and zillions of other worth organizations and NGOs--they're just the most popular in most places I've lived, so they make a good example) encourage and empower people to do good works. Both meet together and have a liturgy. Both send volunteers out into the world, both locally and globally. Both encourage meeting others where they are, getting to know people and partnering with them, hearing people's stories, and cross-cultural community-building. Both ask their members to be generous with their resources of time and money and energy.
Is that all the church is?
Or is there a season built into the Church's life that is designed to remind us that we don't do these things because we think we can save the world? A season when we come to the well and engage in some introspection, nurturing a relationship that allows us to do those other things? A season when we can take a little Sabbath and learn again why we do the things we do? A season when we can return to delight in the being of One who delights in us, tending a friendship, sloughing off those things that have kept us apart and renewing our commitment? A season when we spend time figuring out just what it means to Enjoy God Forever?
Of course, we should be doing that all the time. But, being human beings, we don't. We forget. We turn away. We get busy. We believe ourselves capable of doing it without that time of repentance (turning back) and rest (a commandment).
And I confess that the way many of us approach Lent sounds suspiciously like American Culture--more so than it does following Jesus who took time out even when people were looking for him to do work, more than it does cleaving to the God whose prophets asked us to walk humbly with God in the same breath they asked us to do justice. Does that phrase, "walk humbly," remind anyone else of the garden story, in which God walks in the garden with his friends Adam and Eve? They talk together like friends. When was the last time we spent any time cultivating that kind of relationship? In order to do that we have to make choices--we have to say no to things that are good and worthy endeavors. Because just like any other relationship, it takes time and focus.
This American Culture Lent is one that tells us not to be lazy, to be productive, to do more and be more and earn more. It's one that tells us that God is utilitarian--to be approached when we want something but otherwise left alone while we get to work. This Lent leads us toward the Easter Bunny, not toward a tomb, in nearly the same way that secular Advent leads us to the tree, not the manger.
I don't think I know any mainline protestant who is in danger of spending all their time contemplating the beauty of God and neglecting to feed the hungry. (I mean, even monks feed the hungry and tend the sick and help the poor and offer hospitality--MONKS, the very definition of out-of-touch piety in protestant tradition!) I do know LOTS of mainline protestants who are in danger of forgetting that they are participating in something God is doing, not building it themselves. And this is what Lent is for: to spend a few weeks looking inward so that when Love bursts out of the tomb, we can too. Who knows, maybe it'll even be the revival we've been hoping for.