The two penitential seasons of the church year are all about anticipation. In Advent we are looking forward to the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Savior. In Lent we are looking forward to his death and resurrection. So while the anticipation in Advent is joyful, in Lent it is more somber. Though Jesus' triumph at Easter is sweet, the suffering he endured leading up to that is anything but.
And in response to all Jesus gave up for us, many Christians give up something for Lent. Some fast during the season, either doing special fasts throughout the 40 days or giving up one particular thing that they like. Unfortunately what many people give up is usually some trivial luxury that they can easily do without. Some people however actually try to do without something very important to them, something they will really miss. It needn't be a food item either; it could be an activity they enjoy. One year I gave up Facebook. That was hard!
This year at a clergy retreat our guest speaker was an Episcopal nun named Ellie Finlay. She told us about the 3 vows she had to take, namely, obedience, chastity and poverty. And she had an interesting take on poverty. We tend to think of poverty as a matter of lacking material things. But she found it more meaningful to think about the non-material possessions she needed to give up. She listed 4 and I would like to consider each.
One thing we really ought to give up is entitlement, the expectation of how we are supposed to be treated. People really get bent out of shape when they encounter someone who does not treat them politely enough or with due deference. How would you feel if you asked a waitress for a refill of your coffee and was told “When I get around to it?” Setting aside the whole question of proper customer service, you would probably be upset because you are paying this person to serve you. Of course, her salary is probably less than minimum wage (because that's legal) and she probably is suffering from sore feet and a bad back most days. We have bad days and we expect others to cut us slack. Why don't we do the same for waitstaff? Probably because their job is to serve us and it is hard to remember that that is merely a role and not an indication that the person is inferior to us in some way. Some form of the question “Who does she think she is?” probably floats up out of your subconscious. But what you probably don't say in answer to yourself is that she is a person created in the image of God, just like you, albeit a flawed one, just like you. The tricky bit about entitlement is that, like any privilege or advantage, you don't consciously think of it that way, as expecting others to treat you as the special person that you are. It can lead us to treat others as if they aren't all that special. This Lent examine your sense of entitlement and take a fast from it.
Another non-material possession we think we own is time. We act as if our time is our own to do with as we please. But in no way do we own time. Time is more like a river in which we are floating. We can't stop or conserve or control it. We are at its mercy. And yet when someone comes to us in distress or asking for help, we resent their taking up our time. But our lives are gifts from God and as such we are supposed to give a little back to him (1 day a week—and we don't even give him that much!) and we are supposed to spend some time serving others. Thinking others are taking up our time is like thinking a fellow beachgoer is soaking up OUR sun! This Lent give up the idea that time belongs to you.
Another non-material possession Sr. Ellie says we think we have is escape. Specifically that we have some sort of escape from God. This is the delusion that Jonah possessed. But we belong to God and we live in his world. You might as well try to escape the universe. But we still try to elude the inevitable. We try to ditch God for other gods, for idols, for substitutes, for distractions from the truth of our total dependence on him. We use sophistry or our pet philosophical or theological theories to try to escape from the fact that God exists and has claims on us. We live in a universe dense with connections and interdependence and yet we act as if we can disengage from all of it and from our creator and go off on our own. You might as well act as if you can nullify gravity and still go for a walk on this globe. This Lent give up the idea that you can escape from the reality that is God.
Finally, another non-material possession Sr. Ellie says we must let go of is our survival. If we are weirdly possessive of time, we are even more so when it comes to ourselves. We act as if our life is something we can hold onto. Yet any number of things can snatch it from us and we are powerless to stop them. As the Shel Silverstein song says, “you can have safe sex but you're still gonna die; you can switch to Crest, but you're still gonna die; you can get rid of stress; get a lot of rest; get an AIDS test; enroll in EST; move out west when where it's sunny and dry, and you'll live to be 100 but you're still gonna die!” The question is not is this life going to end but what are we going to do with it in the meantime.
A lot of people think the fact of our inevitable death means, as a character says in Jesus' parable in Luke 12:19 (cf. Isaiah 22:13), we should “eat, drink, be merry.” But not only is that short-sighted it is selfish. There are lots of people who don't even have that as an option. They don't have enough to eat or to drink. They can't be merry because they are enslaved, or caught up in a war zone, or being trafficked for sex, or just living in a poor and dangerous community. As Christians how can we fritter away the precious gift God gave us on our own pleasure when there are others who live lives that are devoid of justice, peace or pleasure? Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And 2000 years later science has finally caught up with him. Bioethicist Dr. Stephen Post says study after study shows that living a life of of altruism and compassion enhances our physical and mental health, reduces depression, lessens stress, leads to fewer aches and pains and to more meaningful relationships.
Normally we think if something is in short supply, the thing to do is to hoard it, to hold onto it tightly. But not in God's economy. Jesus said, “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) It is ultimately a matter of how much we trust God. Do we think that he is limited in what he can give us so that we must be misers of his gifts? Or do we believe what Jesus said when he proclaimed, “I have come that they might have life and have it in abundance?” (John 10:10) Do we believe him when he says that whatever we give up for him we will receive back a hundredfold? (Mt 19:29) Do we believe that our life is truly eternal?
This Lent give up entitlement, all claim to time, all false hopes of escape and deny yourself the rights to your own life. And take on something else: a mission, a purposeful activity based on Jesus' commandment to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” During our joint Lenten services, our two churches are going to be looking at the Book of Acts and asking ourselves fundamental questions as to who we are, why are we here and who is our neighbor. And then we are going to look for concrete ways we can love our neighbors here in our community.
If this bothers you, then you are welcome to try to escape to another god or philosophy. But if you believe that God is love, that Jesus is the God of love incarnate, come to save us from our self-destructive ways of thinking, speaking and acting, if you believe that God implants in us his Spirit to renew and guide us on our pilgrimage to follow Jesus and become more Christlike, then this is our task. And if we are to call ourselves Christians, then we have no other option than to learn to love one another as he loves us. We all say that love is our highest and most treasured experience, and yet we balk when we have to face how difficult and messy it is. But you can't have the beautiful baby without the ugly diapers.
The world tells us our lives are our own. The world lies. They are gifts from God. And in this season we think long and hard about how, just as Jesus had a mission of love to accomplish, so do we. Jesus knew his time was not his own but his Father's. Neither is our time on this earth. All that we have here, our lives and our talents, is on loan. And talk about truth in advertising, it's been there all along in the name of the season: Lent.