Lent this year

It has now been six days since my Lent/Ash Wednesday reflection post, in which I promised I would post what I am doing for this Lenten season in a day or two. It should surprise no one at this point to hear that, on the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator, I am a P (this is a constant source of annoyance to my fiancée, who is a J), given the number of things I have intended to post “in a day or two” or “in the near future” that as-yet remain in blog limbo. And so, without further ado, here are my Lenten practices for this season and the reasons why I am doing them.

1. Going vegetarian – I am giving up meat (though not milk, eggs, and other animal products) for the season. It is particularly well-documented that modern industrial agriculture is one of the worst contributors to global warming and also to air, soil, and water pollution in the world, and animal agriculture is particularly bad. I also feel there is a strong injustice in spending so much caloric energy on feeding captive animals (who often live and die in horrendous conditions) when over a billion people around the world are malnourished. The average American consumes over 3600 calories per day, and meat forms a much larger fraction of that number than is in any way healthy. Reflection on the relationship between my life and justice issues (both regarding humans and the rest of creation) is a major theme for me this year.

2. In addition to allowing me to reflect on my environmental footprint and the relationship between food and justice, going vegetarian inherently forces me to change my grocery shopping habits. Since they will be changing anyway, instead of driving my car across town to a large supermarket grocery store I have committed to only shopping at places that are within biking distance. I am not necessarily always biking to these places, due to a number of factors, but I prefer to bike if possible. The place where I am shopping most is the local cooperative grocery which prefers to stock organic and local items as much as possible. So I’m trying to reduce my use of oil-based transportation both for myself and for my food. When I go back to eating meat at the end of the season, I hope to drastically reduce my consumption and to purchase meat at the coop, which gets mainly local, ethically-raised (free-range, grass fed, etc.) animal products. This is part of a larger, longer-time strategy to begin taking more responsibility for the food I consume, which will include more emphasis on gardening (I am a member of a local gardening cooperative as well) and other more direct ways of providing food for myself.

3. I have committed myself to not using my debit card for purchases during Lent, except to buy gas (I get some small rewards when I use my card for gas, and it’s the one thing I’m going to have to buy whether I use my card or cash) and instead going to the ATM to actually, physically get cash. It doesn’t work this way for everyone, but I’ve found that when I have to get cash myself I spend less money than I do when I can just swipe the card. So nearly every purchase that I make will have to be premeditated, and I will only get enough cash to cover what I’m going to get up to the next denomination my ATM will let me get (which is generally in $10 increments). This allows me to be much more intentional and reflective about my consuming habits in general, while still (when I have the leftover change) allowing me to stop in at the coffee shop for an occasional cup, and maybe a bagel. This may actually be something I want to keep doing after Lent, I’ve already noticed a difference.

4. As a Benedictine Oblate, I am committed to praying the Psalms each day (which I do by using the daily offices from the Book of Common Prayer), reading daily from the Rule of Saint Benedict, and practicing lectio divina regularly. To this I have added the daily practice of the Ignatian discipline of examen, a meditative practice focused on examining the inner self, one’s actions and the motivations for those actions, and asking God to bring one’s actions and motivations in line with God’s will. I’ve been reading Robert Muholland’s Invitation to a Journey, and one of the things he emphasizes is that the journey of spiritual formation will differ from person to person based on what he calls “creation gifts”, and one way he discusses creation gifts is in terms of one’s Myers-Briggs personality type indicator. It’s not the ONLY factor that should shape one’s spiritual practice, but much of what he says makes good sense to me. I am an ENFP, and so I will naturally gravitate towards practices that reflect those personality preferences. In order to have a more holistic spirituality, I need to consciously nurture the “shadow side”, my opposite type: my inner ISTJ. Practicing examen will help me to nurture my introspective side and give me space to process my day, opening up my self in new ways to be transformed by the work of the Spirit in me. I also plan to continue this practice after Lent is over, but Ash Wednesday seemed a particularly appropriate time to begin it.

This Lent I am particularly taking time to examine my consumptive practices, particularly with regards to food and the way I move money from my account to the merchant’s register, and situating it all with an attempt to foster a greater awareness of my inner motivations. I hope to take many things from this season with me even as I prepare to release more of my self to be nailed to the cross with Christ on Good Friday.

Shalom!

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Thoughts on Lent and Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, also known as “Fat Tuesday hangover day”, also known as the beginning of the season of Lent. The Gospel reading for today, from the Daily Office Lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, TNIV)

We’ve all probably heard this passage time and again, and it certainly is a powerful message – the uber-self-righteous Pharisee getting his comeuppance while the humble tax collector is justified. Unfortunately, we often look at it as an example of “works righteousness” versus “faith” and use this parable to justify our own Protestant theology (on the falsehood of viewing ancient Judaism as “works righteousness” that was later corrected by Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on “grace”, see the opening of my article on Galatians 3:28). We also have this tendency to assume the Pharisee is boasting of his own accomplishments for all to see, though where we get this idea that he’s bragging before other people I have no idea – the text specifically says he stood by himself.

We Americans love underdogs. Odds are, if you cared about the game, you wanted to see the lowly Giants knock the arrogant Patriots off their high horse in the Super Bowl last weekend; however, according to Vegas, if you bet on the game the odds are you bet on the Patriots. One might say we love the idea of the underdog, but when it gets down to brass tacks we want to go with the winner.

We love this parable for much the same reason we love underdogs – and in this case it’s a no-lose situation, because Jesus endorses this underdog. But if we understood this passage better… we might not see it in such black-and-white terms. Jesus’ audience surely would not have.

I think this parable is much better understood not as a contrast between the “works-righteousness” of the Pharisee and the “faith” of the tax collector, but rather between their ritual purity according to the Jewish holiness code. The Pharisee epitomized the utmost purity, and his sect was the most punctilious when it came to observing the law and the traditions they used to “protect” the law. The tax collector was the exact opposite – ancient Jewish literature refers to tax collectors as being no better than Gentiles. Given that they were Jews, and given the extreme importance of kinship relations in the ancient world, this meant not only that the tax collector was cut off from his immediate family but from the national life and his place as a member of the chosen people of God. Not only was the tax collector ritually impure, but he was a traitor to his people, and Jesus’ audience would likely have despised the character the moment Jesus introduced him into the story.

It is no accident that this story comes very shortly before the story of Zaccheus – whom Jesus proclaims “a son of Abraham”, which indicates that he has been brought into the people of God from being no better than a Gentile. His statement that the tax collector was justified essentially carried the same weight and would have been no less scandalous. For Jesus one’s identity is not based on national birth or on adherence to the purity code, but on the right recognition of one’s place before God and recognizing the necessity for mercy and forgiveness, receiving new life from God as a gift that enables one to participate in the world of New Creation, as a member of the family of the redeemed people of God.

This story ends here, but the story of Zaccheus in chapter 19 provides a coda of sorts to the parable – as we all know, Zaccheus pledges to give half his possessions to the poor and to pay back fourfold anyone he has wronged. Zaccheus’ repentance beckons us to look back to the parable and wonder what this tax collector would have done had Jesus continued the story from that point. It is likely that Zaccheus would have bankrupted himself in the quest to make restitution, as basically his entire income would have depended on coercing people out of their money, livestock, produce, property – whatever he could get out of them. If we are to truly see the tax collector in this parable as justified, that is to say made righteous, we ought to assume he would have gone home and done the same. The Greek word translated “justified” means “to be made righteous/just” and implies not only some spiritual state he would attain before God, but a real change in his being that would affect his outward life and daily praxis. Every time it or one of its cognates is used in the New Testament, it carries the connotation of reconciliation on both the “vertical” axis between the person and God and on the “horizontal” axis between the person and other people. As John Howard Yoder says in The Politics of Jesus, it is probably not too much to say that without reconciliation there is no justification (check out his chapter on justification by grace through faith).

We like the easy association with the underdog, but stake our well-being on the one we think is going to win. We identify with the tax collector on the surface, but are we willing to follow this identification through to its conclusion? Today begins the season of Lent, the time of self-reflection, fasting, and penitence during which we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Day. Many of us associate Lent with “giving up” something, which becomes a chore to maintain, a burden to bear. I want to suggest an alternative mindset – I suggest that we do not primarily associate Lent with a “giving up”, but with the receiving of a gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit working in us to root out those places where we are not yet conformed to the image of Christ. If the tax collector was to be re-integrated into the people of God, there were many things he would have to do both to demonstrate and to solidify in his own self the new heart he had been given by God in the moment of justification. Old habits would have to be broken, old patterns of consumption discarded, old ways of thinking about people and possessions abandoned. In the same way, if we are to participate more fully in the kingdom of God and to be made more into the image of Christ as his body, we need the same.

In the season of Lent we have the opportunity built right into the church calendar to mediate on the scriptures and ponder our own selves and our relationships, especially our relationships with people and with possessions, and our nature as consumptive beings within this consumer culture. We have the solemn duty to reconsider our communal, social, and political affiliations and activity, to contemplate the ways our economic lifestyles and the ways of thinking, doing, and being we take for granted affect our neighbors, be they our neighbors across the street, our neighbors in Bangladesh, or our neighbors who will possess the earth after we are long gone from it, after our bodies have returned to the dust from which they came. “For remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

If we are to identify with the “underdog” in this passage, it is imperative that we ask God to search us in this time, to ask God to bring to our minds and hearts those ways we yet need to be made like Jesus, and to ask him to show us the habits that need to be destroyed, those things that have power over us that must be broken. We must be prepared to follow Jesus to the point of losing everything, trusting that God will raise us from the dead – and after all, if we really believe in the resurrection, what are we doing piddling around with our insane worry about cell phones, hybrid automobiles, and flush toilets? Christ came so that the dead could be raised and for no other reason. There is no other solution other than that we be put to death with Christ, and raised with him – dead to the world, to social position, to economic affluence, to political power, and alive with Christ the suffering Messiah who turned the violence directed against him around and defeated it, breaking its stranglehold on the world in the process.

Feel free to respond to this post and tell me not only what you are doing for Lent, but how it relates to your own reflective process and the ways you are asking God to seek you, to confront those areas where you have not yet given yourself up to be made into the image of Christ, and give them up and be transformed. Tomorrow or the next day I will post my own answers.