Giving up for Lent

A fascinating discussion on Lent can be found at Theology Forum. The article is written by James Merrick, with several people, so far, responding.

Merrick says

Too often[Lent] has been reduced to simply ‘giving up' a certain feature of one's life. And those who don't fully understand it treat that practice as a New Years resolution, giving up trivial things like chocolate."

That is a good summation of popular ideas about Lent. Merrick says

... Lent is best understood as a season where our present human condition is pondered and grieved. Indeed, the gravity of our mortality prompts us to mourn and mortify its cause, our sin.

He goes on to suggest that "giving up" can be understood (in one way) via "the language of sanctification or 'setting apart'." He says this would rule out easy things like those we shouldn't be doing anyway; aka New Year's Resolutions. Giving up smoking for Lent, for example, would trivialise the whole idea. I think he also means that "giving up" certain disciplines that we should be maintaining- a mini-vacation is his term, is not what is needed.

Instead, we would set aside those activities which are good and to which we are called, but are in need of rejuvenation by and reorientation towards love. We ‘give up' things, then, in order to hallow them, to set them apart for divine service. ...if we understand the act of ‘giving up' as that of 'setting apart' then we can allow it to be an occasion for one to consider the gulf between the true purpose of an act and our selfish misuse of it. In this way, our penitence and mortification are not general, but focused, focused on the specific sinful inclinations that keep us from serving God in this act.

I struggled to understand what he meant by this. But it becomes clear in Merrick's response to one respondent. He says

For me, it was a matter of thinking about where God has been most domesticated in my life. I decided to give up scholarship for Lent because ironically I am finding that I can sit and think all day about God without ever really thinking about God. Perhaps the best way to approach this issue, then, is to think about what things you've done that in that past have been oriented towards devotion to God and his loving service, but now you find are fairly self-centered.

As someone commented, this is "a great clarification." Setting aside time to "ponder and grieve" our present human condition is good. It may lead to changes in the way we live. We may be convicted about the way we are living and re-orient our energies in a more God-ward direction. But how compromised will that process be if we are pondering and grieving in the presence of a domesticated God?

As "long term" Christians, there is always the danger that we tame God. We do things well, practised and skilfully. What we are doing becomes too easily us, and too independent of the discomfort of the Divine. Merrick's skill is scholarship; he is a PhD candidate. Hence it is in scholarship that he will most likely domesticate God. I am a preacher and writer. How much of what I preach and write is simply me, and my cleverness and rhetoric, unfiltered and unchallenged by God?

Some colleagues may wish to suggest here that cleverness is not an issue... :-) ... but really, it is. We do cleverness. God does wisdom.

How can I give up preaching and writing for Lent? This is what I'm paid to do. I can imagine the response if I told the parish elders I was not going to preach!

What comes to mind is something I have been avoiding. I need to do some survey and research work in order to set some directions for a church rewired. I've kept myself too busy writing, and doing other things. If I do a little less writing (give it up) and spend the time on the hard stuff, and discerning what is required there, maybe the writing and preaching which follows, will contain a little more of God.

Merrick also says... examine yourself in the light of God's Word and the power of his Spirit and discern where the distraction from God is coming from.

Andrew Prior


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