Monthly Archives: March 2011

Lent: You’re Probably Doing It Wrong

I’ve been reading some discussion regarding this article by G. Jeffrey McDonald. McDonald laments the way that Lent is frequently observed within American Christianity and says:

We’re remaking [Lent] as a type of spiritual self-help whose effectiveness is measured by how well it entertains us and affirms what we already believe. Since Americans love parties and hate to do without, Christianity is evolving to deliver. The diminution of Lenten practices illustrates the trend and highlights what’s lost when religion becomes a consumer commodity.

I don’t deny elements of truth in what McDonald is saying. In fact the article strikes me as a very satisfying read for us church leaders, what with its hand-wringing, self-righteous tut-tuts and in-crowd high-fives.

It bugs me to tears, actually.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Consumerist Christianity is a big issue. And certainly the church has a prophetic duty to call people to deeper authenticity and radical discipleship. But this article smacks of caricature. McDonald characterizes Lent as a “joke” based on one comment from a friend. And “sumptuous” fish dinners on Fridays? This is the normative American Christian experience?

This kind of “you’re doing it wrong” carping is not productive. All of this reminds me of the discussion we had on this blog back in December about singing Christmas carols in the church during (gasp!) the season of Advent. I argued back then that maybe, just maybe, some people feel drawn to the music of Christmas during December not because they are worshiping the gods of Best Buy and Wal*Mart, but because they desperately need to immerse themselves in a message of Joy Right Now, to soak it up, because the world is a pretty dark place. Can we treat people like grownups and say that perhaps they have a good sense of what their hearts and spirits need without us telling them?

Why don’t we spend our time helping people connect their Lenten practices, whatever they might be, to the presence of the living God, rather than diagnosing those practices as inadequate? I know a woman who committed to run each day during Lent. I guess I can chide her for disrespecting Lent as a season for “spiritual self-help”… or I can help her make the connection between that practice and stewardship of the body, which Paul calls the temple of God. Heck, daily physical exercise sounds like a struggle to beat the sin of sloth, which last I checked was one of the seven deadlies! What could be more Lenten than that?

(BTW, this is part of the tension within the Sabbath stuff. Lots of people take time off for R&R and don’t call it Sabbath. Good for them. So my job isn’t to say “Well unless it’s got the Sabbath imprimatur, it’s only second best.” Instead, maybe I help them see ways that their practice of rest and play doesn’t just recharge the batteries, but connects them to a deep wellspring of joy and grace that [I believe] is a gift of the Holy.)

I appreciate these two posts on the Christian Century blog, both of which bring some much-needed nuance to the topic. I found the latter especially on point:

Is “true deprivation” really the point of fasting, or is true fasting measured by the extent to which it turns us toward God? Deprivation for deprivation’s sake could easily become competitive or self-aggrandizing. Biblical writers frequently make the point that God isn’t interested in displays of piety but in justice and love.


National Poetry Month

I love that April is National Poetry Month. Heck, I love that National Poetry Month exists at all, but there’s something appropriate about it being in April. April is just-Spring, when the world is mud-luscious. April is also the cruelest month. Poetry conveys both sentiments, and everything in between.

When I was in second and third grade, I got pulled out of class every week or so with about five other kids for Poetry Enrichment. Well, that’s what I call it now. I didn’t have a name for it then. I think I just called it Poetry. Back then all I knew was that a few other smart misfits and I would head to an empty classroom at an appointed time, and a long-haired, flowy-skirted, bespectacled woman would be waiting for us with a stack of mimeographed pages, damp and heavy with purple ink. Somehow I picked up on the other teachers’ feeling that this woman was a little daft. But I loved the experience.

We read poems, we did the grade-school version of “analysis” of them, we memorized them, and, if I jimmy the lock on that steamer trunk of awkward repressed memory, I think we actually recited them at a school assembly. We learned a lot of Lewis Carroll. I still know “Jabberwocky” backwards and forwards, and have a traumatic spelling bee experience related to the word “chortle.” “The Walrus and the Carpenter” still makes me giggle. I didn’t know back then what a vacant and pensive mood was all about, but I longed for a field of daffodils anyway.

I have no idea who tapped me for this group. Did a note go home for my parents to sign? Did a teacher take it upon herself to nudge me into this activity? Or did the school issue a blanket invitation that I accepted? I probably won’t ever know exactly how it happened, but I owe the universe a debt of gratitude. It set some pretty major things in motion for me. In college, I realized a new acquaintance was going to be a good friend when I said, “Let us go then…” and she added, “…you and I.” And this seminary class changed my life and helped make me the preacher/poet I am, some 25 years after the purple mimeographed sheets. (Teachers, mentors, school volunteers—you make a huge difference.)

Every year during National Poetry Month I resolve to write a poem a day, and I never make it very far. But hope springs eternal…

As for poetry resources to share, I love the Writers’ Almanac daily e-mail, of course. Knopf also sends out a poem each day in April. And I have enjoyed the Poetry Off the Shelf podcast for many years.

Do you have a favorite poem? Do you like poetry? Find it boring? Intimidating? I tend to agree with W.C. Williams, who wrote,

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Giving Up Should for Lent

I have an unofficial goal (call it an intention) of posting to the blog each weekday, with Friday being a short roundup of links I found interesting throughout the week. But that’s not always possible, or even feasible. Sometimes there isn’t anything to say, and anything I do would be forced. Sometimes my kids are sick. Like, today.

So instead I want to share this article about reading a book a week… or more to the point, not reading a book a week. And how that practice of “Not” takes on a special significance during the season of Lent:

The tradition of Lent lies in direct contrast to our culture’s belief in resolutions, our quick proclamations of will and self that are meant more for our personal gain than a real change of heart. And I need, as St. Augustine put it, a “new pure heart”; I believe that my reading habits reflect my own heart’s current needs, ones that resolutions bent on my own success cannot touch.

This article really spoke to me. As I shared in this post/sermon, during Lent I am letting go of my pursuits at excellence and intentionality, noble though they may be, or not. Instead, I am practicing contentment, even radical self-acceptance. Which sounds self-centered and very me-me-me but is, I’m finding, the exact opposite.

Baggage about the Sabbath

As I continue to work on The Sabbath Year, I’ve been collecting a list of objections people have to the idea or practice of Sabbath. These are things I’ve heard personally, statements I’ve read in other books on Sabbath, or things I’ve even told myself as our family engages and resists this strange weekly rhythm we have chosen to adopt. I hope to address some or all of these in the book in some form or another.

Do any of these statements resonate with you?

What would you add to this list?


Sabbath is so legalistic.

It’s not relevant for our time. Sabbath is a relic of a bygone era.

I don’t have time.

I’m fine. I’m happy. I don’t need to do that.

We observed the Sabbath when I was a kid. It was SO boring. I swore I’d never do that again.

I’d rather not spend a day doing faith-based activities, quietly reading the Bible, etc.

My kids would never agree to it.

My teenagers would never agree to it.

We’re not Jewish and we shouldn’t co-opt their practice.

I already make time to rest from my work and don’t need a fancy title for it.

People who have time to take Sabbath rest obviously don’t have enough to do.

The problems in the world go on—there is too much to be done already, how can you sit around and “be spiritual” while there is suffering happening that you could be a part of the solution for?

You can rest when you’re dead. Life is too short.

The seven-day week is a false construct. Rest when you need to, not when the calendar tells you to.

Technology means you can work when you want and rest when you want—taking a whole day is a false construct. Be more fluid and intuitive about when you need to work and rest.

It shows a lack of sensitivity to the needs of others—face it, sometimes people need you on that day. The vast majority of the world doesn’t observe Sabbath—they’re just going to see you as selfish if you’re not available.

Sabbath is a practice of privilege—other people have to work at those times—how can you enjoy that time of rest when other people don’t have that luxury?

Sabbath just creates more work. I spend the day before getting ready for it and the day after cleaning up from it.

Of course you can do this, your kids are young. They aren’t in that many activities yet.

Your kids will miss out on opportunities to play sports, do drama/speech team, marching band, etc. They won’t get into college because you’ve had to say no to these extracurricular activities.

That’s what vacation is for.

That’s what retirement is for.

Kids are constant work, so you might as well embrace it. Life with kids is work no matter what you do.

My kids are very active and energetic. They’d be in all kinds of mischief if we all just sat around all day.

Friday Link Love

Some stuff I found intriguing this week:

Worth Living For

Dying for something is heroic; in the rare case that it happens, you go down in a blaze of glory, clutching to your morals or cause. Nice work if you can get it. Years later, Brad or Angelina will play you in the movie.

But living for something can be mundane…

Quiz: Informal, experiential worship styles growing in U.S. churches

Interesting quiz highlighting attitudes and practices from the 2008 Congregational Life Survey.

The Nike Ad That Changed My Life

I don’t remember this ad but I love it…

You wanted to be a Veterinarian.
You wanted to be President.
You wanted to be the President’s Veterinarian.

More at the link.

24 Rooms in 344 Square Feet

A truly astounding use of small space in Hong Kong. (short video)

Liminality and Leadership

When and where are our formative “thresholds”? And how do we carve out and preserve these times and spaces where we are often at our most creative?

Two questions I spend my life considering.