Friday, February 15, 2013

Why I Observe Lent

Every year,  Evangelical friends tease me about observing Lent.

Well, some do more than tease but we will leave that for now.

They want to know why I do such un-American, unProtestant, uncool thing.

So I'll try to explain. 

The first time I came across the word ineffable was while  reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s, God in Search of Man. The book was was such a literary feast  that I kept ignoring the terms in it that I didn’t understand. Among those was Heschel’s favorite – ineffable.

He used the word a lot. He believed that worshiping God involved words that lead us toward an spiritual encounter beyond words. “Worship is awe,” Heschel says, “and where there is no awe, worship has not occurred.” Therefore, according to the sainted rabbi, worship sooner or later leads to the ineffable.
It only gradually dawned on me that ineffable meant something too great to be expressed, something that leaves one speechless.

Thee are many human experiences we might label ‘ineffable.” If anger becomes ineffable it gives birth to rage and usually to violence. When romantic love becomes ineffable, people usually “make love.” In both of these instances, words gives way to actions and, even to sounds that although expressive, communicate meaning difficult to describe in words. These two human experiences are proof enough that humanity, as opposed to computers, requires at least occasional experience of things beyond words.

In fact, we must have the ineffable to endure the pragmatic and practical. No one should be so irresponsible that they make love when they should be preparing their income tax. However, if they are so responsible that they would rather prepare their taxes than make love they probably won't be married very long --or have many friends, for that matter.

So we need ineffable experience, or mystery, which is, as Dennis Covington once said in his book on Snake Handling, “not the absence of meaning but the presence of more meaning than one can comprehend."

Heschel says that too, in a thousand brilliant ways. He pleads with us to move on into the presence of God. He says without God’s presence, biblical religion degenerates into mere philosophy and moralism. He woos us to open our soul to the presence of the Almighty, where we may become speechless. He fears that modern rationalism, including the great reaction against rationalism – fundamentalism – has eroded our capacity to meet God. That’s why we fill up worship time talking about God instead of meeting God.

Because I believe Herschel is right,  I do not believe that modern Evangelical worship accurately represents the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Evangelical worship is, at its best, a rational, emotionally detached and pragmatic approach to spiritual life. At its worse though, it is a bad therapy session for people who read self-help literature. 

( I read self-help literature, but just saying ...)

I am an Evangelical and I affirm all that Evangelicalism affirms. It is what Evangelicalism ignores that I cannot live without, especially its neglect of sacramental life in worship.

I am grateful that a well prepared Evangelical teacher address the scriptures with integrity. That gives me food for the journey. I will even say that this is perhaps the most important element in spiritual life.  It’s just that Evangelicals rarely offer a way to respond to the Word except with more words.  They rarely offer anything ineffable. I am tempted to say that Low Church Evangelicals put on a wedding and asks us to sign a marriage certificate but seem to have no idea that lovemaking may occur sometime after the preacher stops talking.

Our faith teaches that “in the beginning was the Word.” So, Evangelicals are right to insist on the primacy of the Word. Furthermore, the postmodern smarty-pants concert-as-church crowd, claiming to move us beyond Evangelicalism, actually represent an erosion of our faith. Heschel talked about the ineffable and Aquinas once said that “theology is straw,” but they were not intellectual sloths trying to fit into the world they were called to save.  They moved through and beyond theology but they didn’t skip the class, laughing about how irrelevant theology is between gulps of beer.

And yet, the emergent crowd reveals the hunger of soul often found even among very informed and committed Evangelicals.  This crowd exist because something has been missing from Evangelical spirituality that no amount of lights, videos, clever stage productions or good coffee can provide. None of these cute things are ineffable which, I would argue, is what the emergent crowd really crave. Because they are children of Evangelicals, they were born rejecting history as a source of anything spiritually significant. They can't bring themselves to believe that the past may contain something vital to their faith, so they look to the secular world, to the god of progress, to provide their spiritual needs.

The Word of God is, as Evangelicals insist, enough. But the words of man about the Word of God are not enough. The words of man are too feeble to carry the Word of God, even though we are saved “by the foolishness of preaching.”  For this reason, the church has historically connected the words of man about the Word of God with sacramental experience. The service of the Word was followed by the service of the Table.  The two services worked together to lead believers on a journey from their day-to-day lives into ineffable experience, and, from there, back into the world to serve. Believers tasted the powers of the world to come, remembered who they were, and then returned to a fallen world as representatives of the Kingdom of God.

The service of bread and the wine; the waters of baptism; the raising on one’s hands in prayer, the speaking in unknown tongues; tears; oil; tithing; kneeling – these things usually employ words. However, the purpose of words in sacramental contexts is not so much about explaining something as it is about pointing us to something beyond explanation.

“With this ring I thee wed” makes little sense unless it points to something beyond its literal meaning. The same can be said about the words, “this is my body and my blood.” This is not prose; it is poetry. And spiritual life requires both. Poetry is unfit for writing a contract because it contains too much meaning; people read into poetry what is says to them. Prose exists to eliminate some of that meaning so everyone who reads it can understand the same thing.  If that fails, we resort to lawyers. 

Prose for contracts; poetry for love-making.

Sacramental actions and words are reflections of the Eternal Word. In their humble way, they work to make the Word become flesh and dwell among us. And, they open our minds and hearts to receive human words about the Word of God.

That long introduction brings us to these final words about Lent. 

Observations like Lent are not biblically mandated.  In fact, the apostle Paul forbids us to make celebrating any day or season compulsory.  Not even the Sabbath is compulsory in the New Covenant. Clearly then, such observations are offered to God’s people rather than imposed upon them. However, altar calls, Sunday schools, and even musical instruments are in that same category. They are aids to worship that can, if we are not careful, replace the object of worship. However, because we are people and not angels, we require processes, events -- means by which we can incorporate biblical knowledge and spiritual experiences into our everyday lives.

We can repent without Ash Wednesday. We can also observe Ash Wednesday without repenting, for that matter. But we are much more likely to repent if the church reminds us that without repentance we will perish. A revival meeting can do that too. So, I suppose a revival meeting is a Lenten seasons of sorts. That would make sense of the fact that revival meetings emerged in non-sacramental churches.  So Ash Wednesday and Lent are not essentials of the Christian life and there are other ways of getting to where they try to led us. However, because these  traditions developed over many centuries, they seem to transcend time and place in ways that allow people from all kinds of backgrounds to walk together and support one another in the walk toward sanctification.

In the Ash Wednesday service, the church calls us to examine ourselves. We think about what should be eliminated (or added to) our lives to bring them more into line with the ways of God. The church urges us to search the Holy Scriptures in a more intentional way during this season, to set aside times of prayer, and to observe what needs to change in order for us to move Godward.

Believers then go forward to receive a small amount of ash on their heads. As the celebrant places the ash on our heads, he or she says, “remember, from dust you came and from dust you will return.” Or, perhaps, “God grant you the gift of repentance that leads to life.”

Then we receive communion.

In Communion we are assured that human life, like wheat and grapes, can be radically transformed. We  are not yet all that we shall be but something of what we shall be can be experienced already, in this life. We must keep expecting to become new creatures in Christ, not just in the by and by, but today.

I am a Protestant. That doesn't mean that I am hostile to Catholicism, though. I am a Protestant because I believe in things like justification by faith, the centrality of scripture in Christian life, and that God saves us because of an act of grace. I am Protestant in that I agree with the Reformers about such things. But Protestantism does not require a disdain for those communal acts that work together with private piety to open the soul to the presence of God. I am a Protestant like the early reformers, even like Wesley, but not of the sort that rejects comunal, sacramental spirituality.

After thirty years of observing Lent, I have found that this season often pushes me to stop doing things that have been hindering my spiritual life. It also encourages me to do start doing things that will support my spiritual life.

I find it helpful during this season to do these things in the company of others who are doing the same things at the same time. 

So I offer you these words about why I celebrate Lent. But like eating chocolate and making love, sacramental life is difficult to explain. One must taste and see.

Lent is one of the ineffable things of spiritual life, and words fail me when trying to explain why I observe it. 

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