We are living through some challenging, “unprecedented,” and even discouraging times. I recently watched the Oscar-nominated film “Don’t Look Up”, featuring an astronomy grad student and her professor who make the shocking discovery of a planet-killing comet on a collision course with Earth. When they share the urgent news with the United States president, the reaction from government is more about how to spin the story for the polls than how to address the problem. In the process of ignoring the comet (don’t look up!) it is more like the planet has adopted a posture of giving up. Giving up on reality, on the possibility of human cooperation, of the potential for hope in the midst of struggle. Sound familiar?
In early March, Christians enter the season of Lent, a 40-day journey with Jesus towards the emotional roller coaster week the church calls Holy, to the depth of despair on the Friday God calls Good, before emerging on dewy garden grass with resurrection joy on Easter morning. Far from ignoring reality, (don’t look up!) the Lenten journey begins in a place that most of us spend our days avoiding – the reality of death and confronting our human mortality. Ash Wednesday. A day when Christians gather and mark each other with ashes, the burned-up remnant from last year’s Palm Sunday branches, and proclaim, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Hamilton, Ont.-based church planter Kevin Makins notes the oddness of this beginning of Lent, something many of us in childhood only observed our Roman Catholic neighbours doing, now reclaimed everywhere from mainline to charismatic traditions. Makins writes that after being marked with ashes in the sign of the cross you continue your ordinary day. “Then what happens?” asks Makins, “and the answer is nothing. That’s the end of the service. You don’t even wipe the ashes off your forehead. You just carry on with your day, buying avocados at the grocery store with a cross on your forehead like a 16th-century monk.” But that’s the beautiful part of the day, according to Makins who states, “that’s what makes Ash Wednesday the only religious holiday no corporation wants. You can’t sell “Remember, You’re Going to Die” cards. The good news of Ash Wednesday comes after the bad news. It invites us to remember our frailty, count our days, and then put our trust in Jesus, who has overcome death.”
Looking at the world as it really is—beautiful, beloved yet broken by sin and in need of forgiveness, love, redemption and reconciliation in Jesus—is the hope of the gospel we have to share. Lent is a season set aside to have us slow down and pay (pray?) attention to what God has accomplished through an empty cradle, empty cross and empty tomb. Lent leads us to ponder how God’s victory in resurrection impacts our world today longing for the biblical promise of the “healing of the nations.” Yet, Lent is often known simply as a season of “giving things up.” Chocolate.Wine. Smoking. Whatever. Protestant Christians have in fact been wary of this practice over the centuries, wondering if it had a whiff of “works righteousness” in it all. That’s why I’ve often joked, “I’m giving up self-denial this year for Lent.” Indeed, John Calvin in our Reformed tradition had some harsh words for Lent. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin describes Lent as a “superstitious observance” whereby the “vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others; but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of (humanity), but had come from heaven.”
At first, Reformed Christians would be right to hear our ancestors in the faith speaking against Lenten discipline declaring, “Don’t give up!,” whether it’s chocolate, wine or some other habit. But in this time and place, where after two years of global pandemic, political divisions, social media and feuds, growing disagreement over what is “real” or “fake” news, what can Christians say to a world that chooses to “don’t look up!” but also, at times, seems ready to give up.
Sacrifice oR Offering?
This spring, Canada made international news with a trucker’s protest across the country, and in particular Ottawa, that called for a reversal of pandemic mandate restrictions in the name of “freedom.” There was a call to no longer “give up” our freedom, just as the church was readying for the season of Lent with its call to “give up” our human agency in order to see God’s divine agency at work around us amidst our self-denial.
In my spring term class at Vancouver School of Theology, “Practising Evangelism in a Post-Christendom Context,” I assign a weekly e-challenge for students to engage their faith in concrete ways. Recently I asked students to imagine they were the ordained minister of a small-town church where they write a weekly newspaper column in the local paper. I invited them to imagine listening to people in the church, in the coffee shop, and in the hockey arena grumbling about their loss of freedom in the pandemic. A context where both in church and in community, a sizeable number of people were not vaccinated and were busy spreading conspiracy theories. In light of protests against mandate restrictions and the “freedom convoy” to Ottawa, I asked my students how they would write their weekly 250-word newspaper article on the theme of “freedom” from a Christian perspective. What words would they use to describe freedom from a Christian perspective that connects with a wider audience? How would they avoid the reductionism of “freedom” in these polarized political times? What do Christians have to say as an alternative community?
The responses were terrific and varied, as students used their column to try and bring the wider community together, through an act of public theology that offered an alternative understanding of freedom. This freedom was offered in the selfless sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for the sake of the world, knitting together love of God and neighbour in kenosis or a pouring out of love. The next week, while discussing their assignment, I offered students Martin Luther’s famous juxtaposition of freedom: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.” Students reflected on how Luther’s first statement would be embraced by most in church and society today with our focus on individualism and what Charles Taylor calls “the buffered self.” The second statement, however, was observed to be the necessary tension required to make discipleship both challenging and urgent in our world – lay down our lives in service to the wider world. The church in all its varied forms, can be a place where we are equipped to both celebrate the freedom God gives us in Jesus, and take up the responsibility of being “saved to be sent” for the sake of others. As Darrell Guder notes in Called to Witness, “The community of the word is neither a safe enclave nor a colony walled off from the world, although it is, to be sure, always an alternative community within its context.”
So how might your participation in a local church help shape a witness for the freedom God longs to give us in Jesus during this challenging and troubled season in North America and the world? Perhaps in a cynical world, captured recently in the satirical film “Don’t Look Up” we are called now to enter Lent with a call to “Don’t Give Up!” Don’t give up on the hope of a better tomorrow. Don’t give up on the ability to reconcile with neighbours, family and friends who believe very different things than we do. Don’t give up on the hope that God gives us in Christ’s victory over sin and death. Don’t give up.
Starting Something New
For so many of us the last two years of pandemic have been an exhausting experience of “giving up” things, experiences and opportunities that give us great joy. We may not feel like “giving up” something for Lent this year. So, why not model for others the gift of “not giving up” on life, but rather taking on new practices that grant joy, stimulate curiosity and enlivens our hope in Jesus Christ? For example, here at St. Andrew’s Hall in Vancouver we’ve produced a Lenten devotional guide with thoughtful contributions from members of our community – faculty, staff, students, residents, board members and alumni. Even our college mascot Andy the Bear has a contribution. It’s free and downloadable.
Perhaps you already have a devotion guide or some other practice you’re taking on for this holy season of preparation before Easter. If not, use it and share it as an act of public witness, as a way of saying to a sin-sick and cynical world, “Don’t Give Up!”
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