To the pastors, deacons, and people of the Southwest California Synod, and to all who read or hear this message: Grace and peace in Christ Jesus!
It is not hard for us to enter into the spirit of the penitential season of Lent this year, as the division, mutual recrimination, and underlying violence of our nation’s social life is laid bare each day in our public media, most immediately in another school shooting this week. I feel very strongly the weight of our national unhappiness and the disunity of our collective sense of right and purpose, and I imagine that many of you share this unhappiness. Our public institutions seem unable to wrestle with real human pain and suffering, preferring instead to create imaginary, theoretical threats that distract us and lure us into blaming others for collective ills. Rather than kindness, violence seems to underlie our discourse.
Lent calls us to prayer and self-examination, to charity and almsgiving, and to fasting from that which keeps us from God. None of these three things is easy, but I believe all three are necessary—and not just in Lent. These forty days, though, do give us a manageable opportunity to reassess our own spiritual situation, and time to make changes in our habits and thinking that will carry beyond Easter into our whole lives.
I invite you to observe with me a holy Lent: to me, this year, that means to adapt the ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to our own time and place. Through these practices, I believe we not only prepare ourselves for the Easter mysteries of death and new life, but we also focus the lives we live right now on a higher engagement with the world around us.
Prayer: Christians pray without ceasing, bringing both their rejoicing and their despair before God. We do this, I hope, instinctively—at all times and in all places, living in a kind of dialogue with God each day. But we don’t do this to “get what we want” or to “save ourselves” but to help ourselves understand better how God loves the world—the whole world, not just us. Prayer helps give us—in our limited ways—a “God’s eye” view of the society around us, and teaches us that we, too, have a role to play in God’s world as exemplars of God’s love. Prayer teaches us to love, to stand up to evil, and to reach beyond ourselves to help our neighbors. If it doesn’t do this, it is empty and selfish. Lent helps us learn the difference.
Fasting: Fasting is the most misunderstood of the disciplines. Symbolic gestures like “giving something up” are not wrong, but at best they serve as reminders of the greater sacrifices God calls on us to make in life. Give up chocolate, or alcohol, or meat if you want—that’s a holy custom—but look deeper than that. What is it that benefits you that actually hurts someone else? Try, if you can, to fast from that. If you are part of the most privileged class in our society: white, male, a citizen, educated, middle-aged and fully employed; consider what it means not to have all—or any—of those advantages. Put yourself in another’s place. Advocate for another’s well-being. Promote justice and equality for all. Find, expose, and resist the ways society reinforces the privilege of some at the expense of others.
Almsgiving: There are a million ways to be charitable—by a kindness of spirit, by solidarity with others, by sharing your material resources—right down to writing a check or putting a dollar in the plate. And all of these are good. But this Lent, I’m going to try very hard to focus on a charity of intention—that is, looking at the people and the world around me in ways that see their value and honor their struggle. Each of us has value; each of us is challenged in some way by limitations within or around us. To live in love is to recognize this and act accordingly—draw out the good and have compassion on the challenge. Don’t just give—act. Act on others’ behalf—to the best of your abilities, with what you have to offer. None of us is so weak or so limited they can’t help someone else.
Lent is not an obstacle course or a wallowing in sorrow—it is a chance to take up your cross again, in a new, fresh way, and to recommit and refocus yourself on God and your neighbor. You need this—the world around you needs you—and God expects that each of us, in our own ways and with our own gifts, will offer love and service and care for each other and the earth on which we live. Embrace your life with joy, knowing that it is God’s gift, and that God gives it to you—but not just for you to enjoy—for your neighbor’s benefit as well.
Know that you are in my prayers every day—as pastors, deacons, and congregations—and that I accompany you on this forty-day journey through the wilderness. I ask for your prayers as well: for clarity, for patience, and for strength. Together we can defy evil and the world’s empty promises, make the sacrifices we must, and push forward in the sure hope of the life to come. For God’s promises are sure; Jesus’ resurrection is our proof. Amen.