March 1st, 2017
Lent, as it’s customarily thought of, inevitably invites the question of what to “give up.” As Lenten practice in other Christian traditions is composed of highly directed schedules of self-denial, almost exclusively in terms of food, it’s no wonder most people who know anything about Lent associate it with some form of abstinence. [Though, if your form of gluttony has something to do with media consumption, you might do worse than follow in Alastair Roberts’ shoes during this season.]
To arrive at what Lent intends, the question more important than what to abstain from is what might be good for your soul through the use of your body–specifically in how you use your time?
That sort of question naturally imagines a different use of time, but it doesn’t necessarily represent an addition to your schedule. It may only mean going deeper with what you already do. In a very different context, Alan Jacobs (yes, him again) puts before us the responsibility we have when it comes to reading Scripture–namely, more than merely reading it. One is not reading Scripture, he contends, unless one is wrestling with it. Wrestling until, like Jacob (cf. Gen 32), we derive some blessing from it–and “blessing” may not be in the sweet, serene form we might expect.
… It seems to me that the people who are really wrestling with Scripture are the ones who are taking its authority seriously. After all, if you don’t believe that the Bible is the word of God, if you believe that these are just historic documents with no particular claim on you or on anybody else, that doesn’t lead you to wrestle with anything. You can just dismiss anything in it that you see that strikes you as being alien or that makes you uncomfortable or that you feel that you can’t endorse.
So it’s quite easy to read a passage of Scripture, decide that it’s not something that you buy into, and then put it aside, unless you have a commitment to the authority of that text. If you have that commitment, it actually pressures you. It puts the screws to you. It makes it very hard for you to have a simple response to it.
Jesus talks to a man who is always referred to in the biblical literature as the rich, young ruler. He tells him, “OK, if you want what I’m giving, if you want the kind of life that I have to offer, then take everything that you have, sell it and give it to the poor.” And this young man walks away sad, because he had great wealth.
I read that passage, and I have to struggle with that, because I’m thinking, “What is this passage demanding of me?” It says something to me, because I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe that he is my Lord and my Savior. He says something like this. I have to ask myself, “What does it mean for me?” So far, I haven’t decided that it means that I have to sell everything I have and give it to the poor, but maybe that’s because I’m an inauthentic or disobedient Christian. Maybe I’m not taking my beliefs seriously enough.
So I can say this is the word of God for me. But that that’s only the beginning of my problems. That actually doesn’t solve problems. That creates a whole set of problems, because I have to work very hard to try to figure out what sort of demand this text is making upon me.
Jacobs contends not only that we’re not really reading until we’re wrestling with the Text, we’re not really reading the Text as Scripture unless we’re wrestling. You skim what you give only scant regard to. The wrestling is being true both to the Authority of and the consequent responsibility to Scripture.
That’s not a narrowly Lenten way of reading Scripture; it’s meant to be a lifelong protocol. But there are worse moments in which to begin that more patient, probing–and yes, problematic–way of coming to any Text than when the Church around the world is turning to a more sobering time of reflection.
So what if you did more with less this Lent? What if you planned to sit with a text until you it began to provoke honest questions in you? What if you meditated upon it until it created either a measure of discomfort (you know, when the rest of your “canon” started to collide with what you find in the passage), or of consolation when you at last began to reckon with its meaning? What if you thoughts about its implications for you until it “forced” you to pray–whether to understanding, for trust, or for help to follow in its way? What if you wrestled until you realized you might need to talk this over with someone you trusted?
All that’s doing more with less. It might make for a fruitful, if occasionally fretful, Lent.
As we’ve been alluding to over the last few weeks, we’ll spend our Lent together listening to perhaps the most enigmatic book of the Bible: Ecclesiastes.
Like getting married, or buying a home, or choosing a career, you would be foolish not to do a little investigation into what you’re getting into before you plunge yourself into what it asks of you. Ecclesiastes asks a lot from you–mostly in terms of learning how to respect its message in light of the whole Bible. The Preacher (and his patron–the narrator of the book) forces us to consider things we might prefer to ignore. He asks us to look deeper into the nature of reality and at least acknowledge that our preliminary conclusions require revision, or in some cases flat out rejection.
Some prefer to liken him to modern-day cynics–even nihilists. But he doesn’t let you off that easy. He lives in an indisputably moral universe with the God of Israel who authors and orders it. He doesn’t dismiss the transcendent like a cynic or nihilist would. He just doesn’t derive the same conclusions–deduce the same consolations–as his fellow Israelites typically did.
As we’ll say often in this series, the Preacher may not have the final word, but he has a fit word for us–one we do best to hear, and then find out how to heed.
So to acquaint you with this book, you could do worse than listen to the summary of Ecclesiastes from those folks over at The Bible Project. The first explains the book in the context of the rest of the Bible’s wisdom literature. The second digs into the book itself in more detail. (Hey, you folks with kids, these short summaries they will find highly engaging. Kid-tested, parent-approved):
We begin the Lenten journey together tonight at 6pm at our Ash Wednesday service. We hope you’ll join us. We hope also you’ll bring a friend–or just anyone you happen to meet. There’s few you might find who would disagree with the notion that there’s a “crack in everything.” Tonight we begin beholding the crack–and then looking for a little light.
And if you want to get a feel for where we’re headed, this scene from a 25 year old film captures the humility the Preacher means to imbue:
The Backstory will take a break next week.