I must admit that I have not been as engaged this Lenten season as usual. In fact, I have been struggling with Lent in a very different way and that has been unsettling for me. I was concerned that the rituals had become too ritualized, that the newness of walking through the liturgical calendar had worn off, that maybe the deep richness of the past few seasons of Lenten observance had been manufactured on my part and this nothingness and discomfort was what really happened for me in the spring. Oh yes, I’ve been applying myself to my study, turning my thoughts to repentance, etc. and etc., but I have clearly been struggling. Not to be too colloquial about it, but I just wasn’t feeling it.
But I kept going. I kept reading. I kept praying. And about a week ago, on the edges of my consciousness, a new idea occurred — that the reason Lent feels different this year is, well, because I am approaching it differently. And that difference is very, very uncomfortable for me. I have been studying in detail, the account of Holy Week in the Gospel of Mark, preparing to write on the text for our Good Friday concert this year, in which we will perform a famous setting of a German text about the events of the Passion. Uncomfortable topics–betrayal, judgement, torture, crucifixion.
I will confess that, like many educated people of faith, I am uncomfortable talking about sin and repentance — and actually using the words sin and repentance. To read words like “we are called to take up the Cross,” and accept them seems wrong — such words smack of tent revival meetings and the days when women everywhere (not just some places) were relegated to the back pew of the church and serving tea and cookies at the coffee hour. There simply had to be a more modern, more inclusive, less hurtful way to talk about these fundamental concepts of our faith, right?
Wrong. After the past few days, I have come to realize that we as progressive Christians–Evangelical progressives or mainline progressives or “none of the above” individualist progressives — we must embrace the very terminology that frightens us, that repels us, that reminds us of all the hurt done in the name of “church”, and of all the hurt and failure of our own actions. We must embrace the sins of our nature and our failings, and the love and the possibility of the repentance that is ours in faith, every day, every minute of our lives.
Maybe it was the act of spending yesterday trying to fit a non-conformist life lived on the edges into a six-page application form designed for those in their 20’s, not those of us with more (considerably more) life and experience and considerably more mistakes to list than someone that age; maybe it was sitting next to someone I love and respect and having them look at me and label my spiritual gift as that of mercy and compassion, while thinking of all the times that I was not those things and all the times I was not reliable or faithful or loving.
And maybe, just maybe, it was all of those things, followed by the words of the 19th century evangelist, Henry Drummond, in his essay “Turning“. Drummond begins with the text from Luke 22:61-62: “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter…and Peter went outside and wept bitterly.” Drummond goes on to say:
What then can we learn from Peter’s turning around? First it was not Peter who turned. It was the Lord who turned and looked at Peter. When the cock crew, that might have kept Peter from falling further. But he was just in the very act of sin. And when a person is in the thick of his sin his last thought is to throw down his arms and repent. So Peter never thought of turning, but the Lord turned. And when Peter would rather have looked anywhere else than at the Lord, the Lord looked at Peter. This scarce-noticed fact is the only sermon needed to anyone who sins — that the Lord turns first. (Bread and Wine, pg. 126)
I sit here, humbled by the depth and breadth of my sin. But I do not feel evil, I do not feel without hope, I do not feel afraid. Because the Lord turns first. When Peter would have looked anywhere to escape, the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And when I would run, the Lord turns and looks at me, too.
This year, for me, it is a new kind of Lenten feeling…one without shame and with more and more acceptance. I am a sinner; I repent with every breath. And there is peace in being able to say those words…