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“Lent” as metaphor & model for the church today

Some people fancy Lent as a sombre sojourn meant to remind us that we’re pretty much pitiable good-for-nothings; we give up chocolate or some such pleasure so we can feel as miserable as we really are. Others adopt a more positive angle, seeing Lent as the season to devote extra hours and energy to some activity that will make for personal spiritual growth, at least for those of us who take such things seriously.

I’m pretty sure, however, that both conceptions are actually substantial misconceptions, enough to deflect our trajectory away from the true purpose and promise of Lent.

Perhaps you’ve noticed, whenever the number forty pops up in the Bible (which is often), there tends to be a time of trial or challenge for an individual or community. Often this takes place in something called “the wilderness,” the Bible’s favourite setting for learning to trust in God’s goodness and prepare for what God will do next. At the end of it all, there is a clarification of identity, vocation and “destiny.” After his baptism, for example, when a transcendent voice had declared, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life,” Jesus was led into the wilderness for forty days and nights to face temptation and discern what it truly meant to be God’s anointed One.

The annual forty days of Lent are a time for clarifying our true identity and its implications, too. We enter this season so that, when we come out at the other side in the celebration of the Christian Passover, we may know in new and more profound ways “who we are” and “what we’re about” in the risen Christ. Thus, Lent is the season we grapple once more with the identity, vocation and destiny revealed and bestowed, effected and enlivened in baptism.

With this understanding, I am persuaded that Lent is apt as both a metaphor and model for the situation in which most congregations find themselves today.

Cast your mind’s eye once more to the narrative of Jesus’ temptations. It is when Jesus is well into his forty days – resources all but spent, little in evidence to lean on, feeling most vulnerable – that he’s tempted. It is now that the devil calls into question Jesus’ identity. Now the devil stokes the embers of mistrust in God. Now, marshaling both the resources of scripture and common sense, the devil counsels Jesus to take matters into his own hands.

So it is now Jesus must choose the narrative that will shape his life, his ministry, his future.

Jesus is tempted to focus on shoring up his resources out of fear for his comfort or survival. He’s tempted to shape the path before him in a way that will yield clear “success.” Yet his response to each temptation is one of absolute trust and dependence on God alone for his identity, his ministry, his future.

I’m certain Luke films this episode not simply for the benefit of individuals, but primarily to provide example and edification for the community as a whole, especially when that community finds itself with few resources, little to lean on, feeling most vulnerable. That’s why I think anyone concerned with congregational development is wise to rewind this clip every once in awhile and pay attention!

We live in a time when most congregations and denominations find themselves well into their “forty days.” That is to say, we are in that vulnerable place where hunger is sharpest, resources all but spent, vision blurred and identity in doubt. We feel a growing desperation. So, with great urgency, we decide the time has come to focus on some sort of “congregational development.”

Well, beware! This wilderness in which we find ourselves is fraught with temptation and choice. What will be the character of our congregational development? Turn these empty pews into donors? (You need to survive if you’re to do God’s work.) Make the church relevant? (You’re more likely to make a difference if you’re prominent in, and attractive to the culture.) Hit upon the right marketing campaign, stewardship program, fiscal discipline, strategic plan? (To move beyond this crisis and thrive, you must take immediate action to get things stable, secure, under control.)

There is an important choice before us in these our “forty days,” one we need to address before and during any attempts at so-called congregational development. It is this: which way will we go, the “successful” way or the faithful way? Are we willing even to die, whatever that may mean, and trust God to do the raising up?

Answering that question, not just with “yes” or “no,” but also in the decisions and practices we engage as church, will take longer than the remaining days of Lent 2013. But the remaining days of Lent 2013 are as good a time as any to get underway.

The wilderness in which we find ourselves is rife with voices that predict our imminent extinction if we don’t yield to temptations like those I’ve mentioned above. Yet, we need not traverse this time as one of desperate despair. Instead, we can engage it as one of great promise and possibility, the overture to the next wondrous work God is about to perform.

Rather than seeking a hasty exit from the wilderness, then, let’s dare to devote what energy and resources we have within it to trusting and responding to the God revealed in Jesus. I believe we will come out the other side as a more vibrant, compelling people, knowing and displaying the new life of the risen Christ, that reality the Bible calls the “Kingdom of God.”

Jay Koyle

About Jay Koyle

The Rev. Dr. Jay Koyle has a long and fruitful history of fostering congregational vitality and growth in the life of the church. After many years’ experience as both a parish pastor and a professor on a Faculty of Theology, Jay now serves as Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of Algoma. His doctoral thesis addressed the relationship between preaching and the missional revitalization of congregations in the 21st Century. Jay also serves as Chair of Faith, Worship, and Ministry for the Anglican Church of Canada, and Director of Table Song: Eighth Day Perspectives. In both Canada and the United States, he has been acclaimed as an inspirational speaker who brings a terrific sense of humour and an uplifting Christian message. He has been a contributor to a number of journals and a recent book published by Augsburg Fortress.

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6 Responses to “Lent” as metaphor & model for the church today

  1. Jay, I think you’ll enjoy the catalog of 40’s in the Bible that this decidedly literalist blogger gathered-

    http://www.ecclesia.org/truth/40.html .

    What you write about Lent’s forty days feels important to me.  Getting ourselves off the jag of beating ourselves up in order to avoid having God beat us up fits an abusive family system, not a community of grace.  One thing the literalist blogger didn’t note in his whole long exploration of the importance of the number forty is the forty weeks of pregnancy.  I think that’s where all the Bible’s forty days, forty weeks and forty years come from and why the image of going through something hard that’s full of promise at the end seems to be the common theme.  And, I also think you’re right, that the forty years in the wilderness in Exodus becomes a sort of normative forty for all the other forties including Jesus’ temptations and now Lent for us.  But my strong hunch is that the forty years in the wilderness (maybe the first telling of a forty in the Bible) is told as “forty years” to match the forty weeks of pregnancy.


  2. Thanks Jay for this reflection. I find it relevant personally on my own journey of discernment as well as corporately when it comes to discernment, direction and vision. It’s so easy too to see ourselves as individuals and communities in the midst of the wilderness when in fact we’re already experiencing the joy of the abundant life of resurrection. As St. Mary’s approaches our annual meeting tomorrow morning, I hope people won’t be drawn into the treat of scarcity, but celebrate and give thanks for the abundance of blessings.

  3. Thanks for this, Jay. I agree with Donald that 40 also refers to pregnancy – a time of waiting and wondering as well as wandering, when we long for shortcuts and magical solutions, as well as the corruption of power (or lack of it). For me, the biggest of Jesus’ temptations lies in the word ‘If’, where he is tempted to doubt his identity as Son of God, and this temptation follows immediately on his baptism. Some of our biggest temptations come when we think we know who we are and are filled with delusions of certainty. In this time of ‘unknowing’ our old models of church are being eroded, and we are being forced to rediscover the essence of who we are and what we are for. This is quite different from the ‘essentials’ movement of a couple of decades ago, which was largely about dogmatic ‘certainties’. Today, it seems, we are being asked to embrace poverty and gratitude at one and the same time, knowing ‘enough is really enough’, and we can travel light into a future both unknown and full of new possibilities. I look forward to being part of this for, I hope, a while longer.

  4. Jay – thanks for this very interesting reflection – lots there to think about.  As a member of a congregation that fits the standard profile of an aging membership and slowly declining offerings, I am familiar with the issues of congregational renewal.  We need to avoid the “temptation” of thinking that there is a quick fix out there somewhere that we can latch on to and all will be well.  Thanks for giving us all lots to think about.

  5. I hung on your every word…because it so resonates with where I am in my walk right now. Something within me wants and needs to die because it is time to grow into my new self, to metamorphose into a winged creature who completely and utterly rests in “godde” . Like the caterpillar who has to literally melt in order to be transformed into a butterfly, me, and dare I say, the Church, has to follow Jesus’ lead. Your post reminds us of this in a gentle but persistent and well researched way. Thank you from the bottom of my boogety boogety shoo.

  6. Thank you, Jay, for an insightful and timely message.  The congregation I walk with was deep in this wilderness time when I arrived 8 1/2 years ago.  Over our time together we have learned that there are no quick fixes as we have lived through these many temptations born out of common sense and quick-fix dreams.  As we learned to turn away from those temptations and instead to listen to our faithful God and discovered the courage to follow, something new began emerging organically.  We are just beginning to intentionally continue that journey and this reflection will help us to stay focused.  As I read your post I began remembering the times after the 40 days in the wilderness when Jesus again faced temptation and was able to turn away.  The temptation to hang up a shingle in a town that seemed to respond very positively to his ministry.  After a relatively short time in the wilderness as he stole away before the break of dawn Jesus was able to invite his new friends to continue their journey together as they headed out to neighboring towns.  This is only one of many such examples.  As I reflect on All Saints’ wilderness times I know that our experiences and learnings will serve us well as we continue to face temptations which no doubt will spring up from time to time.  I have come to believe that our wilderness wanderings are essential moments in our journeys.  It is then that we learn to deeply listen and trust in our faithful God.  May your reflections serve as a sign-post to all who are in the midst of a wilderness time.


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