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.”