Friday, April 27, 2012
Lent the nagging killjoy...
Writing in a recent issue of The Lutheran, David Miller laments the “moralistic” cast of the Lenten worship and piety he grew up with. “Each year Lent came as a nagging killjoy,” Miller writes, “pointing out failures to be what God wants.” This is not what Lent should be about. “It’s a time for drawing close to the river where one is more easily drawn into the currents of unspeakable grace,” he contends, “there to forget every sadness and despair, there to have every haunting failure and preoccupation with self and image swept away in the endlessness of an eternal mercy.”
Well, it made me actually read the article. It was not long, thankfully. It was your typical complaint about the Lenten preaching and devotion of the past with its attention to the sinful and unclean and its call to repentance. It was not terrible but it did seem pretty thin. The focus on God's grace was not matched up with the concrete events in which that grace is revealed (suffering, cross, death of Jesus, for example). It lamented the typical moralistic cast on the word "repent" and expressed the desire that Lent focus on the Lord but mostly on the positive expression of love -- knowing Jesus and sharing in His joys and sorrows and in His holy dreams for creation. He urged Christians to make up their own spiritual practices so that this new positive self may emerge from the depths of God's river of grace and life. It was about what I expected. It could have been worse. It should have been better.
Now lest you think I only criticize the ELCA, there are those in Missouri who regularly complain about the Synod President's call to repentance. It is said by some among us that Pres. Harrison speaks way too much about repentance. Some have gone so far as to suggest that repentance is not a word that should be in the usual vocabulary of the active Christian. In other words, you do not have to be liberal in order to be made uncomfortable by the word repentance and by the call to repent. I remember one fellow LCMS Pastor telling me he had read Senkbeil's Dying to Life and just did not get what all the fuss over repentance, confession, and absolution was all about.
The funny thing is that this call to repentance is not moralistic at all. If it is only the behavior that needs shaping up to please God, then we have a screwed up idea of God. If it is only our behavior we need to be concerned about, then we have a screwed up idea of Christian life. Repentance is not about painting the exterior of the house so that it looks better to those outside. It is not even about remodeling the interior to make it new. Repentance is about the acknowledgement that sin is death. We come confessing on Sundays (and Wednesdays in Lent) not because sin is bad but because sin is death. Even to the baptized. Temptation and doubt and fear are the voices of sin that call even to those in the kingdom of God. Like the mythical sirens who called to the sailors of old, we hear the call of our culture, the voices of evil, and the still active voices of desire. But they are not mythological. They are real. Repentance acknowledges this reality.
Repentance does much more. It also points us and pushes us back into the safe and secure arms of our Savior when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable. Whether we are undone by the load of guilt for our failure or deceived to think of sin as not all that bad, we need to be secure in the arms of our Savior to have the heavy load of our sin lifted from our shoulders and the self-justifying lies removed so that they do not obscure the truth of Christ and Him crucified.
The author is right about one thing. If Lent and repentance only means, "I was bad, I am sorry, now it is all better...thank you, Jesus" -- then Lent is a killjoy and joke at the same time. Joy comes not from moral improvement but from grace undeserved that cleanses and restores the unworthy. Repentance is not the enemy of joy but that which points us to the real joy that does not evaporate when the smile drops off our faces. Apart from Christ and the work of the Spirit, the word "repent" is a nasty word we would rather avoid. In Christ, repentance is the work of the Spirit pointing us to the blood that cleanses us from all sin and that binds us together into the eternal community of the Church.
Funny how the author of this article could talk about Lenten spiritual practices without much mention of the cross. Repentance, if it is anything at all, is about the cross -- the cross that calls to us in love, the cross makes repentance possible, and the Spirit who works through the Word of the cross works this repentance in us. Pres. Harrison is right. Jesus came only for sinners. Repentance makes sure that we get this for it is only when we count ourselves sinners that grace's river flows to us as the water of life. We don't need less of this kind of preaching, we need more of it. And not just in Lent.