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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Giving for Lent
March 2, 2017

Like most of the church’s traditional festivals and seasons, Lent got a blistering review from John Calvin. He considered the sackcloth and ashes of biblical repentance no longer necessary, and even hindrances to true repentance, because they made an outward display of something that ought to be inward and spiritual. While he commended fasting under extraordinary circumstances, he contended that an annual fasting ritual was not only unnecessary, but dangerous. With characteristic withering wit, he deemed Lent “an abyss of error” that draws participants ever deeper into a black hole of superstition. He mocked those who observed the Lenten fast from meat as gluttonous consumers of even more exotic replacement foods and drinks. (Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.12.21)

Just as Calvin deemed sackcloth and ashes appropriate only in a different time and place, might we also consider some of the Reformers’ rejections as something that they considered appropriate in their place and time, but are not so for us? Is our church’s current embrace of the Lenten season something that distracts us from the real matter of repentance and faith?

In our time, we are far more prone to be utterly unmindful of godly practices than we are to trust in superstitious external religious observances. We are more likely to forget altogether to say our prayers, than to attach our prayers to rituals that distract us from God. Rather than impediments to being attentive to God, Lenten practices can reset our attention from all the world’s distractions back onto the One who alone is Savior and Lord.

John the Baptist came preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins, a theme that Jesus echoes in the opening words of his ministry: “Repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15) Repentance and good news are inseparable for followers of Jesus. What if Lent were a season in which the church experiences a renewal of repentance and good news?

The Greek word that we translate “repent” is a positive word, not a negative one. It means literally to think in a new way. It is a word of reorientation, of straightening out what has become crooked in us. If Lent provides us with a course correction, it serves a good purpose. Rather than being marked primarily by what we stop doing, it could serve as a season to renew ourselves in what we should have been doing all along. Praying. Giving. Serving. Loving.

Rather than ask, “What should I give up in Lent,” I might ask, “What could I give in Lent?” One of the lectionary texts for Ash Wednesday suggests exactly such an approach to Lent: God’s call to fast is not about denying ourselves food, but about attacking injustice, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and interestingly, “not to hide yourself from your own kin.” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

How do we hide from our kin? In myriad ways, we must acknowledge. Imagine as a Lenten discipline giving ourselves to deeper engagement with our family. This is, apparently, part of God’s chosen fast. Such repentance is truly good news!

Repentance, Jesus’ way, is a turning away from our pursuits of self-interest to nurturing our faith in the Good News that the God who alone can truly assure our welfare is present with us in the person of Jesus. Jesus has come, we are no longer on our own in trying to achieve the good life. Jesus is still with us, by his Spirit, and his promise of the nearness of God’s reign is just as trustworthy today as it was when he first announced it in the region of Galilee.

Many of us are greatly dismayed by our nation’s deep political and ideological divisions, symbolized powerfully by the sea change in Washington from blue to red. The wider the divide, the deeper our fears of what those on the other side might do to make our world a darker place. Lent reminds us of that which remains true regardless of the color of the White House, or Capitol Hill, or the Governor’s mansion, or the mayor’s office: The reign of God is near, and it is getting nearer! However those institutions get painted and repainted, the Good News remains the same. Repent from seeking salvation anywhere else! Trust that the Good News that comes in Jesus shall most certainly prevail!

Perhaps a fast from the torrents of bad news that drench us 24-7 could be in order, if we truly want to repent and believe the good news. Perhaps we need something stark to jar us into repentance – ashes could get us started. Willingness to get dirty outside could be a first step in getting clean inside.

What will you be giving for Lent?

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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