…The choice to remain in wrecked relationship with God and other human beings is called Sin…..There is no help for those who admit no need of help. There is no repair for those who insist that nothing is broken, and there is no hope of transformation for a world whose inhabitants accept that it is sadly but irreversibly wrecked. Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin
The season of Lent is looming on our liturgical horizon. And, as is typical, I personally find myself unprepared. My procrastination is a symptom of my internal struggle. I wonder if anybody actually cares about Lent. Sure a few people show up for Ash Wednesday service, but it seems to me that our “observation of a Holy Lent” is little more that people trying to “one up” each other on the will-power-and-austerity spectrum. The heart of my struggle is that I question if it is at all possible to make a season of repentance relevant to a culture that doesn’t even recognize sin.
Who needs Lent anyway?
In her book Season of Ash, Blair Gilmer Meeks explains Lent as an opportunity to reflect on and practice the way Jesus expects disciples to live. She says: “Lent helps us show by our lives that we are not bound to the old ways, but we are willing to lose the old life and take up the new life Jesus offers.” (pg. 17)
Indeed, the structure and rhythm of these 40 days invites us all to examine how well our life goals and spiritual practices align. It would seem to be well and good for us once again as individuals to take up the challenge of living our own lives more fruitfully and faithfully.
Yet this “rededication” focus seems to me to skirt an essential component of the Christian’s existence: the need to acknowledge not just my personal brokenness, but the brokenness of our world ― the necessity of understanding that even our best intentions as individuals can have unforeseen and damaging consequences when played out on the world’s stage.
I was reminded of this when I attended a meeting at my children’s school about the geographical boundaries of educational opportunities in the District. My kids attend one of the best DC public schools, which is located, not coincidentally, in the northwest part of the city. The school has great leadership, but a large part of its success has to do with the tireless fundraising efforts of “northwest parents.”
During the meeting, I sat beside a woman who traveled daily from southeast DC, bringing her small daughter to our neighborhood for school. At some point, The Bishop John Walker school came up and I proudly touted its success and how the Episcopal Diocese of Washington had worked hard to provide a roadmap for success for the boys growing up in that area.
And the woman gave me a sad smile and said, “Well that school’s success has guaranteed failure for my neighborhood school. That’s why we come here.”
And there it was: the stark truth. The motivated parents, along with the smartest boys, were going to make their way to The Bishop John Walker School. They were going to take advantage of the best opportunities available to them. It is meet and right that they should do so. At the same time, the siphoning off of the best boys means doom for the local public schools.
For me, this is the reality of sin: that our relationships (with God, creation and other humans) are wrecked. Even our best efforts cannot make repairs without the risk of collateral damage. And yet, even in the face of this reality, the follower of Jesus is dared to hope.
We need Lent. Lenten observance reminds us that neither smug self-satisfaction, nor despairing resignation, is an option for us. Healing is possible; we don’t have to settle for things the way they are, because we know the power of God’s grace can overcome anything, even death. And since we know that transformation is possible, perhaps the first step, the one Lent encourages us to make, is to admit that we have a problem – a problem that can only be addressed as a community, because the problem itself is broken community, and the role each of us already does play in its wounds, and can play in its healing.