1 Peter 3:18-22
We shouldn’t be surprised to find that a fair number of people really despise Lent. The whole notion of concentrating on repentance is repugnant to quite a few. One friend of mine recently commented, “As a former Roman Catholic, I don’t miss Lent at all.” I recall from early days of my ministry a conversation with a woman who had grown up in a church that emphasized blaming oneself for Jesus’ death. It made her sick, so much so that she stayed away from church for Lent.
Sometimes I respond to my atheist friends that the god they don’t believe in is the one I don’t believe in either. Similarly, I want to say that the Lent that you find somewhere between distasteful and revolting is the Lent I find so too. But that is not the whole story. Another friend of mine recently told me, “I love Lent. It is a chance to begin anew. I feel as if I am at last freed in Lent from the tyranny of a judgmental God.” Go figure. Why these mixed reviews and what do they matter?
Lent addresses a fundamental question that is as psychologically profound as it is spiritually central: what shall we do about our undeniable tendency to do wrong when we know what is right? It is possible to do wrong when we don’t know any better, even if we should know. It is possible, too, to do great wrong when we actually think we are doing right. But there is on top of all that, or perhaps underneath it, a pattern of human behavior of doing something totally contrary to what we consciously value. To come to the point very quickly: we need a way to acknowledge when we are seriously off base and in the wrong. And we need a way to get back on track. In fact, we need even more to develop the capacity for being appropriately—not neurotically—self-critical.
To that extent, Lent is definitely and radically counter-cultural. For one thing, we in this society labor under an enormous weight of shame. The chief tool that society has of socializing us is to create in us a sense of shame to keep us in line. Shame is different from guilt. Guilt is about something you do. Shame is about who you are. The two rub together and then fuse for a great many of us, so much so that we cannot tell the difference between being ashamed of who we are and guilty of something that we ought not to have done. Not only that, but sometimes we feel needlessly guilty for things and actions that are perfectly natural, understandable, and healthy, such as getting angry and expressing it appropriately. Perhaps as a reaction to shame, we go to great lengths in this society to excuse ourselves from bad behavior, telling ourselves that this or that is not really bad, justifying others and ourselves sometimes by blaming someone or some personal or social condition for what others or we do. Sometimes people don’t even want to talk about “bad behavior” thinking that to do so just creates more problems.
At stake is what Lent is all about. And what Lent is all about is what Christianity is all about. And what Christianity is all about is transformation. And transformation is not a self-improvement program that we can sign onto like an exercise regimen or a diet. It is being reborn, rebuilt, and rehabilitated from the inside out.
Now if you can grab ahold of that idea, it might be time to turn to the reading from 1 Peter for today. Listen to some of it: “And baptism…now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a conscientious orientation Godward, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” Where we get off track is by thinking that somehow taking responsibility for our behavior is not at all Good News. But we get off track equally by thinking that the gospel is all about good behavior. The process of transformation, which begins with baptism and must consciously go on throughout life is about learning to live the resurrection. Resurrection is not a carrot at the end of earthly life for those who have performed up to standard, no more than is Easter the reward at the end of Lent for those who have managed to grovel, grovel, grovel. Resurrection is one name by which the New Life in Christ is called, and it refers to the power, for one thing, by means of which we acknowledge our own inadequacies, our willingness to compromise our principles for expediency’s sake, our complicity with the structures of the world that twist and destroy the creatures of God, human and non-human. This is not useless and stupid breast-beating to make ourselves feel bad so as to feel better. It is a direct attempt to get real, to be true, to be honest.
You might have noticed that until now I have not used the word sin. The reason is that we generally do not understand sin at all. It is not one of a thousand or so things on the list of no-no’s that we mustn’t do. It is the condition of being estranged from our real Self, our deep Truth, the Being in whom we live and move—namely God. The fact of the matter is that we cannot get on with living our lives in any healthy way unless we address that condition, which is a basic and pervasive sickness of soul. Getting more religious won’t help. Doing a lot of pious things won’t help. Ignoring it and imagining that it will go away certainly doesn’t help. Only turning again to the Source, getting reconnected to our core Self, reestablishing communication with the Truth and listening to it diligently is how this great transformation begins. And always it is from the inside out, not the other way around. Changing your script or your looks or your façade will never bring you to the person you are created to be nor to the joy that can be yours. Only opening ourselves to the Presence that is already within us will allow that to happen.
The great mystic G. I. Gurdjieff once likened the human person to a great equipage that one might imagine from, say, the 18th century. There is a coach with an impressive coat-of-arms emblazoned upon its door. A team of spotlessly groomed and indescribably handsome horses pulls the coach. High on his bench sits the coachman, holding the reins, clad in the rich uniform of the day, top hat and all. Voyages sometimes go well, and all perform according to role and plan. But sometimes wind blows hard, knocking the hat off the coachman. Horses sometimes rear out of control, even to the point that the coachman loses grip and balance, falling from his high perch. And again the interior of the coach can become an unspeakable mess. But all the while, there sits silently inside the coach a lone figure patiently waiting to be noticed. Unhurried, courteous, always present. It is the Soul Maker.
You may recognize this as not too far from a similar image that Plato once developed. You might give the coachman the name of “Ego,” the part of you that is consciously directing the trip. And the horses? They are our drives and desires that lead us. The coach itself is our carefully constructed presentation to the world. And inside every one of us sits the silent Soul Maker, waiting patiently to be noticed, wanting to be drawn into conversation, desirous of simply being involved with all the other parts of us.
If Lent is about anything, it is about stopping the show just for a little while, simply to re-ground ourselves by conversing with the Soul Maker. With that pause begins, either for the first time or the first time after awhile, what amounts to an amazing journey, which some call resurrection, and some call repentance, and some transformation, and some know as Love.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015