Giving up giving up… This coming Wednesday, we begin the Season of Lent. Here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we will gather nearby with our brothers and sisters in Christ at Brookhaven Christian Church, just down the street, at 7:30pm for a joint service where we will pause to mark the beginning of these forty days of Lent. Some of you, I am sure, are thinking about what it is that you will give up for Lent. In case you are in that category and wondering about the company you keep, here are the top ten things Twitter says people plan to give up for Lent: Twitter, Chocolate, Swearing, Alcohol, Soda, Facebook, Fast Food, Sex, Sweets, and Meat.
My favorite fell just outside the top ten: Lent.
And while I’m pretty sure most of the people who said this were being funny (or at least trying), I want to suggest that we might consider trying something this year: let’s give up Lent for Lent.
What I mean by that is not that we’ll jump straight from Transfiguration to Easter. It is important to spend time in contemplation and preparation. And the rhythms of the church year are just not complete without the drama of Holy Week, from parade to grave and beyond. What I mean, instead, is that for Lent we consider giving up…giving up. If we do, we have some good company from our own Presbyterian history.
In 1536, William Farel invited John Calvin to stay with him and reform the church in Geneva. As French Protestants in exile, they were keen to rid Christianity of anything that they understood as contrary to the gospel, and they often fought bitterly with the City Council of Geneva to do so.
One of the practices they sought to eliminate was treating the year as a series of unbreakable, holy seasons. They supported spiritual disciplines, but they also thought it was more important to clarify what was Biblical and what was unbiblical. Lent and Easter fell squarely in their sites. Geneva required fasting during Lent from such extravagancies as meat, and communion was expected during Easter. Calvin and Farel both knew that fasting was an important practice, and that celebrating the resurrection was at the center of the entire faith. What they resented was the suggestion that Lent was Biblical. It may have been inspired by Scripture, but the word never appears there. And setting Easter as the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox? This was not something the gospel writers had much interest in.
Calvin and Farel lost their battle to reform these practices; but they were apparently not above attempting passive aggressive drama. Not only did they refuse to serve communion on Easter, which caused a city-wide riot, they also held the 16th century equivalent of a barbeque in the City Square, with meat galore, on Good Friday. The City Council had had enough, and they were driven out of town.
So: sound good? Are we game?
My point is not to give up on what works for you. If Lenten fasting draws you closer to God, then by all means do it. That said, there are times when we need to get out of our spiritual ruts. And these are the moments when we might just find ourselves on those transformative mountaintops.
No matter how spiritually grounded we might be, no matter how close we might feel to the holy, there is no doubt that every single one of us has more to learn, much more to learn. And so, we ought to beware resting on our laurels.
Take the disciples as a case in point. Jesus has just implored them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. After that, he invites the three disciples in his inner circle to go up the mountain with him. And there, they are witnesses to a most bizarre sight. There Jesus stands, as though he himself is the source of light, flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of the holiest Hebrew prophets, just talking. Peter is struck by what he thinks is inspiration: “Let’s build three shrines to preserve this moment!” In other words, Peter is convinced they have struck spiritual gold and should mine this vein for all its worth. Instead, the moment passes, and down the mountain they go.
Here’s the thing about Peter: he knows that he has experienced something holy and profound; and so, what he knows from his own tradition is that you build monuments to capture those moments. What he seems to forget is that Jesus, the very embodiment of holiness, is right there with him. It doesn’t matter if they’re on the mountaintop or down in the valley. The place where heaven touches earth can’t be confined to a shrine; it’s there in Jesus himself!
And if we’re honest, we are not that different from Peter. We hold onto our sacred moments and monuments. We work hard to recreate them. The problem is that we are not even sure what it was that made them holy to begin with. And so we end up recreating the wrong thing, missing the holiness right in front of us.
I am convinced that this is one of the challenges of what churches try to do in worship. There are so many congregations embattled over the style of music or the words of prayers, fights that probably have more to do with our sacred memories than with Jesus himself. One of the things that I appreciate about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is our willingness to experiment. There are times we have tried something new, and it has landed well. There are also those times when it just didn’t work, and we shrug it off and keep moving. When there’s no shrine, there’s no need to stay put. The important thing is to remain open to the possibility that we don’t have it all figured out.
So back to giving up “giving up” for Lent. Here is what I would like to suggest.
Beginning after Easter, Oglethorpe Presbyterian is going to launch a program called “Engage”. Engage is a congregation-wide study that would help us learn how to share our faith – or, to use a word we Presbyterians seem to have given up not just for Lent but perhaps for eternity: “evangelism”.
If the word “evangelism” makes you cringe, then rather than running down the mountain, I want to encourage you that this program might just be for you. First and foremost, Engage reminds us that “evangelism” is not the process of going door-to-door, forcing pamphlets into people’s hands, or manipulating every conversation into matters of faith and Jesus and salvation. That’s not evangelism. Instead, evangelism is meant to be a natural experience. It means living lives of integrity that speak for themselves. It means being comfortable enough at expressing our own faith. And it means that conversations about faith end up arising naturally. What Engage is designed to do is to lead us into genuine moments of integrity, not forced platitudes and false pieties.
In the coming weeks, you will hear much more about our plans for Engage, which will start in early April. We will be offering groups that meet at many different times during the week, so that it might match your schedule. So rather than spending Lenten time avoiding things, my invitation is to spend that energy carving out space in April and May for Engage.
Our goal is to have half of our community participating in one of the groups meeting for discussion, fellowship, and sharing. Much like that mountaintop moment, we will not be alone. We will be with each other, connecting, sharing our challenges and joys alike as people of faith who are trying to figure it out, or even just muddle through.
And as we do, we are not going to be building shrines. Instead, we will be carving out those moments, opening ourselves so that we might recognize that holiness that has been right in front of us all along!