Lent is coming.
Some of you might have mixed feelings about Lent. I understand.
I grew up in a ‘traditional church’ so I was aware of Lent, but it was mostly background noise. It wasn't something I actively participated in until, ironically, a few years after I had left the liturgical world in my early 20's for the charismatic one. This change in church expression was necessary and life-changing for me; it probably saved my faith. However, as much as I loved the newly-found vibrancy and passion of the charismatic world, I was uncomfortable with the often rather smug rhetoric I heard from the pulpit about those “dead traditional churches.” Those “dead churches” I grew up in had their bad points, for sure: the music was often terrible (think out-of-tune piano plus cheap electric organ), the hymns were generally impossible to sing, the preaching was dull, the décor a nauseating mix of ‘sterile white and blue doctor’s waiting room’ complete with vinyl covered chairs (or pews) and plastic potted plants and cheaply produced kitschy religious iconography, including neon-coloured stained glass windows. I’m convinced the unholy-neon-light shining through those windows gave me nose-bleeds if I stared at them for too long, which I did frequently because I was bored. And laughing hippy-beard Jesus. And instant coffee served in polystyrene cups. Lord. Have. Mercy. Don’t even get me started on the coffee.
But for better or worse, that was the tradition which nurtured my faith. For all its problems, I was never in any doubt that the people in those churches sincerely loved Jesus and were doing their best to follow Him. And even though the liturgy was often reduced from “the work of the people” (which is what liturgy means), to mere rote repetition from the prayer book, this had a surprising up-side. It produced an element that many of the charismatic churches I attended severely lacked. In the absence of what you might call ‘inspirational worship’, these folks got inspirationally practical. They learned to express their faith and worship God through good deeds and by building a vibrant community. Frequent church pot lucks, prayer groups, working bees, community service, hospital visitation teams, solid bible studies, a culture of volunteerism, missions fundraising, Christmas carolling in nursing homes, amazing church camping trips, and so on. In a way, I suppose, they had discovered a truer, purer form of liturgy: the people were working together serving others in the name of Jesus. This is worship at its best.
As an aside, some time ago I made a comment (I think it was in a sermon) that when worship is always ‘epic’ and ‘awesome’, when it is only ever experienced as top-shelf entertainment that requires unbelievable amounts of time and money to produce, it can create the (unintended?) expectation that unless something feels and looks amazing it isn’t really worship. Or not ‘good worship’ anyway. This is not just a charismatic church phenomenon, but exists wherever the quality of worship is measured by production values and musicianship. This can create a culture of disciples who don’t know how to worship God with simplicity, without relying on (too much) technology. By contrast, Jesus’ instructions regarding worship were actually pretty basic, something along the lines of “when you sit at a table with friends, sharing a meal, remember me.” Simple, ordinary, everyday stuff. This is a challenge for me even now. Do I know how to experience God’s presence in the simplicity of a meal? In a heart-felt word of grace before we start eating? Actually, in my house which is full of young children, we mostly sing the grace to the tune of, ahem, Superman. (I’m pretty sure Jesus is cool with this.)
Back to the main storyline: fast forward through a few years of big-production worship, and I began to miss some of what the liturgical church brings to the table in regards to the Christian experience.
I can’t say exactly what caused this, perhaps it was nostalgia; a rose-coloured longing for my roots. Or perhaps it was for the need for a panacea to the pace of change in modern life, a desire for less innovation, more predictability. I don’t know. As much as I love the charismatic emphasis on living with the expectation of God’s dynamic presence breaking in at any/every moment and changing everything, and the creative spontaneity that comes with that, there is no doubt that too much spontaneity leads to chaos. A structureless and unplanned life, let alone a structureless and unplanned approach to worship, can soon become meaningless and shallow.
As we all learned in art class, beauty requires both form and content. Good structure is essential to the expression of an object’s essence. A musician practices for years to perfect their talent and technique, which in turn releases the potential beauty of the instrument. A good sculptor must plan carefully for how they will shape the stone, to release the potential beauty trapped inside the blunt block of marble. A good architect thinks about the necessary structures that not only enable a building to be functional, but also about how it will be enjoyable to look at and live in. This is what God did when he created the world: “In the beginning the earth was formless and void”, and God began to establish the structures (atoms, DNA, gasses, land, water, cells, mitochondria) necessary for life, but function wasn’t His only goal. He was also thinking about beauty. How all those structures would be combined in a dizzying variety of ways to make this world so stunning in all its immense diversity.
Structure (or form) is therefore essential to make things both beauty-full and meaning-full. Content cannot communicate without form. However, that form has to be appropriate for the content to be understandable. Form has to communicate content effectively. It’s no use randomly throwing paint on a canvas à la Jackson Pollock and meaning something by it, unless the throwing of paint and calling it art is the point. It might look interesting but it doesn’t mean anything beyond itself. In the end, if something is form-less it is also meaning-less.
Worship is obviously no exception to this. In fact, it is an activity where it is essential to get both form and content right. No easy task. And this is why I’ve been on something of a journey to recover some (not all!) of the liturgical practices of my past, since many of these practices have a long and thoughtful history, in some cases dating back hundreds and even thousands of years. When it comes to worship, it is a good thing to stand on the shoulders of giants. Which brings me back to the church year, and to Lent.
The church year with all its seasons (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Ordinary Time, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, Pentecost), has been carefully designed to create a structure through which one lives and worships God, based around the main events of Jesus’ life, year after year. It is a way of marking time as sacred; of framing our constantly changing experiences with something unchanging. Just as our physical address locates us geographically, the liturgical year locates us temporally. It tells us, regardless of what is going on in our lives or in the world, that now is a season to celebrate, or now is a time to slow down, or now is a time to fast, or now is a time to feast. Given how consumerist and covetous and connected (digitally, at least) our culture has become, this may be just the thing we need most. We have become addicts of novelty and entertainment. The liturgical year invites us to break free of that, and learn to live into something ancient and abiding, to envelop our lives in the sacred contours of the biblical story.
I will say more about Lent in the coming weeks as I blog through the season, but for now I want to acknowledge that for many people, Lent feels a bit old-fashioned and heavy-handed. A required season of fasting and penance? Really? Isn’t that overly religious? A bit too, you know, Catholic? Inauthentic, perhaps? It’s not really penance if it’s required, surely?
I understand the reticence. But let me encourage you to think about Lent in a different, more creative light. An old friend and one of my past professors at Regent College, Charles Ringma, writes in his book Whispers From The Edge Of Eternity:
“Ours has become a culture of instant availability through ever more sophisticated means of communication technology. In many ways this is good. It is efficient for business, and it is good for education and interpersonal communication. And in times of emergency, it saves lives. We are always connected, always engaged. But... a healthy rhythm of life is never one that only engages. We must also practice the art of withdrawal. And in that withdrawal we have the opportunity to return to an inner silence. Inner silence has become a rare commodity in our kind of world... but silence is no luxury.” (117)
Henri Nouwen once wrote that the practice of silence “guards the fire” within our hearts from which all speaking (and action) must ultimately come. He says that silence and solitude allows us space to question whether everything we have and do is important. This draws us to prayer and contemplation, and in God’s presence we become aware that we belong to another Kingdom, that we are strangers and pilgrims in this world. This being with God in stillness nurtures our inner fire, our inner sacredness, and opens us to the 'secret' that our meaning as human beings lies not in our achievements or possessions or experiences, but in our friendship with God.
The purpose of Lent is not to fast, as such, but to slow down and create space for prayer and silence and contemplation. On the one hand, it is a time to prepare our hearts for Easter so we don’t rush into holy week in an unthoughtful way. On the other hand, it is a time for us to remember what lies at the heart of our faith and of our humanity - the very reason for which Christ died for us, as Nouwen puts it: that we might have friendship with God. At times it requires practising the art of withdrawal for us to discover this again. Seen in this light, Lent is a gift not a requirement. A season to stoke the sacred fire God has ignited in our souls, to remember who we are and to Whom we belong.