Reframing Lent

It’s time to reframe the season of Lent. The way we usually define it is not wrong, if you hold the traditional Latin view of God as an “original sin” kind of god who holds loving grace in one hand while holding punishment and rejection in the other – the hope of heaven and the threat of hell. But suppose we believe we are born not with original sin but are born with original blessing and that the heart of our faith is not sacrificial atonement for our sinful nature but is instead a joyful liberation of our true blessedness.

On Ash Wednesday, we began the season the way our tradition tells us to do it, with the prophet Joel calling us to sober, even somber, repentance. “Blow the trumpet,” he calls; “sound the alarm! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near – a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:1-2 abbrev.). Joel and his tradition knew how to put the fear of God into us and motivate us out of fear.

But suppose we tap into another line of Christian tradition, not of original sin but of original blessing. According to this tradition, we’re not born as sinful persons who must be redeemed in order to be accepted by God. We’re already fully accepted, born in blessing as God’s perfect creation, and as we live, our blessedness gets crusted over, forgotten, hidden from others and even from ourselves. According to this view, Lent is not a season of mourning who we are in hope of a resurrected life in the future; it is a season for remembering who we are and beginning to live fully the life we’ve already been given in the present.

 “For though your hearts were once full of darkness,” St. Paul writes – for though your identity was once obscured, hidden under a crust of forgetfulness – “now you are full of light from the Lord” – now, your true self has been revealed, your true identity has been uncloaked – “and your behavior should show it! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true” (Eph. 5:8-9 NLT). In other words, remember who you are, and live accordingly, as the persons God created you to be.

So the work of Lent, the task of the season, is to ponder some questions. Am I aware of my true nature, and am I intentionally faithful to it? Am I expressing my true self as a child of God? Do I give expression to what is “good and right and true” in my life? It’s another way of asking Thomas Merton’s twin questions. What am I living for, in detail? And what’s keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for?

The possibility of living the life God created us to live, the option of living the abundant life that’s offered to us, is always open to us. We can always choose to live that life. And the obstacles to that life are not external, they are internal. If we are to name what keeps us from living fully for the thing we want to live for, if we are to identify what keeps us from living fully the life God gives us, we must look not to our external circumstances but to our inner condition, the orientation of our heart.

Sometimes self-awareness comes suddenly, in a flash of recognition, one of those “Aha!” moments you sometimes hear about. More often, we grow into it over a lifetime, as we learn to recognize and affirm what is good and right and true within us, as we “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10). And the best way to learn is to experiment. We learn what is pleasing to God, and we learn who we really are in God’s eyes, by asking questions, by having to make defining choices in life, by living with the consequences of those choices, and then by asking more questions, the way children grow.

When parenting expert Margot Machol Bisnow asked parents of kids who grew into highly successful adults what skills they taught their kids at an early age, there was one skill they all agreed on: curiosity. Curiosity, Bisnow said, is not just about wanting to know things, but also about wanting to know how to change them. “It’s about asking questions,” she wrote: “How does this work? Does it have to be this way? Could I make it better?”

Those are not only questions asked by a curious child growing into a successful life. They are questions asked by any faithful person growing into an abundant, spiritually mature life. How does this life work? Does it have to be this way? Could it be better? In one paraphrase of John’s Gospel, Jesus said he came that we might have more and better life than we ever dreamed of (John 10:10 The Message). The faithful person growing toward spiritual maturity will want to know about the parts of life that are undreamed of, that are cloaked in darkness and mystery, that are too wonderful to understand, and will ask questions about them anyway.

Last month one of you said your most urgent question is, “Why is it so difficult for us, some of us, to be the Love we are?” It’s a question for Lent; it’s a question of faith; it reflects the holy curiosity of a faithful person growing toward more and better life than you ever dreamed of; and it’s a question to keep asking.

A true Lent, I believe, an authentic Lent, is not a season for looking at how sinful we are and asking God’s forgiveness so that we might be accepted in the kingdom of heaven. An authentic Lent is a season for looking at all the good and bad of life together and asking what’s missing. What am I not getting? How might I see things differently? How could this picture, this life I see, be reimagined or reframed? What changes do I need to make, or what changes need to occur in me, so I can finally and fully be the Love I am? “Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you,” Isaac the Syrian said, “and you will see the things that are in heaven, for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within your soul. Dive into yourself and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.” ▪

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