The traditional emphases of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — are intensely personal but never merely private.
Heyr himna smiður (“Hear, Heavenly Creator”), a 12th century Icelandic poem, states: “Listen, smith [artisan] of the heavens, what the poet asks. / May softly come unto me your mercy. So I call on thee, / for you have created me. Most we need thee. Drive out, / O king of suns, generous and great, every human sorrow / from the city of the heart.”
The depths of our hearts are connected with the depths of the world. The brokenness of our personal lives is intimately bound up with the rupture of the world itself. The joy we experience and the beauty we encounter reflects creation’s original intent and promised fulfillment.
The logic of focused attention to personal repentance is not segregated holiness but public healing, of “the earth and all that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
Such disciplines represent strategic interventions designed to confront gluttonous appetites — appetites that are seeded and cultivated in ways even the most kindly fail to see. The deadliest thing about privilege in the midst of privation is that we often are not even aware of it.
Lent’s aim is to disabuse us of such innocence. Not to molest us (discomforting as it may be) but to befriend and amend us according to the Beloved Community’s covenant terms.
Though they require different strategies, the disarming of the heart and the disarming of the nations are organically connected.
Some years ago, the Brazilian pastor-theologian Odja Barros was the guest preacher at Circle of Mercy in Asheville, North Carolina. One of the things we encouraged her to speak about was where she sees God at work in the world.
“I have to confess,” she said in her sermon, “that the first thing that comes to mind is to say where I see God’s absence,” going on to name just a few of the places, in concrete detail, where breaking and bruising and battering dominate the landscape.
Deus absconditus. The hidden God. More bluntly, A.W.O.L. God. At the close of Holy Week’s Tenebrae service, we chant: Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani! (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!)
Lent is the liturgical season where this seizure rises to the surface, and we — people of privilege — are asked to enter the wilderness from which, apparently, God has absconded: where things don’t work out, where movies lack happy endings, where minor-keyed hymns are sung, where the faces of children are not cherry-cheeked, downy-soft, delightfully adorable.
Two years ago, gun violence in the U.S. became the leading cause of death among children and teens. Moreover, compared to other wealthy countries, the U.S. accounts for 97% of such deaths, though our share of the population of such nations is 46%.
“Combined, the eleven other peer countries account for only 153 of the total 4,510 firearm deaths for children ages 1-19 years in these nations in 2020, and the U.S. accounts for the remainder,” according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In his song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” Bob Dylan sings: “Mama put my guns in the ground / I can’t shoot them anymore / That long black cloud is comin’ down / I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
The buyers, sellers and makers of AR-15s are practitioners of child sacrifice to an armed-crazed idol — and should be named as such.
Part of Lent’s work is to break through our feigned innocence. As has been said, you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free; but first it may make you miserable.
Any credible statement about God’s passionate love for the world must be spoken fully cognizant of the world’s passionate misery. With the psalmist, we hope and pray that one day “those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:5).
Arguably, the church’s greatest liturgical weakness lies in its failure to provide space for lament. Often, when that happens, exclamations of adulation have all the authenticity of a singing television commercial.
“Keep on the sunny side of life” is a worthy reminder to lean into gratitude often taken for granted. Yet, sorrow is a constituent part of breathly life.
When lament is ignored, its pain festers. When sorrow is silenced, we end up bleeding on those who did not hurt us.
The work of Lent is to privilege and affirm this neglected theological assertion: The purpose of God is framed, and the passion of God is fired, in the wounds of the world. That is to say: God bleeds. The recognition of God’s solidarity in life’s ache is essential if we are to endure the many shapes and shades of loss.
Intimacy with God implies and shapes non-conformed intimacy with the world, causing us to ask: Who bleeds? And whose profit depends on whose suffering?
Likewise, Lent’s discipling instruction is this: Instead of speaking for the silenced, it is more important to dig and dredge and excavate (and, sometimes, just get out of the way of) the voices of the silenced so they can speak for themselves.
Thus, Lent’s question for every congregation is this: How can we structure our worship to make space for lament?
Editor’s note: This article is the first of a three-part series. Part two is available here.
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action, and author of, most recently, In the Land of the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions. He was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.