A Lenten Paradox: Allowing vs. Engaging

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As we continue to move through the weeks of Lent, there’s nothing like a bit of trivia to keep us on our toes.

So….do you know where the word Lent comes from? It’s from an Old English word related to lengthen, as in lengthening of days in springtime.

Makes sense, since Lent is a time of ever-increasing light and warmth (at least in our hemisphere). And I like the metaphor of thinking of Lent as a “spring cleaning” for the soul.

This reason this resonates with me is because there’s intentionality woven into the concept of spring cleaning.

When I engage in this annual ritual I make a plan, and then I execute. Whether it’s springtime tidying the house of my physical residence or the house of my soul, I have the agency to mindfully to wrangle with it.

Although we all might not be enamored with the activity of cleaning, we do like personal agency.   We can choose to do it, or not choose to do it.    We like feeling like we have that control.

The interesting thing about soulful house cleaning is the more you choose to do it, the more you discover how much of life is actually not under our control.

We carefully maintain an illusion of control because it gives us comfort and security and allows us to think that we’re headed in a self-chosen direction.

But here’s the twist: the greatest security — paradoxically — comes from loosening our grip, from letting go and simply allowing.

When we hold on tight to ‘The Plan’ (because we know what’s best) we forego many other possibilities.

It’s difficult for hands that are fisted shut to receive gifts.

I like Carl McColman’s adage that when fingers become uncurled, blessings can be unfurled.

Now, you’d think that relaxing the hand would be the easier of the two [clenched fist vs. open].

But allowance is much easier to conceptualize than to actually do.

You see, ours is an age of crisis. Climate change, war and terrorism, pandemics, racism and other violence against marginalized persons, social media aggression — the list goes  on and on.

 A bumper sticker states it bluntly:

“If you aren’t enraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Given all of these seemingly urgent problems deluging us us from all sides, it is no wonder that many people primarily approach their spiritual lives with action —

efforts, big or small, to stop violence, erase inequality….to somehow reduce the problems causing so much suffering.

And our faith traditions, certainly including Christianity, encourage us into action.

The New Testament warns that “Faith without works is dead.”

And we talked about it last Sunday… questioning whether or not we act by feeding the hungry, sheltering the unhoused, welcoming the stranger, and caring for the imprisoned.

Jesus certainly encouraged this, and scholar Grace Jantzen agrees, saying:

To the extent that prayer and meditation and books on spirituality help us to cope with the distresses of life that arise out of unjust social conditions, without actually challenging those conditions themselves, to that extent these prayers and meditations and books act as a sedative which distracts attention from the need to dismantle the structures that perpetuate the misery.

She contends that any brand of spirituality lacking a clear commitment to the alleviation of pain and suffering has little more than a tranquilizing effect that dulls the symptoms, blunts the pain, while doing little to actively address a cure.

You might surmise from her stance for activism that Jantzen the scholar has studied sociology, social justice, social change.

But actually her scholarly attention lies in the area of mysticism.

An interesting pairing….Mysticism – Activism.                                                                                                        Allowing/Receiving – Engaging.

Irish poet and mystic John O’Donohue speaks of this when he said:

The heart of the matter is this: You should never belong fully to something that is outside yourself. It is very important to find a balance in your belonging.

Belong to yourself, within, and then also belong to the outer world and its needs.

Herein lies the beauty of the Lenten season…the call to both internal soulful work, such as introspection, prayer (whatever that looks like for you), and external action (giving, advocacy).

If you are paying attention (reference the spicy bumper sticker), then perhaps you hear Lent’s beckoning to balance the internal opening of your controlled fist with externally acting for justice and compassion.

With these two seemingly dichotomous ideas’ let’s play devil’s advocate with Jantzen’s assertion that we hear a minute ago.

If spirituality without action is only a sedative, what about action that lacks a spiritual center?

This was something I preached about with some frequency in Unitarian settings, given that UUs are very socially conscious and active.

Frequently in UU circles disenchantment with inconsistencies of their Christian origins would lead their spiritual energies to emphasis on the external part.

So imbalance due to a skew toward action instead of introspection was a thing.

It makes me think of what they call the “airplane oxygen paradox.”

We all know that when you’re in flight you’re supposed to put your own oxygen mask on before trying to help anyone else.

The logic is simple and yet often elusive: you have to exercise selfcare before you can effectively care for others.

But if, after tending to yourself, you fail to assist others, your selfcare ends up being fairly meaningless (even though it started out being imperative).

On one hand, tranquilized spirituality, when we fail to alleviate suffering, is like the person on an airplane who puts their own mask on, and keeps it on,    oblivious to the gasping for air of others.

While activism without a spiritual foundation is when we neglect to put our own mask on first, risking the lack of personal oxygen we need to be optimally helpful.

Lent calls us to remember to put on our own oxygen mask first as a first step.

Traditionally during Lent this means for the faithful giving something up like chocolate or beer, as we aspire to purify ourselves and to identify with Jesus’s suffering.

I wonder if we miss the true meaning, the real invitation of Lent when the self-denial plan is the focus.

It easily becomes more about gutting it out to the finish line of Easter than about spiritually transformation.

I’m recalling a time as a younger person – I was in high school – still in the Catholic phase of my life when Lenten practices were heralded, beginning with a smudged forehead on Ash Wednesday, no meat Fridays, and an expectation of giving up something you liked for the six weeks of Lent.

I was usually a little lax in my observances, not horrible, but not air tight in my commitment to give whatever up.

But this year was going to be different.  I’ve been a lover of sweets since the moment of my conception, so giving up all sweets was a mountain to climb.

And I did, no exceptions.  That year my offering was stellar, and I remember feeling a deep sense of satisfaction that I did what I set out to do.

And the experience of returning to that which I loved, desserts, candy, etc…was especially satisfying after I’d done right by this period of self-induced abstinence.

So satisfying that I remember it vividly and am talking about it now decades later!

There was, however, something essential missing from that experience…something that could easily get lost on an adolescent.

Yes, I felt good that I had accomplished my goal, which was very satisfying.

But, is that what God wants from us, is this the intention behind Jesus’ message?

“I am an accomplished, satisfied Christian.”

A lot of personal satisfaction.   Very little spiritual transformation.

And isn’t that what Lent should be about…being transformed to something new?

There’s nothing wrong with being satisfied with reaching goals.  But at the end of the day, at the end of this holy season, where did our goals really take us?

I wonder how my spiritual development would have been impacted if I had been encouraged in my Lenten sacrifices to engage in something that had less to do with inducing my own suffering because Jesus suffered, and more to do with solidarity with people who suffer in very real ways today?

If we’re going to give up things, perhaps our focus could be on moving away from things in our life that contribute to injustice to others or to the planet.

Perhaps our self-denial can be what we talked about last Sunday…sacrificing some of our comfort to be exposed to the suffering of others.

There are two weeks left in Lent. Perhaps some of you have Lenten practices, perhaps not.

For most of us, however, Easter is an important part of our religious calendar.

In these remaining couple of weeks before the arrival of Easter bunnies and brunches and baskets,

I invite you to engage in whatever spiritual practice is meaningful for you – pray, meditate, spend time in quietly in nature – and ponder this question:

What am I called to say, or do, or exemplify, in helping to create a better future?

I’m not talking about a grand change-over plan. The smaller life tweaks are often more enduring, and thus ultimately hold more meaning.

 If you feel stuck about what you can do (or let go of) perhaps your first step would be exploring what aspects of or things in your life contribute to your hand staying clenched.

One never knows what kind of blessings of clarity will be unfurled when those fingers becomes uncurled.


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