Thursday, March 10, 2011
Giving It Up
...the fundamental importance of ‘the earthly Jesus’ lay not in the detailed historical facts of his existence—or in the truths that he revealed—but in the character of the human life he lived… a pattern that was embedded in the earliest Christian experience and memory faithfully mirrored in the Gospel narratives…the same pattern of radical obedience to God and selfless love toward other people.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (1996)
Each year, the American Empire emerges out of winter with a frenzied indulgence of corporate and celebrity fare. The Superbowl (2/6), the highest rated TV show in American history (111 million viewers), featured countless celebrity citings both at the game and on the commericials (where you are destined to transform into Rosie O'Donnell unless you eat a Snickers: "You're Not You When You're Hungry"). Weekly worship services airing from L.A. continued through February: The Grammys (2/13), The NBA All-Star Game (2/20) and The Oscars (2/27). March Madness is dominated by NCAA basketball, culminating with the Final Four (4/2 & 4/4) and piggybacked by The Master's golf classic the next weekend (4/7-4/10).
This rapid-fire of can't-miss events distracts and distorts us with an counterfeit oasis of entertainment, material comfort and consumer pressure. To be American is to "keep up" with economic purchases and pop culture references, from Justin Bieber's bangs to Rihanna's thighs to Mattie Ross' vocabulary. This season consumes us with consumption, materializing in materialism, producing what Cornel West calls "a spiritual malnutrition tied to a moral constipation.” In the great tradition of the irony of American advertising, it twists Apple Computer’s “Think Different” and homogenizes all our yearning into what T.S. Eliot referred to poetically as a life "Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope."
In the midst of this sensual hyperbole comes old-school Lent, the 46-day Christian tradition spanning some 100 generations since the early days of the controversial messianic Jewish splinter movement in 1st century Palestine. This year, from March 9 (Ash Wednesday) to April 24 (Easter), modern day followers of Jesus are challenged to "take up the cross" of Jesus by "giving up" something for this season dedicated to intentional suffering. Lent is marked by non-market practices like mourning, repentance, prayer and fasting, making investments in the kingdom of God by diversifying our spiritual portfolios. We take up the adventure of living with less, abstaining from substances that we use to bind our anxieties that ultimately give us a false sense of security concerning our complex and confusing world.
Lent is deeply personal. The gospel passage for Ash Wednesday comes from Matthew where Jesus urges his disciples to give to the poor without letting "the left hand know what the right hand is doing." This sacrificial gifting is an intimate secret between you and the Presence that sustains the entire universe. It beckons us to give our whole selves to heal and liberate the world without the pretense of being acknowledged by anyone else.
Yet, Lent is utterly socio-political. It is time to clarify citizenship and allegiance to God's Empire (Greek basilea), a commitment to alternative practices that transcend the American celebrity-sponsored script. When we live with less, others naturally ask us with conventional economic wisdom: "what if everyone lived the same way you did?" When we lament for the unjust systems of the world and our role in their perpetuation, others beg us to cheer up: "don't be so hard on yourself!"
A half century ago, Christian prophet Martin Luther King consistently inspired black and white civil rights marchers by reminding them of the chronological order of the messianic pattern of Jesus: "the cross comes before the crown." Lent beckons us to the only road to glory: through suffering service. King's kingdom vision for a "beautiful symphony of brotherhood" translates to our basic Christian vocation of confronting and healing the world of painful grip of the Powers. As Christian theologian Walter Wink wrote,
Redemption means actually being liberated from the oppression of the Powers, being forgiven for one’s own sin and for complicity with the Powers, and being engaged in liberating the Powers themselves from their bondage to idolatry.
For centuries, Lent has been on our calendar to re-set our hearts to God's Timing and Priorities, re-focusing us on Jesus, the Celebrity that models the Way of hope and healing in a world of chronic anxiety, income inequality and wounded relationships. Whether we are confronting addiction, abusive family patterns, the national myth of redemptive violence or the genetically modified factory farm system, we are called to right injustices armed only with our Spirit-inspired imagination and a rugged trust in the path of discipleship. During this Lenten season, may we crucify our habit of “amusing ourselves to death” so that we may be resurrected to our true selves, clinging to the life-giving Script of bringing healing to this world.