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The Lenten Imposition
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download 3 300x99“I never thought I’d be giving up so much for Lent.”

 

I’ve been hearing this from a lot of Christian friends recently. Indeed, all of us have not only been experiencing an enforced period of fasting, abstinence, prayer, solitude, and silence (all part of the Lenten disciplines), we’ve each been forced to turn our homes into a monastic hermitage where isolation is the new normal.

 

I’ve always found Lent to be a vitally important season, and I’ve always looked forward to the changes in routine that it brings; but usually those changes were self-imposed. Now it’s an invisible virus that’s calling the shots. The forty days of this year’s Lent are starting to feel a little more like 40 years wandering in a wilderness where you have to stay at least six feet from everyone else.

 

But then I remember the purpose of Lent–it’s a time of preparation. During these forty days, we are following Jesus to the cross and that’s not exactly a happy journey. Prior to this, most of us have experienced that journey of suffering as a theological and theoretical exercise–we track Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem through Lent and Holy Week through study, prayer, and worship services, but we’ve mostly been able to do it without much suffering ourselves. This Lent feels quite different because we’re all dealing with constant reminders that death stalks us all and doesn’t discriminate. Remember that we started on Ash Wednesday with having those ashes marked on our foreheads and hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Seeing the daily count of disease and death, those words have a different meaning than they did a month ago.

 

And yet we also know that Lent eventually comes to an end and, when it does, it does so with the earth-shattering news of resurrection. And we’re not talking about a metaphor here–we’re talking about actual, bodily resurrection from the dead. Each week as we recite the Nicene Creed in worship, we are proclaiming not only that Jesus rose from the dead, but also that we believe in the resurrection of the body as our final destiny. Easter, in other words, puts the brakes on all of our obsession with death and reminds us that it’s not the last word. God’s good creation may be broken by sin, death, disease, and turmoil, but that’s not a permanent state of affairs. “This too shall pass” applies not only to the coronavirus, but to death itself!

 

I think that’s why I’m actually hopeful today and while I’m not thankful for the coronavirus, I am thankful for the ways that God is moving and speaking in the midst of this imposed Lenten season. In fact, I think God is preparing us for the kind of celebration of resurrection that we haven’t yet seen in most of our lifetimes–an Easter celebration of epic proportions. Granted, we may not be able to gather together physically on the designated Easter Sunday this year, but that won’t prevent Easter from happening. And when we are back together–well, what a celebration of life, community, and restoration that will be!

 

That’s why I’m choosing to focus on signs of resurrection hope during this Lenten season. These are some signs that point to something really great to come on the other side of all this. Lots of people are bemoaning the fact that this virus and the distancing it has created could further erode Christian faith and church attendance in American culture. I actually believe that the opposite is true. I think we’ll be seeing a renewed, revitalized, and empowered church when Easter finally comes. I say that because I’m seeing it here at Tri-Lakes:

  • Our online worship services have expanded our reach to more people than ever. At least 440 people joined us online for worship last Sunday, which is about a hundred more than our average attendance. We’re hearing from people across the country (and even in different countries) who are being impacted by the gospel who may never have stepped foot in our church (or any church) before. This is the Wesleyan equivalent of field preaching, which changed the whole culture in 18th century England. I’m hearing from my other pastor friends that they are experiencing similar connections with new people. People are drawing nearer to God even as they are physically distancing themselves from one another.
  • Our congregation is ironically becoming more connected even as we are isolated from one another. Our Associate Pastor, Jason Baxter, put together a system that divided our 500+ member congregation into groups of seven families. Lay leaders from our church have each taken responsibility for one of those groups of seven to call them, check on them, assess needs, and ask, “How is it with your soul?” Our church has three different worship services, so it’s easy for people to attend worship and never meet one another. We’re hearing amazing reports of new connections and friendships being formed, elderly congregants being served by people they have yet to meet who will go out and grab some groceries for them, people engaging in new disciplines of prayer, fasting, and Bible reading. Class meetings in early Methodism were born out of a crisis, and I believe this crisis is giving birth to a similar sort of movement! I believe that our congregation will emerge from this time with a new sense of connection and purpose.
  • We began daily morning prayer on Facebook Live and now have more than 20 joining us each weekday. We use readings from the Book of Common Prayer and share concerns with one another. Many are discovering the power of this daily rhythm that can become a habit for life.
  • In a disconnected world, people in isolation are beginning to realize what they have been missing. We’re coming to realize that online connections are ultimately not what we’re wired for, despite being helpful in the short term. We are all longing to be together with people again in person. We may have to come up with some creative ways to do that in the short term as the virus lifts (like adding more in-person services to increase social distancing, for example), but I think people are going to be seeking real community in unprecedented ways.

These are just a few signs of hope–signs of the coming Easter–that I see among us right now. This Lenten imposition isn’t something we were looking for, and we all lament the loss and tragedy that has impacted our world. At the same time, however, we’ve been given an opportunity to reevaluate and redevelop a new way of life on the other side. I can’t wait for Easter and for the feast after this time of fasting.

 

We may be giving up more than we bargained for during Lent, but the Easter celebration to come will be even more amazing!



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