Hypocrisy on purpose?

I had an epiphany in our Lenten Study.

[Are epiphanies allowed during Lent? Even after 19+ years working at Woodridge United Methodist Church, I still get confused about ecclesial particularities like the seasons of the church year. Which seems silly. I’ve now been working and worshiping in the UMC longer than I attended the American Baptist Church of my youth. Why does my profoundly non-liturgical upbringing still hold such sway? (Well, non-officially-liturgical. I know every body has a liturgy. Some, like my home church, aren’t overt about it. It’s more subconscious.) I suppose the overly strong influence of (church) families of origin upon worship preferences is a post for another day.]

The way this year’s study works is that each week we read the assigned chapter in Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking, which always begins by directing us to that section of scripture to which the chapter is responding. This third week of the study directed us to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 1-18.

As you may remember, the lectionary calls us to read much of those same verses every year on Ash Wednesday. In particular, the part wherein Jesus commands us to pray in secret, give in secret, and fast in secret. We read that on Ash Wednesday. You know, the day on which we put a big ol’ mark on our foreheads? Totally conspicuous, obvious, and the farthest-thing-from-secret? That day?

I’ve often wondered about that odd confluence. I’d say it strikes me as, well, hypocritical. Comically so, in fact.

But in the process of reading those verses a few times, reading the McLaren chapter, and talking about all of it with the considerate folks in our study group, a new thought struck me: what if that dissonance is on purpose?!?

What if the off-putting juxtaposition of that text and that public action is purposefully there to force us to face our own hypocrisy?? We read about praying, giving, fasting in secret then put that big mark on our forehead to show that we’ve prayed and then, quite often, talk about what we’re giving up for Lent. In other words, we often talk with each other about from what we intend to fast.

I mean, really. If that’s not comedy, what is? Perhaps I’ve been too busy taking myself too seriously on that perhaps too-somber day to be able to laugh at myself. It seems so obvious now. It’s so over-the-top ridiculous, I have no idea how I never saw it before. We who claim to follow Jesus are so often also the same ones quite ready to call out the hypocrisy in others…maybe Ash Wednesday is supposed to help us laugh at our own hypocrisy instead. A physical embodiment of humility.

After all, that’s exactly what comedy (at it’s best) is for: bringing down the haughty and lifiting up the lowly.

What do you think? Could Ash Wednesday be the best kind of joke – one in which we literally wear our own hypocrisy on our foreheads, on purpose!? If so, why have I not noticed before now?

Late to the Lent party #ashtag

Lent started, ahem, five days ago. So might well have read scores of ways to celebrate this season of the church. I know my timelines were full of them the last few days. Still, late as it is, here’s what I’m thinking about…

Lent: that season of the church year during which millions of Christians prepare for the Resurrection of Jesus by giving up…something for forty days. Me? I’m giving up beets. Just like every year. In fact, as far as beets are concerned, I’ve observed a perpetual Lent for, oh, about twenty-five years now. Can’t. Stand. ’em.

That’s my issue with the standard “give something up for Lent” approach: it is way too easy for it to become an empty ritual, a duty checked off, a way to feel “religious” without really challenging or changing yourself. Lent is a time marked by and for repentance, which means “to turn away.” A time to turn away from that which separates us from the Creator, creatures, and creation. (I know, I know. That formulation reeks of the cheesy, forced alteration so often employed by we preacher types. I gotta be me, I guess?) That kind of turning away could lead to giving up something like chocolate or coffee, depending on circumstances. But I suspect a list such as this one is much more likely to offer something truly worth giving up leading to actual change in our lives: fear of failure, guilt, destructive speech. It’s a terrific list.

Whatever misgivings I may have about that particular Lenten tradition, I find Ash Wednesday to be very meaningful. Worship that day reminds us of our mortality (hence the ashes), is a call to repentance, and an opportunity for a restart. Though there is something ironic about reading Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew calling us to “pray in secret” and then leaving the worship experience with an obvious, visible mark on our head.

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That’s a lot of forehead with which to work.

Instead of giving something up, there’s what we might call an inverse tradition: taking something on for Lent. That is, committing to engaging in a spiritual practice (or similar) for the forty days. Hence, the annual Lenten Bible Study at Woodridge UMC. This year, we’re reading Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking.

What does that even mean?

The title suggests that faith was never intended to be a destination, a status, a holding tank, or a warehouse. Instead it was to be a road, a path, a way out of old and destructive patterns into new and creative ones. As a road or a way, it is always being extended into the future. If a spiritual community only points back to where it was been or it only digs in its heels where it is now, it is a dead end or a parking lot, not a way. To be a living tradition, a living way, it must forever open itself forward and forever remain unfinished – even as it forever cherishes and learns from the growing treasury of its past.

That’s how McLaren prefaces the book. Here’s a brief introduction of another stripe:

I hope these glimpses make you want to read more. I think it is a terrific and thought-provoking book and I can’t wait to talk with people about it. I hope to develop some sort of online presence for this study, but I don’t yet know what, when, or where (but other than that, it’s totally ready to go…).

We’re holding the session of the study that begins tonight at a Panera bread near the church. That’s new for us, holding a study off site. As with most any new venture, I’m a bit nervous. There are so many variables out of our control! But I really think meeting in a different place will allow us to see and hear ideas that we cannot in the familiar comfort of our church building.

Anyway, here are some resources to learn more about the book and/or McLaren:

A few other videos like the one above, with McLaren walking and talking.

A Facebook community for groups using the book.

Learn more about McLaren, or read his blog.

Have you read the book? Let me know what you think?
How are you celebrating Lent? Giving something up? Taking something on? Something else?