Coming to terms with Lent
One needs, this day and age, to be concerned with cultural appropriation. It is a hard thing. On one hand, cultures grow and develop by interacting and borrowing from other cultures. That's not really a problem. What bothers people, especially people from oppressed groups, is when people take aspects of their culture and borrow them in ways that are disrespectful or diminishing of their original culture. It can be seen as a colonization and exploitation, again, of a culture forced into subservience.
And thus I approach the celebration of Lent. From 1987 to 1993 my father pastored a church with a long and rich cultural liturgical tradition. While everyone in the church was loving and while my memories of the church are primarily positive, there was an extent to which we were always somewhat foreign to the culture. We weren't interlopers, pe se, rather, I guess I would say, honored guests, in that place. As expatriates often do, we tended to exoticize, criticize, and idealize our host culture. Even while we eventually acculturated to this environment, there was an extent, like that of white missionary in a non-white indigenous culture, where anyone could tell that we were different.
First off, there were cultural differences that would have even shown up in the census data. The people from the church were ethnically and culturally Germans from Russia. Both my parents grew up with friends who were people of this ethnic group. My aunt (my mother's sister) even married a man from from this group and I think my cousins consider themselves part of this group. While my parents had moved away, first to Alaska and then to Wyoming, they were familiar with the foods, and some of the cultural norms of this group, but were never really a part of it. Having grown up far from this culture, I was less familiar than they.
Then there were other cultural differences. My father was ordained in an independent Restoration Movement Christian Church after attending a Bible college of the same persuasion. This is a tradition that distrusts tradition. Prescriptive liturgy is viewed somewhat skeptically as non-scriptural and therefore smacking of "the traditions of men" (Mark 7:6-13). During his travels in his capacity as a minister of those churches, he'd also picked up a bit of Pentecostal understanding that did nothing to assuage a resistance to tradition, fearing that prescriptive liturgy might "hold to a form of godliness while denying the power" (II Tim. 3:5). Both these traditions and a bit of the more conservative brand of Baptist thought coming from my time in AWANA and my enrollment in an ACE school constituted my own burgeoning theological outlook. It left little room for holy days, responsive readings, and prayers read aloud word-for-word. I even hated hymns at this point, feeling that they weren't "spirit filled." I was eleven when we started, so don't blame me for being immature. I totally think hymns are spirit-filled now.
In many ways, the nearly seven years we spent there made me a part of the culture. While most of the cultures that influenced me growing up viewed alcohol askance, I was able to find a place for it so long as it is quite controlled. (Although at this point in my life I basically don't drink because I don't have the money for it). I love grebel, and runzas. I went through their ritual of confirmation and so in some ways really I am a part of the culture. The culture had such a profound effect on me, I even learned to speak German later in life. I also celebrate a few holidays and traditions that most people in my faith communities do not. Those include Lent.
There are many Christian communities that celebrate Lent. These communities are generally associated with some of the more liturgical focused traditions. Some less liturgical congregations will take part in larger Lenten community services where there is a strong ecumenical Christian association in a particular town, but those ecumenical "Lenten services" or "Lenten Luncheons" are the full extent of the participation of most Evangelical, Restoration, and Pentecostal groups. Since leaving that church in 1993, I haven't been part of a community that focuses on liturgy. I've attended various churches and been part of various communities in the Restoration Movement and various Pentecostal churches and a few other Evangelical or Fundamentalist churches none of which focus on liturgy and none of which take Lent seriously. I do, however.
On one hand, I have to say that holy days don't matter. The less liturgical culture really is my culture and I know that they aren't necessary. The holy days of the Old Testament are types and shadows fulfilled in Christ and there are no holy days prescribed in the New Testament. On the other hand, something related to days and times DOES matter. The cycle of the year and the rise and fall of the sun have an effect on us. To tie them to our spiritual life makes sense, just as it makes sense to tie them to what foods we eat when and when we do outdoor activities. This is what liturgical Christian cultures do, and it's what everyone does outside of Christian cultures. Sledding in June in the northern hemisphere is not done. Breakfast, lunch, and supper more or less follow the sun.
And I think things were done by God on purpose. We celebrate Christmas in December but the truth is we have no clue what in what month Jesus was born. We do know when He died, however. The reason Easter is on a different day each year is that we know exactly when he died and celebrate that day according to the Jewish calendar He used. His death, burial and resurrection took place at a time when, astronomically, the days begin to get longer than the nights. Light is literally overcoming darkness and goes over the "half-way" point during Lent. Light triumphs. I really think God did this on purpose. And so while if I told the members of my current faith community that I was was celebrating Lent, they'd make fun of me for being "Catholic," I'm going to continue to celebrate it.
I celebrate it by focusing on Christs life, death, and resurrection. I do this by reading the Gospels. I read them alot. I pretty much read a gospel every day during Lent. We call them "books" of the Bible, but they're really not that long. Some days I get busy or tired and I don't get to it. I do this in addition to my regular Bible reading, which I also sometimes get busy or tired and don't get to. Still, days where I read the Bible are more common than days where I don't.
I also try to eat fish on Fridays during Lent. Fish is cheap during lent. It is yummy. It is almost an excuse. Last Friday, however, my wife, who really doesn't like fish, really, really didn't want it, so we skipped it. It's okay.
I also give something up for Lent. During my smoking eras, it was almost always cigarettes. I don't smoke now so, I give up something else. Either last year or the year before I gave up cookies. I've given up quite a few things during Lent including movies, fantasy books, shaving, elevators, bread, and chocolate over the years. I happened to have a conference on a multi-level hotel the year I gave up elevators and I will never again give up chocolate during the only time when Cadbury eggs are available. That was a dumb move. This year I gave up fast-food sandwiches and fast-food french-fries. I didn't exactly give up fast food, because that wouldn't fit with our busy lifestyle, but finding something on the menu is a little more difficult.
In some ways what you give up for Lent reflects Christ's sacrifice, but I think it would be blasphemous to compare His death on the cross to me getting a bowl of chili at Wendy's rather than my favorite Baconator with no mayo but with ketchup and onion added (two more weeks). It's really just another way to reflect. We eat fast food at my house way too often. So, at least once a week, there is this moment where I remember, it is Lent. We are headed toward Good Friday, toward Easter. I look at the sky and the clouds and think about what Jesus was doing, historically, as we headed up to his last few weeks before His death. I do this contemplation at McDonalds, not usually a spiritual place for me, but it becomes one.
So, I spent a few years in a culture. It's not my culture. I hope that my appropriation from that culture is not disrespectful because it does so much for me spiritually. This isn't the only mark it made, but it is probably one of the more important ones.