The church season of Lent, the 40 days (not including Sundays) of preparation for the celebration of the most significant day for Christian faith: Easter.
The invitation to Lent in “The United Methodist Book of Worship” includes the following: “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: the early Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration there should be a forty-day season of spiritual preparation…I invite you, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word. To make a right beginning of repentance.”
In the Christian perspective, self-examination and repentance belong together. When we engage in the deep work of self-examination, we will find things in our lives we want to change. This is not intended to be denigrating or depressing, but rather realistic. In our self-examination, we will also find things to celebrate—including that we are loved deeply, profoundly, and wildly by God in Jesus Christ. More on that later.
The invitation to a holy Lent is an invitation to deep inner work. In doing that work, we will find thoughts and deeds that we regret, and habits and attitudes that need changing. That changing is called repentance. Repentance is not about feeling bad or wallowing in our past sins, mistakes, and errors. In his book “Wishful Thinking,” Frederick Buechner writes: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as somethings that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying ‘I’m sorry,’ than to look at the future and saying ‘Wow!’” We can look to the future and say “Wow!” because we trust in the power of God’s grace and love to change us, and to help us change.
When in the course of our self-examination we come upon those places where we have hurt or injured, there may be reparative work we can do—offer an apology, seek reconciliation. Repentance asks that of us. There may also be those things we have done for which there are no remedies. In such cases, repentance may ask that we acknowledge that we have done harm, even to ourselves, and then not let ourselves be imprisoned by guilt and shame. Repentance may mean we forgive ourselves, and that can be a difficult task. Sometimes it should be a difficult task, yet a task we need to undertake.
Repentance arising out of self-examination offers us the opportunity to re-weave our past into our lives as we move into the future. Repentance asks that we accept a more complex story about our lives. We have done harm. We have hurt others. We have hurt ourselves. We have made mistakes. There may be repair work to do. And we are never defined by our worst. Self-examination allows us to also see where we have risen to the occasion, where we have been wonderfully curious, boldly compassionate, quietly courageous, adventurously creative. Self-examination and repentance lead us toward a more beautiful and complex story about our lives.
Perhaps there is such a thing as national soul work that might also be part of our Lenten discipline. For the past months, I have been encouraging us all to hear a more complex story about our history, one that acknowledges how race and racialized thinking have had an impact on us. There are personal dimensions to this as well. My dad was an exceptional high school swimmer. I remember one time he commented to me about the lack of Black competitive swimmers. He said something like, “They just don’t have the same buoyancy.” I didn’t really question it at the time, but did later. Might the lack of Black athletes who chose swimming as a competitive sport have something to do with a lack of access to swimming pools? In a number of places in the United States, public pools closed following integration because white people did not want to share the water with Black people (Heather McGhee, “The Sum of Us” and Isabel Wilkerson, “Caste”).
If you’ve not yet taken up the challenge to read or study something that would contribute to your understanding of this more complex reality that would be part of the work of racial justice, Lent would be a good time to do that. A couple of years ago, our three children, their spouses, Julie, and I decided we would form a family book group. We have been reading and discussing books over that time, each family member selecting a book in turn. Our most recent selection was mine, Louise Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman.” Erdrich is a Minnesota author whose father was German-American and whose mother was of Ojibway and French ancestry. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibway. The novel is based on the story of Erdrich’s grandfather, who was tribal chairman of the band in the 1950s when a bill was introduced in Congress to terminate the treaty signed between the band and the U.S. government. Well-written novels can be part of a national self-examination and personal self-examination. Self-examination and repentance lead us toward a more beautiful and complex story about our lives and our history.
The work of self-examination to which we are called in Lent is surrounded in grace. The purpose of this work is not to generate bad feelings but to encourage change where it is needed. God meets us where we are. God loves us as we are. And God desires better for our lives and for our world. Grace.
Part of the grace of self-examination is found in those moments where we might genuinely celebrate curiosity, compassion, courage, creativity, kindness, justice, reconciliation, beauty, and love. In that, there is joy. While Lent is a time for serious self-examination, it ought not to be a joyless time. “And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand?...Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship is joy” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship”). Make part of your Lenten discipline savoring moments of tenderness, kindness, justice, love, beauty, and joy.
Lenten disciplines include prayer, and I would also ask that in your Lenten prayers you continue to pray for peace in our world, focusing particularly on the nation and people of Ukraine.
I invite you, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent, and I am on this joyful Lenten journey with you.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church