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Tim Keel: Grace, and the hopeful honesty of Lent

Unbidden and unexpected, Lent comes full of grace and truth, giving us time and space to face ourselves honestly and with hope, says the emerging-church pastor.

February 26, 2013

Lent came early this year. Planning for our Ash Wednesday service began in the middle of January, just days after the Feast of Epiphany. Advent and Christmas were barely over.

The shift from celebrating the incarnation and the life that flows from it to contemplating death and the many ways it manifests itself in our lives and world felt abrupt and jarring. I wasn’t quite ready to go there.

But now that Lent has begun, I wonder whether the quick transition wasn’t a gift. Am I ever prepared to face death? When have I ever been willing to confront my sin? The answers are obvious. I am never prepared for death. And I rarely go out of my way to identify, much less confront, the life-denying patterns that I have cultivated so diligently.

The season of Lent, though, comes like the incarnation, full of grace and truth. It is grace in that it comes unbidden and unexpected. And like grace, it disrupts my life -- my calendar, my rhythms, my comfort. Lent opens up time and space where it did not exist before. It is grace that invites me to examine myself in truth, to be honest about my brokenness, my sin, my limitations, my mortality. It challenges how my way of life has eclipsed God’s life in me.

Every day I make hundreds of decisions. But they are really reflections of a smaller number of deeper commitments that I hold -- commitments called habits. My life is a collection of habits. Taken together, they add up to a story about what I believe constitutes a good life. In Lent, I am forced to ask, do the habits that I nurture add up to a good life? Have the ways in which I’ve stewarded my life increased or diminished my humanity? Is my life a reflection or a denial of the incarnation that I celebrated just weeks ago?

If I am honest, I have to admit that I find it much easier to nurture habits of self-absorption, gratification or distraction. And that simple confession, in turn, leads to another: my habits have affected not only me but other people as well.

It’s a sobering thought: the way I live my life can diminish not only my humanity but the humanity of people around me. Being honest about that fact is not just important or “a good thing to do.” It is critical if I want to make a break with the past -- to renegotiate the story I am living about what makes up a good life.

This is what it means to be penitent: to face ourselves honestly and with hope. Truth -- the kind of truth that sets us free -- is hopeful honesty. It makes change possible. There is, of course, a way of being honest that is less than truthful, an honesty that is lacking in hope. It narrates only the “bad news” part of the story. Hopeless honesty keeps the focus on us and usually results in despair, and despair is not what Lent is about.

Once I truthfully identify the habits that marginalize God’s life in me, I can make different choices, empowered by God’s spirit. This is why fasting is so integral to Lent. When we fast, we identify, then let go of, the lesser commitments, the lesser habits, that have come to dominate us.

When we give something up for Lent, we are not simply going through the motions, giving up chocolate or carbohydrates as a pseudospiritual way to lose weight. We are naming our distractions, our life-denying habits, our sin, so that we can once more turn to God in life-giving ways. Fasting is not subtraction for subtraction’s sake. It is subtraction that opens up space in our lives for renewed devotion. As we renegotiate our story of the good life, we take on new habits. We develop new practices that reshape us in Christ.

This Lent, I am particularly aware of the habits of technological distraction that are so pervasive today. I am always connected to something or someone. Being plugged in, literally and figuratively, is a defining characteristic of my life now.

I pastor a young congregation, and much of our common life takes place or is facilitated through social media via a host of devices -- smartphones, laptops and tablets. As much as these technologies can help people connect, they can also become ends in themselves, sinkholes into which we pour our time and attention. The constant stream of texts and tweets, the status updates and checks on the “likes” of some random “friend” are distractions that lead to self-absorption. They shorten my attention span and make trivia the stuff of my daily life.

It all keeps the here and now from ever being present, and for people who follow Jesus, that is a problem. In the incarnation, Jesus manifests the full presence of God. He is immanent. Here. Now. But if we are never fully here and now, then we will miss out on what God is up to -- in us, our families, our neighborhood, in the many people and places who don’t text or tweet us but who only wait patiently to be seen and heard.

Yet despite the sheen of novelty, the temptations these new technologies present are not new. Every age has its distractions and temptations. Ministry itself can become a distraction, a way of not being present by constantly focusing on the needs around us.

Look at Jesus’ life and ministry. Confronted by needy crowds, Jesus made a habit of disconnecting so that he might reconnect with his Father and to the work before him. Time and again, Jesus retreated to a solitary place to fast and pray and be in fellowship with God. Jesus practiced subtraction because he understood that taking things away does not mean less life but more. He knew that subtractive spiritual disciplines like silence and solitude are critical if we want to experience a good life.

The 40-day season of Lent is modeled after the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. During that time, he was tempted to live a version of the good life that was less than what God had for him.

By leaving behind the very things that he could have turned to for sustenance and support -- a home, family and friends, food -- Jesus was forced to face his temptations and decide where he would look for his strength and direction. In the desert, he cultivated habits that sustained his life and ministry from there forward, habits that he would need on the long journey to Easter.