I always am bothered a little when people come up to me and ask what I am giving up for Lent. To be honest I never understood this practice, and I really have no theological clue as to its relevance beyond the humanist tradition of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. To focus one’s faith on giving something up is to place one’s faith squarely and rooted within the human tradition, as if it really was suffering to give up a “pleasure.” To focus the Lenten time on something which you are giving up is to miss the focus of what the season is really about, and that is the love and passion of Jesus Christ.
To use the Lenten season to overly focus on the deprivation of something which we enjoy is to miss the reality of what suffering really is, especially for those who have nothing. The example I often use is that a person who is hungry only feels that hunger over the first few days; after a while the pains of hunger morph into other problems, but that intense pain in the stomach which many us to describe as “being hungry” does not exist. Suffering is part of life, but even in our suffering we must keep our humility and connection to the hope of our Lord Jesus. For he give us the charge that “. . . whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”
Often it is in the times when we are at our weakest, and allow for the spirit to work, we grow in our faith exponentially when we encounter the truly difficult times of our lives, not false, manufactured ones. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
There are so many experiences and disappointments that drive sensitive people toward nihilism and resignation. That is why it is so good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity. For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has always been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran by training and member of the Confessing Church, an anti-Nazi church coalition/denomination, was an early twentieth century theologian and martyr. He wrote this personal note to a family, in a time when his society was at war and the persecutions of the Nazi government on the people were intense.
The question asked was probably one that is asked often today, Where is God in the midst of the world we live in today? Or, If God offers peace where is it? This is the difference between pop theology and traditional theological understandings. Pop Theology tends to pick out the bits and pieces of faith that make the point they want, rather then struggling through the stories and understandings which come from previous generations or even our traditions. Whether, it is the fathers of the faith, the prophets, the disciples, or even Paul, the struggle and suffering is evident. But the promise and power of Christ is the hope and truth that the life of suffering and struggle of this world is based in this world and we must be of this world in order to move to the next.
Bonhoeffer, whose life mirrored the apostle Paul’s in many ways, was given an opportunity to make a choice; though he was a strong pacifist, there came an opportunity for Bonhoeffer to get close enough to Hitler that he could put a bomb right next to him. This act was a struggle for Bonhoeffer, but in the end, the lives that he would potentially save if it worked, outweighed the risk that it would be to take out Hilter, so he did it. It did not work and he found his way into a Nazi-concentration camp. While in prison, Bonhoeffer often wrote and we understand him and his situation and faith through his letters and papers from prison. In the camps, as we now know, the Jewish people, homosexuals, nonconformists, and political prisoners were not treated as human, were starved, experimented on, and often killed. Survivors speak of the terror of living day-to-day in those conditions.
In the midst of this terror he reminds us that:
Christian hope in resurrection differs from that of mythology insofar as it directs us to life here on earth in a completely new and, compared to the Old Testament, even more incisive fashion. Unlike believers in the myths of redemption, Christians have no ultimate refuge from earthly tasks and problems in the eternal. Christians must partake of earthly life to the very end, just as did Christ (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), and only by doing so is the Crucified and Resurrected with them and are they themselves crucified and resurrected with Christ. This life here and now may not be prematurely suspended. This is the link between the Old and New Testaments. Myths of redemption arise from the human experience of limits, whereas Christ addresses us at the very center of our lives.
It reminds me of a favorite hymn, My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. In the midst of the struggle that is life and that is the full nature of life we cannot separate ourselves from the struggles of this world, but we can embrace them and allow Christ to embrace us through the Holy Spirit in the midst of our suffering.
As you prepare for worship this week reflect on your life with christ and think about what what your lenten journey will be this year.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen