Several people have picked up by now on the amusing/disconcerting juxtaposition of Lent beginning (as it always begins) with Ash Wednesday, this year on Valentine’s Day. I don’t know about you, but sometimes the excessively sentimental aspects of love as portrayed by those marketing Valentine’s Day are something I tend to shy away from. This may be a truly awesome opportunity for us to consider both the finite and everlasting aspects of love. What does love look like in the face of mortality, and how does love remain after death? Both of my parents died before what I had considered their time, and while my Christian faith has comforted me a great deal in the loss of their earthly presence, the naivete of believing that my parents will be around forever has gone. As a result of that and other life experiences, my view of love has changed more from feelings to actions. What does love look like to you these days, and do you see any interesting correlations between Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday?
February 11 – Proverbs 20
February 12 – Proverbs 21
February 13 – Proverbs 22
February 14 – Proverbs 23
February 15 – Proverbs 24
February 16 – Proverbs 25
February 17 – Proverbs 26
With Lent’s focus on the finitude of all things, particularly human finitude, it’s helpful to consider questions of life and mortality. There are so many ways of doing that, but this Marcus Borg article, in which he discusses the meaning of salvation, drew me in with its mention of Proverbs and most of the rest of the Old Testament: “Salvation is seldom about an afterlife. In the Old Testament, it is not. Ancient Israel for most of its history did not believe in an afterlife—not in the time of its ancestors (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah), not in the time of the exodus, the prophets, and the psalms; not in wisdom books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Only in Daniel, the last book of the Old Testament to be written (around 165 B.C.E.), is there a clear reference to an afterlife. For all the centuries prior to Daniel, ancient Israel was passionate about God and God’s salvation without affirming an afterlife.” (p. 8)
Like Borg, I don’t remember a lot of sermons being preached about hell, either – and yet, there it was in my mind: an ever-present, real threat to the reasonably happy life I led as a child if I messed up too badly. I am sure that I also heard sermons about God’s love and grace – and yet the thought that stuck in my mind was that while God loved me, he also wouldn’t be afraid to send me to hell if I annoyed him enough.
In the church I finally found after a false start at a conservative new church start, I found a pastor who preached God’s love and grace loud and long enough for me to hear it – and yet in my habit of not asking questions in church, while I was comforted to hear it, I had a hard time formulating and verbalizing the questions, “Are you really sure? HOW do you know?” The church has had a hard time with epistemology for the 21st century – we’re caught in a place somewhere between the 1st and 21st centuries, particularly because of this book we love so much – the Bible – and we have a hard time putting it in its appropriate context (some people get super nervous about the word “context” because that might not mean following the Bible “literally” – and yet, considering the massive edits biblical texts went through before they came to us, it’s impossible to definitively know just what the original words of the Bible were in their original languages). When we seek to learn about the world in which the Bible as we know it came into being we gain a better understanding of some of those things in the Bible that may seem strange to our 21st-century minds.
Anyway, when I went to seminary, I finally found a place in which not only could I ask and explore deep theological questions – it was absolutely necessary for me to do so in order to be successful at the aims and goals of seminary! The people who had what they considered “a strong faith,” were, it seemed, somewhat at a disadvantage compared to “heretical,” half-agnostic me. When seminary reading about the Old Testament by some of the most learned and distinguished biblical and historical scholars began to pour out its discoveries, which often contradicted a more literal reading of the Bible, there were several classmates who were thrown into a crisis of faith. Since I had previously left the church because I thought that my “strange ideas” weren’t proper for a “true” Christian, I was pleasantly surprised by the discoveries I made in this reading, and began to learn that it would not be my theology, at least, that would separate me from God’s love or life in ministry.
All this is to say that it was a huge relief to me to find out that whether or not there is a literal heaven and hell is far less important theologically than what we’ll do with our lives in the “here and now,” rather than waiting for “the hereafter.”
Only Jesus was resurrected – and thus the rest of us who die are done in this plane of existence, anyway – and so no one can really empirically answer if there is eternal life after death, and what that life would look like. But Lent is the perfect time of year to consider our own mortality and the meanings of our lives while on Earth, as well as the legacies we hope to leave on Earth when our time here is through.
As we continue on in our February prayer practice of praying according to Martin Luther’s Four-Stranded Garland, we remember its four basic steps as laid out in “How One Should Pray, for Master Peter the Barber.” A reminder that this translation of his letter is available, or you may simply take the themes of instruction/learrning, thanksgiving/praise, confession, and prayer/listening for God and apply them to a particular biblical passage or theme.
About any religious/spiritual practice in general, Peter Leitheart offers Luther’s own advice: “Every order, Luther recognized, can be abused, and turned from an order into ‘a disorder.’ The principle is that ‘any order shall be so used than whenever it becomes an abuse, it shall be straightway abolished and replaced by another.'” Do what moves you closer to God – and if something doesn’t after giving it a fair shot, try something else!
Do you know how many wonderful books are available that talk about faith-based community organizing (FBCO) or congregation-based community organizing (CBCO)? There’s a real treasure trove of them, and each month, I’ll highlight one of them here so that you can take a deeper dive into FBCO / CBCO. This month we’ll start with one of my favorites – Dennis Jacobsen’s Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing. Jacobsen, as an ELCA pastor and the head of Gamaliel’s clergy caucus, is well-qualified to write a book on this subject.
From the Preface to the Second Edition: “My faith as a Christian is central to my life. Congregation-based community organizing serves as a vehicle for me to live out my faith and values in the public arena in ways that otherwise worthy secular efforts cannot. CBCO makes possible an undivided life, a healthy integration of personal faith, communal life, and effective action in the public realm. Prayer and theological reflection offer powerful grounding for the savvy arts and practices of organizing. CBCO offers a rare opportunity for grassroots leaders to form relationships with people of other faith traditions and for religious leaders to be theologically stretch and engaged beyond their narrow comfort zones.” (p. 14)
How are you living out your faith in the public realm this year? How would you like to live it out?
Check the Think! Pray! Act! calendar for ideas and things to do.
Check out the Find Your FBCO Map to find your local faith-based community organizing affiliate and connect with the people who are working to live out their dreams of a more just world!
What’s going on in your living of the Gospel? Let us know in the comments, in our e-mail discussion group, or on social media.
Borg, Marcus. “Is Christianity About Heaven?” Word & World 31.1 (2011): 5–12. https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/31-1_Heaven_and_Hell/31-1_Borg.pdf.
Jacobsen, Dennis A. Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing, 2nd Edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017.
Leithart, Peter. “Luther on Lent.” Leithart at Patheos, 23 February 2012. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/leithart/2012/02/luther-on-lent/.
Luther, Martin. “A Simple Way to Pray (…for Master Peter the Barber).” Pages 193–211 in Luther’s Works: Devotional Writings II. Vol. 43 of. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1535. http://www.lbdsoftware.com/A%20Simple%20Way%20to%20Pray%20-%20Martin%20Luther.pdf.