Pastor’s Perspective – March 2019
I grew up in a Roman Catholic family. Our denominational status was based on a deep sense of ethnic and familial heritage. I saw the world through Roman Catholic eyes and with an understanding of the universality of the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” of which I was a member. My parents grew up on the Italian side of town in Jamestown, New York. I, of course, had as much awareness of my Italian roots as I did my Roman Catholic faith. It was a received heritage; one that surrounded and formed me without my knowledge or input.
My family was immersed in their faith and culture. They received communion on a near daily basis at their local Church. They lived in the heart of a small industrial city that gave them daily access to the Church that a rural child (who had to travel 15 minutes to attend the Mass) could not imagine. God’s presence and blessing was offered in a way in which they could easily make it a regular part of their lives. My grandparents were ‘religious’ people who structured their lives around the rhythms of worship. They woke up and prayed the rosary. They said their prayers before they went to bed. They read the daily missal and regularly participated in the mass. Their culture made it easy to be faithful.
The Baptist in me is prone to scoff at the simple-mindedness of my grandfather going to get his sacramental ‘fix’ each morning, or contemplating a grown man reciting prayers in rapid-fire mode, but the 21st Century social critic recognizes that every time I wake up and check my phone, I am doing the same thing. We imagine that a quick prayer said by rote memorization is somehow not “really” a prayer, but how many of us rapid-fire scroll through tweets and messages, ingesting the data without ever truly contemplating the meaning? How can an emoji driven society think that a rote prayer is somehow less meaningful than a winking smiley face?
The distinction between then and now is not in the creativity of the messages and prayers, but in the object of our focus. In the past our faithful forefathers and mothers used their simple gifts and skills to enter the presence of God. Today we use space-aged technology to express ourselves to the universe. Back then we were lighting a candle and praying to a statue of a crucified God, today we bow to a brilliantly lit false god that we can put in our pocket.
In the past the Church told us how to live and corrected us when we sinned against God and humanity. We were given penance to pay the debt of our sins and forced to engage in holy acts of contrition in order to reclaim our place amongst the saints. Can we really claim to have risen above the religiosity of the past? If we scorn the politically correct gods of twitter or Facebook, we are given a cosmic timeout and told to take down our messages or the priests of Silicon Valley will block our access to our virtual social media communities. Now imagine if an old school bishop tried to with hold communion from a heretical politician or celebrity…
Our media-based faith is easy to practice and (like all religions) creates meaning in our lives. It comes with little to no cost, but it seeks to control every aspect of our lives. Protestants might consider it odd that a Roman Catholic would seek communion weekly, let alone daily, and what type of fanatic would go to mass twice a day? Yet we think nothing of checking our phones and Facebook pages with astonishing regularity and devotion.
Social media has increased our levels of awareness and distraction in equal amounts. We live in an incredibly complex world that allows us to personally bear witness to international tragedies in ways that were inconceivable fifty years ago. Our media driven world and social media lifestyles have given us ring side seats in battles both global and personal. It cannot help but skew our vision and outlook, causing us to believe that everything is uniquely interconnected and dangerous. Furthermore, our social media platforms can make each of us prophets and priests of our own sects. Every man, woman, and child with a smart phone can shout their opinions and complaints to the gods of social media. Our virtual lives are fed and watered by likes and emojis. We feel compelled to comment on national and international events in ways that elevate both our fears and our importance. We can all light a candle in support of this cause or that tragedy by simply sharing a post or hashtag. We can click on this link to donate to the victims of the latest natural disaster. It is all about doing our part to make the world a better place, right?
The problem with this is that we are not making the world a better place. Giving the laity access to the powers of ex-communication did not make the world less judgmental. Granting corporations dictatorial powers over your communications did not make us freer. Offering worship to a technologically advanced inanimate object did not make the object any less inanimate. While our phones and computers are indeed refined versions of the old gods of stone and wood, they are nonetheless still cold and lifeless; they are still false gods and idols. Idolatry never ends up satisfying those who worship. Idols only take, they never give. Idols raise expectation and extract time and energy. Our new religion is simply not working and those who are worshipping at these miniaturized altars are becoming more isolated and depressed by their actions.
Which brings me to the purpose of Lent.
As a Catholic boy, Lent was the only March Madness of which I had heard. It was a time for reflection. Growing up in the 70s in a Northeastern country town, Lent emerged from the depths of winter and the slower rhythms of a snow bound life. There was little to do and the isolation of the season created an atmosphere of contemplation. Lent led with crushing intensity toward the Cross of Calvary, with only the hope of the resurrection, expressed each Sunday in worship to relieve the tension, but as the weeks unfolded the natural world seemed to come to life even as the ministry of Jesus grew more vibrant. Lent urged us to courageously walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem; where He would bear the Cross of our salvation. Lent begins in darkness and leads us into the light of Jesus Christ. It begins with contemplation and leads us through both personal and corporate confrontation with evil and finally to the peace that can only be found in the Lordship of Christ in our lives.
Lent reminds us that in order to see the work of God in Jesus Christ, we must first shake off the distractions that can fill the places that God seeks to occupy. I must follow the example of Peter and his friends, who must leave their fishing boats, businesses, and families in order to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. It was never an easy task to put aside the false gods that claim ultimate importance in our lives and, in this world, it never will be.
As we prepare for Lent, we do so with the knowledge that we have once again fallen into old habits and addictions. Lent provides us with the opportunity to detoxify ourselves from the snares that have trapped us. It is a time to remove the chaff from your life and get rid of the addictions and distractions that are draining your energy and stealing your joy. You cannot add anything to a busy life without first removing something. Lent is the time when the Church gets to test drive a new and streamlined lifestyle. It is our time to face our flaws and say no to the idols and false gods that have cluttered our lives. It is time to reconnect with God and each other. To walk and talk together. To pray with a friend. To read the scriptures in silence. To think, contemplate and dream again.
It is dark now, but soon it will be light. It is quiet now, but soon the world will bustle with business again. Take advantage of this moment.
Celebrate the season of Lent in holiness as we walk with Jesus to Jerusalem.