Advent, Lent, and pre-Pentecost are each unique seasons into which a wide variety of congregational and individual stories can be gathered. While waiting and yearning, we find common threads of relinquishment in each. We let go in each season in order to move to a new future—sometimes from our own planning and effort, sometimes from pain and the threat of death, and sometimes from focused spiritual practice.
In the season of Lent, we are invited to surface stories that evidence waiting and yearning, but their character is very different from those of Advent. Stories of waiting and yearning in Lent and Holy Week become laced with strange mixtures of excitement and fear, success and failure, loyalty and betrayal, affirmation and denial, life and death. Jesus’s popular Galilean ministry of teaching and healing took a dramatic turn after his mountaintop visit with Moses and Elijah, when God affirmed for the second time that Jesus was a beloved Son. When Jesus returned from the transfiguration he found a confused band of disciples frustrated in their own efforts to heal and teach. From that moment he told them of his determination to go to Jerusalem to encounter hostile death threats. “He set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). (This turning marks the beginning of our Lenten season.) The crowds did not receive him because they did not understand the direction he was heading. And his disciples objected to even the thought of death. His followers waited and yearned—but for a popular crowning of a king as the culmination to glorious ministry. Matthew places Jesus’s intent to go to Jerusalem immediately after the feeding of the five thousand, where waiting and yearning were expressed by their determination to make him their king. But Jesus disappointed them, inviting them to let go of their illusion. “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering . . . and be killed” (Matt. 16:21). Our Lenten stories are often filled with the same elements of failure, disillusionment, and frustration.
The forty days of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, reflect Israel’s forty years’ wandering in the desert before entering the promised land. This ancient holy season of self-denial and repentance is rooted in the early church’s practice of instructing new adherents in the faith during a period of fasting and before their baptism at sunrise on Easter morning. The whole church came to adopt the practice of fasting during Lent as preparation for celebrating the festival of Easter. The earliest known recommendation that Christians should fast for forty days before Easter comes from a letter written in 330 ce by St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt. By the Middle Ages, fasting was enforced throughout Europe, and innkeepers faced threats of imprisonment if they served meat during the final weeks before Easter.
The Reformers of the sixteenth century deemphasized the season, but in recent years Protestants have renewed their interest and participation in special Lenten programs and liturgies. Palm Sunday, for instance, which used to be celebrated as Little Easter with worshipers waving palms in joyous processions, marks the beginning of Holy Week with a more somber emphasis on Christ’s sufferings. Fasting in identification with the sufferings of Jesus becomes an important discipline for spiritual growth while waiting and yearning for Easter life.
The liturgical color for the season of Lent is purple, which characterizes waiting and yearning in the experiences of repentance, suffering, death, relinquishment, brokenness, alienation, abandonment, loneliness, isolation, and conflict. While putting on the color of purple, an individual might ask:
Do I feel like I am in a wilderness?
Am I facing temptation and need help to resist?
Do I see weakness in myself and the need to change?
What do I need to allow to die in me in order to be closer to God?
What do I need to confess in order to be rid of guilt?
With what am I struggling and in pain?
Do setbacks and losses eat away at me?
How far have I strayed from God’s purpose for my life?
Do I doubt God, myself, others?
From what or whom do I run away and hide?
Does saying goodbye to people and places leave me feeling sad?
A friend and I used to compare notes on what we each were giving up for Lent or what new spiritual practice we were initiating for the season. Two years ago my response was, “I am entering chemotherapy.” My chemo treatment started at Ash Wednesday and continued into the season of Pentecost. I accepted my trips to the clinic for six hours of chemical injections as a spiritual discipline, one in which the forces of death were vying with the forces of life. The chemicals injected into my body were aimed at a nasty tumor but damaged my hair, digestive process, and good cells. I experienced much “dying unto self” while I awaited the good news of Easter life.
Congregations struggle, wait, and yearn as well. Betrayals of trust, posturing, power moves, hidden dirty laundry, and scores of other life-depleting attitudes and behaviors sap our common life and call for resolution and healing. The church knows the stories of Holy Week within its own life. We might ask, “Is it possible to discover God’s presence in the midst of all this stuff?” Denying the existence of our struggles will only be self-defeating. Lent calls us to openly and humbly face them and to offer them to God for resolution. Now letting go gets into the act, repeating the same movement of spiritual formation that played at Advent. This time we let go of anything that hides the existence of our shortcomings and life-depleting behaviors.
The leaders of one church tell their Lenten story: They were looking for an associate pastor to share leadership ministry with the senior pastor. After a long search, the committee unanimously recommended that the pastor’s wife, also an ordained minister, be called to the position. When her name was presented to the congregation, her nomination failed by two votes. The ensuing embarrassment, mistrust, misunderstanding, and frustration boiled beneath the surface, and the leaders of the church were at a loss to deal with it. The hurt and confusion cut so deep that they hardly knew how to talk about it. It surely was a Lenten story. They yearned to be free of the pain and confusion. To deal adequately with it, the leaders would have to find an opportunity to tell the story together, thereby forming a corporate memory of it. Then they would need to name the dynamics that surrounded and infected the story. They could associate it with the confusion of the Passion story in Lent and Holy Week—interweaving it with biblical stories. Finally, they could let go of resentments and critical judgments—waiting for God to touch their story with grace. When they offer it to God, they could work their way through it in faith, hope, and love.
Lenten waiting and yearning culminates in Holy Week with the devastation of letting go in death. Dread, not God, seems to hold the future. Neither individuals nor congregations can bypass Good Friday. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death is part of the pilgrimage. For congregations, betrayal by a minister, the departure of a beloved pastor, the burning of a sacred building, a church split, an all-consuming conflict, or an overloaded program schedule sounds the death knell. In the midst of death, we yearn for life .
Adapted from The Wisdom of the Seasons: How the Church Year Helps Us Understand Our Congregational Stories by Charles M. Olsen, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
The church year is often seen as a framework for church programs, but well-known Alban author Charles Olsen shows readers how it can be a prism through which congregations more deeply understand their own stories. By weaving together our narratives and those of Christian tradition, a congregation can clarify its identity, grow in wisdom, and discover a new vision for ministry.
When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By
by Craig A. Satterlee
When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By is a collection of stories of congregational worship in which God’s ongoing presence, speech, and activity are apparent. These stories of proclaiming the gospel, teaching the faith, praying, singing, baptizing, blessing, and sharing bread and wine in Jesus’s name share the purpose of these activities in worship yet still challenge the reader to explore the motives behind them.
In God’s Presence: Encountering, Embracing, and Experiencing the Holy in Worship
by N. Graham Standish
Too many worship services, suggests Graham Standish, are perfunctory, suggesting that most churches don’t think much about how to connect people with God. In God’s Presence makes the case that congregations must restore intentionality and authenticity to worship in a way that will open people to the Holy. Intentionality, he says, reflects a deep understanding of what tradition has attempted to do, what contemporary people are hungry for, what is going on in our culture, and how to connect the three.
Living Our Story: Narrative Leadership and Congregational Culture
Edited by Larry A. Golemon
Living Our Story explores how good narrative work—the retrieval, construction, and performance of valued stories—takes place in ministry. Eight chapters examine this question from a variety of perspectives, including the role of the pastor or rabbi as narrative leader, the sacred and mundane stories that shape congregational life and identity, storytelling as a means of community building, and story sharing as a practice of hospitality.
REGISTER FOR THESE SPRING EVENTS!
Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership
April 5-7, Simpsonwood Retreat & Conference Center, Norcross, GA
Facilitator: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban Senior Consultant and author of Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership
Community Ministry: Practical Models, New Resources
May 3, Palmer Theological Seminary, Wynnewood, PA
Facilitator: Joy Skjegstad, author of Starting a Nonprofit at Your Church and Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry
The Business of the Church: Faithful Ministry and Effective Management
May 3-5, Lake Junaluska Conference & Retreat Center, Asheville, NC
Facilitator: John Wimberly, author of The Business of the Church: The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry Requires Effective Management
For a full list of educational seminars and other events, check out Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar
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