Why Evangelicals Need Lent

Lenten fasts are meant to help us see things in a new light. And if ever a people needed to turn out the lights and sit in the darkness for awhile, it is the typical American Evangelical Christian.
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Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell used to tell a story about a mission he flew in his F2H Banshee off the coast of Japan in 1950. He had missed the rendezvous point when his instruments mistakenly picked up a signal leading him away from his aircraft carrier. Lovell felt hopelessly lost as he flew circles in the dark over the stormy Sea of Japan. As he tried to use his map light, suddenly all of the electronics in the cockpit shorted out and everything went black. A bad omen he thought, until he began looking down at the water below. With the absence of light in the cockpit his eyes began to adjust to the dark, making it possible to see the faint trail of phosphorescent algae which had been churned up by the propellers of the carrier. He began to follow the trail which lighted the way home to the carrier where he landed safely. Were it not for the failed light and the resulting darkness, Lovell might have been forced to ditch his plane. The darkness saved him.

This story is a great metaphor for the observance of Lent. Lent is officially the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday excepting Sundays. It is meant to be a season in which Christians fast from something as a means of preparation for the celebration of Easter. Lenten fasts -- giving up candy, coffee, soda, television, or meat on Fridays -- are meant to help us see things in a new light. When we fast we voluntarily short out the cockpit lights in our daily routines, hoping that in the self-induced darkness we might actually be able to see our way forward a little better. And if ever a people needed to turn out the lights and sit in the darkness for awhile, it is the typical American Evangelical Christian.

Don't get me wrong -- these are my people -- but we Evangelicals have a few issues not the least of which is a pernicious condition called satiation. Satiation is the absolute satisfaction of every human need to the point of excess. If you don't understand the term, grab a bag of Snickers bite-sized candies and start eating. About the time you polish off the bag -- you'll have an acute understanding of the term satiation. Now imagine that sensation drawn across every aspect of life. Every opportunity, every advantage is given to us. Yet, instead of leveraging that toward the common good, we steer it toward a flat screen TV -- not the 32 inch, but the 50 inch; not the plasma but the LCD; not the HD alone but the one with 3D capability -- satiation.

Prolonged satiation does interesting things to the person. It has effectively transformed many Evangelicals into what I call the "serial-eventist." These are people whose lives have become one long contiguous pursuit of the ultimate experience in satiation. It can be anything: a small group meeting, a friendship, a political election, a book club, a new purchase, or a television show. We serially flit from one event to another, searching for the next high which will bring meaning to our lives -- a concert, a conference, a church service where we can be "fed." The phenomenon of the serial-eventist occurs often among Evangelical Christians because for many, their faith has been defined as an event.

When "becoming a Christian" is defined as an event and not a new way of being human, we can easily lose our ability to allow the gospel to make moral claims upon our lives. To be a Christian, however, is to take up our cross and follow after Jesus. We may or may not have a specific event to point to, but we must certainly find ourselves pursuing God's kingdom. In A Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas describes salvation as a process whereby, "We acquire a character befitting one who has heard God's call ... an intense personal experience may be important for many, but such experiences cannot in themselves be substitutes for learning to find the significance of our lives only in God's ongoing journey with creation."

The sad result of satiation is that we lose any sense of mystery and wonder. Satiation dulls the imagination and healthy spirituality loses out to the pursuit of the ultimate experience. In our culture satiation is much easier to achieve than character. Lent can be the antidote. The Lenten pilgrim can be unplugged from the Matrix of satiation, and they can actually see the way forward while everyone else is flying in circles over the Sea of Japan. Lent is our way of killing the lights that hide the way home.

Annie Dillard once wrote "God asks nothing, and demands nothing, like the stars. It is a life with God which demands these things." She was talking about disciplines such as Lent and she was right. "You do not have to do these things," she wrote, "unless you want to know God. They work on you not on him ... you do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it." Come on Evangelicals -- give something up for Lent! Make it something tough. Challenge yourself a little bit. For forty days, give up your satiation, turn out the lights, sit in the darkness, gaze up at the night sky, and let the North Star lead the way home.

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