Overcoming Liturgical Wimpiness: A Lenten Reflection

Last weekend, I and some others were chatting with a new friend who happened to be Muslim. It came up that the Christian Church is currently in the season of Lent, and my new friend had never heard of it before. I and the other Christians in the room began to explain Lent as a season of prayer and fasting. We quickly made the analogy comparing Lent with Ramadan. The purpose of Lent became more clear to him, but he also began to ask questions. The conversation went something like this:

“So how long is Lent? A week?”

“No, it’s 4o days, not counting Sundays.”

“Christians fast for forty days?”

“Well… no. Some give up meat. Some will fast just on certain days. Some give up other things.”

“In Ramadan, we don’t eat at all during the day, and only eat after sundown. So in Lent, Christians just give up something?”

“Well… some Christians. Some don’t do anything.”

“Oh…”

By the end of the conversation. Lent was a thoroughly unimpressive season compared to Ramadan.

I admit that it’s probably not good to compare the two seasons too closely. They’re two different seasons, practiced by two different faiths, and have two different purposes behind them. But the practice of fasting, at least in theory, remains a common element.

Why is it that as Christians, we’re particularly bad at living into the meaning, purpose, and practices of Lent, or any other of our seasons and feast days? I’ve lived in Squirrel Hill now for nearly two years. The neighborhood is forty percent Jewish; there’s a synagogue practically on every block. Judaism is to this neighborhood what Presbyterianism is to the rest of Pittsburgh. In my time here, I’ve been struck by how visibly and noticeably my Jewish neighbors live into their seasons and holy days. Families wear costumes on Purim, light menorahs during Hanukkah, and build booths in their backyards at Sukkot. With Passover approaching, the bread aisle at the local Giant Eagle has been replaced with matzoh crackers and other Passover items. If you somehow lost track of the day of the week in Squirrel Hill, you can always tell if it’s Friday evening or Saturday morning; Jewish families will be heading to Shabbat services.

These are just a few of the more visible practices, and the practices of my Jewish neighbors is just one example. People who live in predominantly Muslim or Hindu areas, no doubt, have similar observations.

Why do Christians seem to be so much more  laxidasical in their observance of seasons and holy days? As our Western context becomes more and more pluralistic, our observance of our seasons and feasts may be one of our most opportune forms of witness.

We need to overcome our liturgical wimpiness. How many of us actually practice some form of fasting during Lent (or Advent, our other penitential season)? How many of us will celebrate Christmastide for a full 12 days, or Eastertide for a full 50 days? How many will take time to remember Christ’s crucifixion between noon and 3:00 on Good Friday? How many Christians will even notice that it’s the feast day of the Ascension on May 13 this year? And what about some of the less commercialized (and consequently lesser known) feast days, like Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration, All Saints Day, and countless saints days?

With all of these days, there are particular traditions that Christians in the past (and some in the present) have practiced as a way of remembering what God has done, and proclaiming it to the world around them. It’s time, I think, for the Church to reclaim this piece of its heritage.

The Gospel According to Your Facebook Profile

A couple weeks ago I started reading the book The Hopeful Skeptic by Nick Fiedler. I’m planning on posting a review of the book once I finish it up. For now, though, I want to point out something that makes this book unique from anything else I’ve read. This is the first theology/Christian life book I’ve ever read in which the author uses his Facebook profile religious views as the starting point for a whole book.

A couple years ago, Nick changed his “religion” in his Facebook profile from “Christian” to “hopeful skeptic.” Reading about this got me to thinking about how many people choose to enter something unique on the religion line in their profile, as opposed to choosing from one of Facebook’s preset, institutional options. I did a quick scan of 25 random Facebook friends (and by ‘random’, I mean the first 25 people to either show up on my news feed or comment on my status requesting help with this). Here are the ‘religions’ I saw listed:

“Pastafarian; Former Voodoohist”

“I’ve been relentlessly pursued and mercifully forgiven by the great Lover of souls, Jesus Christ. :)”

“Evangelical Liberal Charismatic Catholic Christian”

“On the path…”

“Pro-Jesus”

“yes. thank you. http://www.huronhills.org”

“anything in isolation cannot be God.”

“see the Nicene Creed.”

“and He said, Follow Me.”

“Yes.”

Among the more traditional choices…

“Christian” Was listed by 6 people.

“Christian – Presbyterian” was listed by 3 people.

“Christian – Reformed – Presbyterian” was listed by 1 person.

“Agnostic” was listed by 1 person.

“Deist” was listed by 1 person.

3 people had nothing listed.

Why do people choose to insert their own, unique title for their religion? I have to admit, when Facebook first added the religion to profiles, I opted not to list myself as “Presbyterian” or “Christian.” I decided to write in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Honestly, I have no recollection as to why I thought it would be better to do that. I can think of a few reasons now, for Christians at least, but am also doubtful any of them are really satisfied by a Facebook profile.

Some people, it seems, have an evangelical motivation. We’re supposed to be witnesses for Christ and proclaim the gospel. We need to make the most of every opportunity. If Facebook is going to ask us about our religion, we’re going to make our answer count. So, if we put something unique and unexpected, people will take notice. I think the intention here is good enough, but there are also so many problems with this. For starters, it assumes that people actually take the time to read our profiles. My guess is most don’t, and of those who do, none of them are going to your profile asking “What must I do to be saved?”.

For others, there seems to be a fear of being misunderstood. Calling ourselves “Presbyterian” or any other denominational affiliation makes us look too institutional. The ¬†term “Christian” carries too many negative connotations with which we don’t want to be associated. So, we’ll enter something unique that our friends won’t be able to misconstrue. Again, one of the false assumptions behind this fear is that people actually read our profiles, and even fewer care whether we’re “Christian” or a “Follower of Christ.” Even fewer will be scandalized by reading that we’re “Presbyterian” or “Episcopalian.”

I think even more problematic is the fear many of us have of being associated with other Christians of a different breed. Saying that we’re “Christian” may in fact ¬†associate us with the Pat Robertsons of our time, or some of the great injustices committed by Christians throughout history. But, we also can’t write our own faith’s prior history, or choose who our brothers and sisters in Christ are. Perhaps we’re called to own up to that history and reputation, and proclaim it with a spirit of humility and confession.

On top of that, maybe Christians listing their religion as Christian will be more effective evangelically. Let’s face it, a bunch of unique religion preferences is pretty poor branding and p.r. Maybe it’s time the Christian community on Facebook took a more united front in their religious Facebook preference.

Then again, I doubt anyone would notice…