Lent is upon us. For a long time I never really felt good about Lent, not that you are supposed to or anything. But growing up I never quite understood the whole idea of giving something up. It isn’t that I thought it was somehow too Roman Catholic of a practice to take up, I just didn’t see the point. In some ways it felt forced, fake even, like the “New Year’s Resolution” time of the church year. And sometimes, it became a contest of who could give up something harder than another person. Me? I just didn’t care. And all those ideas of picking something up for it instead of giving something up didn’t gain ground with me either because that was just the same five cent candy in a different wrapper.
I suppose that 5, going on 6, years of seminary should have fixed that in me, but it hasn’t. However, I have learned, in some way, to appreciate the season of the church year often referred to as a marathon compared to the sprint that is Advent. Not in giving something up, or picking up something else, but in the focus and clarity such a season brings to the church. It forces us to confront the reality that Christ came to us because we couldn’t go to Him. It brings to the forefront the nature, character, and purpose of the incarnation in a way unmistakable. It ultimately leads us to the cross and to an empty tomb, to a promise fulfilled and a hope that is ours.
And it seems, at least to me, that Lent is exactly what the church needs right now, especially those of us who call the Missouri Synod home. The firestorm that has ignited in the last week has been nothing short of mind boggling. Honestly, I didn’t think most people knew or cared about the LCMS. Yet here we are, a short time removed from a controversial apology that caught the eye of the New York Times and Comedy Central alike. And rather than pick apart either side, which isn’t necessary given the reconciliation that has occurred between the two parties, I’d rather think about what undergirds the controversy. By that I don’t mean what actually happened, but the place from which both parties are coming, a confession made time and again throughout the history of the Lutheran church yet made once for all in the Book of Concord.
It isn’t ever easy to explain to someone outside the fold just what I mean by that last statement. Because it isn’t simply a lens through which we read scripture or a road map to the best the bible has to offer. It is something that forms us, that changes us, that gives us the grammar of the faith, something that is authoritative for us and is at the same time an ecumenical proposal to others. Only, it doesn’t come off that way all the time. And we often find, to borrow the words once spoken to Maverick in Top Gun, our egos write checks that our bodies can’t cash. Because if Scripture and the Confessions actually do what I am claiming they do, there should be evidence of it, evidence that we are different, and not different in a we don’t play well with others kind of way.
I don’t need to speak about how broken the church is, how the disconnect is there regardless of denomination, confession of faith, and authoritative structure. And I know it is easy for that to be thrown back into our faces because we should know better, we should be better. Only we aren’t much better. And neither we nor those outside can figure out why that is and it becomes a wedge that not only divides us from those outside our fold but also one that divides us one from another.
And yet I feel that we Lutherans are unique within Christendom. I don’t mean that we are the only ones going to heaven, but I do believe that we are distinct from Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. (You can thank Hermann Sasse for my thoughts on that.) Unique because of the content, character, and nature of our confessions contained within the Book of Concord. And while I don’t have time to lay that out in detail, I do want to put it out there. Because that is part of what it means to be confessional, to put it out there on the line, to show people where you stand. And ironically enough that is part of why things have erupted over the last week. Because people have chosen not to hide behind their confession, but to embrace it for all its strength and weakness.
After all, our confessions ultimately lead us to a very uncomfortable place, they lead us to the front lines and put us in harms way. Right or left, it does not matter. Our confessions expose us because we have made them our own. Their words are our words. We may not have signed the document, but it has certainly signed us. And it is always dangerous to be exposed for what you are.
Which is why for the first time, probably ever in my life, I’m looking forward to Lent. Because it always exposes me for what I am, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It reminds me of my inability to follow through on things I start, which is probably the real reason I don’t give something up for Lent, if I don’t try I can’t fail. Yet I do fail, every single day. I don’t need Lent for that, but it certainly helps because I know where the road goes… to a cross. A cross that exposed humanity for what it is, a cross that carried with it death and despair, a cross that exposes God for who He is. Because on that cross Christ is revealed to be the Son of God, not in glorious parades, but in suffering and death. In rising again He conquered sin, death, and the power of the devil.
That doesn’t mean life will get easier, if anything it will probably get harder. Because that cross and tomb becomes our confession, Christ Himself, and where He is there too we will be. It exposes us, puts us in harms way, into the places we do not want to go. Into the lives of others who suffer. Into the brokenness of the Church. And yes, even into Lent.