Today is Ash Wednesday, which means that Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics and faithful members of other denominations are beginning the observance of Lent, the 40-plus days leading to Easter that are marked by fasting and repentance. I think early Adventists would have whole-heartedly participated in this Day of Atonement writ large if not for Fat Tuesday blocking the way. That is, the health message could find no present truth in the obligatory pączki binge. Even though Lent has not been an integral aspect of our faith community, I hope you’ll join me each Wednesday and Sunday between now and Easter to contemplate Lent in a unique and practical way.[i]
It is common practice to give something up during this period. What might you go without for the next six weeks? Chocolate? Twitter? Pączkis? Alexander Carpenter has invited me to write a series of essays on giving our time. Quite honestly, my initial reaction was, “I don’t possibly have time for a sustained project.” However, the second part of the assignment drew me in—how can we effectively use our time to work for peace and justice in the world. As a student pursuing an MA in Peace Studies, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore these issues in the context of Lent. Twice weekly I will post an essay focusing on a different social justice issue (loosely defined) that will include a short spiritual reflection and practical ideas for involvement.
Some readers may feel that linking Lent with social action is a philosophical or theological stretch. I believe Isaiah 58 can serve as a strong foundation for this series by making this linkage between fasting and social concern quite explicit. Starting in verse 3, God points out the error of the nation’s method of fasting and clarifies what he actually desires.
“[O]n the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. . . . Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”[ii]
In my experience guilt can be a significant component of both Lent and the quest for social justice. Increasing guilt is not my intention! No one can address all (or most) of the issues we will cover. Each of us, led by the Spirit, must discern what we are able to do with our gift-mix and passions given our limited time and energy during the current season of life.
In the sitcom, My Name is Earl, Earl Hickey had to accept that his immediate life task was to make amends to people he had harmed. In one episode Earl was so overwhelmed with his inability to stop global warming that he neglected the task he could accomplish, making amends in his neighborhood.[iii] This is a lesson for all of us—we simply cannot do everything. May we live generously for the good of others, but may we also be mindful of healthy, God-ordained boundaries.[iv]
As we begin this series, I want to address two concerns that I am sure will become issues. First, several of these topics will have political implications; however, I believe a non-partisan approach is both possible and positive. Truth needs to be spoken to powers on both sides of the aisle. Second, I am not advocating a “social gospel” that foresees God’s kingdom being set up on earth through the efforts of well-intentioned activists. Regardless, God has called us to work for peace and justice, and I see no way to faithfully answer this call while ignoring the needs of those around us.
In preparing for social action, there is one element that should be prioritized—prayer. Because of its importance, this week’s practical step is to pray. Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove remind us that “prayer and action can go together; in fact they must. Otherwise we have little more than a bunch of inactive believers or worn-out activists, and neither do much good for the world.”[v]
Similarly, Henri Nouwen calls prayer “the first aspect of peacemaking.”[vi] Prayer not only forms us into new people in the presence of Christ, but also enables us to see our proper role in the work for peace. Nouwen emphasizes that “[b]y allowing ourselves quiet time with God we act on our faith that the peace we want to bring is not the work of our hand or the product of movements we join, but the gift of Christ.”[vii] And yet the paradox is that as the body of Christ, our efforts still have great significance.[viii] The kingdom of God has been described as “performative: it is God’s performance in which we actively participate.”[ix]
The power of prayer as a precursor to action is highlighted by the story of Imago Dei, a church in Portland, Ore. In Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller describes this congregation’s humble beginnings as a church-plant meeting in a basement.[x] After a period of stagnation at about 30 members, the group began praying “to notice people who needed to be loved.”[xi] The pastor of Imago Dei, Rick McKinely, shares more details in This Beautiful Mess. He writes:
“I printed out a list of every need I could think of in the city. The next Wednesday evening, we sat in a circle and prayed about those things. We had just enough desire to show up, pray, and get honest—and that’s what we told God.”[xii]
Change and growth did not come immediately. They prayed for the city’s needs and for God to change their hearts for six months before fruit began to sprout.
I’ll close with a quote from McKinley that can serve as a benediction as we begin this 40-day trek.
What if you found your own borrowed basement—anyplace where in solidarity with others you could seek His kingdom and His righteousness first? What if you started praying for the things around you that break His heart—even if they don’t break yours yet? Ask Him to show you the obvious needs you’ve been missing. Tell God the truth about your fears and desires.
Wait on Him. And hold on for the turning.[xiii]
Jeff Boyd is the Assistant Director of Church of Refuge at the Center for Youth Evangelism and is pursuing an MA in Peace Studies at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He has undergraduate degrees from Union College in Religion and Psychology and an MBA from Andrews University.
[ii] Isaiah 58:3, 6, 7.
[iii] My Name is Earl, Episode: “Robbed a Stoner Blind.”
[iv] For more on this topic, see Boundaries by Cloud & Townsend (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) or Shells, a Nooma film by Rob Bell (http://nooma.com/nooma_shells_020_rob_bell.php).
[v] Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, 2008 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books), 12.
[vi] Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community, 2005 (Mary Knoll, NY: Orbis Books), 26.
[vii] Ibid, 44.
[viii] For example, see Ephesians 2:8-10, 1 Corinthians 12-13, and Matthew 25:31-46.
[ix] Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 2003 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 21.
[x] 2003 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), 130-138.
[xi] Ibid, 135.
[xii] This Beautiful Mess: Practicing the Presence of the Kingdom of God, 2006 (Sisters, OR: Multnomah), 51.
[xiii] Ibid, 53.