Lent Is Methodist

Bill Smith, always worth a read, thinks Old Life has declared another war on objections to Lent. He acknowledges two chief objections among Reformed Protestants to Lent — the regulative principle of worship and the fear of Romish practices. The regulative principle should actually take care of the matter for the sake of corporate worship and the life of the church. If a Christian wants to engage in some kind of Lenten activities as a means to holiness, well, whatever floats your sanctification. But for officers in the church to make Lent the norm for a congregation or a communion, then they better come with something more than “it looks like a pretty good idea” and “our motives are generally pious.” Plus, if church members may opt out of Lenten abstemiousness, then what’s the point of officers calling for the wider body to “special” actions during a certain number of days in late winter?

Still, Bill is not content with those objections. He returns fire and argues that Lent is actually a reasonable form of temporary form of sanctification:

Another objection is that those who observe Lent use it as a time for the temporary repentance from certain sins which are normally indulged, while Jesus calls us to repent of all sins all the time. It may well be that some poorly instructed Christians view Lenten practice in that way, but in my experience I have never heard anyone who observes Lent speak of a temporary giving up of sin.

Fine. So a Christian who pursues holiness 365/12 now adds an intense time of repentance for a specified forty days before a Sunday some communions designate Easter. Maybe that’s how it works among Reformed Episcopalians.

But why THESE forty days and not another thirty in September and October, or maybe a dozen or so in late spring and early winter? Why not more intense forms of repentance sprinkled throughout the year? Or why not leave each family and person to decide when and for how long to engage in certain times of self-denial? Why these days that some designate as Lent?

Could it be that some churches embrace a formula for Lent and so follow the spiritual equivalent of an Excel spreadsheet for the pursuit of holiness? The Lent practitioner follows these forty days with the other saints of similar inclinations and so doesn’t have to consider whether another time of fasting and prayer is needed or useful for another time during the year?

That kind of methodical piety is what Charles Briggs called, “Methodist.” It was a word he applied to the proponents of the First Pretty Good Awakening who insisted that godliness manifest itself in certain predictable and uniform ways. Of course, the idea of likening the church calendar to revivalism is oxymoronic. But to everyone who concedes that believers mature and bear different kinds of spiritual fruit in the course of their lives, the idea that you can prescribe a certain number of days — the same ones every year — for extra special holiness, and the one that requires the same kind of religious zeal to prove your conversion, are not so far removed. Both pietism and prescribed liturgicalism promote a one-size fits all spirituality that is perfect for bureaucracies, but not so hot for the diversity of human experience.


The Point of Being Presbyterian

Yes, Presbyterianism is historic — it predates the conversions provoked by Jonathan Edwards. But that doesn’t mean that Presbyterianism uses whatever bits of Christian history that also qualify as historic. Presbyterianism says history doesn’t matter compared to something even more historic — God’s revelation in the Old and New Testaments and the acts of redemption therein revealed.

This lesson from Presbyterianism 101 comes from awareness (supplied by our northern correspondent) that the Presbyterian pastor identified in the following article is part of the PCA, and therefore a man eligible to preach and administer the sacraments in our local OPC congregation.

E. C. is a Presbyterian. I am not. I know that he’d love to make me so. He fits Presbyterianism. He loves the arc of the liturgy, the commitment to ever put God’s grace and covenantal faithfulness in the foreground, and their interpretive lens toward scripture. While I respect his convictions, I am not particularly drawn to the Presbyterian ethos. My friend Bruce is a Quaker. He loves the communal discernment of the Spirit and the diligent pursuit of acknowledging the image of God in every human. I’m not antagonistic toward either of those positions, but they aren’t enough to make me a Quaker. I’m something else. And yet, every winter we three pastors leave the comfort of our desired theological homes to share an Ash Wednesday service.

We can join together on Ash Wednesday because the day is about humility. When else in the Christian life do we acknowledge that we are but dust?

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. ~Traditional Ash Wednesday Blessing

To have the ashes smeared on our foreheads is to embrace a grim truth about our limits: We are not God. From dust we were made—we all arrive here from the same humble beginnings. No one among us came from anything other than the earthly design of human birth. And to dust we shall return—we are mortal. What we have on this earth will end. After a good long life, perhaps, or maybe far too early. Regardless, death’s grim grip will overwhelm even the strongest will.

The thing is, praying before a meal, conducting family worship, attending worship every Sunday morning and evening is also a reminder of our limits and mortality. Ash Wednesday comes once a year. But you can hear “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8) every Lord’s day and remember that you are a finite critter who depends on God almighty.

The Presbyterian pastor involved in this Ash Wednesday service has his own justification for observing Lent:

Lent spans 40 workdays beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating on the Saturday before Easter. The Sunday’s within Lent are not counted part of the 40 day duration, but rather are called Sunday’s In Lent. The significance of 40 days can be traced to many things within the bible, but in this instance refers to and honor’s the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. Within CVP, Lent is a time of preparation and prayer spent in readying for Easter and our Savior’s resurrection. As such, we don’t “give something up for Lent”, but rather if something is distracting from focusing on Lent and Christ’s sacrifice, we may set it aside temporarily.

As one gets closer to the end of Lent, we enter what is known as Holy Week. This is started with Palm Sunday, otherwise known as Passion Sunday, and observes the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where folks waved palm branches proclaiming him as the messianic king. The word passion refers to the final journey of Jesus to the cross and crucifixion. Next would be Maundy Thursday which refers to series of events that took place the day before Jesus was arrested. These events include the last supper where communion has it’s origins, Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, and ended with Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest to be taken before Caiaphas. Prior to the last supper, Jesus washed his disciples feet to illustrate the humility involved in servanthood. He also taught his disciples a new commandment quoted in John 13:45-45 NIV “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Good Friday and/or Tenebrae are one and the same day and come on the last Friday of Lent. The church observes the day of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Not even a week before on Palm Sunday, the people proclaimed Jesus king and now on this day, they demand his death. Tenebrae is a way the church observes the coming darkness of a world without God by selected bible readings and a growing darkness (either by turning off lights one by one, or extinguishing ceremonial candles). Tenebrae typically concludes with a loud noise symbolizing the closing of Jesus’ tomb. Lent concludes on Holy Saturday – the day Jesus rested in the tomb.

Nifty. I guess this points to something a little more mysterious, a little more cosmic, something with a little more umph than your average Protestant service which — oh by the way — only relies upon the inspired and infallible word of God, recorded, written, and given over five centuries before anyone dreamed of using ashes to put the sign for addition on someone’s face. The Bible, as common as it is, really is spooky. Of course, it doesn’t help when Protestants turn Scripture into a manual for everyday living, complete with instructions for thinking the right thoughts while you cross the street (unless you get distracted by a fast-approaching car).

Yes, low church Protestants messed up the awe and reverence that God speaking to you and memories of Christ’s death (in the Supper) should instill. Why and how Presbyterians contributed to this debasement of worship is a long and sorry story. But today’s Presbyterians who are trying to be historic should know better because Reformed Protestants did something to upend the direction of Western Christianity. You really can turn the clock back before Whitefield and Edwards without losing your Presbyterian self. Keep it simple, keep it biblical, and remember you are a sinner coming in the presence of a holy God. You don’t even need to wear dirt on your forehead.

But Larry Ball does not blame Ash Wednesday practicing pastors for problems in the PCA. He blames 2k. Easy peasy.

Good but Different Americans

With Ash Wednesday comes Lent and different rationales for turning up those practices that increase holiness. George Weigel opts for the difference that Lenten practice makes:

Friday abstinence was once a defining mark of the practicing Catholic, and Lenten pork roll raillery aside, it ought to be again. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is not renowned for its traditionalism, but some years ago the bishops mandated a year-round return to Friday abstinence south of Hadrian’s Wall, and good for them for doing so. If our baptisms really set us apart for Christ, then we should live a different temporal rhythm than the rest of the world: not to advertise our righteousness, but to remind ourselves, each other, and those who might be curious about these Catholics and their ways that we’re, well, different. And at a moment in Western cultural history in which the tsunami of the Culture of Me threatens to overwhelm everything, putting down behavioral markers of difference is no small thing. From Friday abstinence, who knows what might grow?

Well, these days at First Things someone might ask if Friday abstinence could lead to the kidnapping of baptized children from non-Roman Catholic parents.

Or how about the royal absolutism of French monarchs?

For those keeping score at home, liberalism is on the ropes at First Things, which is odd for a magazine that used to be (along with Weigel) firmly in the Americanist camp of U.S. Roman Catholics.

The problem is not Lent or abstinence from meat. I have great respect for minority groups that maintain their religious ways in face of a society that does little to encourage or foster such practices. The Amish and Orthodox Jews, for instance, who continue to maintain family and spiritual traditions without trying to Americanize their traditions are (or should be) obviously admirable in their fortitude and conviction.

But transferring such admiration to Roman Catholics comes with a catch. That snag is that Roman Catholic piety for a long time was not simply a way of being a good Christian before God but also came with expectations about society, the political order, and the church’s authority. To sever personal piety from Rome’s global reach or cultural aspirations was never possible, the way it has been for other faiths outside the political order that brought them into existence. The reason is that fellowship with the Bishop of Rome and all the affairs in which he had his hands was necessary to be a good Roman Catholic.

So Weigel’s proposal for being more distinct is no neutral proposition when Roman Catholicism in its most distinct expression was not necessarily a respecter of the sort of freedoms that allow the Amish and Orthodox Jews to practice their faiths. Like Neo-Calvinism, Roman Catholicism is not content with a personal faith. Religion is not a private affair but needs to take root in all areas of life — and there goes political liberalism.


When You Think Billy Graham You don’t Think Lent

But such are the fortunes of evangelicalism that the people running the magazine that Billy Graham (trans-denominational) helped to found with Carl Henry (Baptist), and J. Howard Pew (anti-Communist Presbyterian) are fully comfortable with Anglicanism, and so have posted another article recommending Lent. In this case, telling points mount to show how poorly Lent fits with Christian piety:

heightened devotion is fruitful for a season, but cannot be sustained indefinitely. The Christian calendar offers a sustainable rhythm of which Lent is a part, and the fasting of Lent gives way to the feasting of Easter. Fasting and feasting are interconnected disciplines that teach us to love the King and his coming kingdom. In Lent, we learn to confess our sins, practice self-denial, and take on the humility of Christ. In Easter, we learn to rejoice, exult, and feast in Christ’s victory. As historian William Harmless explains, “In these two liturgical seasons Christians drank in, by turns, the ‘not yet’ and ‘already’ of New Testament eschatology.”

Repentance is fruitful for only part of the year? Moderation is something to observe but only for a time? Imagine if American Christians were moderate and humble the entire year. They wouldn’t binge or purge on American greatness or heinousness depending on which of their favorite presidential candidates was in the White House. Indeed, encouraging the idea that restraint and repentance are only for a while and not for all of life nurtures antinomianism: “I wouldn’t do this during Lent, but the other 325 days I will.”

If Lent is not supposed to lead to those thoughts (which I assume it’s not), then why not make Lenten practices year round? Because repentance and moderation can’t be “sustained indefinitely”? So people practicing Lent are Snowflake Christians? They don’t have the stomach for life-long dying to sin and living to Christ?

Aaron Damiani concedes that “Many Christians choose to keep or modify their Lenten disciplines for the rest of the year, as they have established helpful routines.” So now you have churches divided between full-time Lenten Christians, and ones who only observe Lent in late Winter and early Spring? Christians who truly sanctified and some who aren’t? Not only does this allow a culture of spiritual superiority to gain traction, but it also violates the rules of the liturgical calendar. Who sings Lenten hymns during Advent (oh, the hay that evangelicals make of tradition)?

Then there is the argument that Lent and the church calendar evoke the Jewish liturgical calendar (have you heard that Jesus fulfilled all of the law?):

It’s important to remember that the Christian liturgical calendar developed in part out of the rhythms of Jewish practice. The Old Testament indicates seasons of both heightened devotion and celebration, including Levitically led “sabbaths, new moons, and feast days” (1 Chron. 23:31) and “seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts” (Zech. 8:19). Fasting and feasting were part of the “architecture of time,” in which Jesus participated as an observant Jew.

So what does Father Damiani do with Apostle Paul:

So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. (Col 2:16-17)

Here‘s what Calvin did:

The reason why he frees Christians from the observance of them is, that they were shadows at a time when Christ was still, in a manner, absent. For he contrasts shadows with revelation, and absence with manifestation. Those, therefore, who still adhere to those shadows, act like one who should judge of a man’s appearance from his shadow, while in the mean time he had himself personally before his eyes. For Christ is now manifested to us, and hence we enjoy him as being present. The body, says he, is of Christ, that is, IN Christ. For the substance of those things which the ceremonies anciently prefigured is now presented before our eyes in Christ, inasmuch as he contains in himself everything that they marked out as future. Hence, the man that calls back the ceremonies into use, either buries the manifestation of Christ, or robs Christ of his excellence, and makes him in a manner void.

In other words, Lenten Christians are still holding on to a piety that clings to outward and physical attributes of unseen realities (heard of faith vs. sight?). They are incomplete Christians. They demand outward expressions of spiritual realities. They forget that Paul also wrote:

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:22-25)

Oh by the way, Paul’s contrast between the visible and invisible, between the external and internal, is why the Confession of faith contrasts Old Testament and New Testament worship this way:

Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations. (7.6)

The comparison of Lent to the Old Testament is epic fail.

But remember what Calvin went on to say about Colossians 2. The rejection of the church calendar and other external ways of commemorating salvation doesn’t mean that Protestants throw out the sacraments:

Should any one ask, “What view, then, is to be taken of our sacraments? Do they not also represent Christ to us as absent?” I answer, that they differ widely from the ancient ceremonies. For as painters do not in the first draught bring out a likeness in vivid colors, and (eikonikos) expressively, but in the first instance draw rude and obscure lines with charcoal, so the representation of Christ under the law was unpolished, and was, as it were, a first sketch, but in our sacraments it is seen drawn out to the life. Paul, however, had something farther in view, for he contrasts the bare aspect of the shadow with the solidity of the body, and admonishes them, that it is the part of a madman to take hold of empty shadows, when it is in his power to handle the solid substance. Farther, while our sacraments represent Christ as absent as to view and distance of place, it is in such a manner as to testify that he has been once manifested, and they now also present him to us to be enjoyed. They are not, therefore, bare shadows, but on the contrary symbols of Christ’s presence, for they contain that Yea and Amen of all the promises of God, (2 Corinthians 1:20,) which has been once manifested to us in Christ.

I understand the appeal of Lent over the Anxious Bench. The followers of Billy Graham needed to graduate to something more meaningful, something more historical. How about the Reformation? How about the Bible? It replaces the altar call with the Lord’s Supper and gives us fifty-two Easters a year, fifty-two feast days with six days every week to prepare.


Is Lent for Obedience Boys?

The ying and yang of good works.


Lent is the time that we embrace the discipline that is necessary for success in all aspects of life — study, work, fitness and financial management. There is no free lunch. Lent is when we do the hard work necessary to have Easter, like studying before an exam, or doing spring cleaning to keep the house in good order. We have to suffer first in order to rejoice later.

“In every culture, there are ancient stories and myths that teach that all of us, at times, have to sit in the ashes,” writes Father Ronald Rolheiser in a magnificent book of art and meditations, God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, edited by Gregory Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe. “We all know, for example, the story of Cinderella. The name literally means the little girl (puella) who sits in the ashes (cinders). The moral of the story is clear: Before you get to go to the great feast, you must first spend some lonely time in the ashes, humbled, smudged, tending to duty, unglamorous, waiting.”


God’s grace — the gift of his Son and his redemptive work — is not something we earn or achieve. It is entirely gratuitous.

The “gift” of salvation is not at all like the “transgression” of sin, as we read from St. Paul on the First Sunday of Lent. So the idea of Lent as a sort of necessary period of spiritual training before an athletic competition or artistic performance is not a fully Christian vision.


It remains true, though, that even taking into account the gift of God’s grace, we do need spiritual discipline. That’s the second reason we look forward to Lent. We don’t earn our salvation, but we do have to work it out.

Discipline of our imagination, our appetites and our attachments are all necessary for growth in virtue. We all recognize God’s grace is not some magic that he works upon us as passive objects. We are genuine subjects, who must freely respond to God’s invitation. We don’t earn the invitation to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, but if we accept it, we do have to make the effort to go to the feast and arrive wearing our wedding garments, lest we be found unworthy and cast out.


If there is a danger in thinking we earn salvation, there is also a danger that we simply presume on God’s mercy, treating it as something we are entitled to. Lent corrects that tendency.


Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?
Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.


Rescue Mission vs. Lent

Something about this logic seems fishy:

Creighton University’s Online Ministries program, “Praying Lent 2017,” says the purpose of fasting is to “experience the effects of not eating. It also serves to be a penance or a sacrifice for the purpose of strengthening us.”

“When we get hungry, we have a heightened sense of awareness,” it adds, noting that the practice helps people to clarify their thoughts. “It is purifying and prepares us to pray more deeply,” the resource from Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, points out.

By that logic, those Christians who go to rescue missions to conduct a worship service for and serve a meal to the homeless should put worship before food. But the way I experienced it, when our youth group helped out with rescue missions in Philadelphia, we served the meal first because the idea was that someone who is hungry could not concentrate on the message of the gospel. But if Creighton’s counsel is right, that kind of hunger heightens spiritual awareness and a sense of the need for the gospel.

Am I right?


Spiritual Discipline

Notice how devoting yourself to fasting and prayer winds up concentrating your mind on what to eat:

Here are some meatless Friday suggestions:

Cheese Quesadillas. In the unforgettable words of Napoleon Dynamite’s grandmother, “Just fix your self a dang QuesaDILLA.” Our family is all about the quesadilla on Friday. Cheap. Easy. Kids love them. Make big ones and use a pizza cutter to cut them up into slices for everybody. Add some sour cream and hot sauce for the parents, maybe some chips and home-made guacamole. You’ve got a great meal.

Nachos. A variation on quesadillas. My wife Joy gets cookie sheets out, covers them with chips and grated cheese and then puts them in the oven. Bring them out and put them in front of the kids and watch them disappear. Super cheap and kids love it. For adults, add sour cream, salsa, chives, guacamole, etc. You can also add refried beans – but make sure you get the kind without animal fat/lard since this would violate the Friday meatless rule.

Pizza. Cheese pizza for the kiddos. Margarita pizza for the parents. Perfect.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich and Tomato Soup. This is a nice simple meal and surprisingly our kids love it. You dip the grilled cheese in the soup. Comfort food. For parents, add some pesto to your grilled cheese sandwich. Also, adults like mixing up the cheeses – try different kinds.

Pasta and Marina. Fast. Easy. Children love. It costs next to nothing.

Fettuccine Alfredo. Another meatless meal that most people like. Very filling. Lots of energy.

Mac and Cheese. A good option for kids – especially when mom and dad are leaving on a date. Meatless. Inexpensive.

Vegetable Lasagna. This may not be a winner with the kids, but adults like it. It’s a lot of work to prepare, though.

Egg Salad Sandwich. My wife and I really like egg salad sandwiches with tomato and lettuce.

Tuna Salad Sandwich. Honestly, this can get old, but you change it up additions like cucumbers, olives, or even curry powder. You can get tuna sandwiches at Subway on Fridays.

Fish and Chips. My go to Friday meal, especially if at a restaurant.

Salmon. During the year, when we want a nice Friday meal, we go for salmon. Healthy. Lean. Not hard to prepare. I grill it on a cedar plank. Fantastic. This is a nice option if you have friends coming over for dinner on a Friday night, but don’t want to bore them with mac and cheese. You can also mix the grilled salmon with greens, fruits, and nuts for a beautiful salad.

Cheese Enchiladas and Chips and Salsa. This is the number one Marshall Friday meal. Joy makes it and everybody loves it. Very filling. Not very expensive. The hard part is heating all the corn tortillas in oil. It takes a little more time, but it’s worth it. My nine year old twin daughters made this meal one Friday night while my wife was away from start the finish (but I had to wash the dishes!).

Need to eat out on a Friday? My favorite option is a Bento Box lunch at a Sushi restaurant.

My least favorite Friday option? Well, the McFish Sandwich and frozen fish-sticks are my least favorite. The children like fish-sticks, but when I discover that they are for dinner, I inwardly groan. Nothing says “penance” like fish-sticks.

Imagine if you believed that conversion was a life-long process, not just 40 days a year:

Q 88. Of how many parts does the true conversion of man consist?
A: Of two parts; of the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.

Q 89. What is the mortification of the old man?
A: It is a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.

Q 90. What is the quickening of the new man?
A: It is a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.


In the Larger Scheme of Things

Should the church engage in politics? John Allen answers, that’s a no-brainer:

And that ministry inevitably has a political edge. Yes, Jesus Christ said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s,” which is a charter for church/state separation. However, Christ also said we will be judged for how we treat the least among us, which is a standard with a clearly political dimension.

Popes represent a tradition rooted in prophetic denunciations of injustice and abuses of power, and a Lord who chose to be born into a poor family in an occupied corner of the world’s leading empire of its day.

To insist, therefore, that popes remain apolitical would be to demand that they betray their office.

As if politics were all about finger-wagging. Lobbyists make lousy politicians.

J. Peter Nixon worries what happens when the church’s ministry becomes too oriented to this world:

Last week Pope Francis presided over a Mass to mark the end of the Year for Consecrated Life. Robert Mickens reported here that the Holy Father also gave a short talk to men and women religious at an audience prior to the Mass. “Why has the womb of religious life become so sterile?” he asked.

The answers to that question are complex and manifold. . . . I know enough men and women religious to realize the dangers of sentimentalizing their lives. Those without property can often become proprietary about their roles and responsibilities and unhealthy power dynamics can afflict any community of human beings. The spiritual risks of celibacy are well known, even if they are sometimes exaggerated.

The lives of ordinary believers and the lives of those called to practice the counsels should complement one another, embodying the tension between a Kingdom that is already present and yet still to come. In the past, the balance may have tipped too far in the direction of the latter, leading to the suggestion that the married state was somehow inferior to religious life. Over the last half century, however, we have tipped far in the other direction. Somehow, we must find balance.

The balance may not involve the monastic life, but it could include something like recognizing that this world, and even its attempts to right social wrongs, is not all there is:

So while politics is important business, there are strict limits to what we can achieve by political means. There are no limits at all, on the other hand, to what we can achieve by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; for that we have the Lord’s promise! We can revive our own faith, awaken the strength of our neighbors, and thereby accomplish what not even a presidential candidate dares to suggest.

“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” So wrote the most acute of all observers of our political scene, Alexis de Tocqueville. Perhaps the most appropriate “political” task for Lent would be to embark on our own private campaigns to make America good again, beginning with ourselves.

Of course, Protestants don’t believe we make ourselves good. But confessional Protestants do understand, in ways that challenge followers of the papacy, an institution fraught with power and political intrigue, that ministering the gospel does more good in the long run than making policy or running for office.


Lenten Attractions

After reading a few posts, the idea of Lent may have some appeal.

First, it might be a time to catch up on films I’ve missed (though these are the sorts of films that the missus and I usually watch on the holy day):

Almsgiving, prayer, fasting. “Into Great Silence” is German filmmaker Philip Gröning’s almost yearlong sojourn with the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. It is a long film that challenges us to be silent and to contemplate the life of these monks who choose to live these qualities of Lent for 364 days a year. While some thought the film had no meaning, for those willing to take the time to stay awhile and watch, the film leaves a lasting impression on how to go into the woods, or the desert, and to live deliberately — alone, yet for others.

Or it could be a chance to drink more beer (didn’t see that one coming):

Seeing as beer has a long history as Lenten fare, I thought I would suggest five Bock style beers to sustain you during the long dark days until Easter.

Weltenburger Kloster Asam-Bock – Founded in the year 1050, the Weltenburger brewery is one of the oldest monastic breweries in the world. While it is sadly now a corporate operation, the brewery still makes a high quality Bock, which is no surprise when you’ve nearly 1,000 years to practice.

Salvator Doppel Bock – Salvator Doppel Bock is one of the first monastic Doppelbocks, brewed by the Paulaner brewery in Munich. This beer is dangerously good—it was once banned by the government because villagers complained that it was causing drinkers to become too lively.

La Trappe Bockbier – De Koningshoeven Brewery, commonly known as La Trappe, is a world-famous Trappist brewery founded in 1884. The brewery has grown heavily commercialized in recent years, but they still make an excellent Bock.

Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel – The Andeschser Doppelbock is considered by many to be one of the best Doppelbocks in the world. Brewed in Andeschs, Germany by the Benedictine Monks of St. Boniface, it is one of the few successful monastic breweries still owned by monks.

Weihenstephaner Korbinian – The Weihenstephan brewery is considered by many to be the oldest breweries in the world. Founded in the year 725 by St. Corbinian, Weihenstephan Abbey began brewing beer in the year 1040. The brewery is now owned by the state of Bavaria, but its Korbinian Doppelbock is one of the finest in the world.

But while cradles find ways to make Lent less restrictive, converts keep Lent real (call it late-winter cleaning):

However busy we are, there are always certain tasks that are more palatable to us than others. They tend to gravitate to the top of the to-do list. (Planting the garden. Yes! Let’s do it!) Meanwhile, the really hated chores keep getting pushed back. I can go a long time without finding time to clean the fridge, sort the closets or make the dental appointments.

The hated chores still need to be done sometime. Make Lent that time. Prepare for Easter by doing all the really unpleasant tasks on your list, in preparation for a season of pleasant (if still frantic) activity.

I get incredibly excited for Paschaltide knowing that that’s when I get to stop sorting closets and turn my attention to the yard instead. (I hate housework and love yard work. That’s just me.) I file insurance forms and eat the nasty stuff from the back of the freezer during Lent. Sometimes I really get crazy and wash the windows. I rarely get through everything I intend, but however far I get, the penitential to-doing is going to stop once Easter comes.

Yes, the basement does need attention, but I’ll stick with one day in seven and leave the chores for Saturday.


Tomorrow begins another Round of Cherry-Picking

While Justin Taylor advises on how to prepare for Lent (can you believe it involves a book published by Crossway?), Carl Trueman reminds about the arbitrariness of tradition among evangelicals (high and low):

The question of catholicity is, of course, more complicated than merely adopting a practice or a doctrine because it has deep historical and ecclesiastical roots. After all, Anglicans in the tradition of Hooker have rejected a large number of the elements of ‘catholic’ tradition. Roman supremacy, purgatory, transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, and the cult of the saints all have good claims to deep catholic roots. So why have Anglicans abandoned these? Presumably they have done so because they do not think that scripture gives grounds for retaining them. Well, once the scripture principle is allowed as an arbiter of true catholicity, the best we can say about Lent is that it might be a harmless, if biblically unjustifiable, personal preference with some historical roots – which is a point I never denied.

Yet if this point about the scripture principle is unpersuasive to Anglicans, let me offer an observation on Anglicanism along the same lines of Merrick’s critique of the Reformed. Anglicanism’s own selective catholicity would seem to imply that Hookerites regard those same centuries, 1500-1700, as a kind of moment of purity for the decision as to which prior catholic traditions can stand and which should be cast aside.

This is not a new problem for Anglicans. It was a significant part of what moved John Henry Newman Romeward. Of course, if the brilliant Newman could not persuade his friend, John Keble, Hooker’s greatest editor, of the immense difficulties of Anglican claims to historic catholicity, it is unlikely that I will do so with Hooker’s present disciples. Yet Newman’s critique surely remains a major challenge to anyone who blithely assumes the straightforward catholicity of the Anglican tradition as embodied in the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer. It is actually much more theologically complicated and historically contested than that.

All of this is, however, largely beside the point of my original article. My main purpose was not to point to problems in the Anglican tradition’s claims to catholicity. It was to critique a recent cultural anomaly: The curious phenomenon of interest in Ash Wednesday and Lent among evangelicals whose ecclesiastical commitments do not theologically or historically sanction observance of such.

Funny how Trueman’s interlocutor assumes the historicity of Lent. But as with most subjects, history only makes certainties less certain:

The current state of research points to three possible conclusions. Because the evidence is slim and admitting of any number of plausible interpretations, one position has been to view Lent as a sui generis phenomenon—completely new and unique—that simply appears after the Council of Nicea. In this view, any attempt to hazard connections or lines of evolution from pre-Nicene fasting practices is too speculative to be of any value. Another, rather opposite, position has been to accept as historical the alleged Egyptian post-Theophany fast, to identify it as the dominant antecedent to Lent, and that Lent’s rapid dissemination throughout the Christian world is best explained in relation to the program of liturgical and theological alignment begun at Nicea. A final position, a sort of via media or middle road, acknowledges the incomplete and sometimes-contradictory nature of the evidence, but asserts nonetheless that Lent develops as an amalgamation of several early fasting customs and typologies of which the post-Theophany fast (if it existed) may have been but one of many. As with most issues in the study of the early history of the liturgy, certainty is elusive and we must be satisfied with possibilities. Judicet lector: let the reader decide.

Don’t mind me if I use the occasion to have an extra doughnut.