Pope John Paul II famously declared that we live in a “culture of death.” And there is no doubt that our culture mocks hope, glorifies violence, and constantly feeds us fear-inducing bad news via our favorite news channel.
And the evangelical church, at least in its seeker-sensitive form, has capitalized. As the proclaimer of good news it has offered escape from bad news. This is potentially a good thing. But in the process it has become an adult Disneyland where every speck of gloom and every spot of death has been carefully scrubbed clean.
From the time you walk in until you walk out, many churches make sure you do not encounter the negativity of the world. We make sure to keep the lights glaring and the positive music blaring. In fact, almost every Christian music station I have ever heard positions itself as an alternative to “other” stations, by which they usually mean “positive” or “encouraging.”
But I am afraid we have swung the pendulum too far. Instead of celebrating resurrection, which cannot happen without death, we celebrate escapism, we promote life without death, hope without doubt, happiness without mourning.
And that leaves many of us wondering, “Where do we mourn?” “Where do we go when we encounter death?” “Where do we turn to process our loss?”
We can go to church to ignore the harsh reality of life, but where do we confront it? If I want to escape my fear, questions, and sadness, I can always count on a good Sunday morning service to lift my spirits. But where do I find a safe place that allows me to encounter it head-on? Where do I go through the valley of the shadow of death?
But there is one space where I can still get away with exploring the depths of my fragile existence. My questions, doubts, and utter sadness is still tolerated, albeit still often misunderstood, for 40 days, during a time called Lent.
Lent is a time to remember we are ashes, a time to re-enact Jesus’ march toward Jerusalem, his impending death.
Of course, evangelical churches don’t really obvserve Lent. And why would we? We are equally put off by all tradition, including every date on the Church calendar not also celebrated by retail stores. But more importantly, it is a Christian holiday that cuts against the grain. It is the Ecclesiastes of the Church calendar, the minority voice in a cacophony of celebration. And my jaded, cynical, and questioning soul needs it like an alcoholic needs AA.
This Lent, I pray that evangelicals begin to see that beauty comes from ashes, that there is no resurrection Sunday without the death and suffering of Friday. I pray that we can imitate Jesus and stop pretending that Christians do not doubt, do not suffer, and do not feel burdened by the death and decay that surrounds us.
I pray that the church of Jesus can learn to participate in his suffering as well as his life, his death as well as his resurrection. And in doing so, I pray the church becomes a place where we do not escape from the culture of death but we allow it to swallow us up, where we let it settle into our souls.
As we do, I pray we do not create an alternative to death but become the site of the death of death itself. Paul does not declare that death has lost its sting because he has not been stung by it. He declares that death has lost its sting because it has been relegated to Friday and we believe that Sunday still comes.
These ashes that we wear this holy day
ground us against the earth of grim reality;
they impress upon our brows, against our minds,
the strict and severe limitation set on all we are,
all we have, all we do and hope to do.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return
rich syllables which recall us to our origin,
remind us of our inevitable end,
renew for us the call to make the present count,
to “work while there is light,”
to heed the word of judgment and of hope
that is the gospel . . .
-J. Barrie Shepherd