Annual Check-up

When I checked into the hospital before the birth of my youngest child, I thought, “This is my last happy hospital patient experience.  No good thing will ever bring me here again as a patient,” inspiring a subsequent avoidance of doctors and annual check-ups.  What pleasant thing is going to come out of that?  I’m only going to find out things I don’t want to know and possibly be deprived of something I like.

In a similar way, I’ve avoided Lent for the past few years.  It’s kind of edgy and entirely optional to observe Lent as a Baptist.  My first season as a practicing Lentonite I discovered a couple of things:

  1. I am a lot more dependent on Diet Coke than I thought.
  2. Fasting makes me mean.

So once the coolness of observing Lent as a Protestant faded, I was left with the practical knowledge that it’s really hard to give up my distractions and coping mechanisms.  And when I brazenly charge ahead and do it anyway, a lot of ugly and unpleasant bubbles to the surface.

What’s the point, then, of subjecting myself to this yearly process?  I love this quote from the Lent Project at Biola…

The sacrificial season of Lent is a time for us to purposefully go deeper with Christ through reflection, action and renewal. Its structure offers practical ways to increase our devotion and love for Christ. If the church is indeed a hospital for the sick and wounded, then it follows that Lent is its yearly physical and annual tune-up.  The Lent Project

I’m in need of a tune-up.  Small habits – obsessively checking my phone for the latest political developments, empty food, mindless spending – seem small, but they drain me and elbow out better things.  So, along with much of the the Christian church, in a faint and feeble imitation of Jesus in the desert, I’m participating in the annual check up of Lent this year.  Cutting out some things that need to go.  Naming my sin.  Looking at what I prefer to ignore.

Naming sin is what I see in the Lectionary readings this week.  An acknowledgement of where we’ve been as a people – led astray  from good and right things by something that looked small…

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.  Genesis 3:6

A picture of what it does to us to cling to the things that pull us away from God…

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  Psalm 32:3-4

A path to follow…

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  Matthew 4:1-2

And hope in the knowledge that the hardest work has already been done…

And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.  Romans 5:16

So, thank you Kara for prompting me, heels dragging, toward this annual check-up.

christinthewilderness_1
The Temptation in the Wilderness by Briton Riviere

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5 thoughts on “Annual Check-up

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  1. Thanks for this honest and affirming perspective on Lent; I really enjoyed it. Normally I would not feel motivated to write a response or consider that I have much to say about it, but as I understand Kara’s aim is for us to practice civil disagreement, please accept my comment in that spirit (and I’ll pick on someone else next week!).

    I agree that it’s a good thing for more Christian traditions to be participating in Lent instead of throwing it out with the bathwater of Catholicism. I actually do participate in it myself to modest degree, but I think it takes a certain type of person at a certain type of place in their lives for it to be beneficial. Protestant pastors that I have heard discussing Lent are, I think, appropriately tentative in not saying, “We should all do this,” but: “Here are some things to consider as you decide whether maybe you ought to do this.”

    For me, I would locate one of my reservations about the practice to your likening Lent to an “annual checkup … cutting out some things that need to go. Naming my sin. Looking at what I prefer to ignore.” If you think about it, people don’t normally perform their own annual checkup on themselves; we simply aren’t qualified to do so. I think that’s also true of our ability to understand our spiritual state, our virtues and vices, or even simply our own personalities. Furthermore, sin, to me, is circumstantial; it really depends, and what we might deem a sin might be our own overactive conscience. Or an entirely understandable coping mechanism that we will relinquish when we become healthy enough not to need it anymore. And if our goal is to look at things we would prefer to ignore — isn’t it quite likely that our will to ignore will work overtime to make sure we continue ignoring what we really want to ignore — that we will allow through our filter only those sins we can bear to face? So then, how much are we actually facing our sin? Surely we are only allowing ourselves to view an image of ourselves, not our true selves, which is what we are actually doing every day anyway.

    I’m stubborn, immature, weak, and resistant to any form of deprivation; these may be the qualities driving my resistance. A practice of 2,000 — more, really — years has earned a certain standing that far exceeds my own experience or opinion — I defer to tradition even as I keep my distance.

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  2. Thank you for your comments, Amy. I appreciate your thoughtful response. First, I think presenting Lent as, “Here are some things to consider as you decide whether maybe you ought to do this,” is a great idea. I would add, though, “If you’re reluctant to participate, dig into that a bit.” This may be because I’m relatively new to Lent and have very little baggage in this area, but I find that when I dig into my reservations about practicing Lent, the root cause is usually that I don’t want to give up things that make me comfortable.

    I think you make an excellent point about an annual check up conducted by someone other than yourself. Ideally, much more spiritual development would happen in community. Working this out in community also helps, I think, with determining whether the real issue is an overactive conscience.

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  3. It’s interesting. In both of your pieces for this week, I’m struck by how different my functional understanding of sin is. I almost never use it to name things that I do or don’t do (though I do think of those things in terms of whether I’m letting God down or not). I almost always think of sin as a state of being outside of full communion with God. So, yeah, there’s stuff that I’m doing that contributes to that, but it’s also an aspect of what Terry would probably call “our fallen world.” The separation is always, or maybe almost always going to be there to some extent.

    And since we’re looking for where we disagree, I’m going to go way out on a limb and say that I think the story of Adam and Eve has been misinterpreted. I think God was trying to protect Adam–to keep him from full agency in the world, the way I try to keep my kids from growing up too fast. But I wonder whether Adam and Eve were always going to eat from the tree. If it weren’t for having heard the same interpretation of the story all of our lives, I think you could make this case: that as soon as Eve knew that the tree existed, she became aware of her and Adam’s sinfulness–that is, they were separated from God. She thought eating from the tree would fix the sinfulness–that is, bring them back closer to God–they would know what he knew, and could see things the way God sees them–surely, that would make them on more intimate terms. Is it possible that Eve’s act came from a good motivation? And what does it say we value if we blame her strictly for disobedience if she was actually trying to do something good? After all, who hasn’t longed for a closeness with God that just doesn’t seem possible while we’re on this earth? (I suppose this might speak to Amy’s point that we usually don’t try to diagnose ourselves at our annual check-up.)

    I know that’s a pretty radical and potentially scandalous interpretation, so let me pull it back to this idea of sin.

    If we can agree on the definition of sin as the state of not being in perfect communion with God, as well as the things we do and don’t do that bring us further into that state, then I think you could think of Lent as a time to do things that draw you closer to God (or maybe Amy would say, the things that nurture our wisdom)–whether that means giving up bad habits or taking on healthy ones, or neither of those things, but something else entirely–without necessarily feeling the shame and unproductive guilt that does seem to hitch a ride to the word “sin” most of the time.

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  4. If you carry forward the idea that God was holding Adam and Eve back in the way of an overprotective parent, all sorts of things come apart. How can you reconcile a loving and holy God with that version? God redeems all kinds of ugly things (like the fall in the garden), but that doesn’t make the things themselves any less wrong.

    And I think it’s important to understand what else you’re bringing to the table – not to stop asking questions by any means but to be completely up front about them. Is there a reason why you would prefer this version?

    I have to go through that process periodically for kind of an opposite reason. I’m geared toward accepting what I’m used to – which left my political beliefs somewhat uninformed by my faith for a while. Anyway, I think both of those questions are important – Why do I accept this belief, but also, why do I doubt it?

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  5. Well, I don’t think of it as “holding back” or of God as overprotective–more that God made Eden to be an estuary until such time as Eve or Adam would decide that they needed/were ready to know the difference between good and evil. So I read this the way I do with much of the old testament–that God was behaving consistently and in good faith, but that people interpreted badly.

    But I also don’t see how God is setting them up any less by putting them in a garden with a tree that God explicitly made, a beautiful tree, right there in the middle of everything, and then, knowing (since God is all-knowing) human nature and what is going to happen, he says, “Don’t eat from that tree,” and then punishes them when they do. That’s sadistic. An entity like that does not deserve our obedience. God just makes more sense to me if what happens next are the consequences of the inevitable eating from the tree (before you didn’t know you were going to die, and now you do), rather than the punishment for what they were always going to do.

    As for your second question: of course, there’s a reason I like my interpretation better. I do want to live in a world where men (who passed down the stories) don’t get to blame women for everything that went wrong in the world. But the stronger reason is that from the moment I read Elaine Pagel’s argument for this interpretation in Adam, Eve and the Serpent, it cleared up contradictions for me and made the story finally make sense and fit with the rest of what I had learned about God. I find that it gives me with a much more consistent picture of the God that Jesus describes, than the shame-based interpretation that’s been handed down.

    I do think that just as we need to ask ourselves whether certain interpretations are more advantageous or more comfortable to us, we certainly need to ask the same things about the keepers of the stories who passed them down. Since the stories were passed down, retold, and eventually written down from within a culture that gave men full standing and women very little standing, doesn’t it stand to reason that such a culture might alter the interpretation of the events of the story? Even people of good will who are trying to operate without cultural blinders are going to find that their experience and culture effects they way they tell stories–how they interpret motivation, what they leave in, what they leave out.

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