Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Preparing for Lent

Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Before we seek to score points against the genetic fallacies and ad hominem arguments of modern atheists, before we ‘turn suspicion against the suspicious,’ perhaps we ought to adopt self-suspicion ‘as the hermeneutics of Lent.’ We ought to consider the possibility that in our own religion, ‘what presents itself as an altruistic virtue may be, in terms of motive and function, only an egoistic vice dressed up in its Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes’[1]
In the summer of 2009, Rob Bell hosted Poets, Prophets, Preachers, a conference on reclaiming the art of the sermon. One presenter at the event, Peter Rollins, convenes an “iconic” collective that offers experiments in transformance art, sometimes also called theodramatic events. Ikon defies easy or simple definition. However, it is fair to say that what they are up to, at least in part, is to offer a radical, postmodern form of worship for those on the margins of faith and the church. To learn more about Ikon, visit or :
For our purposes, we consider one exercise Ikon engages in that can inform our Lenten worship preparations. They call it “Atheism for Lent.” Each year, they read a book influenced by, or about, the prominent hermeneuts of suspicion: Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. This practice, though radical, resonates with Cornelius Plantinga’s idea in A Breviary of Sin, quoted above, and may be a fruitful approach to Lent in 2011.
Why? Because our own religion can easily become an egoistic vice dressed up in Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes, and our own people, and especially our neighbors, know this. Pastors and church leaders are not unfamiliar with the critique of the church, that it is full of hypocrites who act one way on Sunday, and another way the rest of the week. And truthfully, even the leaders of the churches, maybe especially the leaders of the churches, are guilty of this. So Lent, the season of repentance, begins with a reminder of our profound sin and mortality (Ash Wednesday), and walks us all the way to a cross which, if we are honest, we recognize as the place where we crucified the son of God. It is not at all out of place, during this time, to listen to those suspicious of religion, and suspicious of the church, precisely in order to encourage and develop our own self-suspicion.
There are other ways to exercise self-suspicion during Lent. One is to recommit to the practice of confession. Encourage regular corporate confession in the congregation, but also exercise the rite of individual confession and absolution. Begin with yourself and the leadership. Do not encourage the members of the congregation to schedule a time for individual confession and absolution if you have not first confessed yourself. Remember also to take small steps in this, because individual confession and absolution is a rite that has fallen into disuse in most of our churches, and so can be intimidating in even small doses. Teach it and discuss it in small groups and with key leaders. Ask a neighboring pastor to hear your confession if you are the sole pastor in a congregation. Find a monastic community or religious order that practices individual confession and find out whether opportunity is available to learn about and make use of the confessional. Seek out a neighboring pastor also if you feel uncomfortable confessing to your own pastor. And remember that all the baptized are welcome to hear confession, and speak the words of absolution.

Ash Wednesday

Each of the sections in Evangelical Lutheran Worship begins with an introduction and then what is termed “Pattern for Worship.” It is worthwhile to review these “patterns” at the beginning of a new church season in order to step back and examine the overall shape of the rite. This is especially useful when planning worship for Lent and the Three Days, because “on several key days at the center of the church year… worship takes a particular shape” (ELW, 247).
Ash Wednesday is an especially solemn day, and focuses on repentance. This much is generally known. But the overall shape of the service for Ash Wednesday is penitential, not just the individual elements of it. The assembly is called to gather in silence. This is often difficult to accomplish in reality, and may require special planning. Signs can help, or special instructions to the greeters, but lighting and environment also play a role. It may even help to announce the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday that when people arrive, they remember the solemn and penitential nature of the service, and prepare themselves for silence, shut off their phones, pray as they drive or ride bus or walk to service, and in every way enter into the season with solemnity.
The service then continues with a reading (or better, a chanted version of) Psalm 51. Consider inviting a solo voice to sing some verses, and a small ensemble to sing antiphonally with the single voice. This can accentuate the psalm as a prayer on the lips of David and of the gathered community.
The lessons and sermon are followed by a special invitation to Lent and an opportunity for Confession of Sin. Prepare a way for the congregation to make confession not only with their mouths but also with their bodies. Provide kneelers if this is possible. If not, suggest a prayer posture. In some settings, this might be as simple as inviting worshippers to open their hands and turn them slightly upwards as they pray, in this way showing their empty hands desirous of mercy.
Following the confession, the congregation moves, kneels, hears that they are dust and receives ashes on their forehead, and then continues appeals to God for mercy and forgiveness. Some worship leaders may find this pattern problematic, because it does not offer an absolution. The absolution is delayed until the end of the Lenten season. Consider proclaiming an absolution prior to communion in the liturgy, if this is important in your context. However, consider also wrestling with the idea of a delayed absolution as the congregation confesses, and then goes on a journey, a fast, hungry for a liberating word they know is on the way—hungry with and for Jesus for 40 days.

[1] Cornelius Plantinga, A Breviary of Sin: Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, page 111, referencing Westphal, “Taking Suspicion Seriously,” pp. 34, 37.

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