A Joyful Repentance
Lent is usually a time of lament. But in the midst of a depressive episode, maybe it was time for a different approach.
For the past few years, I've used Lent (as many of us do) as a period of sacrifice and lament. I tried to fast until it hurt, give up something difficult (last year, my laptop), and learn to ache for the injustice and rebelliousness that abound in our world and in my heart. I think this is a healthy approach: far too often we shy away from feeling guilt for our own actions and tears for the misfortunes of others because we've come to believe that our church and our life need to be free of negative emotions. I very much disagree with this idea, and I think God does too. The Bible, after all, says that sometimes the harder feelings are warranted and even necessary:
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.
I'm emphasizing this now because I want to be clear that I'm not trying to "argue against" a somber Lent--- I think it's a valuable, historic, and important Christian practice, and one that has blessed me in ways I can't readily describe. So when I say I'm doing something different this year, I don't mean to imply this is "a better way" or "the right way" to do Lent. I just think it's what works best with where I'm at right now.
After a yearlong episode of severe depression, I'm finally starting to see some light. Due to some life changes, some very helpful therapy (thanks Ellen!), and the prayers of some extremely faithful friends and family, I've developed a full range of human emotions again and with this has come an immense feeling of gratitude.
When I got to my Ash Wednesday service last night, out of habit I tried to adopt my usual Lenten posture: sad, penitent, and lamenting. But I couldn't help feeling joy and thanksgiving for everything God has been doing in my life recently. And since joy and thanksgiving are virtues we've worked so hard to cultivate, it seemed strange to try to "cover them up" with "the right feelings" for this time of the calendar year. So here's what I'm trying instead this year:
Lent remains a time of repentance. The Greek word the New Testament uses is metanoia, which literally means "to change one's mind." And changing one's mind often comes with tears, sackcloth and ashes. This is especially appropriate when we're repenting of large structural sins or evils that have brought us a good deal of happiness.
But therapy is also a form of changing my mind, and it's been a generally happy process for me. When our sins (sorry, "cognitive distortions") have been deeply wounding us, shouldn't we respond to Christ's freedom with joy and celebration? Shouldn't the posture of our heart be "God has given me tools to know him better, I will take them up and praise the Lord"?
This "happy repentance" has biblical precedent as well:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today."So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Note that Zacchaeus is truly, honestly, repenting. This isn't a cheap grace that says we're fine just as we are or we should "just be ourselves" and everything will be great. This is a hard, costly grace that's calling him to pay back what he's stolen and turn his life around.
But just because grace is difficult doesn't mean it has to be sad. Zacchaeus isn't weeping - he's celebrating! He's having Jesus over for dinner! He's excited to make amends for what he's done wrong.
So yes, I'm going to make this lent a time of penitence and returning to God. But I'll be returning the way I feel when I see my parents after a long time away: grateful, joyous, and celebrating.
In this section I want to write out my personal plans for Lent, mostly because then I'll feel obligated to actually do them. Unless you're looking for ideas, you should probably stop reading, although if you want some books I think will be interesting skip to the end!
Giving up: Phone Games
One of the symptoms of depression I didn't really expect was the extreme, overwhelming sense of boredom. It's hard to fill time when you don't want to do anything, so I got in the habit of playing cribbage and doing crosswords on my phone.
I realize this doesn't sound like a bad thing. But apple recently introduced a feature that lets you see how much screen time you used. My average the last week I was seriously depressed was over seven hours a day.
So yeah, gonna give that up.
Adding on: The Office of Readings
My best friend in the whole world and I call each other to pray every night, using the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. The longest but most beautiful prayer is "The Office of Readings", which each day consists of a hymn, three psalms (or smaller parts of long psalms), one Old Testament (I think? Maybe this is just what we've gotten so far) reading, and a commentary on the reading by (usually) a Saint or a Pope.
Sometimes when we're tired we pick shorter prayers, so for Lent we're committing to doing the Office every day. I'm excited to see how God blesses us through it!
Adding on: Weekly (small) fast
The church I grew up in didn't really do fasting as a spiritual discipline, or at least if they did they didn't really talk about it. So I was only introduced to it in college, which make me sad because I think it's a beautiful tradition. By giving up something as important as food, we tell God he's more important to us than even our own well-being. This, too can be a joyful occasion: fasting is physically demanding, but we can still feel joy at the fact that Christ has empowered us to perform such an exciting spiritual discipline. My best friend and I are going to do a small fast every Wednesday - for me, this means giving up lunch.
Adding on: Books by Christian authors I disagree with
I like to use Lent as a time to read more, and I like have a theme for my Lenten readings! Last year my themes were race and sexuality, and this year my theme is "books by Christian authors I disagree with."
The Catholic Catechism by John Hardon
The disagreement here is pretty straightforward: I'm not Catholic. But Hardon's book, from what I've seen so far, is historically informed and includes a lot about why the Catholic church teaches what it teaches, so I'm expecting to learn a lot from it. I'm particularly excited to read his defenses of devotion to Mary and of Papal Authority.
A Man Attested By God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels by J.D. Kirk
Kirk's argument is that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are not intended to depict Jesus as divine. He takes great pains to point out that this doesn't imply Jesus is not divine - John's gospel and the rest of the New Testament are enough to establish that. He, in particular, wants to show that as each part of the bible adds its own little piece to the mosaic of Jesus' identity, the Synoptics portray Jesus as some form of "idealized human". I currently disagree with this position, but I think my appreciation of Jesus' humanity (and not just divinity) is fairly underdeveloped, so I'm excited to see what Kirk has to say.
Brother of Jesus, Friend of God by Luke Timothy Johnson
This is a commentary on the book of James! I've never read a biblical studies book by a Catholic author, so I have no idea whether or not it will actually be different from what I'm used to. But I certainly disagree with him on Catholicism, so that was enough for me.
How the Bible Actually Works by Pete Enns
Enns argues that the bible should be read less as a "rulebook" and more as a book intended to produce wisdom. I agree that far, but I know from reading his previous books that Enns has a much "lower" view of scripture than I do. I expect to disagree with a lot of what he has to say, but I'm hoping to gain another hermeneutical lens to be blessed by scripture by.
Ain't I a Womanist, Too?: Third Wave Womanist Thought by Monica A. Coleman
Womanism is a religious movement founded by black women who felt excluded by (primarily white) feminist religious thought. I don't disagree with that per se, but from the introduction of this book it seems like Coleman supports a position that "there are many ways to God" and "all religions are divinely inspired" that I find incompatible with literally everything Jesus ever said or taught. Perhaps I'm misreading it, though - I'm not super familiar with womanist writing yet. We'll see.
The Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Gregory A. Boyd
I generally support a "historical-critical" way of reading the bible, meaning that I believe we should interpret texts as they would have been read by their original readers. There's a clear weak spot in this position, namely that it's not how New Testament authors use the Old Testament. Nevertheless, I think that's a special case due to how the Holy Spirit was working in their pens in a way I don't think he acts today. Boyd, however, defends a different interpretative strategy, which he calls the cruciform hermeneutic: that we should read every Old Testament text in light of Christ's crucifixion. He claims that this gives a more pacificist reading of the depictions of God's violence in the Old Testament, which I think is a noble goal, so I'm very open too being convinced by his case. This is probably the book I'm most excited about.