Lent was my favorite season when I was in the corporate world. It was a season to slow down, to attend noon services in a chapel not far from my office, to go home at five and take no work with me, to meditate on life and God, and to become more deeply engaged in the life of my parish. You can see where that got me. Into seminary and the pulpit. After that Lent became more problematic. Extra courses of study to lead, quiet days to plan, an uptick in parishioner counseling, Easter arrangements to be finalized, with the usual array of glitches littering the path, and my own desire to be a model of lenten discipline.
In other words, life accelerated during Lent. It wasn’t a bad thing. I enjoyed and was energized by it, but forty days, not counting Sundays, took its toll. It became something like a liturgical triathlon for which I had not adequately trained. Looking back on it, maybe that’s what Advent and Christmas are for. But I digress.
In retirement, Lent has once again become a slow season of contemplative grace, especially on Sundays with the small rural congregation I serve in partnership with two other retired clergy. Most weekday mornings can be filled with as much time for prayer and reading as I desire. I can participate in, as well as lead, whatever special services or events I choose. Lent is a good time.
So what is my lenten discipline now that things have slowed down? It’s something that may take me through all the Lents that remain for me. It’s the problem of learning to love, as Christ loves, the people I don’t like very much, the people I try to avoid if I can. Being in Christian love with people I like is easy. Being charitable in a Christian loving sort of way to people I hardly know, or don’t know at all, is not that hard either. People I really don’t like, well that’s another matter. I do know them, or think I do, and I don’t like them.
My new lenten discipline forces me to confront two very difficult sets of questions. Why don’t I like them, and is that objectively justifiable? What would I have to do or feel to love them as Christ loves them?
One part of the answer has to do with becoming open to hearing their stories, the events of their lives that have formed the persons they have become. Doing that always opens a door to empathy that I had never seen before. But one can’t go around probing into the private lives of everyone one doesn’t like. It’s rude, and more than a bit arrogant. More Christlike is patient listening when the opportunity to listen has been offered by someone who needs to tell their story. And who has time for that, especially when it’s someone you don’t like and don’t want to be around?
I have found that more than a few are eager, hungry even, to tell their stories, and offer frequent clues they hope will entice a willing listener. Becoming more alert to those clues takes some new listening skills of their own, and I’m working on that. And not having the time? In retirement, time is what I do have.
Another, and more important part of the answer, has to do with a truthful self examination of myself. What are the prejudices, unwarranted assumptions, and ignorance that I bring to the judgments I make? What is it that inclines me to like or dislike a person? What about my own story, and the emotional baggage that I haul around with me each day? What obstacles do I place in my own way as I trod the path toward Christian love of neighbor and enemy alike? Nasty little questions aren’t they? They’re especially troublesome because I don’t like to think of my wisdom, long study of ethics, and intelligence as being the bearers of prejudices, unwarranted assumptions, and ignorance. It’s just plain humiliating.
I don’t ignore these sets of questions the rest of the year, but I don’t spend much time on them either. Now, in this Lent, and in each Lent to come, they are the focus of my daily conversation with God, and I trust that I have enough years left to make some progress.