As of this posting, there are 23 days left until the Presidential election and I am halfway through a self-imposed season of Election Lent. Most of us “religious types” know what Lent is: a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. The length of the Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, not counting Sundays), beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Easter Sunday. During Lent, participants are encouraged to eat sparingly or give up a particular food or habit. The purpose of Lenten self-discipline is to focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God.[i] It’s six weeks of self-discipline. For my Election Lent exercise, I decided to give up watching any news about the upcoming presidential election on November 8. I actually did okay for a few days.
I began my Lenten season of political television starvation because I didn’t like the person I was becoming after subjecting myself to it on a daily basis. This past year of bipartisan party politics were bad enough during the presidential primaries; but since the Republican and Democratic conventions, the engine of our political discourse has gone off the rails. I couldn’t wait to get home from work and switch on MSNBC, CNN and other nightly newscasts to get my daily dose of political poison for the day. I had become more than a political junkie. I was becoming a voyeur of violent communication. I think I actually started to crave it. It was an addictive behavior that at its deepest cognitive level confirmed my own self-righteousness…my subjective idea of right and wrong. It richly fed my demonization of those who didn’t believe the way I did and gave me permission to champion the divisiveness growing between the educated and working class throughout our country.
It all started with a comment I posted on Facebook. I was offended by something that was said at the Commander-in-Chief forum and I posted my outrage on social media. The response was overwhelming, both positive and negative. At that point I realized that my disdain for others across the political spectrum was eating away at my carefully constructed (and sincerely perceived) acceptance of all God’s children. I was becoming exactly what I stood against: intolerance.
And I admit that the last few days of this presidential campaign have given me a sense of glee and renewed hope. Maybe my candidate will win after all, and I smile inside. That’s when I realized that the attempt at only giving something up for my Election Lenten season was a failed endeavor and not in the spirit of Lent at all. I tried to deny myself the emotional experiences of anger, despair and disgust, but I didn’t replace it with something sacred or spiritually disciplined. I realized that my summer sabbatical from biblical storytelling had deeply influenced me, and I was feeling the effects of not learning “scripture by heart” each week.
Yet I was reminded of the transformative power of embodying scripture after reading a blog post by my friend and doctoral colleague from seminary. Her post encouraged me to end my sabbatical. And once I began learning the epistle lesson by heart for Sunday’s worship at my home church; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, the words of the apostle Paul began to realign my spiritual consciousness. Timothy was given some expert advice by his spiritual mentor on confronting the influx of false teachers and competing evangelists to his ministry in Asia Minor. Paul encouraged Timothy to stick very closely to the Word. While scholars have debated which “Word” Paul is referring to (Torah?) since we suspect that the gospels had yet to be penned, I understood this Word to mean any instruction God gives us to help guide our daily living and inform our being. This Word is “inspired” by God to close the gap between our earthly existence and our essential godly nature. This Word has an extraordinary quality, as if arising from some external creative impulse. For me, this Word is the testimony of Jesus and those who follow his way.
A few verses from this Word to Timothy jumped out at me. “Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Preach the Word. Be ready to do it whether it is convenient or inconvenient. Correct, confront, and encourage with patience and instruction. But you must keep control of yourself in all circumstances. Endure suffering, do the work of the preacher of the good news, and carry out your service fully.”[ii] It’s like Paul was writing that letter directly to me.
As a preacher I value the correction I receive when embodying scripture. Because when you internalize the biblical story in such a way (learning by heart) it cleanses the junk that builds up from living in a world full of sin (disconnection from God). I am progressive enough to believe that sin does not mean people, personality or behavior. But sin is any mental attitude that separates us or others from knowing that they are loved by God, no matter what they say or do. Sin is denying our true nature as God’s perfect creation. And so, as I conclude the second half of my Election Lenten journey, I have a renewed revelation of this important spiritual discipline.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”[iii]
To live like that, and fully embody these words of St. Francis is a spiritual discipline I want to practice now…during this Election Lent, and long after the election has ended. Some call that just being a Christian. Because no matter the outcome, we will need to pray for healing in our country. May it start now, with each of us.
Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer!
[ii] 2 Timothy 3:15, 4:2, 5 (CEB)
Rev. Dr. Brice Thomas is the Director of Alumni/ae Relations and Adjunct Faculty at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is also called to bi-vocational ministry at Harmony Creek Church in Dayton, an emerging congregation.