“Do not be deceived; you reap what you sow. If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.”Dwight L. Moody
As a culture and civilization the post-modern West of the 21st Century is quite peculiar. It (we, really) do not have much regard for tradition, for customs, for the ways of our ancestors. Most cultures and civilizations (and there are still quite a few others out there despite our Western global encroachment on everybody else) still place a high value on the things that have made them who and what they are. Somehow, we have gone in an almost diametrically opposed direction. Somehow we expect to survive and thrive by turning our backs on most of what has made us what we have become. We also prefer to denigrate and devalue most of the people who once upon a time played the greatest roles in that becoming.
In a (relatively) short blog such as this it is impossible to explain or describe with any justice how this amazing state of affairs has come to be, let alone the “why”. And naturally, for any sense I could propose to make of it, a myriad of other voices, more potent and noteworthy, would rise up to denounce or disprove my interpretation. Which is at least in line with what the West has been for the last three hundred years – a society open to the challenge of new ideas which can be debated and accepted or rejected, or perhaps nuanced into something more true and balanced.
My point here is that for those of us noting and to some extent currently observing a certain season called “Lent” in English, we now find ourselves in a twilight zone, a cultural back-eddy, while the vast majority of our co-travelers on the S.S. West are either oblivious to it or could care less even if they have heard of it.
Here are two of the probable reasons for our amnesic cultural disregard of Lent – a chosen amnesia which is symptomatic of the greater current we find ourselves in on our ship’s journey. For Lent is a practice found only in Christianity, although, as we previously noted, other traditions have their own times of fasting, self-denial, and spiritual reflection. And, in the West, until perhaps sixty years ago, awareness of this season would have been pretty general throughout the ship’s company, even if many of the voyagers did not observe it.
I rather like the play on words which the English name for this solemn season opens up – even though it doesn’t work in any other language I know of. “Lent” reminds me that my time aboard Spaceship Earth has been “lent” to me by our Creator or, if you prefer, the universe. I do not own my time. It is a gift to me, lent to me for as long as I live and breathe. There is a Bible verse in the Book of Acts which reminds me of this, when a man named Paul tells the great philosophers of his day in Athens that everyone lives on borrowed time, that “the Unknown God” is the One in whom we all “live and move and have our being”. Basically he’s telling them (and us via them, for we are very much like those skeptics of two thousand years ago), that we didn’t make ourselves, that we have very little power to change the nature of reality (self-delusions aside), and that there is a Power far higher and greater than any we can conceive of to whom we owe both life and even our feeble ability to understand existence itself.
Thus, Lent points us to something that, Christian or not, sceptic or not, atheist or not (as many of that crowd of the intellectual elite of that age were), we must all face: we are not God; we are not gods; we did not just appear as some sort of cosmic hiccup that the ever-gyrating maelstrom of universal energy suddenly and quite unintentionally just barfed up one “day”. And yes, even back in Paul’s long-ago day, that was a serious philosophical and proto-scientific proposal which both Greek and Roman thinkers had considered – Democritus on the Greek side and Lucretius on the Roman side being two examples of such thinkers who were taken quite seriously by the great professorial and sartorial dons of Athens to whom Paul spoke.
The second part of thinking about life being (like) “Lent” is that something “lent” is supposed to be returned to the lender. If we realize that this “lender” is in fact the Creator (once we get past our arrogance and blinding pride about being “in charge or our own life and forgers of our own destiny” – or perhaps our call to “self-actualize” in this age’s usual ultra-individualist formulation), it puts a whole different perspective on who we are and why we are here (two of the most basic of all questions of existence, questions everyone who thinks asks at some point).
But what do we make of someone who refuses to admit they have borrowed, or been given, the most basic thing they have, with an expectation from the Lender, or Giver, that that precious thing will be returned in good working order? Or perhaps rather that it will have been used to enhance the lives and general well-being of all the rest of what the Giver had created. What will the Lender-Giver make of such an outcome as refusing to accept the conditions or mandate of being gifted?
In our dominant current Western way of thinking about it (or, rather, adopting an avoidance-strategy in order not to think about this), if there is indeed a Lender-Giver, He-She-It-They will just be so kind, generous, and loving that it won’t matter. It’ll be a big shrug of disappointed love at worst, but have no real bearing on what, if anything, follows.
We are not going to rehash the old debates about heavenly rewards and hellish punishments. There is, however, the issue of reaping and sowing. If I sow a life-course that is based almost entirely on personal satisfaction and self-fulfillment, what return have I made to the Giver for having invested in me as a contributor the Big Vision of creating a better, more harmonious universe? It does not take Christian theology to know that, eventually, generally, “you reap what you sow” and “if you sow the wind you shall reap the whirlwind”. What we all find as we come into the world is what is being reaped from our ancestors, their works, their words, and their deeds. This sobering realization begs us to think about what we are bequeathing our own descendants, at least once in a while.
Lent is a good time to consider our sowing and reaping, our use of what has been lent to us by the Creator, or, if you prefer, our ancestors and the universe. It is a good time to consider how to improve our use of the great gifts we have been given, and how to stop abusing them – whether those gifts be other people and their gifts of love to us, or the gifts of resources and time we find all around us.
Fasting is a practice often associated with Lent. In line with sowing and reaping and learning to truly appreciate and value the gifts we have, and the Giver who gives them, practicing a little self-restraint to teach ourselves to begin returning love for love and appreciation for the gift of life, which comes before all others, would not be out of place.
Which is where tradition comes back in. Tradition is a way of acknowledging how much has been passed on to us by those who have preceded us. Traditions recognize that our forebears sowed into our lives and created things we enjoy. They gifted us, in many cases with loving intent, and with a faith that what they were passing to us would make our lives better, would enhance our ability to give back in the future. In our trendy phrase, they are saying “pay it forward”.
The West has by and large chosen to discount many of the best gifts of the previous generations, especially those coming out of the religious and concomitant moral aspects our cultural heritage. Consequently, the West has also by and large lost its coherence and way. “Without a vision for the future, people perish,” and struggle to find viable ways to maintain any coherent sense of worth about both themselves and their world.
So we now find our ship S.S. West aimlessly meandering, perpetually searching for some anchorage. The port of haven is proposed in the shifting target of the supreme humanist values of individual identity and rights and freedoms. As good as these may be theory, they have to be continually redefined to suit the newest trends. It is time for the West to begin practicing some of the old Lent discipline and turn towards the compass of a much Higher Ground of Being than mere personal preferences.
The foundations are shaking, and it may just be that the Creator is allowing the ground to quake beneath us and the whirlwind to stir around us, according to the old law of reaping and sowing. The wake-up Trumpet may be tuning up.