Just now over at Tennessee Tech in the Tree House Village, we’re studying Jon Krakauer’s book Into The Wild in American Literature class. The story tells of the short hot life and tragic death of Chris McCandless, who would have turned 45, same age as me shy a few months, just last week. But Chris, also known as Alexander Supertramp, starved to death in Alaska in 1992.
Chris fled alone to Alaska on a one-man trip, a self-imposed initiation rite of passage and vision quest, to face the terror and beauty and solitude that raw reality had for him. Sadly unprepared in terms of provisions and supplies (a stash of granola bars or trail mix, better weapons or compass anyone?), Chris’s demise was probably unintentional and accidental according to Krakauer, perhaps he had every plan to get out of the outback and return to life a better man for it.
A college graduate and middle-class American, McCandless donated almost 25,000 dollars to charity and abandoned most of his possessions before beginning his journey. Chris created a ritualized way of becoming a man in a culture that has removed many of these rituals from the mainstream of our life, though some are attained in activities like boot camps and mission trips and Outward Bound-type experiences.
Many people diagnosed a Chris a selfish kook who was too self-absorbed to keep in touch with his family, too stupid to pack a backpack properly, and too crazy to not have a better escape plan. But I know another kook who tells us abandon our material possessions, reject our families of birth for a tribe of fellow followers, and who himself was led by the Spirit “into the wild.” That crazy indigenous middle-eastern hippy shaman is of course our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Now I am not telling us (nor did I instruct the students over at Tech) to pull a McCandless and drop out and run away, but I hope that at this Lenten time we can pause and remember that Jesus did in fact fast in the wilderness for 40 days, that Jesus was tested by the devil, that Jesus did turn down Satan’s seductive offers to attain the worldly power that He was surely entitled to and capable of.
Moreover, whatever approach we take to Lent, I hope that we will take it seriously and sincerely, understand that as disciples of Jesus we are called to seek Him and follow Him and worship Him but also to imitate him.
This last week among my Christian friends online and in my reading and research, I have witnessed a lot of discussion and debate about the true meaning of Lent.
Some people ignore the annual observation and liturgical practice as too Catholic, even going so far as to demonize Lent as pagan. Others take on some small discipline or daily act of modest ascetic denial, but wish to do this so quietly and unassumingly so that nobody notices.
By now this year, we’ve all heard the jokes about the Pope giving up his job for Lent. Or the smart-aleck types giving up their New Year’s resolutions for Lent or just simply giving up Lent for Lent. Quite seriously though, provocative philosophers like Peter Rollins and others challenge us to give up God or religion for Lent, implying that we’ve made such cartoonish idolatrous caricatures of our God and religion that the main thing keeping us from God and religion are, well, you guessed it, God and religion.
Then there are the people who warn us not to give up anything for Lent lest we be perceived as turning God into our self-help life coach who will help us quit smoking and lose 20 pounds. The real hard-core compassionate Mother Theresas among us implore that we take something on for Lent like serving the poor or ending all war or abolishing the prison industrial complex.
Just as we don’t be like the Christmas and Easter Christians who worship politely just twice a year, we certainly wouldn’t want to be only Advent and Lent followers either, just adding several weeks at the top of either season.
All said, the seasons of the church year are incredibly important at the same time they are likely just as “pagan” as the critics of the liturgical year claim. All said, we probably don’t need an excuse to live a better life, yet in all honesty, we need every excuse and all the help we can muster to do just that. Let us seek each and every opportunity to love God with all our devotion and love God’s family with all our desire.
For me personally, I prefer a vision quest. Granted, with the phase I went through in my 20s and 30s, I took an awfully long time to grow up, but the flashes of white light I saw along the way ultimately turned me away from many false prophets and pretend messiahs and turned my heart on the true Light of Jesus. For me, any change of pace is welcome; the intensification of experience is part of what life is all about; I once sought that through varieties of abundance; today, to seek that in disciplines of abstinence seems just right. If I am honest, I want to follow Jesus into the wild. I want to see God in nature and take the tests that life has set out for me. I want the vision, but I don’t always want to pay the ticket price to see the light.
Frankly, we’re repentant for our sins but often not repentant enough. Moreover, we’re grateful for God’s love and grace but often not grateful enough. If Lent will make us more repentant and grateful, how is this not a good thing? In fact, we do a lot to serve the poor, create peace, and restore creation, but to look around the world, we know we’re not doing enough. If Lent inspires us to do more, how is this not a good thing? This is not to say that we can “lent our way” into God’s mercy and grace any more than we can earn our way; this is no Lenten Olympics reality-show to see who can engage in more and better self-denial. The love is already here in God. Lent is only one more opportunity to live like we accept it & to extend that love like we mean it.