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Lent: important or impotent?

Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson

March 15, 2019

Walls, barriers and fences have been used to describe the structure that is intended to be used as an obstacle for individuals entering the southern border of the United States, fleeing violence, famine, illness and poverty. America has long been held as the land of opportunity, the place that has given countless immigrants and foreigners opportunities to live better lives. There continues to be an intentional effort to construct or enhance walls to prevent migrants seeking help from entering. Walls are obstacles that are put in place to prevent access. While a wall is a physical structure that separates and prevents access or is an obstacle, it is also a spiritual and emotional structure. For some, these walls are defense mechanisms in place for security. An emotional wall may be erected, and an individual may not be aware of it. There are several reasons people erect emotional walls: traumatic experiences, fear of the unknown, mental illness and more. The reality is, everyone is capable of erecting emotional walls.

Christians are not immune from erecting walls. Our current social atmosphere is indicative of this. The community of faith is as polarized as the political community. Unfortunately, Christian history is filled with physical and spiritual walls, from the catacombs to the Reformation. In an effort to protect themselves from being assaulted, and violated from other acts of aggression, the early church found it necessary to erect walls. These were both physical and spiritual walls. Believers of the early church gathered for worship in catacombs or cemeteries for safety. (1) This allowed them to seek refuge from the assault and violence of persecution.

However, while walls were erected, they were also being dismantled. The Desert Fathers retreated from walled cities to find refuge in the wilderness. (2) Monastic communities took root outside of city walls. One might say that these communities erected walls as well. The walls that were erected were walls offering sanctuary. Inside these hallowed walls, spiritual disciplines were practiced and developed. Spiritual disciplines like fasting and prayer led those within the hallowed walls of monastic communities to find courage, strength and faith to live beyond, and in spite of, the defense mechanisms of erecting spiritual and emotional walls. The nurturing of these spiritual disciplines within the hallowed walls of monastic communities birthed spiritual sojourners who laid the foundation of the modern church. Sojourners like Anthony, Athanasius and Irenaeus nurtured monastic communities that flourished through spiritual disciplines—disciplines that catapulted them over walls of separation to minister to others. The modern mystic that seeks the inward journey will find more than an island of refuge. The one who truly embarks on the path of the inward journey leaves the comforts of this world behind and is willing to depend on the Creator.

Many will embark on a spiritual quest during the season of Lent. This quest could be an inward journey of discovery or an inward journey of self-deception. Those who sought refuge in monastic communities sometimes were fleeing from the challenges of life. Martin Luther is an example of one who sought sanctuary within the monastic community. (3) Within the sanctuary of the monastic community, Luther would find the answer to the question his soul sought. On the inward journey, Luther discovered the message that would revolutionize the church. Luther, along with others, demonstrate the magnitude of an inward journey. The change to one’s personhood is profound.

Lent offers the opportunity to seek more of the Divine, an opportunity to dive deeper into the spiritual discipline and be profoundly shaped by one’s inward journey. On this journey, there may be voices that attempt to persuade you to abort the quest. However, as you incline toward the journey, the voices of deception will hopefully grow weaker. Here, the one on the inward journey hears, “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10 NRSV) I was fortunate enough to experience such a profound depth during a Lenten experience early in ministry. It was on this inward journey of fasting and prayer that ministry for me opened up beyond the walls of the local church. As I leaned into the journey, I began to see the Social Gospel of the ministry of Christ. The more I leaned into the inward journey, the more I was able to see the expansive work of the gospel.

While Lent offers believers a great opportunity for self-reflection and spiritual growth, Dr. Howard Thurman, who died in 1981, noted “the inward journey of personal transformation and the outward journey of social transformation could not be separated.” (4)  I found Thurman’s writing in seminary nearly a decade later. Thurman’s musings fed my spiritual life during seasons of Lent. Here, in the words of this African American mystic, my spiritual and personal transformation expanded. Although I was aware of Dr. Martin Luther King’s concept of the Beloved Community, it was not until connecting with Thurman I realized that King’s Beloved Community would not be a reality until there was discontent with the status quo of community from humanity as a whole. The concept of community is broader than one’s neighborhood, city or state. The concept of community is global. In the season of Lent, we are called to the spiritual discipline of fasting and prayer as a community.  

The season of Lent offers an opportunity to be intentional about one’s spiritual journey. As we struggle with overcoming our own spiritual and emotional challenges, may we grow towards finding common ground among brothers and sisters with differences.

The season of Lent offers an opportunity to be intentional about one’s spiritual journey. As we struggle with overcoming our own spiritual and emotional challenges, may we grow towards finding common ground among brothers and sisters with differences. In this potent season, a season that is fertile with new possibilities and enormous opportunities, may we “now go forth to save the land of our birth from the plague that first drove us into the ‘will to quarantine’ and separate ourselves behind self-imposed walls.” (5) The impotence of Lent is to be self-centered, an island unto oneself. We are not islands unto ourselves, we are connected, woven together in a tapestry called life. In this season of Lent, our lives can be open to new possibilities or recycled with stale crumbs. The choice is ours.

The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.


(1) Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, HarperCollins Publisher, NY, 1984, 95. 

(2)  Ibid., 138

(3)  Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2: The Reformation to the Present Day, HarperCollins Publisher, NY, 1985, 15.

(4)  Harding, Vincent, Beckwith, Michael B. and Walker, Alice. The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman. Sound True Inc, CO. 2010, 13.

(5) Thurman, Howard. The Search for Common Ground, Friends United Press, IN., 2000, 104.

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