Thursday, March 30, 2017

Wandering in the Foreign Land of Lent


I wrote this 6 years ago.  I had just converted to Orthodoxy. I had just returned from officiating at my mother’s funeral.  I was in the process of being fired from my position as lecturer in theology and history at a university in Nairobi. I was in the process of being fired by my mission.  My marriage, which had struggled for years, would self-destruct by the end of the year and never recover.  It was a very dark time.  Somehow I made it through this interminable set of class 5+ rapids.  God’s grace gets all the credit.  And the hard work of Lent.

This is what I was thinking back in April of 2011.


Orthodox Lent is about to end and Orthodox Holy Week is about to begin. Both involve fasting, special services, almsgiving and preparing for the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. For the always-have-been Orthodox and the been-Orthodox-for-a-while Orthodox, this is all familiar territory. You’ve got your collection of vegan cookbooks with your favorite fasting recipes; you’ve sorted whether the Vespers with the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is going to be celebrated as a proper vespers on the day of or as an early morning service the following day. You understand when a full prostration is in order or if a metanoia will do.You’ve got St. Ephrem’s prayer down, or at least you have it memorized. You’ve already realized that the 5th Friday of Lent Akathist Hymn service is really not the best service to bring your Protestant friends to.  

Having recently become Orthodox in a place where there are very few Westerners who are Orthodox Christians, I have found navigating Orthodox Lent to be a challenge. Especially when Lent evidently comes with no instructions, at least around here. First, since I live on the campus of an Evangelical theological college and teach classrooms full of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, nobody around me is aware that there is a Lent, except some of the Anglicans. And even for some of them, it’s more a matter of the cliché of ‘giving up chocolate for Lent’ as a kind of add-on to one’s spiritual discipline.  But the real challenge is in the area of hospitality. I have benefitted from the generous hospitality of a number of families who have taken pity on my aloneness while my wife Stephanie is away in the US.  But because few people are aware of Lent or what that might mean, few people are preparing meals with that in mind.  Occasionally someone will ask about what I can eat, and then they will proudly make a vegetarian (but not a vegan) meal. The rule of thumb I have adopted for myself is that I will eat with thanksgiving whatever is put before me by my hosts. The day after my mother’s funeral, this involved being served a meal of the most amazing grilled pork steaks by my sister and her partner who are not Christians but whom I love. My goodness those grilled pork steaks were real good (I slip into southern jus thinkin' about them), and I’m glad the Lord doesn’t seem to keep score of such things. And even my priest says that Lent is not about keeping all these rules, but rather doing what one can as we walk with Jesus towards his passion. 

Not being part of an Orthodox community or even an Orthodox family, it (food) still is a daily and sometimes hourly issue. Even now I am at a conference sponsored by my (non-Orthodox) mission. And the food is really good.  And it has not entered anybody’s mind that this is Lazarus Saturday.  And I’m having to pick and choose because I don’t think ‘vegan’ is even on the vocabulary list here.  But aside from my food challenges, it has been an exhausting time of spiritual intensity, these past 40 days. My mother’s death a month ago, along with a very intense 8 days of travel to do her funeral, then up to Virginia to help choose a house for us to buy, and then back to Kenya to teach a 40 hour theology course in 6 days, as well as grade several other courses’ worth of assignments. And then the actual Lenten goal itself to fast not just from food but from sin, and the resulting clarity with which I am perceiving my own shortcomings, infirmities and fallenness. 

All of this has combined to make me not just know but feel my need for a Savior and calls me to repentance. I’m confronted on every side with problems I can no longer ‘manage’, with issues I can no longer deny, with consequences (of my decision to become Orthodox, for example) that threaten to undo me and my life as I’ve known it.  As I begin the hard plod through Holy Week, I feel like the disciples must have felt in that they had no idea how any of this might turn out or what it might mean or where might this all be going.  


So for me at least, Lent has moved beyond food issues.  I can only wish this were as easy as a bowl of lentil soup and some fresh bread.