By Bishop L. Jonathan Holston
“But there’s also this, it’s not too late—God’s personal message! ‘Come back to me and really mean it! Come fasting and weeping, sorry for your sins!’ Change your life, not just your clothes. Come back to God, your God. And here’s why: God is kind and merciful. He takes a deep breath, puts up with a lot, this most patient God, extravagant in love, always ready to cancel catastrophe. Who knows? Maybe he’ll do it now, maybe he’ll turn around and show pity. Maybe, when all’s said and done, there’ll be blessings full and robust for your God!”—Joel 2:12-14 (The Message)
As we prepare to embark this month upon our Lenten journey, we do so in the midst of a world that is in need of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our world is constantly changing as the next new technology bursts on the scene. The 24-hour news cycle means that we either hear about one crisis after another or, on a “slow news day,” we hear about the same crisis over and over and over again.
The nature of our public discourse has changed, as well. It seems the use of hate speech and words that hurt and divide is becoming commonplace. As hateful words escalate, one wonders what will happen next.
In the midst of trying times, we are called during Lent to a time of self-examination and reflection. Lent is a time for us to focus on our relationship with God and to take stock of our own spiritual condition.
Many have heard me tell the story of being appointed to pastor a predominantly white congregation in the affluent Buckhead community in Atlanta. The morning after my introductory visit, I received the “phone call.” A member of the church called to ask me the question, “What do we call you?” I answered, “You can call me pastor, reverend, Jonathan....” He stopped me. “No,” he said. “I mean what do we call you? Are you black? African American? Negro? What do we call you?”
As understanding dawned on me, I asked him, “Well, what do you call me?” His response came quickly. “I’m from South Georgia, and I call you colored.”
At this point, I shared with him that the copy of my birth certificate that I carried in my wallet growing up had the letter “C” in the section entitled “race.” That “C” stands for colored.
“My father,” I said, “told me my life would not be defined by one letter but by the content of my character.” Then I asked him, “What should I call you? White? Caucasian? Or something else?”
“Touché,” he said.
“My name is Jonathan. Why don’t we start there, and as we get to know one another we can meet in the middle.”
And thus began a beautiful friendship. We were able to learn to trust one another because the subject of our racial differences was put on the table where we could talk about it rather than kept under the table and hidden away.
In this Lenten season, the question of self-examination and reflection resounds for us, as well. Are we living lives that shine God’s light into the world? How are we practicing the means of grace through works of piety and works of mercy that point to the saving grace of Jesus Christ in our lives? Are we doing our part, in our own circles of influence, to speak words of hope and to act in ways that build up rather than tear down?
Noted novelist and social critic James Baldwin said it this way: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Lent is often a time when Christians give something up. We choose to do without a favorite food in order to demonstrate our devotion to Jesus Christ and to remember his sacrifice. Others choose to add something during this season, such as volunteering in a ministry or offering the gift of time to make a difference.
Indeed, it is a time to focus on our relationship with God, as well as to take stock of our spiritual condition—and “maybe, when it’s all said and done, there’ll be blessings full and robust for your God.”
May it be so.
By Bishop L. Jonathan Holston