True Repentance During Lent from an Indian Perspective
The season of Lent is fast approaching, yet once again. In Tamil Nadu we do take some special efforts to revive our spiritual life during Lent. The Church arranges for special seasons of prayers and conventions. Personally members of the Church go through some exercises of self denial. Most women who adorn their hair with flowers give up the practice during the season of Lent. Some may go vegetarian and refrain from eating meat. Some who practice a weekly fast may during the season of Lent fast for two days in the week. All the money saved through such special efforts of self denial is offered on Good Friday. Some churches dedicate that offertory for some special project of charity or evangelistic mission. These efforts, however, do not bring about any lasting change in life style. From the day of Easter we lapse back into our consumerist and indulgent lives feeling quite satisfied we have done our bit in response to the great lavish of act of self giving of our Lord for the redemption of the whole world.
The observing of Lent in this way is only an additional mockery of our false and hypocritical ways of our weekly services of worship. For every Sunday, during our worship services we tell lies to God and seldom that bothers us. Especially our prayers of confession and our songs and prayers of dedication are marked with profound sentiments but without any intention to put them to practice. Our intercessions on the other hand make us believe that we have effectively reminded God as to what God needs to be doing!
Shall we take a few minutes to think through what we do Sunday after Sunday at Church. The confession of sins, even if at times very imaginatively composed mainly consists of two parts. We confess our sins of commission which are but the straining of the gnat and swallowing the camel. For it reminds people only of personal lapses and failures at best, leaving out the mega collective sins of male chauvinism, racial pride and prejudices and a definite justification for the globalized economy of which we are all beneficiaries….The other part of our formal confession consists of acts of omission. We say, “we have not done those things which we ought to have done”. What are those things we confess, we have left undone which we ought to have done? If only we take time we will be reminded that as a church, and not just as individuals, there is so much we could have done and could be doing. We could have participated as a congregation in campaigns for human rights action, in campaigns for concerted action to reduce global warming with clear implications for our life styles, for annulment of debts of the developing countries, …we could as a church have decided we shall patronize small vendors and petty shops and not the “Under One Roof Giants”.
In India at the moment many members of the civil society have been outraged by a court giving life sentence to a compassionate physician by name Binayak Sen who had been working among tribal people and had developed friendship ties with a group of armed militants with a view to gaining them over to non violent means. The charge is that he was an abettor of armed revolution. A young woman called Ihrom Sharmila from Manipur in the troubled North East has been on a hunger fast for over ten years. She is kept a prisoner in a hospital and force fed through nasal tubes. She has been demanding the withdrawal of an Act called Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Under this act no member of the armed forces could be charged with rape or murder or extortion. Indian Army are not made up of saints. They abuse the protection offered to the full and the most affected are young women. The Govt has not cared to abrogate the law even in face of many proven offences. What is worse the educated Christians neither know what is AFSPA nor of Ihrom Sharmila’s protest fast for the last ten years. During the watch night service on 31/12/10 I asked for a show of hands among an educated congregation as to how many had heard of Binayak Sen or of Ihrom Sharmila. In a congregation well over two hundred not even half a dozen hands could be counted. Yet, week after week we keep confessing, “We have left undone those things we ought to have done”
Now let us take note of the blatant and daring lies we tell God during our songs and prayers of dedication. “When I survey the wondrous cross” is a hymn that is sung quite frequently in our services. In it the 3rd verse reads “Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were an offering far too small, Love so amazing so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Whatever, our church tradition in the closing prayer of thanksgiving after the Holy Communion we say, “… we offer our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice which is a reasonable service” echoing Romans 12: 2. Even before we reach home for breakfast or lunch what we promised to God is neatly forgotten. In India services are held quite early around 8 am and so most pious people prefer not to eat anything before they have partaken of the Holy Communion. It never occurs to us that such practices are no substitute for what we say to God about living a life of reasonable service.
Long years ago, when I was teaching in the seminary, leading a worship service, I said we should not utter anything which we do not mean and suggested that maybe next time round if someone announced a song echoing the sentiments of “When I survey the wondrous cross” when we came to sing the third verse if there was total silence for none of us dare sing that verse truly, only then could we be sure that we as a community mean business with God. Hardly a week passed by, when some other worship leader announced a song of total dedication all of us sang with gusto.
If such are our callous ways of uttering lies in the presence of God our intercessory prayers suffer from a very big theological misunderstanding. We as a Church seem to assume that it is our duty to express our concerns to God in the hope that would somehow prod God from inaction to vigorous activity to do something about those concerns. So bidding prayers are offered for world peace, for world hunger, for wisdom and guidance to church leaders and to the leaders of the nation…with a refrain “Lord have mercy” or “Let our cry come unto thee”… And there is a concluding prayer that God gives even before we ask, or that God should give even those things which we due to our ignorance have not asked and for our unworthiness had not dared to ask…So having expressed our concern we disperse with a sense of satisfaction that our prayers went beyond our personal needs!
The basic fallacy is that we fail to stop to listen to what God says to our prayers. When we pray for peace God wants to remind us that peace making is our job as children of God. When we pray for world hunger, God wants to remind us that we are unthinking participants of the lopsided economy which make people go hungry even when there is plenty and so it is we who ought to be taking the necessary steps for alleviating world hunger, when we pray for our leaders in Church and Nation God wants to remind us that it is we who choose our leaders… So unless we do our part in all the matters we pray for God can do nothing. “Prayer and action are unconquerable companions” as a famous pastor/preacher put it.
So this lent, in addition to acts of self denial and reordering our personal lives let us give a little more thought to the way we live and work for God in God’s world.
Dr. Dhyanchand Carr, Indian Theologian/Pastor and former Common Global Ministries board member