FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 03/11/2010

Go Communal: A Lenten Reflection

March 10, 2010                               Volume 3 Issue 5
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Sharon Galgay Ketcham

I’ve given up many sugary substances during past Lenten seasons. One year chocolate, the next soda, and the hardest? Sugar in my coffee.  
The practice of fasting or abstaining from something delicious during the 40 days of Lent is an ancient discipline, one that’s supposed to help the faithful prepare for Good Friday and then Easter. Typically, Lenten sacrifices are an individual practice, supporting a uniquely personal spiritual quest.  
Lately, though, I’ve been finding it more and more peculiar that we focus on an individual custom in preparation for a community celebration.

Of course, in a society like ours that emphasizes the individual above the community, I shouldn’t be surprised that religious practices have followed suit. Individualism is in the DNA of Americans.  We define maturity as independence, our common pursuit in parenting is to raise self-sufficient children, and marketers have great success selling individuality. Many in American religious circles even view their faith as primarily an individual journey, between God and me.
But there’s something in the air, rumblings perhaps of a different nature. I’ve been hearing it often these past few years in a variety of places and it reminds me—especially during this Lenten season—that there is something more to religious life than . . . me.  
In politics, for instance, Hillary Clinton adapted the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” to the American context, asserting our national responsibility for children. Hers was a political call to go communal.  
In education, researcher and educator Chris Watkins defined knowledge not as a static entity that allows us to pass the entry key to students in the classroom. Rather we co-construct knowledge in the classroom as teacher and student discover and interpret together. This is an educational call to go communal.  
In philosophy, Descartes’ “doubting self” as sole agent in the quest for discovery of the real is overshadowed by Levinas’ “face of the other,” which we cannot ever see clearly, but to whom we are ethically bound; hence, a philosophical call to go communal.

In advertising, brand managers create connections around a cup of coffee or an athletic shoe, and in films, we rally for the underdog (like the character Michael Oher in “The Blind Side”) who makes us feel a part of something bigger. Both are cultural calls to go communal.
I find this ‘communal turn’ swirling around us a welcome counterbalance to our over-emphasis on the individual, especially in light of an historic faith thousands share during this Lenten season. But it also prompts me to ask hard questions: Are other people only companions with whom I share a common journey? Are others merely useful for my own spiritual benefit? Do I only connect with fellow pilgrims for personal gain?
Still, amidst an ideology that prizes the individual, such questions are secondary at best, irrelevant at worst. For as Yale scholar and theologian Miraslav Volf stresses, communion with other believers, “is not an addendum to communion with God.” No matter how solitary or private our faith might feel, we are not on individual paths with the Almighty. We are part of a community’s journey and others are integral to it.
Many voices, old and new, press us out of our self-focused paradigms and into the truth that we are really corporate beings, living always in dynamic relationships with others. Even the weekly meeting together of fellow disciples—known as church—is more than a gathering of individuals; in religious educator Thomas Groome’s words, we are “becoming Christian together.”  
Lent then holds a new possibility: a communal call. We walk the Lenten road toward Passion Week doing more than closing our eyes in personal reflection. We open them wide to others, seeing them through the light that shines from the center point of Easter, the newness of a Life once dead offered for those he loved.
And in the process, we can consider the selfish ways we act that might damage others. We can take care to use words that extend grace and promote peace. We can attune our ears toward the voices around us that we often silence by our own. Perhaps we can even fast from our fascination with our personalized religions, and extend our hand more frequently to our neighbor.
In other words, Easter can arrive during Lent this year when we allow the activity of truth to transform our communities of faith from a collective “me” to a corporate “we.”  
Sharon Galgay Ketcham is assistant professor of Christian Ministries at Gordon College. She and her family live in Plaistow, New Hampshire.


Sharon Ketcham portrait