The post-Mardi Gras period has descended upon Mobile. Any longtime resident of Mobile recognizes the signs: the snakelike pattern of barricades winding their way through the streets of downtown Mobile have disappeared, wayward beads can be spotted tangled in downtown trees, others are being dutifully collected to make the yearly pilgrimage to Krispy Kreme to trade beads for doughnuts, and grudgingly, school kids are returning after a week-long vacation, happily sent back by their parents.
Also, it’s Lent. The time after Mardi Gras that Christians observe, starting with Ash Wednesday and culminating the week of Easter, as a time of spiritual cleansing, renewal and dedication. A time when many are drying out, literally, as they put down the consumption of alcohol due to the excesses of Mardi Gras, and figuratively as they purify themselves spiritually by setting aside something of importance as an act of consecration to God. Even those who consider themselves nominally religious adhere to the yearly Lenten ritual of abstaining from some perceived vice or excess.
Yet, I would submit that with the attention given to what can be given up during this season, it should also be a time of considering and acting upon what we can give ourselves too. Oftentimes derisively, many across the nation are quick to remind those of us living in the Deep South that we’re immersed in the heart of the “Bible Belt.” Religion, like football, is seen as a bedrock of Southern society.
A cursory ride throughout any Southern city or town confirms that such perception is indeed a reality. Churches are ubiquitous. Yet, it seems the pervasiveness of church buildings and edifices has not translated into religion having a positive transformational and energizing presence in Southern society. To be sure, religion definitely has a phenomenal impact on Southern life and culture (consider the current drama playing out over same-sex marriage). But I’m speaking of religion as a motivating force used to make the lives of people better and change society in a positive way. Besides, did not the founder of Christianity seek to address the physical as well as spiritual needs of people?
However, in many instances, churches abound in areas where blight and decay abound as well. Indeed, in some cases it can be oxymoronic that churches can exist and flourish while the areas around them languish in squalor.
Martin Luther King, Jr. profoundly noted that, “preachers must develop a relevant and creative ministry for those in the valley.” That valley in a person’s life can be spiritual or physical, and many times it’s both, but a transformative religion meets a person there and provides a pathway out.
For religion to be transformational, it has to minister to the practical. For example, what if churches took the mindset of “adopting a block” or “adopting an area” clearing and maintaining dilapidated homes, keeping lots clean, assisting elderly or less fortunate homeowners within the church’s immediate vicinity with practical help for the upkeep of their home?
Even if churches are not in the more distressed parts of town, could they not partner with those that are to address and help rectify such problems? Yes, urban renewal is one of the responsibilities of city government, but doesn’t the church have a mandate as well?
When I think of Lent, these are the sort of thoughts and actions I believe we’re called to renew ourselves to.
In his best-selling book “Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” Malcolm Gladwell observed it only takes 5 percent of a community acting as role models in order for that community to stabilize. Five percent!
However, if the institutions, which by their very nature should be creating and molding role models — churches — are not connected, active and involved with distressed communities, how then can they be the effective instruments of change that they should be? Disconnectedness, aloofness, and irrelevance are not the signs of a transformational and vitalic religion.
The Old Testament prophets made known that God was not moved by ornate edifices and magnificent buildings erected in his name, but by the priorities and state of a person’s heart shown in how a person treats others. As we build mega-churches, add on this wing or that new structure, or even start one’s own religious ministry (as is very popular now) let us keep in mind the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah: “And what does the Lord require? That you should do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
During this Lenten season, let us remember it’s not just what we’re willing to give up for a season that’s important, but the causes and priorities we commit to for a lifetime.