Lent – A Different Approach

Lent – A Different Approach

February 16, 2013
Stina Pope

If you have been around me any length of time, you probably know that I hold the practice of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) in high regard. I try to use it in many places in my life, and encourage others to do the same.

What makes AI different? It always looks and listens for the positive instead of looking for the negative; it focuses on what is working, rather than what is not working. Put very simply, it suggests crowding out the negative by increasing the positive.
So here we are in Lent, and one of the typical things we do in Lent is to look at our sins. In the Episcopal tradition, this is the time when people are encouraged to think about making their confession to the priest. There are two forms one may use in our prayer book, if that is helpful, and the clergy always say this about private confession: all may, none must, some should.

Now I actually believe that making private confession is a really powerful thing to do. The Protestants mostly threw it out, saying that the general confession that we say during the service is enough. I would contend that AA’s 4th and 5th Steps are a way for Protestants to recapture the concept of private confession, or, as we call it now, the rite of reconciliation. It is good for the soul to make time to look at what one has done with one’s life over the past year, and to acknowledge that one’s activities have not always been stellar – in fact, sometimes they were downright hurtful, whether we intended them to be or not! In the Christian tradition, that time of soul-searching is highlighted in the season of Lent.

So how does that work with AI? What is AI’s understanding of sin? Doesn’t the positive view of humanity preclude looking at sin? Well, no! Sin is a bad thing. That is not the issue. We all agree that sin is a bad thing. What is at issue, when we use AI, or are thinking about using AI, is what to do about sin.

The usual response to sin is to focus on it. From an AI perspective, we ask: does that work? When we focus on sin, we beat our breasts, feel guilty and so on, does it work? The answer is no, absolutely not! St Paul is pretty clear in the Epistle to the Romans that the more he tries to stop sinning, the worse it gets. The power that sin has is to keep you sinning – and miserable.
What about guilt? Does that work? The problem with guilt is that we feel it after we do something, not before. If we felt guilt before we did the sin, it might work, but probably not, because it is a negative emotion. So making someone, including yourself, feel guilty about the action, will just keep you trapped. Again, it does not help, and does make you miserable.

The AI answer to sin is not less sin. Rather, we look at what we want instead of sin. If sin is what gets in the way between us and God, then what we want is to get closer to God, right? If sin is what gets in the way between us and other people, then what we want is to get closer to other people, right? The theological way to put that is that we want to grow in grace and love. The closer we are to God, the more we will be living in the pure light of grace. In that light of grace and love, you are free to sin and free not to sin. In that light of grace and love, sin becomes uninteresting and loses its power.
Remember, light always wins over darkness, because darkness is only the absence of light.

So what would an Appreciative Lent look like? We start, always, by looking at the goal or outcome we want. So! Do you want to have less sin? Or more grace? Well, when you put it like that, the answer seems obvious! OK, so do you want to have “less death” or to have life? Who wants “less death” if the alternative is life? Do you want to be less afraid or to grow in love? The last one kind of puts you back on your heels, doesn’t it? The alternative to love is fear. So if we want to love more, we have to let go of the fear. Now that’s an amazing discipline for Lent!

So what about this “giving up” business. Isn’t Lent about giving things up? What we do using AI is to start with the goal you want. Understand that there is no life in what we say “no” to – unless it is saying no to a temporary distraction to grace and love. In other words, a “little no” can be a window to a profound YES! Giving up watching the television would fall into that category. If I give up watching the TV in order to spend time with a friend, that is a little no that opens a yes to love. So we use goals to “shape” the focus of Lent. It is fine to have a negative, as long as it is in the pursuit of something profoundly life-giving.

Rob Voyle says: “There is absolutely no life in what we say no to. There is only life in what we say yes to. If Lent is only a time of denial it will be a time of death.” Death is not always bad. Real transformation usually requires the death of something. But think about this! When we want to have transformation, we are focusing on the good thing we want to get by going through the often hard work of transformation.

So here are some questions for us to ponder for Lent: What is the goal you want? What do you want for an outcome? Where are things not wonderful in your life? Pick one thing to work with. Lift that up briefly, and then think about it this way: If that area of your life was wonderful, instead of not wonderful, what would it look like? Perhaps you realize that there is one person that you have a hard time being with. Perhaps there are several, but again, take one at a time!

Now think about what would it be like if you had a great time with that person? Imagine where you would be, and what you would do, how everything would be. This is not to say that they would not be themselves, but what it does mean is that when they say something that previously would have bothered you, this time, it comes through a filter of grace, and you hear it differently. Because you hear it differently this time, you respond differently inside, and your external response back changes. Because you are able to do this, the relationship shifts, and it really is good to be with this person.

So what is different? For one, in this new picture, you are willing to have things be good between you. You are not willing to let the past dictate what will happen next. This is huge. This is grace. For another, you are willing to let that filter of grace work, so that the words you hear come at you differently. Because of that, you can change your response. Again, this is huge. When we focus on the goal of having a good time with this person, the possibilities are amazing.

What will you choose to play with this Lent? What area of your life do you want to enlarge, to shift, to re-create into something wonderful and amazing? Here is the key from Rob Voyle: “Take sin seriously, and take grace even more seriously.” May you have a truly blessed Lent.

With much gratitude for Rob Voyle’s Lenten Blessings