As someone who grew up in the Christian Reformed Church through the 1970s and 80s, I knew virtually nothing about the Season of Lent until my college years. Back in Ada, Michigan, and at the Ada CRC, we could not have distinguished Lent from lint. But I was at least dimly aware of the purpose behind Lent and some of the practices that Catholics observed as part of it.
During my college years I had a part-time job at a large retail furniture store. One Saturday during lunch in the break room, one of the salespersons proudly announced "I am giving up swearing for Lent." No one else seemed to bat an eye at this but even I knew something about that didn't sound right. "You're not supposed to give up something you shouldn't do in the first place!" I replied. "That's like giving up child abuse for Lent." My colleague was not amused. I just knew he wanted to swear at me.
But in truth, we Americans are not very good at giving up much of anything. It is by now well known that any talk of sacrifice is fatal for politicians. Jimmy Carter learned that the hard way, even writing in his memoir Keeping Faith that starting already with his inaugural address, he discovered that any reference to limits, to giving up, to sacrifice for the greater good just did not work in America. Let others give something up (preferably those whose sacrifice will enable the rest of us to keep living large and without boundaries). But the rest of us want to hear sunny promises about getting more, not making do with less.
This may be part of a larger pattern, however. Jamie Smith has written here about American Exceptionalism, and it does find a myriad of ways of showing itself. The idea that we could ever bump up against limits--much less the idea that we might ever as Americans actually transgress true limits in ways we ought not do--just doesn't play well. Recently I wrote a sermon based on Amos 2 as part of my participation in a Calvin Seminary course on the Old Testament prophets. Amos, as you may recall, was a highly clever preacher (all the more impressive when you remember he was engaging in a second career after having been a simple shepherd most of his life). He began his sermon by condemning every other nation in the Ancient Near East neighborhood. Syria, Ammon, Edom, and the rest all came in for harsh critique. And as he preached, I picture the people of Israel cheering him on. "Praise God! Let 'em have it, Amos! Preach it, brother!" But then of course the climax of that same sermon came in Amos 2:6 when Amos tacks on Israel to the long litany of nations coming under God's wrath. And it was at that point that the audience turned on him. Criticize others but leave us alone. We're perfect!
It sounds familiar. Some years ago in his now-famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) Cairo speech, President Obama was perceived to apologize for some mistakes America had perhaps made in the past. This sat not well at all. Indeed, it prompted one political figure to pen an entire book that launched off that Cairo speech. Gov. Romney's reply was his book No Apologies: Believe in America. We are incapable of making mistakes apparently (unless apologizing for past policies counts as a mistake in which case the President was capable of that mistake, and not a few are determined he suffer for it).
True giving up, true sacrifice, a true turning away from past patterns is an admission that sometimes we cannot do what we want, have all that we want, or live just the way we want in case it's not good for others, for the environment, for future generations. Even in Lent what little we give up--Coke, chocolate, cable TV news shows--does not cut very deep. Even my "giving up swearing" friend fully intended to return to cussing as soon as Lent was finished. Long-term change was not the goal. (It reminds me of an episode of M*A*S*H in which Hawkeye is challenged to go 24 hours without cracking wise or telling a joke. Predictably he spends the entire day biting his tongue. But as soon as midnight rolled around, he got on the camp P.A. system and let loose with every wisecrack and joke he'd been holding in all day.) Our dearest desire is to return to base course and, left to our own devices, we don't want to deviate from that course in the first place. No limits, no apologies, no stopping.
As I write this, it's Mardi Gras, the day that somehow became associated with living it up and whooping it up and perhaps even sinning boldly before six or so weeks of Lenten austerity. But the problem most of us in America have is that when it comes right down to it, we want all Mardi Gras all the time, and we'll leave Lenten austerity to other nations. That's not a great socio-political fact about our country, but we all know painfully well that it reaches into the church, too.
And that may just be something to confess over and over as we now enter Lent.