Lent and Time
by Leland Spencer
This was originally published on March 19, 2016 and was written by former Oconee Street UMC member Leland Spencer, who is now assistant professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary and Communication Studies at Miami University.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
In this Lenten season, I’ve been reflecting on time, at least in part because I’ve been rereading several of the speeches and writings of Martin Luther King, wherein time functions as a frequent theme. Lent, of course, marks time—40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, not counting Sundays—what a strange way of marking time it sometimes seems.
As Lent calls us to awareness of our own mortality and sinfulness—but never without acknowledging God’s grace and forgiveness, always than our sin—I have reflected on time and my own willingness to wait, to defer, to privilege expedience over the call of conscience. In my work with a speech and debate team, I recently had a run-in with a coach of a neighboring school who wanted to ban debate judges who spoke native languages other than English. I confronted this person’s racism, but only after he’d succeeded in getting some judges dropped from a competition by claiming they were too inexperienced to judge. He hid his true purpose behind the veneer of the rules, but I knew his motive because he’d voiced it at a public meeting months before. In that earlier meeting, I rolled my eyes but didn’t speak up. I didn’t take him seriously, and I doubted anyone else would. I never imagined he would find a way to enact his ideology under the guise of legalistic adherence to letter of the law.
“Silence is betrayal,” King said in his 1967 speech at Riverside Church. Breaking with the Johnson administration for the first time exactly one year before his death, King articulated several reasons why his conscience compelled him to speak against the Vietnam War. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” a few years before, King excoriated white churches and white Christians (clergy and lay) who encouraged people of color to wait patiently for civil rights. King reminded his readers (then and now) that time itself is neutral, not progressive. Furthermore, the forces of injustice, in the call to wait patiently, more often mobilize time to their ends than the voices agitating for social change. The church, writes King, “is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
King’s words convict me of my own silence and embolden me to speak. As I reflect on King’s words about and to the church, I wonder about how our United Methodist Church this spring will act. As General Conference approaches, will 2016 finally be the year that justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream? Or will the church forget the message that “justice too long delayed is justice denied”?
Prayer: Oh God, in our lives, in our homes, in our church, find us faithful in your call to justice. Forgive us our silence in the face of oppression, and grant us holy and sacred impatience in the face of all that harms the people you love. Amen.