In the season of Lent, we consider our lives: where we are and where we'd like to be. We spend more time in prayer, often fast from foods and pleasures. We try to emulate the lives of people who seem further along the way, however we understand that.
Yet that can be discouraging, particularly if we look to the saints, whose lives are so very different from our own, we're inclined to give up before we start. I don't think many of us can be like St. Francis of Assisi, who gave away all he owned and was willing to kiss a leper. More than likely, we aren't going to be like that. We end up unaware of opportunities we have to see and emulate examples of Christian love and behavior all around us.
It is encouraging to note recent discoveries in neuroscience. In "Getting a Grip," Frances Moore Lappe cites studies of the brain activities of monkeys, which show that neurons firing in the frontal lobe for certain activities are the same whether the monkey is acting or merely observing. People do the same. This is called mirroring. She concludes: "We do walk in one another's shoes, whether we want to or not."
Galatians 6:2 instructs us to "bear one another's burdens." In this mirroring activity, that's exactly what happens.
Lappe continues, "…the findings of neuroscience also give us insight as to how to change and empower ourselves." She suggests that "a great way is to place ourselves in the company of those we want most to be like. For sure, we'll become more like them." So the Lenten discipline of emulating lives of those we admire is most worthwhile.
Frederich Buechner, in musing on Jesus' words: "I am the way and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me"(John 14:6), concludes: (Jesus) "didn't say that any particular ethic, doctrine or religion was the way, the truth and the life. He said that he was. He didn't say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could ‘come to the Father'. He said that it was only by him - by living, participating in being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.
"Thus it is possible to be on Christ's way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God, though maybe you don't even believe in God. A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. A Christian isn't necessarily any nicer than anybody else. Just better informed."
During Lent we want to be better people than we have been. Considering the broadness of Buechner's definition, I'm bothered by the way we Christians can be so narrow we believe only that labeled "Christian" is worthy of imitation.
As Christians we can see God at work everywhere. "The Artist" has won Academy Awards in several categories. Because I am a Christian, I watched the film from that perspective. A very self-centered silent film star, George Valentin, is on a downward trajectory even as a young woman, Peppy Miller, is rising to great heights in talking movies. While George wants all the adulation for himself, Peppy shares her joy and delight with all. Her care and generosity enable her to invite him to share a leading role in her next movie. For him, it took descending to the depths before he could rise a new, more loving and appreciative person.
We're all attracted to loving, generous people. Those who open their world to include others are what it means to be Christian, whether we call them that or not. We do know there isn't always a direct correlation between those who act in loving ways and those in church. Praise God that God's activity in the world is not confined to the church.
Luther instructs us to be little Christs to each other and St. Francis tells us to preach the gospel to everyone at all times, using words if necessary. I invite all other Christians to pay attention to those around us we want to emulate, then to seek to be those joyous, loving, inclusive people others want to be like.
The Rev. Dorothy Price Knudson is retired from active ministry in the Presbyterian Church, but still preaches at Congregational and Presbyterian churches. firstname.lastname@example.org.