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Giving Up Grief for Lent: A Lenten Blog Series that explores the things the Mainline church needs to grieve in order to embrace a new Easter reality. See my worship resources page for more prayers, liturgy and discussion starters …

Surrounded by snow covered hills and winding roads, a small village in France likes its “tranquilité,” goverened by traditions and quiet expectations that are firmly woven into their revered cultural fabric. This tiny town prides itself on the strength of its ancestors who expelled the radical Protestant Huguenots to preserve their strong Catholic identity. The leader who squelched this “radicalism” is immortalized in a bronze statue right in front of the Catholic Church on the town square.

The first few threads of the town’s tapestry begin to unravel when several outsiders descend on this town, just in time for the town’s austere observances of Lent. These strangers, led by Vianne, a “wanderer” who blows into town on the north wind bringing bright shoes, an illegitimate daughter and a gift for healing into the Chocolaterie she opens just in time for Lent.

This tale, from the 2000 movie Chocolat starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, resonates with the church (and the wider culture) today. The little town, undisturbed for centuries, is undone by a few strangers who bring new ways that upset and, finally, liberate people from centuries of tradition. These “wanderers” challenge notions about strict personal piety and call them to embrace abundance and joy.

Sounds a lot like church in the U.S. today. Disturbed by large cultural shifts, the church has seen young people and families depart en masse. No longer is the Protestant church — once briefly the center of culture in the U.S. — at the center of culture. Along with influence, the church has lost its sense of abundance and familiarity and control.

In the movie, the Comte de Reynard (Alfred Molina), the town’s mayor, embodies the impact this loss of control has on individuals and communities. As the most powerful man in town, he clamps down harder and harder as these strangers introduce ideas that open the townspeople to new possibilities. He meticulously “edits” the sermons being given by the new young priest, he makes it his mission to “reform” a druken abuser, he even makes his own Lenten fast stricter, hardly eating for weeks.

After seeing yet one more villager go the way of these strangers, his anger erupts on Easter Vigil when he breaks into Vianne’s Chocolaterie and destroys the artful chocolate ensconced in the front window. Even the Comte is not immune to the transformative power of the chocolate. After weeks of fasting, one small bit of chocolate falls on his bottom lip. He tentatively reaches his tongue down to taste it, opening the floodgates of hunger. He grabs greedy handfuls of chocolate, eating his fill, falling fast asleep amidst the remnants of his gluttonous feast.

The next morning Vianne finds the Comte in the window, wakes him and extends a glass of soda water to him. “Drink this, it’ll refresh you. I promise.” she says. Guilt, shame and humiliation well up his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he says to her. “I won’t tell a soul,” she calmly replies.

Longtime churchgoers can easily feel the Comte’s pain. Everything around him is changing. He sees his job to preserve tradition, familiarity and control. He, like the church, tries to keep social change at bay by ignoring it, discrediting it or outright banning new things.

But, when he finally wades in, knee deep into overflowing bowls of chocolate, Vianne — an outsider who doesn’t even attend church — teaches him more about grace with her outstretched glass of soda water than he may have learned in all his life of attending church, Lenten denials and other austere spiritual practices. Ultimately, change causes the Comte (and us) not to get farther away, but rather closer to who God calls him (us) to be.

To explore further this loss of control in your church, use my informal, intergenerational “communion” service that includes prayer, scripture and discussion on “Spy Wednesday,” the day of Jesus’ betrayal or any day during Holy Week.