Slouching Toward Lent

Epiphany has been good to me this year. Despite the darkness of winter, my world has been cloaked white and bright. The Scriptures have shimmered with the play of light and dark, and I’ve watched that Light caress its way through each reading, each page, the Presence of God so present and real that the darkness is no barrier to Him. I’ve been pondering the mysteries of light and dark in Genesis 1, and doing so with a beautiful, messy rag-tag bunch of believers in a way that feeds my soul.

I’ve been waking up with Psalm 23 on my lips: Yahweh is my shepherd; I will experience nothing as missing.

So, I’ll admit, the awareness Lent, which starts in a mere month on Wednesday, March 5 (Ash Wednesday), is still a reluctant one in my soul. I can see her—with her radiant melancholy, her holy beauty, the chains of oppression and addiction and affluenza broken around her feet, clanking like castanets as she dances—out of the corner of my eye. I’m not ready to turn my head. Not yet.

At the same time, it’s good to heed her dancing presence. It’s good to prepare, even though I’m not yet ready (when am I ever ready?) Lent is, in many ways, another season of light. It’s the light that exposes, the light that shows us ourselves truly, the light that helps us live in reality before God and others, the light that shows us our places of brokenness and leads us gently on the path to shalom.

And that’s a path I can’t walk alone—none of us can. Wholeness, shalom, is never accomplished in isolation. We need one another on this stumbling journey of faith, we need the companions who talk with us on the road, who witness with us when the stranger who spoke so wisely among us turns out to be Jesus—and vanishes, somehow, once more. Just when we thought we had a hold of Him.

In that light (see what I did there?), I thought I’d share a few Lenten resources and suggestions with you. You still have time to order most of them in time for them to arrive before March 5. If you do, I encourage you to grab a friend and go through whatever resource you’ve chosen together. Talk about it along the road. Consider what’s happening in you. Interact, chew, pontificate with others on this Calvary journey. And if you have other helps for the journey that you would like to suggest, share them with us in the comments.

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God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter

If you’ve been around here awhile, you know how much I love God With Us, a guided set of readings and art for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. This year, the publishers have come out with a similar resource for Lent, with readings from authors like Lauren Winner, Richard Rohr, Kathleen Norris, Luci Shaw and others. I’m looking forward to walking through this book this year myself, and if there’s enough interest, might host a few book club type discussions of it on the blog.

Beloved: An Online Journey Into Lent & Easter

Jan Richardson is a gifted artist and writer, and I’ve taken both her online Advent and Lent retreats, much to the enrichment of my soul. Her online retreat costs $90, and includes a daily email reflection (Monday-Friday), as well as an optional (and very active) online forum if you want to interact in community with others during the retreat. Jan’s art and words are just the type of gift that make this season so very rich.

7 Books for Lent

Last year, I talked about a number of other books that are also good companions along the journey. Those recommendations still hold, so surf on over to read about resources from Richard Rohr, the Irish Jesuits and Thomas Merton, among others.

What To Give Up

I’ve also talked before about what you might consider giving up for Lent, in 13 Things To Give Up For Lent and Six Weird Things to Give Up For Lent. I’ll be writing more about that later this month, but if you want some early inspiration, click on over there.

Be: Life and the Rest of It

Finally, I’m co-leading one week of an eCourse on Lent, curated by Brandy Walker of Brandy Glows. This retreat isn’t for the super spiritual, or even for the professing Christian (although I, and many of the co-leaders, do love and profess Christ). This retreat is for the tired, the burned out, those that aren’t sure about religion any more (or ever). The focus of the time will be rest (per the title), and incorporating life-giving spiritual practices into your regular routine, accompanied by recipes and lots of self-care. The early bird cost is $87, so if your soul shouted “YES!” when you read the word “rest”, hop on over and register. I’m leading the week of Holy Week, and will be talking about spiritual direction and holy listening, among other things.

Other Stuff

Oh, and if you want to visit some of my other thoughts on Lent, you’re welcome to here and here and here.

So, what about you? Do you have a favorite Lenten resource or practice? Are you ready for Lent, or just watching her out of the corner of your eye, like me?

A Mother’s Love

Today’s icon for Holy Week is called “The Bridegroom” and is a central image for this week.

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The image represents the watchfulness of Christ, His presence and His coming, as well as our own responsibility in keeping awake for His coming. The parable of the ten virgins will be our icon for tomorrow, but today, we gaze on Christ.

Interestingly enough, March 25 is also the Feast of the Annunciation—the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary. The Church celebrates this feast exactly nine months before Christmas, which finds us on the first Monday of Holy Week this year (a relatively rare occurrence.)

I’ve been reading Luke 1:26-28 in light of this concurrence of events, and as I stay with this image of Christ, I’ve begun to wonder how Jesus would have seemed to Mary this week. Would she have known, deep in her somewhere, that just as the angel came to tell her of His birth, that this week’s events were foretelling His death? What would a mother’s love have seen in this icon? What does that invite us to see in Him today?

Matthew Crawley, Palm Sunday and Me (Or How I Manage to Work Downton Abbey Into A Post on the Passion)

I know, I know. You’re already cringing, aren’t you?

How is it, exactly, that I could possibly think linking Downton Abbey and the Passion of Our Lord Jesus might, in any universe, work? Shouldn’t I be acting a bit more, I don’t know, holy? Pious?

It’s like watching someone sidle up to the edge of a cliff. You’re pretty sure they’re going to be fine, but everything in you is twitching to rush up and snatch them back from the edge of death. I mean, it’s pretty far down there, right?

Bear with me. I’m going to dance on this edge for a little bit, because I think this edge is exactly what Palm Sunday is all about. We’re meant to feel uncomfortable, thrown off, maybe in a smidge more danger than we’d like to be.

Because it’s a long way down, friends, and Jesus is about to step off that ledge.

 

Palm Sunday is a day of contradictions. This morning our rag-tag community of earnest and tired, hopeful and despairing, bedraggled and beloved believers processed into the sanctuary waving branches. We cried “Hosanna to God in the highest!” and let holy water wet our cheeks, our bodies, our branches.

Hosanna means save or save us, and together we know what we’re crying when we say that.

We know what we’re crying, and we’re grateful, so grateful, that Jesus is here in our midst. We delight that He is making Himself known, stepping into Jerusalem, the heart of things, and we’re here to watch Him do it. This is the high point of the week because, until Easter’s celebration, we’ve got an inkling that things might not go exactly the way we were hoping they might. We cry Hosanna all the louder.

I’m a Downton Abbey fan . I’m pretty sure I haven’t crossed over into fanatic (I don’t own any pieces of clothing with any of the characters printed on it), but I may or may have received The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook as a Christmas gift this past year. That said, I wasn’t able to watch the finale of Season Three until nearly a week after in aired.

I tried, oh I tried, to keep myself from spoilers. I stayed off of Facebook. I shushed my friends whenever they brought it up, but I knew from the loud wailing heard from houses all over the United States that Sunday evening that SOMETHING terrible had happened. And it wasn’t just a little something, either.

I knew from the magnitude of the outrage, the number of thinly veiled references (Downton, you’re dead to me! pronounced more than one friend of mine), the sheer volume of emotion that it was probably a major character, and it was probably death. I knew who I didn’t want it to be, and I knew that it would probably be that very character.

When Bryan and I eventually settled down of an evening to watch the finale (coincidentally after I’d finished running a week long retreat meditating on the life of Christ), I braced myself. And I held myself, braced, until those last, fateful moments when Matthew began driving, joyously, recklessly, home to share the news. New life! It’s a boy! Life is complete!

Matthew’s death felt random and unfair to so many, I know. But when the credits rolled (and rolled, and rolled—how in the world did PBS think that anyone was going to give them money after THAT plot twist, I wonder?), my husband turned to meet my eyes. We’d both caught the tenor, the gist of the general outrage before watching the episode—How could something so horrible happen so suddenly! They didn’t prepare us! This isn’t want we wanted to happen!

A few days earlier, I’d been caught by a post by a friend of mine. I didn’t know at the time that he’d spoiled the plot completely (and I didn’t really care). Thing was, he’d summed it up so well:

Sometimes you get the girl you wanted and she gets pregnant and then has the child you both dreamed of and you’re driving back in your coupe to tell the family and the future’s so bright you have to wear something along the lines of X-men goggles but you don’t see the truck coming and you flip the car and that’s it. Does it seem a soap opera like ending, and could the writer have done a better job with your exit? Sure, that’s possible, but Sunday night’s Downton episode shakes us back into the reality that things do happen all of a sudden, out of nowhere, often at the sun’s apex, and the bigger barns we were planning and designing, be they literal or figurative, will be inherited by someone else or possibly even torn down to make way for an Eddie Bauer outlet. That can leave you asking ‘well, what’s the point then?’ or it can spur you to suck the very marrow out of this one wild and precious day while it is still called today.

I quoted this to my husband, sitting on the couch as the credits rolled, and he agreed. We sat, hushed by the only thing that really hushes us well, the solid presence of one another, and Bryan turned to me again and said, It’s sort of like getting a voicemail message in the morning, a message that your wife left telling you how much she loves you, how proud of you she is, how much she loves the life you lead together because despite all the sweat and tears and financially scraping by (and oh, how we scrape), we get to help people, love people, care for the hearts and lives of those around us, we get to see healing and hope and restoration. We get to see the Kingdom of God—Hosanna in the Highest!—advance because this is the life we choose together, and she’s crying because she’s so thankful. She’s crying and she loves me, and it’s all worth it. And then, she goes to her office for the day and has a heart attack.

And I nodded, because I am that wife, and because that’s what happened. I wasn’t driving in a coupe with the wind in my hair, but I might as well have been, and, yup, that was my heart attack. I could say that’s the day things tilted off the axis for us, and in some ways that’s true, because it was the beginning of a very hard set of years.

I could also say, though, that was the start of our Hosannas really being tested.

It wasn’t that they were insincere before, not at all. We’d both seen our share of heart ache, both had our share of time in the valley of the shadow of death. We knew some of suffering, to be sure, and to say we’ve known more than a taste since then would be flippant and false.

But that day—the day the coupe gets hit by the truck, the day the 33-year old gets driven to the nearest emergency room with chest pains, the day life seems to go off the rails (whatever that is for you)—that day is the day you stop asking “Who is Jesus to me?” and start asking “Who is Jesus, really?”

That day in Jerusalem, everyone had an agenda for Jesus. Many of them were good, many well meaning. Many of them He seemed to be agreeing with—I mean, He was retracing the route that David took as he returned to reclaim the city for God nearly 1000 years before. His disciples were still hoping for something flashy, for the reign of God to be made manifest through this Messiah in a physical way. They had some expectations for the way the plot should go. Hosanna in the highest!

But then things started going off the rails. People were getting angry, the character that they wanted to take over the estate, He kept talking about a lower way. Their agendas, their anger, trumped what was really happening. And, to them, their way was the better way. You’re dead to me, Jesus! You’re disappointing, this isn’t the way it should go.

The way Jesus saves us doesn’t always feel like saving.

This place, this week, is where the Hosannas get tested. Our expectations get dashed, our view of Jesus get disrupted, our images of Him get complicated by something that doesn’t make sense.

In the middle of that mess, we—you, me, us together—get invited to see Jesus how He really is, not how we want Him to be, or how He has been to us in the past. We get invited into the now, the today, the Real.

It’s troublesome, this being forced to see things are they really are. It’s troublesome, having to ask who Jesus is really, instead of who Jesus is to me. But asking those questions leads to some real answers (as well as a few more good, disruptive questions.) Asking those questions leads us to the Upper Room, to Pilate’s courtyard, to Golgotha, to the Cross. Asking those questions leads us to the empty tomb, to the One disguised as a gardner, to the realization of the Resurrection, and to more story than we know what to do with. Asking those questions, the questions about who Jesus is really, leads to life out of death.

No offense, but take that, Downton Abbey.

Bring Your Pain Home

Pause.

Now breathe.

Good. You may need to do that a couple more times to still your heart, your mind before continuing on. The words that follow are a gift of wisdom from Henri Nouwen. Each time I read them, I feel myself pulled into deep waters. Behind these words lie truth, and power. The power to change your life, perhaps. If you let them.

So pause.

And breathe.

And when you are ready… read on.

Your pain is deep, and it won’t just go away… Your call is to bring that pain home. As long as your wounded part remains foreign to your adult self, your pain will injure you as well as others. Yes, you have to incorporate your pain into your self.

This is what Jesus means when he asks you to take up your cross. He encourages you to recognize and embrace your unique suffering and to trust that your way to salvation lies therein. Taking up your cross means, first of all, befriending your wounds and letting them reveal to you your own truth.

-Henri Nouwen, Lent and Easter: Wisdom from Henri Nouwen, p. 24

 

Now pause. Breathe again. Consider how those words make you feel.

     Your pain is deep.
     It won’t go away.
It won’t be ignored it into non-existance.

    …bring that pain home…incorporate it into your self…
These wounds beg, plead, demand to be acknowldged. If ignored, the ripples of pain that emanate from them affect far more than you alone.

    This is what Jesus means…take up your cross…
    Embrace your unique suffering…
    Trust…befriend your wounds…
    Let them reveal to you your own truth.

What courage is required for this! What presence of mind, of body. Trust. Trust in the goodness of God, in the story He is weaving – through your own unique suffering. Can you feel it? The deep waters rushing all around you as you ponder this. Breathe. And pause. As often as you need. Re-read. Write. Explore the depths of you, and your own unique suffering. Be bold, be courageous, be whole.

Like The Hypocrites

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. …”When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

During our Ash Wednesday service this morning, our community of dusty, stumbling penitents heard these words from Matthew 6. And I thought (and truly thought more than prayed), Lord, let me not be like the hypocrites.

As soon as I thought it, though, my knees wobbled. And I knew, as I know in this moment, as I knew last week, and I will know tomorrow: I’m not just like the hypocrites, I am one.

Here is where the dusty, marked and marred among us get real. I don’t know about you, but I feel a little self-righteous about the cross I wear today, Ash Wednesday. Even when I forget, rub my forehead, lose the feeling of the palms burned and given back to the very ones who claim to praise—even then some small part of me feels self-satisfied.

And, oh, how that humiliates and humbles me.

I am such a child of Earth. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, said the priest, my friend, my bishop. I hear the words, receive them like life. They humble me and give me hope. They are bread for the day’s journey—the rare day that a gathering together doesn’t culminate in bread and wine, but in prayer and fasting. These words are food, but (oh I wish it weren’t true), by the time I’ve returned to my seat, I’m wondering how the cross I’m wearing looks. I’m positioning it not as a symbol of my sin, but as another form of fig leaf. Something to hide my weakness behind so that you won’t know how wounded, how broken, how off the mark I am so. very. often.

And that’s why I’m here. Confessing. Saying to you (yes, you), and my whole community of dusty travelers of the Way that I am a hypocrite humbled. I am wearing my weakness today, and this whole season in which Christ asks me to remember my need.

Today, it’s this ashy cross, this conflicted symbol that I hope in and hide behind. And today it’s also my weakness, my need for help, my need for repentance from all the self-sufficient arranging, impression-managing, impressing I try to do (and will try, I know, to do again).

You see, God’s asked me to give up contact lenses this Lent. I’ve thought about not telling anyone (When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting), just doing it without having to draw attention to what God’s up to in my life. But I’m realizing that the NOT telling is allowing me to stay secretly self-congratulatory. Because I’ve been asked to give up contact lenses for Lent precisely because I am a hypocrite. I despise my glasses, these inconvenient reminders of my weakness, my physical limitations, my broken ways of seeing. I hate the fact that just a glance over their rims brings life less clear, and I’m confronted once more by my lack of vision.

I hate they way they signal to everyone else that I need help.

And that’s what God’s after in me, this Lenten season. Because I’m precisely the one in need of the most help when I’m wearing those lenses day in and day out. You can’t see it then, but I’m hiding my needs, refusing to let others in, putting on a front of holy self-awareness.

Glasses, just like this today’s dark ash, remind me that I am daily hiding, from others and from God. That He’s calling me, not out of punishment or promised pain, to a deeper knowledge of my need. He’s calling me to humility, to an intimate knowledge of who I am—weakness and all—so that I can move beyond the hypocrisy into healing and wholeness. So that He can breathe life into this Earthen frame, if only I will let Him.

And so, here’s me (and the smudge of bread dough that’s calcified onto our kitchen wall because I forgot to clean it off). Me, my hypocritical cross, and my glasses. I’m showing up, taking off the fig leaf by putting on my specs.

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And maybe I’ll see a little more clearly His love as a result.

 

I’ll also be taking up the Daily Office this year for Lent, a practice of intentional prayer. So how can I pray for you? What can I hold tenderly up to Jesus? Leave a comment and I will pray for you these 40 days of weakness and penitence. Will you pray for me? (And thanks, Sarah Bessey, for the inspiration.)

Guilt As An Idol

“God’s mercy is greater than our sins. There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but rather to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and our failings and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says, ‘I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.’ It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride.

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Lent is a time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: ‘Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer… or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?’ The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.” – Henri Nouwen (from A Cry for Mercy)