The forty days of Lent welcome us into Jesus’ experience on the long journey in the dry desert. Desolation that seems to go on and on and on. And on. These days ask us to sit and watch and trust the Good Story. Lent’s not so different from the rest of our life, is it?
In our neighborhood, there’s a yellow house with a blazing red door. I recently saw my neighbor’s black lab, a platter-sized frisbee in his mouth, sitting on the porch. The lab waited alone, ears pointed, eyes alert, waiting with anticipation and longing. This Lent, I’m taking my cue from the black lab clutching that frisbee, waiting for hope to walk out that red door.
It’s been a while since I’ve written. You’ve been to Italy and back. I haven’t gone globetrotting since my last letter, but we did get to Memphis during Christmas. That’s a lot like Italy, right? I appreciated the pictures you shared and the way the place moved you. My folks took my sister and me on a trip to Israel when I was in high school. They maneuvered the trip so that we had two or three days in Rome on the way back. I remember five things: the drivers were batshit crazy; my parents bought me what I know was a pricy rugby shirt from what seemed to a 15-year-old Texas boy to be a very chic Benetton shop; St. Peter’s Basilica is like entering an alternative world (which, I understand now, is kind of the point); their pizza had peas on it. The fifth thing was my dad at his finest. We happened to be in Rome on Thanksgiving Day, after a week and a half of foreign food, and dad dreamed up a wild adventure including a mad hatter taxi ride (see comment about the drivers) across the city to this three-story McDonalds where we ate Big Macs, chicken nuggets and fries as we remembered the Pilgrims and their meal with the Wampanoag tribe.
Anyway, I’d like to go back. I’d pass on the Big Macs, but I’d stand as long as they’d let me there in the center of St. Peter’s and bask in the brilliance, the mystery. Of course, I’d have Miska with me which means we’d get out of the big city as soon as possible and head to the countryside, walking the hills and the vineyards and the little villages where we’d enjoy breads and cheeses and olives and vino.
I just finished Shaffer and Barrow’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society; I loved it. I found myself saying, “This may be the best epistolary novel I’ve ever read,” which feels magnanimous of me since I wrote one. After I made this magnanimous remark to myself, however, I realized I’d never actually read an epistolary novel other than the one I’ve written. That feels like a mistake, perhaps something I should have mentioned to my editor.
Anyway, the English poet and essayist Charles Lamb has an intriguing prominence in the story, and there’s this point where we hear about a quarrel between Wordsworth and Lamb, who were friends. Wordsworth scolded Lamb for his failure to adore nature. Lamb, refusing to give an inch, answered with a defense of how enraptured he was with the common physical elements of his life. “The rooms where I was born,” Lamb wrote, “the furniture which has been before my eyes all of my life, a book case which has followed me about like a faithful dog wherever I have moved–old chairs, old streets, squares where I have sunned myself, my old school–have I not enough, without your Mountains?”
Now, you know me enough to know that I’m with Wordsworth on the necessity of mountains, but there’s something about Lamb and his fascination and delight with these physical pieces and places right in front of him, the most common and plain portions of our life, that moves me. There really is wonder everywhere.
So we’ll be marked with ashes on Wednesday, and we’ll enter Lent’s bright sadness. Miska wrote something beautiful today, and she included in it lines from St. Teresa of Avila that I’d never heard before:
God is always there, if you feel wounded. He kneels over this earth like a divine medic, and His love thaws the holy in us.
I think this is what I’m hopeful for in these Lenten days, for the divine medic to come and tend to my heart, for Divine love to thaw the holy in me.
So Easter’s coming Sunday. You probably remember enough from your pastor-years to recall how this is a pretty big day. I love seeing all the joy and laughter, some folks stepping it up a little with their Sunday clothes and all the kids wired for the candy they’ve had or the candy they know’s coming their way. The sun’s typically bright, the dogwoods and the daffodils showing off. The music has extra oomph. It’s a grand day.
But I also know it’s an important day because this story we’ll be telling, this moment where we remember that Jesus rose from the dead and kicked evil to the curb – this day is pretty much the whole ball of wax, isn’t it? St. Paul seemed to know a thing or two, and he said that if Jesus didn’t raise up from the dead, then we’re all in a major heap of doo-doo. I tend to think everything in Jesus’ life pointed to this climactic moment when he sloughed off those grave clothes and walked back into this world he loves, this world he’d literally gone to hell to salvage. Some folks think that Jesus got a resurrection because he had to have a cross, but I think Jesus got a cross because he had to have a resurrection. What do you think about that? I don’t know, maybe that’s parsing truths that don’t need parsing. I know this though – what I most need, what most everyone I know needs, is a resurrection. I think most of us live fully aware of the death rattle; we’re just wondering if the story’s really true. We’re wondering if Life and Love really do win in the end.
But here’s my problem, John – I’ve been pondering my sermon for a mess of days now, and I’ve got nothing. Nada. At the moment, my heart feels flat as a pancake. Dry. Dull. Dead. Maybe that’s right, for now. My pastoral workweek calendar says I’m supposed to have a sermon prepared by 5 p.m., but my soul knows that first comes an evening where Jesus shares what must have been a very lonely meal with his disciples, clueless as they were to how he was pointing toward death. First comes a Friday we’ve named Good, though it’s the strangest good I know. Today, I’m leaning toward resurrection, but my soul knows there’s the valley of the shadow of death to walk through between here and there. Why can’t the story of God’s salvation of the cosmos fit into my nicely arranged to-do list?
I’ll tell you this: I do hope some worthwhile words present themselves to me before Sunday. The folks with whom I’ll gather to announce Resurrection are kind and generous, and most will put up with me and my bumbling ways. But still, I would like to have something helpful to share. Every hope I have is bound up in this Jesus who put death in a chokehold and refused to let go. I’d like to do it justice, if I’m able.
So all that to say – light another candle for me. And if you get some flash of inspiration and want to write a sermon to pass my way, I’m all ears.
Apparently I’ve passed my crazy dreams on to Miska. Mine have faded, but Saturday night, Miska dreamed that Donald Trump asked her to be his spiritual director. She remembered this only a minute or so before I was supposed to stand up to give Sunday’s sermon. She leaned over and whispered her dream in my ear, and I slapped my hand over my mouth to stifle a cackle that would have interrupted the Scripture reader who was diligently reminding us of how God led Israel into a land flowing with milk and honey. I had to recover before I stepped up to the lectern.
This morning, I read Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s tribute to Antonin Scalia. Did you know they sat side-by-side at the opera regularly, and their families celebrated every New Year’s Eve together? Ginsberg, the liberal stalwart, called Scalia, that fiery conservative, her “best buddy.” She even praised his dissents for pointing out the ‘applesauce’ and the ‘argle bargle’ that needed to be sliced from her majority opinions. I like that – argle bargle. Watching coarseness overrun the political scene and finding ourselves bombarded by the various kinds of flash-mob flareups that happen about every 17 hours on the Facebook feed, it’s easy to believe we have devolved so far that the anger consuming us has stripped us of our most basic humanness: a charitable spirit, neighborliness, a willingness to listen rather than merely snipe and score points. But then you’re given a small gift, like a note where Ginsberg calls Scalia her best buddy and you gain a little hope again. I wish I had words to describe the estrangement I feel from the dominant storylines in our world. But I don’t right now, so I’ll just say that I needed to hear Ginsberg’s kindness and warmth.
Last word on these sorts of things – but since we’re thrust yet again into the electoral carnival right now, I do wonder why anyone with more than a pea-brain’s worth of sense would want to be president? These days, that job sounds like my worst nightmare.
On to better topics – I like your vision of Pony, Montana. I’m willing to carry your ashes there should you land on such a request, but I think we should plan a trip — while we’re still breathing. There’s lots I want to do in the years ahead. On Ash Wednesday, the gravity and humanness hit me at a new level. I can’t say why. But marking that black soot on the foreheads of so many friends, looking them in the eye, touching their body with the sign of the cross, remembering our frailty and the fleeting days of our life — I had a steady lump in my throat. I held it together, but only barely.
A month ago, I bought Paul Kalanithi’s When Breathe Becomes Air. Per the usual, Miska’s gotten to it before me. Kalanithi, a 36-year-old neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, and as his world came unglued, a question dogged him: “what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life?” Miska says that Kalanithi tells his story beautifully, I look forward to it. I know this question has my attention. I want to live well. I want to love well. Also, I have to say again: I despise cancer.
We’ve been handed another snow day. We got a few inches, but they say ice is on the way. Looking out my window, Carter’s Mt. has a lacy fog flowing over the ridge line and fingering toward the white-dusted trees, as if the Northern Queen is breathing fresh winter over us. It’s going to be a grand day.
This morning at breakfast, Seth (our 11-year-old) asked, “Do you think we could have a half-Lent fast? I think 20 days is plenty.”
I get the sentiment, especially if we view Lent primarily as 40 days of rigorous, clenched-teeth discipline. However, Lent offers a profound gift – the possibility of shedding clunky baggage, of releasing old wounds, of returning to a simplicity we crave but have difficulty embracing. Lent hands us a solid reason to resist the many distractions, impulses and confusions that own us, even though we cringe each time we recognize their tyranny. Lent gives us permission to cut away messy entanglements, to reduce the noise. Lent arrives as a cleanse for the soul. Lent invites us to shed everything that inhibits our joy.
In these wilderness days, we are moving somewhere, moving toward Easter. Lent comes from an old saxon word meaning length, referring to the lengthening of days as we move toward Spring. In Lent, we begin to shake off the dirt, the slumber, the cold. We lift our eyes, hopeful, eager for the bright sun to pour into us again. But the winter is still here now, and there is work to do.
When we take on a Lenten fast or give ourselves to a particular Lenten practice, we embark on a journey, answering the call toward the resurrection sure to come. We ready ourselves for joy. Fasts remind us that the the love of God is our truest food, the nourishment we must have or else we die. When we surrender an obsession, or add a new rhythm of prayer or creativity or watchfulness, we do so because we long for the simplicity of grace. Wearied by our muddled, complicated, love-shorn lives, we yearn for the joy. And we will have it, by God.
One Lent years ago, compulsive guilt held my mind and heart in a chokehold. Every day, I woke to the runaway thoughts and went to bed with them still tapping their tune. Enduring the craziness for more than a year, the anxiety began to gobble up my life, my presence with my boys, my work, my intimacy with Miska. Each year, Miska and I help one another decide our Lenten rhythm. That year, Miska said, “I think that for Lent you should give up guilt.” It might sounds zany, and Miska certainly wasn’t suggesting my compulsions could simply be dismissed by a mental sleight of hand. Anyone who has ever tried to not think something knows that’s a train wreck. Miska was suggesting, however, that Lent provided me an excuse to step off the merry-go-round, an opportunity to say, you know, I’m going to have to put the guilt on hold for at least 40 days.
My spiritual practice was to not worry about all the evil things I believed about myself, all the ways I feared I might be a screwup. That Lent didn’t cure my mess (sometimes we need time or friends, drugs or a good psychiatrist), but it certainly did make room for joy, room that would not have been available to me otherwise.
Perhaps some of us have a distaste for Lent because our life is already shot through with sorrow. We can’t bear days giving any more weight to what is broken, to all we lack. But Lent, we must remember, is far more than only a way to reckon with the wrong. It is even more a way of priming ourselves for the good. Disconnected as we are from communal rhythms, Lent runs the risk of becoming merely another exhausting exercise in isolated spiritual effort. I’d suggest we let that business go.
These days are a gift to receive, not simply another place where we buckle down and exert our last ounce of self-discipline. These ashen days allow us to welcome those who mourn, those life has bent low, those excluded from a life always lived on the upbeat. In a world of plastic cheer, Lent can provide a much-needed space for hospitality to those who are, for the moment, estranged to joy.
Best of all, Lent provides an extended space for the imagination, a stretch of time to dream of bright sunshine and hearty laughter, to lean toward all the raucous joy to come. Lent is not merely an affirmation of a world shot-to-hell but rather a promise that death’s days are numbered. Sorrow holds claim only to the few, fleeting night hours – but have you ever tried to hold back the morning, to chain the sun? We best ready ourselves for the fire and light. No one can stop the morning. No one can stop life.
Sunday’s text told us that Abraham believed in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. This gives us the heart of Lent. What we know, real as it is, does not rule the day. Whatever is dead, whatever goodness does not yet exist – this is God’s Easter work. This is what we have coming.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The readings for Lent commence with a dark energy even the Coen brothers would find it difficult to match, an apocalyptic-styled standoff set in the barren wild. Jesus and Satan. Forty days of wilderness and hunger, forty days of isolation and deprivation as the Tempter accosted, day and night, the weary Son.
In the sulfur-laced war room of Paradise Regained, Milton’s demons suggest the temptation lead with alluring women and all the tawdry passions, but Satan believed noble motives gave him better odds. In the temptation to turn stone to bread, for instance, the Tempter appears as a shepherd and appeals to Jesus’ mercy. If Jesus would do such a feat, pleaded the shepherd-devil, then Jesus would “comfort us with food, which we wretched people seldom taste.” Our attempts to know what is “good” apart from the God who is goodness itself will inevitably twist themselves inside-out.
Writer and director Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal sets one of the temptations in a penthouse overlooking the Montreal skyline. The Tempter here is a tycoon of the entertainment industry urging Jesus to leverage his notoriety and publish a book that he guarantees will hit the bestseller list. As a writer who’s never likely to see such a list unless I pay $2.50 for a Sunday Times, I’ll admit this scene stung a little.
Jesus, we know, refused every offer. With each answer, Jesus returns to the words and ways of the Father. This is the same Father who, at Jesus’ baptism only days earlier, thundered from the heavens: “You, my dear Son. You’re beloved. And I’m crazy about you.”
I suspect that refusing temptation’s hollow (yet very powerful) siren call has much less to do with grit and rugged resistance and a lot more to do with having ears to hear the voice of love, having a heart supple enough to receive God’s delight flooding toward us.
There are a myriad of reasons we might choose to walk, with the Church, through lenten shadows, but I believe the most powerful call is love.
We love the goodness of life, and we must reckon with how the life we know strikes too many vicious blows against this goodness. We mourn for the wounds we’ve known. We mourn for others who have suffered too much and experienced too little of the beauty. It is necessary to have space for grief, to acknowledge straight-on where the darkness, we insist, must give way to light.
We love our bodies. We are not simply bloated minds, grotesquely extended with only ideas and assertions and theological propositions. Our body aches for ways to encounter what our heart knows – that our life contends with hope, that the promises to which we cling must test their mettle. Our whole person wants to resist evil. We are restless to enact a bold, unflinching no to our own destructive choices. We long to step into the weary but dogged line of courageous rebels, in solidarity with the whole of humanity, digging in our heals, clinching our fists. Our bodies are ready to engage this fight.
We love our world, and all our neighbors in it. In Lent, we do not carry only our sorrows but the sorrows of the world. We make space to sit with the brokenhearted and to grieve with those who fear that they are truly alone, that ruin is their end. Lent will not allow us to pretend that everyone is well. Lent allows us to practice the art of presence.
We love the promise of hope. Lent is the time when our hopes pull taut. The days lengthen (and this is the original meaning of the word lent), and our eyes rise toward the horizon. The muscles stretch. The dimness begins to break. We know brightness will be here soon, and we must hold on. We must be ready for the piercing joy. We will ready ourselves, and we will hold up those who are too weak to face the soon-coming glimmer on their own.
Whatever reason you might enter Lent – for God’s sake, do it for love.
While Lent blocks the exit for those chipper souls who’ve never seen a sorrow they couldn’t deny, Easter opens the floodgates on parched souls who’ve come to believe only in a life barren and brittle.
But – and this is what we must not miss – Easter trumps Lent. Lent owns its grey space, and the good news is no good news at all if we do not sincerely wrangle with the sad facts scattered about us. But then Easter comes and flips on the sunshine and cranks up the jukebox and opens the windows and breaks out the margaritas. Death is very real, Easter says, but Jesus alive is more real. Get up and dance.
Easter does not arrive as a joy easy won. Easter is the dance of the mourner who has grabbed the alleluia in a headlock and won’t let go. In Easter, those who dwell in the valley of the shadow of death gather up their courage and bend their ear to the Church’s witness of the risen Jesus. Then, in an act both brave and costly, these reckless souls let the light in. They open themselves to another possibility. They slowly start to tap their toe. With all their might, no matter how fragile or sparse, they begin to practice joy. They begin to Easter.
I was dead, then alive. Weeping, then laughing.
The power of love came into me, and I became fierce like a lion, then tender like the evening star.
Miska and I have a running joke that if I were ever to go completely unhinged and do something stupid like have an affair, I'd manage to keep it under wraps for about 19 seconds. When guilt hits, I go blabbing. When I was in second grade, I went running to my mom, in tears, confessing the evil I'd done. "What happened, Winn?" my mom asked. "I cursed," I answered. "I said upchuck." How my mom held back the laughter, I'll never know.
Recently, Miska, in a strange turn of conversation, was forced to cough up that she had snooped around to find out what gifts I had bought her last Christmas. She logged into my email. She poked around my Amazon account. She didn't happen upon her information; she executed MI5 style tactics. I'm surprised she didn't waterboard the boys to make them talk. I like surprises, so I was irritated by her admission. More, though, I was impressed. Given my psyche, I can't fathom engaging in that chicanery and then just tooling along as if nothing happened.
My confessive compulsion is a bit much. However, the act of confession, of saying the truth about something, is an immense gift. We tend to think of "confessing our sins" as necessary bookkeeping, knocking off a litany of all our inappropriate behavior so that God will then knock these same items off his list of things to smack us for. Confession, I believe, is closer to the moment when I stop playing coy with Miska and admit I really crave her touch. Or when Seth falls flat on the hard ground, spread eagle with his face smashed into pavement — then amid tears and pain makes it plain he wants nothing but his dad to gather him up and hold him tight. Of course, there's nothing I want in that moment more than to rush to his side and pour love over his hurt.
In Scripture, confessing our sins is simply the way of speaking the truth to God so that we can stop living in the far away corner and get on receiving love. Confessing our sins isn't the point. Forgiveness is the point. Love and friendship is the point. Living the good life – that's the thing God's working in all this. Lent is the season of clearing the air, of confessing what is, the season of getting on with the good life.
Confession is about healing that pours into our cracked places, our alone places. Confession is about coming clean with the fact that, left to our lonesome, we are lost – but also owning the fact that we dare to long for much, much more. To confess is to say the truth about ourselves and our place and our desire. Confessing how we've trespassed the commandments is a humbling thing. Confessing how we've abandoned good and true desires — that's a terrifying thing.
Orthodox priests speak this prayer after private confession:
May God who pardoned David through Nathan the prophet when he confessed his sins, and Peter weeping bitterly for his denial, and the sinful woman weeping at his feet, and the publican and the prodigal son, may the same God forgive you all things, through me a sinner, both in this world and in the world to come, and set you uncondemned before his terrible Judgment seat. Having no further care for the sin which you have confessed, depart in peace.
Clear the air. Say it clean. Then depart, without a care. In peace.