Lent: An Awakened Imagination

The brain is the organ of truth; imagination the organ of reality.
{Clyde Kilby}

Many Christian disciplines – and Lent is no different – suffer from a debilitating reputation: that they are activities encouraging us to withdraw from the reality around us, ways of hiding out from the physical, lived-in world. For many of us, prayer is what we do only after we are finished doing everything we can muster. Meditation, we suppose, is for monks who cloister themselves away and who literally have nothing better to do with their time. Even communal worship takes a bit of a rap for being a way the church creates and sustains its cultural bubble.

If ever we use our spiritual practices as a way of disengagement, however, we have entirely missed the point. A constant posture of dependence on God and recognition of Jesus’ sustaining presence (which is simply another way of saying prayer) is not an afterthought, but rather the very oxygen we need to survive, to “breathe and move and have our being.” Gathering with God’s people to retell the Gospel story and to remember that Jesus is with us, redeeming and healing, offers an invitation to more deeply engage God’s work in our world, not a way of distancing ourselves from it.

This is why it is most insidious that the word imagination has become synonymous with detaching from the “real world.” Imagination suffers under the unfair indictment that it is the realm for children who have not yet grown up. However, the constant witness of our best spiritual teachers, from St. Ignatius to C.S. Lewis to Eugene Peterson, insists that the redeemed imagination is actually one of the ways we ground ourselves in real, solid, spiritual truth. Our redeemed, Christ-immersed imagination allows us to see with spiritual eyes and to hear with spiritual ears what is real, what is true, what we might miss if all we relied on was our analytical brain or our five senses. So, in Christian theology, the imagination is neither divorced from or subservient to our physical, rational realities. Rather, they all work in harmony, our whole person engaging all God has for us.

This is why, for me, Lent is a season where God uses my physical experiences to connect my heart and soul to spiritual truth. And, let me tell you, if ever I needed my heart and soul to envision and hear and obey spiritual truth, it is now.

I need to be caught up in a fuller, truer, more alive story than the one I have been living in. My mind has grown dull with shame and fear and the tyranny of a mind locked-in on all that is small and stifling, all that is in opposition to God. I need to be re-awakened. I need prodding. I am a physical being, and I need something tangible, a physical jolt, to blow a little oxygen on the embers of my soul’s imagination.

Today, I do not need a doctrine or a principal or a theological idea (all good). Today, I need the hand of God, the whisper of the Spirit. I need my brother Jesus to walk beside me. Today, I need a fresh vision of what God is doing in my heart, in my family, among my friends and my church. Today, I need to hear God tell me what he truly thinks of me. Today, I need the Spirit to allow me to see another story, a story quite different from the one the Deceiver has been peddling.

Today, this second week of Lent, I need a physical reminder that God is with me, that Jesus is all around me, that the Spirit of the Living God is the one truth-teller. I need the Word of God to again “become flesh.”

So, today, as I pray the Hours, I hear these words: Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. And hope fills my heart. My imagination turns from my small self and hears another truth, another reality. I fast over a meal, and my physical hunger turns my attention toward my deeper craving for God’s redemption. I turn off the computer earlier than normal, and my mind (rather than being distracted by virtual realities or the constant possibility of more information) engages the very present fact that I am a father, a husband, a son of God. Here. Now. In this space. In this moment.

I want all God has for me, all God is for me in Jesus. I want my mind and my heart and my soul and my body to be fully alive, awake to my world. I pray that this Lenten season would offer me another opportunity to see Jesus do a fresh work, a fresh awakening.

It takes imagination to live in God’s world. {N.T. Wright}

hope / Winn

Lent: Mighty to Save

Well, Lent is here, for sure. Almost on cue, this past week, the hammer dropped. I’ve experienced spiritual dearth, oppressiveness, shame, fear, loneliness. In the words of my new friend Kade, “this kind of shit gets old fast.” Amen, brother.

If you want another perspective on the state of things in my house this past weekend, you can peek over at what my wife Miska had to say about it.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all suggesting that Lent = gloom, doom and the need for a large bottle of Prozac. I am, however, suggesting that Lent, if we are courageous enough to allow it, can be a season where we truly open up our heart and provide a wide space for God’s Spirit to do deep work in our soul. Over these weeks, we can allow God the place to do what he is always longing to do: to fill and heal and bind up and reshape – basically, to make us more of our true self, to wipe away the grime and the gray shades of sorrow that have covered our true glory. If we need hope, hope is what God will work to give us. If we need faith or joy or laughter, God’s Spirit, we can be sure, will be moving there.

Unfortunately, however, what I need is a size 13 shoe to the backside. I’ve listened to lies too long. In some places of my soul, I’ve waffled and wavered and basically pranced daintily around when I ought to be standing on two firm feet, staring evil down and telling it to go to Hell where it belongs.

I don’t want to be a wuss anymore. I want to be wide-alive. I want to be a reckless man, reckless for my wife, reckless for my boys, reckless for all the truths I believe in. However, I know this is beyond me. I need God. I want God. In the wreck I’ve made of things, in the dark places where evil and weakness and plain ol’ foolishness have cornered my heart, I need God. I need the God who is, as older generations liked to say, “mighty to save.”

We prayed this Lenten prayer on Sunday. I think I’ll pray it again:

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.

Lenten peace / Winn

Day of Ashes

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. On this day, we embark on a journey toward redemption, a journey toward Easter.

Lent spreads over forty mornings and evenings, beginning today, the day of ashes, and concluding with that beautiful sunrise when we proclaim with loud and joyous voices, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” For these forty days (excluding the six Sundays we will encounter because each of these is a “mini-Easter”), we renounce evil (sin that binds us or distractions that pull at us or lies we have believed) by a physical act of repentance. We give something up (chocolate, sex, TV). Or we take on a discipline (praying the Hours, serving in a shelter). Essentially, we allow Jesus, physical God, to meet us in physical ways.

I grew up in a tradition that didn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday or Lent (or Good Friday or Advent or anything else that might align us with those “Christians with the smells and bells”). Like any good thing, these practices can of course be abused, tempting us to flex our spiritual muscle or to try to earn kudos from God. However, I’ve found that I need these physical reminders, these sacramental encounters, to guide my mind and my heart and my body deeper toward Jesus.

A friend of mine who is Anglican priest told me (in flabbergasted tone) how put off he was by a fellow pastor who complained that Ash Wednesday was too somber, too focused on sin. Out of 365, he wanted to know, can’t we have just one single day to repent?

These practices are certainly no end to themselves. They aren’t intended to focus on us: our rigor, our righteousness, our devotion. These sacramental practices intend to turn us toward Jesus, to stir our heart toward our desperate need for a long redemption.

This, then, is the question for us to ask these forty days that will follow: where do we need God’s redemption? Where do we need resurrection? Where is the broken place that – unless God heals us – we are truly without hope?

For me, I want to be released from myself, from my fear. I want to turn away from all the noise I allow to distract me from the work God wants to do in my heart. I want to truly believe that Jesus is life, my life. I want to embrace my full salvation in Jesus. To do this, I need the ashes, the reminders that I am marked by Jesus. I need these concrete actions: turning off both the computer and my appetite for food each night at 9 (the discipline Miska has chosen for me – each of us choose for the other). I need my community to journey with me these days. It’s too long to go alone.

I hope to continue this Lenten conversation with at least one post each week of the journey. I hope to share more of what God will be stirring in my heart. Join me these forty days of hoping and waiting and repenting, these days of believing in Jesus and moving toward resurrection.

We are not converted only once in our lives but many times, and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads to our transformation in Christ. -Thomas Merton