Lent and Taking Time

Lent and Taking Time

Throughout my high school and college years, one of our pastors – a kind, cheerful man who I loved dearly – would preach a particular sermon once every year that was awful. It was about time. We all had the same twenty-four hours in each day, he told us, and every minute of every one of those hours needed to be accounted for. They needed to be spent for God – in church, praying, studying the Bible, sharing the gospel with others, supporting others in those things. Staying busy for God.

It was a message designed to motivate with guilt, and it always rang wrong to me. Yes, the things we do with the time we have matter, but much more matters than the doing.

That sermon seemed to buy into a very American, capitalist view of time as a commodity. It also sold us another very American idea – that we are all equal when it comes to time. We all have the same amount every day and the same control over what we have.

But we don’t.

When I was a child, an hour was forever and a summer felt nearly endless. So much more fit into my days then – so many more thoughts and ideas and stories and dreams and adventures. I don’t think that’s an illusion of memory. Our metabolisms are at their fastest when we are young, and the way we experience time reflects that. Even now, when I am fit and exercising regularly and my metabolism is less sluggish, days feel longer and I can do more with each hour.

Life makes time different for each of us.

Circumstances beyond our control determine how our time must be spent. Poverty can make the basics of life much more time-consuming for some. Health issues may slow us down. Some of us require more sleep than others to function. And young children consume their parents’ time voraciously. People often think singles without children have loads of time, but when there is no one to share the tasks of life with, they take more time. And for a single extrovert, a great deal of time can go into building and maintaining interactions and relationships that others go home to at the end of the day.

One of the things I both love and hate about Lent is that it asks us to stop and think about time, and our time in particular. The reality that life is short – even for those with the longest lifetimes. Everything won’t fit. For forty day, Lent ask us to take time. Time to grieve, Time to make space for our vulnerabilities, our longings. Time to know our limitations.

“From dust you came, and to dust you shall return,” Lent tells us. Pay attention! Notice it. Everything in between is gift.

Most of the time, I see time as something I’m losing – or have already lost. It can be hard for me to turn that way of being in the world inside out.

Last year during Lent I really noticed for the first time that I am fourteen years older than my father, who died at just 31 from ALS. It made me see this time, these days I’m living, differently. It’s time he did not get, and it began to feel like “bonus years” – a gift.

I still struggle with the feeling I’ve lost time. So much time is gone for me – the time for who I might have been had I lived in a context that viewed women differently, the time for having children, the time for everything I could’ve done has I come to know myself more fully sooner.

But I’m learning to let those things be and turn to accept the gift of time I’m being given each day. Enough for this day.

A friend of mine, a pastor, recently retold the story of the “Manna in the Wilderness” in a powerful way (inspired by Dorothy C. Bass). The original story in the book of Exodus recounts the people of Israel’s fear when, after they have been freed from their slavery in Egypt, they do not know how they are going to feed themselves in the wilderness. It’s a story about provision, as is this adaptation…

Each evening, time arrived and covered the ground, and in the morning the desert was wet with it. When the people saw it they wondered asked each other, “What is it?”

Moses told them, “It is the time God has given you. God has said for everyone to gather as much time as is needed for each home—the right amount for each person.”

So the people gathered time—some getting more and some less before the sun of the day melted it away, and there was just enough for everyone. Those who gathered more had nothing left at the end of the day – they exhausted all they took. And those who gathered little had no lack – they found they had enough for what they needed. Each had just enough.

Moses warned them, “Don’t try to make it last overnight.” But of course some of them wouldn’t listen, and tried to stretch it deep into the night; and they were grumpy and irritable in the morning.

So they gathered time morning by morning, each according to their need.

Time to take for each day, as we need it. A gift waiting for us with the sun each morning.

Lent and the Journey of Grief to Joy

Lent and the Journey of Grief to Joy

I don’t like grief. I don’t. I really don’t.

A month after my third birthday, my father died after an extended illness (he had ALS). He died at home, in his sleep beside my mother. I remember that morning. The neighbor who was a nurse. The paramedics taking his body. My Sunday School teacher from church who came and read to me, holding me on her lap in the rocking chair in my room while my mother took care of things. I wasn’t interested in what she was reading, or in sitting on her lap for that matter, but I felt the grief rolling off of her and her need to be doing these things, so I let her.

Two weeks later, my step-grandfather worried his way into a heart attack at my grandmother’s kitchen table and died. The house filled with the family, stunned to see a mother and daughter each widowed within two weeks. And then, maybe a month later, my great-grandfather died as well.

As I learned the news and the house began to fill with mourning family once again, I ask my mother to let me go stay with my Sunday School teacher, where I knew I could avoid the fog of grief in the air with her family. She called my teacher, and off I went.

At three, I’d already learned I needed to take care of myself in these times, and others as well, as their grief on my behalf flooded over me.

I learned that life is loss, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And much as I hate grieving, I eventually learned that there’s no room for joy or love without it.

Grief is not an enemy to joy. Grief gives place to the reality of pain and loss and disappointment and heartbreak so that there can be room for joy again.

I try to remember that when grief comes, because I still hate it. As much as I know that sidestepping it won’t actually somehow take me around it, I still have to fight myself to go there.

I find myself bracing for grief, because I want to recognize it without actually feeling it.

But that won’t work either. And on my better days I know it. On my better days I can cry. I can find my way into feeling all the pain of letting go of what’s gone. On my better days I know that it won’t feel like this forever, and the possibility of joy is on the other side.

But on other days, there’s too much of who I am in the loss. Too much of myself I don’t want to lose with it. And I don’t know how to just grieve without losing myself in it.

I don’t care what other people think of my grieving any more, whether it’s in sync with their expectations or not. We are terrible at grief in our society. We don’t know what to do with it and it makes us uncomfortable. So we tend to ignore it and just hope people keep it to themselves.

But grief calls out to be acknowledged. When everything has changed for us, it’s a callous world that just goes on about its business and expects the same of us.

Lent helped teach me the needfulness of public grief. In my first year of seminary, a remarkable woman named Marva Dawn came to preach to us for several days. It was during the weeks before Easter, during Lent, and at one point she mentioned that she wore Lenten colors – purples, grays, black – during the forty days of Lent to remind herself of what season she was in.

The idea intrigued me, and I decided to try it. It didn’t take many personal losses for me to begin to recognize how powerful public mourning must have been, the tradition that those grieving would wear black then gray and purple for a season.

It was such a relief to quite literally wear my heart on my sleeve. Even if no one recognized it, my grief was present in the world with me. It could be part of everything I did quite naturally.

I still don’t like grief. I still fight my bracing something fierce. But Lent began to teach me how to make room for it. I’ve begun to learn how to respect it, and sometimes even to embrace it.

And I try to hope there’s joy somewhere on the other side.

Lent and a Fresh Start

Lent and a Fresh Start

Noah’s Ark is a difficult story. Because it has lots of animals, a boat, and a rainbow, we put it on nursery walls and tell it to children. But the real story isn’t cute or happy at all. The real story is hard and confusing.

God looks down at everything he has made, but unlike the goodness he saw at creation, now all he sees is corruption and violence. It’s a mess and God regrets the whole thing. So he decides to scrap it all and start over with just eight people and a handful of animals. He gives Noah instructions for building a giant boat, and once Noah’s family and the collection of animals are on board, God destroys the world with a giant flood. Every animal, every innocent child, every violent man or woman. Everyone dies.

And when Noah and his family and all of the animals finally crawl out of the ark for a fresh start, God promises them all – the animals and the people – that he will never do it again. He puts a rainbow in the sky to remind himself of his promise – never again will the rain mean everything dies. That’s not going to be God’s way to make things right.

Have you ever wanted a fresh start? Everything is a mess, it’s not working out, and you need to start over from scratch. Just burn it all down, as a friend of mine says.

God knows what that’s like. He understands that feeling, and he’s made a better way than destroying it all.

Because what we see in Noah’s story is that destroying it all didn’t work. Noah and his family brought themselves with them into their fresh start, and they start messing up almost immediately. Noah gets drunk, one of his sons does something obscene, and the whole project spirals from there.

The problem wasn’t in everything around them, it wasn’t all just in the violence and evil in other people’s hearts. They had their own regrets and resentments and fears and defenses. The flood didn’t destroy those, and the fresh start they needed was in themselves – in their own hearts and minds.

So God made a different kind of fresh start. God gave us baptism. Like those flood waters, the waters of baptism provide us with a fresh start, but unlike those flood waters, baptism doesn’t destroy to do it. Instead, baptism calls us to move forward in the world as it is and change the world by changing our own lives – changing how we think and what we do. Baptism is about changing the direction we’re going and what we are moving towards.

As the baptismal vows in the Book of Common Prayer say, we turn away from evil, and towards God.

Away from the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy, and towards the Creator who nurtures and heals.

We turn away from the desires that keep us from loving and being loved, and turn to live in the grace and love Jesus freely offers to us and to all.

Every time we celebrate a baptism, the whole congregation renews those vows, and the water that has been blessed for baptism is flung out over us with the words, “Remember your baptism!” It’s one of my favorite moments of the liturgy, and it always makes me smile, because it reminds me that I have a fresh start to live those vows. But we don’t have to wait for those moments to remember our baptism! A shower in the morning as we get ready for a new day can remind us of our baptism. The water running over our hands as we wash them through the day can remind us. An unexpected spring rain we get caught in can remind us – especially if it comes with a rainbow.

In the gospel of John, Jesus explains it to Nicodemus as “being born again.” Parts of the church have turned being “born again” into not much more than an abstract idea, sort of a magic wand that changes where we go when we die, but Jesus is using it to describe a fresh start, a new way of living that starts now.

I think sometimes it’s hard for us to accept that we can really change and things really can be different – that we can actually have a fresh start. It can be hard to believe for myself, and it can be hard to believe for others. But that is the heart of our faith, and it’s what we are inviting others into when we offer them baptism. If the reality that change really is possible in ourselves and in the world isn’t what the gospel is about, I don’t know what is.

That change doesn’t come all at once, but like all new life, it starts in a moment we may not even recognize, and then grows one breath at a time, one step at a time. It’s a spiritual reality that happens here and now, in ways we can see and hear and feel. In the middle of life that is messy and confusing and full of things beyond our control.

The reality is that fresh starts are often not something we’ve gone looking for. Things fall apart or quit working or just come to an end, and we have to pick up the pieces and start over. There’s a flood. We lose a job. The partner we thought we’d spend the rest of our life with is gone. Children leave home. We just realize we’re not living the life we want, aren’t the person we want to be.

That’s why confession is part of traditional liturgies every week. It’s not just words we say. It’s an opportunity to stop and recognize what’s gone wrong – the things we did that make us wince, the things we didn’t do that make us defensive. Instead of burying them or shrugging them off, we bring them up, look at them squarely, and recognize something in us needs to change. And then we lift our souls up to the Lord, as the Psalmist says, and turn to the love of Jesus to receive his grace and love so that we can offer it to others with our lives. It’s a habit, a discipline, and if we enter into it each week fully and thoughtfully, we will find our lives become oriented to that direction we were pointed to in our baptism. The love of God becomes the true north in the compass of our hearts, always pointing us towards his love, both to receive and to give.

Sometime a fresh start is something we know we need, but we’re not sure what it looks like or how to find it. That’s one of the reasons we fast during Lent – to make space in our hearts and in our daily lives for God to do something new.

The first time I tried fasting for Lent, I had no idea what I was doing. I was still a Baptist, and I was living in North Carolina where even at the Bible college where I worked, few people even knew what Lent was. But I was searching to connect with God in new ways, and thought I’d see what Lent might be like. So I gave up sweets for Lent – desserts, the Krispy Kreme doughnuts my office neighbor brought every Tuesday, the bowl of chocolates in our office. All of them. I put a Post-it note on my computer to remind me, and it wasn’t long at all before I started to realize how quickly I reached for those chocolates when I started to get stressed. I’d never noticed how much I used sweets to cope with life, and now that I wasn’t I had to face that stress, sit with it, and work through it. Over the weeks, I started using a guided prayer website in those moments, and gradually that became my instinct when I felt stressed.

There was space for another bit of God’s love to take root and blossom into something new, something God’s love does again and again and again. As we hear at the Ash Wednesday service, we are dust, and we have a Creator who delights in making good things out of dust.

Like Noah, we bring ourselves into the fresh start God gives us at baptism and every day after, and it is the love of God that can make us into something new, that can give us a new way to live, again and again and again. Baptism is not just a beginning, it’s a way forward. A life of continual conversion and transformation of our hearts and lives into the way of Jesus, the path of the love of God.

That is the fresh start we receive at baptism and every time we come to God in prayer, confession, and the table. It’s the fresh start God has for us every moment of every day.

Lent and Messy Hope

Lent and Messy Hope

I walked home from Ash Wednesday service tonight in a gentle, soft snow. It belied the many ways my life has felt battered by the not-so-gentle over the past several weeks.

I went to a service at a church I’ve never been to, one just two blocks from my home, and I almost didn’t go. I wasn’t so sure I needed to and I was tired. And no one would know me if I went or miss me if I didn’t.

But sometime maybe that’s what we need.

The moment I stepped through the door I started to cry. Through the incense and the processions and the prayers and the bells and the readings I cried. My body knew something I didn’t yet, and it knew I needed that space to…grieve? to hurt? to be confused?

Maybe just to cry.

And I received the cross of ashes on my forehead – that sign of all the deaths we bear and carry with us.

And I stayed and I ate the bread and drank the wine – bread and wine that are signs of a living body that transcends death.

I can’t understand that, but I know I needed it.

Lent is a season of hope.

Lent doesn’t simply tell us that human life is full of evil and death and failure and betrayal and messing up and hurting each other.

Lent recognizing the broken things, the things that make us heartsick and heartbroken, and then goes on to tell us there is also healing and life and goodness and giving and love.

They aren’t often easy to get to and we get hurt and hurt each other along the way. Elbows and knees and words and struggles are sharp and awkward and we don’t always know what to do with them.

But this Lent, I think I need to leave space for crying and hoping. In all their messiness together. I’m not sure there’s any real substance to hope without some crying, too.