Hope. Determination. Plan. Persistence. Those are the words we keep hearing this Lenten season, and no wonder given our current struggles and questions. Lent was never intended to feel like a party, but I’ll confess for all us—I’m ready for some kind of celebration. This year’s Lenten journey, underscored by our experience with a global pandemic, has stretched our souls.
A few years ago Barbara Brown Taylor imagined the beginning of Lent in this way:
“[Jesus’] followers stopped expecting so much from God or from themselves. They hung a wooden cross on the wall and settled back into their more or less comfortable routines, remembering their once passionate devotion to God the way they remembered the other enthusiasms of their youth. Oh, to be young again, and to believe everything is possible.
Little by little, Christians become devoted to their comforts instead: the soft couch, the flannel sheets, the leg of lamb roasted with rosemary. These things made them feel safe and cared for—if not by God, then by themselves. They decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and before long it was very hard to pick them out from the population at large. They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another. They did not get arrested for championing the poor. The blended in. They avoided extremes. They decided to be nice instead of holy, and God moaned out loud. Hearing that, someone suggested it was time to call Christians back to their senses, and the Bible offered clues about how to do that.”
Biblical accounts pointed a clear path. Forty days of rain. Forty days of temptation. Forty days of preaching about the Kingdom of God. Why not forty days of preparation and remembrance as we approach Easter? It’s a great plan if I’m not distracted by a pandemic!
“Those of us who walk along this road do so reluctantly. Lent is not our favorite time of the year.” That’s poet Ann Weems’ confession of the inward struggle produced by an awareness of the burden of Lent. It is not so much a celebration as it is life lived in a minor key.
But how should we respond, when life for everyone is already in a minor key? There is, of course, the long tradition of giving up something we value or enjoy. The hope is that the loss or craving for “the usual” serves as a reminder of all that Christ gave up for us, all that Christ suffered for us. But in our current global context even that seems a tad bit shallow. I feel an almost overwhelming need to accomplish something, contribute in some way, make a difference for others. Surely we can do both.
Yes, we can give up something (as many of you have been doing during this season), and the experience of social distancing might even serve to heighten our sense of Christ’s sacrifice and isolation. But this year, I’m thinking that Lent gives us, gives me, the opportunity to hear voices that are usually lost in the hurry of our schedules. The news is daily reminding me of community voices lost in the struggles. As a faith community, we’re constantly encouraging our members to check on friends and neighbors. But this is Lent, after all. Am I missing something essentially spiritual during our medical crisis? Have I overlooked—overheard—a different voice?
This year’s Lenten journey affords us an opportunity to utilize some of that social distancing space to reflect on the sound of God “walking in the garden,” God’s voice speaking to each of us. Thomas Merton, the well-known and respected Trappist monk, writes about a kind of “dread” when we have missed something important. Is that what I’m experiencing as an individual? I’ve missed something utterly important and essential? Does that describe our walk with God as a community? Something missing? Something more that we have yet to discover?
A forty day countdown! It’s a great plan if I’m not too distracted. Or perhaps it’s exactly what I need when I am distracted but just haven’t found a better path—yet.