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What I learned on vacation is that confronting our brokenness doesn’t have to be awful (even if it is hard). Instead, if we remember the God who invites us to such self-examination loves us better than we love ourselves, than the 40 days of Lent can be a vacation from the rest of the world.
Lent is coming. What a downer.
Yes, once again, a supposed ordained minister is saying highly irreverent things. (You should read my blog on atonement.)
Let me try again: Oh boy, Lent is coming! I love Lent! I love examining all the broken pieces of my life and coming to terms with the in-your-face reality that I suck at following Jesus. I also love giving things up! I love repentance! I can’t wait! Welcome Lent!
Do you believe the above garbage?
Let me pause for those of you who have no idea what I’m rambling on about. Lent is a period of forty days that begins with Ash Wednesday (the mysterious day during which lots of people have dirt on their foreheads) leading up to Easter. Check out this quick primer on you tube:
Lent lacks all of the mysterious wonder of Advent, the time in which we wait for the birth of the manger baby. Instead, Lent leads us toward Bad Friday, the day we remember Jesus’ horrific death instead of his cozy birth. And yes, Lent truly ends with the Alleluia’s of Easter, but let’s be honest, Lent seems to prepare us for a cross, not an empty tomb. Traditionally, Lent has been a time in which observant Christians painstakingly examine their lives. It is a time in which we come to terms with our own brokenness in order to make room for Jesus to move in and sweep our hearts clean.
I can tell you many reasons the above is an important, in fact crucial, aspect of the Christian life. But that changes nothing for me. I hate it. It is miserable. I don’t want to examine my brokenness. It’s exhausting.
I have had a bit of a revelation, however, that has saved me, and maybe will save you, from totally detesting the ancient Christian season of Lent. I gained this little perspective on vacation this past January.
Vacations are often the only time I have the space or time to reflect. And during our past family vacation it became evident to me that I had been a bit of a snarly, pissed-off-over-worked, impatient mother. In fact, when I asked my family if I had been that bad the previous fall, they broke out in laughter. And then when I pressed them even further, they all agreed I had been complaining a great deal. In the words of my seven year old, eye brows raised, “O Mom! You complain all the time!”
Yikes! That hurt. I was on vacation with my beloved family and they all told me I was a bitter complainer. To make it worse, I like to imagine myself as a grateful person. Last I checked grateful people don’t complain a lot. But there I was, in the midst of a beautiful vacation from my life, my back to a wall. I had two choices before me: 1) I could deny I was a complainer and hate my family for telling me incorrect information and ruin my vacation 2) I could accept their painful truth and start changing my ways while in the relaxed womb of vacation.
I chose option two. I had been a complainer. And it was a lot easier to start changing my ways while I was on vacation from the constant pressures of our lives. The best news was that when I checked in with my family recently they confirmed my hope—I have been complaining less. (At least I have made strides in one area of my life.)
Lent can be like vacation. It’s God’s invitation to take a step back and reflect, evaluate, take stock. God’s invitation doesn’t have to feel like penance (hello, related to the word penitentiary!). It isn’t like being thrown into a cell with a dirt floor, people screaming a litany of our broken ways through bars. Instead, Lent can (and perhaps should!) feel like a vacation—like a forty day invitation to vacate our day to day lives and come face to face with a God who has claimed us as her very own beloved.
For some of us this invitation will mean taking on a new spiritual practice. For others it will mean writing a list of the endless blessings in our lives. For others of us it will mean confronting the hard truth that our brokenness (complaining) has been affecting those around us. For others of us it will be something entirely different.
What I learned on vacation is that confronting our brokenness doesn’t have to be awful (even if it is hard). Instead, if we remember the God who invites us to such self-examination loves us better than we love ourselves, than the 40 days of Lent can be a vacation from the rest of the world. Lent can be a safe place to take a serious look at who we are. Then, just maybe, we can become the person God invites us to be.
Yikes, do I have to use that word? Even if it is Lent? (see my former blog about Ash Weds).
Let me start from the beginning: My faith community began Lent this year by worshiping at common cathedral. Stop here: check out www.ecclesia-ministries.org. Common Cathedral is a church made up entirely of the homeless. It is a robust community, seeped in the gospel. During that first Lenten service Father Brian spoke about repentance. Initially, I wanted to flee the moment he uttered the word. My knee jerk reaction questioned his choice; shouldn’t he be speaking love to this group of marginalized people? Thankfully, I continued to listen to his faithful and loving words.
Father Brian reminded everyone gathered about the Lenten practice of repentance, why it was foundational in our faith journeys as we sought ever to grow closer to God. All things I had heard before. But then, he talked about Jessie Jackson Jr. He mentioned things most who had watched TV or read the papers knew: a Rolex watch, Michael Jackson’s fedora, corruption. Jackson apparently said to the presiding judge that he hoped people would remember him for the good he had done, instead of his “misuse” of campaign funds. And then the judge spoke powerful words to the corrupt politician: if he wanted to make things right, then Jackson needed to return the money.*
Wham! Repentance: Give back the money. Make things right. Sorry isn’t enough. Change.
I looked around me at the many faces that surrounded me that morning. I knew everyone in that crowd, from homeless to pastor to those in my own community, needed to repent of something. But I wasn’t thinking about the sort of repentance too often associated with an inability to live an “ideal” Christian life (whatever that is). But a difficult, authentic repentance in which we recognize the brokenness to which we cling. The judge at Jackson’s trial was calling the politician beyond a cheap repentance of regret to the difficult repentance of change.
Against my knee jerk reactions, I have tried to practice some repentance this Lent. (Don’t look to me for any serious advice on this matter, I am still a novice). I have tried (being the operative word) to at least acknowledge my own brokenness. I have tried to move beyond sorry to acting differently first. I have tried to do the real work of spiritual change. I’m still clinging to my brokenness, but in some small way this Lent, I recognize more clearly how that brokenness gets in the way of my relationship with God and with others.
Repentance? I can get on board if we in the Christian tradition start talking about real change.
*I have looked tirelessly for the newspaper article that confirms this is what the judge said, but I cannot. This is only what I remember from Father Brian’s sermon. As many know, we hear what we need to hear in a sermon, not necessarily what is spoken. Father Brian allowed me to hear that morning that repentance is about change, not guilt or some old fashioned doctrine. Thank you Brian.
I’ve always liked the words from dust you have come to dust you shall return. To me it conjures genesis images of God breathing life into the earth and bringing forth Adam. The Hebrew root “adamah” means ground or earth. I am past thinking God first created a man and I certainly do not read genesis as a scientific account of creation. Still, with all of these flaws, I find the genesis image of God breathing life into the very earth and bringing forth humankind weighty. It reminds me that my very mortality is connected to God’s very own being.
But I must be the only one who loves these ancient words. At least @Grace, the emerging Christian community I serve, they aren’t so keen on the image. In fact this motley crew of disciples isn’t so keen on confession either. It does not matter how many times in our theological conversation our resident PhD theologian (this does not matter to them, rightfully so) has pointed out that the flip side of repentance is grace, they don’t like it. And it does not matter how many times on Ash Wednesday I have preached that confession is not about guilt or making lists of each imperfection or misstep. It does not matter that I have gently invited others to acknowledge their own brokenness. In eleven years of ministry Ash Wednesday continues to be the lowest attended gathering of the faithful I serve. They just don’t like it.
This year I quit. (Gasp!) This year as we gathered for our annual Fat Tuesday bacon eating frolicking, I decided I was not going to make them listen to a long winded defense of confession. I was not going to speak about broadening our view of the “s” word sin. And I was not going to be denied the opportunity to mark deeply faithful people with ashes. Instead we did something very different @Grace last night.
This year, before Fat Tuesday arrived, I thought more openly about why it was these beautiful disciples did not want to begin Lent with confession, the mark of ashes, and the words: dust to dust. I wondered if what these faithful folks are doing (being a part of a progressive Christian community) doesn’t take all of their energy in a mostly secular culture. I wondered if they would much rather learn how to act, how to live, how to follow Jesus in the 21st century, rather than what not to do. I wondered if this wasn’t at the core of their visceral reaction to confession and ashes.
After we ate our full last night (plates of bacon, gumbo, chocolate trifle), we gathered and heard Eugene Peterson’s translation of Galatians 6: enter into a generous common life with those who have trained you, sharing all the good things that you have and experience. I called those before me to 40 days of kindness and then marked each person with ashes in the sign of a heart, speaking the words: let your heart break open with love.
A few remarkable things happened. For one, our collectively blasphemy did not bring the wrath of God down upon us in the form of locust or lightening. Second, and most poignant, people came forward who have never wanted ashes before. I was not denied by one person. Everyone wanted to be marked with an ashy heart. We left that night not with our heads down, not in silence, not with the symbol of roman torture smeared on our foreheads, but with kindness brewing between us, smiles on our faces, and the mark of God’s heart.
I have no theological answers, just the experience of the disciples @Grace Community Boston. They voted for hearts and grace over crosses and repentance.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.