Lenten Thoughts

Lent 2—March 1, 2015
Mark 1:9-15
Mark 8:31-38

This morning is the second Sunday of Lent. No less an authority than Wikipedia states that Lent is “observed by Christians in the Anglican, Calvinist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions. Today, some Anabaptist and evangelical churches also observe the Lenten season.”

I guess we Mennonites are in company with evangelicals in being a little late to the game here. I imagine that for many of us paying attention to these church seasons—Advent and Epiphany and Lent—is a relatively new experience. I certainly did not grow up with any real awareness of the church year. But my worship professor—actually Mike Graves who preached here a few weeks ago—Dr. Graves made a strong case for observing the church year in worship. He said that we are going to end up following some sort of calendar in our worship, and it might as well be the church calendar as the secular calendar.

So Lent it is. The Latin name for the season means fortieth—there are 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, not counting Sundays. Forty, of course, is theologically significant: the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years; Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days.

The English term “Lent” comes from the Old English word for Spring. So we have that to look forward to.

Practically speaking, during Lent people often give up certain luxuries and maybe also adopt some new spiritual practice for these weeks leading up to Easter. Lent was a fairly new concept to me when I was in college, and one year I decided to make the ultimate sacrifice—chocolate. Ryan and I went to New York over Spring Break, which was during Lent, and I still remember standing in the ice cream parlor and choosing butter pecan ice cream. Butter pecan. Such sacrifices I made for Jesus.

This type of melodramatic Lenten silliness is probably responsible for some of the backlash I’ve seen against giving up things for Lent. People argue that our sacrifices of chocolate or alcohol or T.V. are not in the same league as Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Which is true. People argue that we tend to give up the easy stuff while clinging all the more tightly to the real sin in our lives. Which, I’m sure, is true.

But the point of observing Lent isn’t to martyr ourselves. The point isn’t even to make ourselves better, more spiritual people. The point is to make space. To allow for a little extra space in our minds, in our hearts, in our lives—space that God can enter and fill in new ways.

The two scriptures we read this morning highlight two essential aspects of Lent—two ways we can make—or experience–space during these forty days: sacrifice and wilderness.

Sacrifice is what it means to “take up your cross” and follow Jesus. Sacrifice might mean giving up food or activities you enjoy for a time, but ultimately the sacrifice we are called to as Christians involves everything we do not become, everything we do not do because we are trying to follow Jesus.

I like how Melissa Bane Sevier frames this idea of Lenten sacrifice—not as “giving something up,” but as doing something different. She writes, “We get into habits, even spiritual habits, that become rote. Change is good for the mind, good for the soul. Doing something different during Lent can make us rethink, re-establish, who we are with God, who we are with others, who we are within ourselves.”

We stop doing some things. We do other things instead. We take up the cross in whatever ways we are called during this season.

In addition to sacrifice, we also talk a lot about “the wilderness” during Lent. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is always assigned for the first Sunday of Lent. After Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus fasts for forty days and Satan comes along with three specific temptations; that’s the story we know best: turn stones to bread, fall from the temple, bow down and worship. In Mark, though, this is the entire story: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Most of the details are missing—but the wilderness is still there.

Now with sacrifice, that is something we can choose, but the wilderness is a place where we are driven. Another constant in all three versions of the temptation story is that the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. It is not a place we go willingly. We don’t just decide, “well, I think I need some wilderness time to facilitate my spiritual growth.” No. The wilderness is a place the Holy Spirit compels us to go. And however romantic the stories might seem, being filthy and hungry and exhausted and alone is not at all glamorous.

We don’t choose the wilderness, but I would venture to say that most of us have had our wilderness experiences. Times when we felt lost and alone and disconnected.

Some wilderness experiences are long and painful. Friday would have been my parents 44th wedding anniversary. My mom drove out to visit Dad’s grave. She wanted to be alone. I pulled her car into the garage for her when she got home yesterday and noticed she had stopped to buy a package a Kleenex. She’s in a hard wilderness. A long wilderness. The kind of wilderness where, just when you think you might be done, that the angels are coming over the horizon, everything goes dark again.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. Someone you love has died. Or maybe your wilderness has been very different. Struggles with family relationships. A loss of a job. Dealing with a mental illness or a physical illness that alters the contours of your life.

It’s not that Lent is a time for us to intentionally enter the wilderness—because why would we possibly do that. Even Jesus didn’t do that. But Lent is a time to pay attention to the wilderness—the wilderness we have gone through and, perhaps, the wilderness we are in now. It is a time for us to pay attention to where God might be in the seemingly desolate landscape.

We are now in the season of Lent. Thinking about sacrifice. Paying attention to wilderness. And undergirding and overarching all of this is prayer. I almost hesitate to use the word “prayer” because it is so misused and misunderstood.

In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes about a recent mailing she received “from a group of New Age witches who state, in a kind of creed, their belief that ‘I can create my own reality and that sending out a positive expectation will bring a positive result.’ I suspect that only America could have produced Pollyanna witches, part and parcel of our pragmatism, our addiction to self-help and ‘how-to.’ No wonder we have difficulty with prayer.”

I don’t mean “prayer” as a practical endeavor to solve our problems. I don’t mean hands folded head bowed “dear God . . . Amen” prayer. That’s one type of prayer, to be sure. But I mean prayer more broadly. Prayer as a seeking after God. Prayer as trying to keep the lines of communication with the divine open. Prayer as talking to God—yes. But also prayer as listening. Listening to God, specifically. But also listening for God in all the chaotic noise of the world.

I recently read Laughter is Sacred Space, by Mennonite comedian and actor Ted Swartz. Some of you may know that Ted Swartz’s long-time acting partner, Lee Eshleman, died by suicide in 2007. In his book, Ted recounts his experience of wilderness in the years after Lee died. And he talks about prayer. He tells of a particular conference he attended where Bart Campolo talked to him about his grief. As they parted ways, Bart said, “I won’t tell you that I’ll pray for you every day, because I don’t do that even to my good friends, but on the days I believe in God I will lift you up.”1

That is prayer, too. Lifting up people we know and love to a God we want to know and are trying to love.

In John, Jesus tells his disciples: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:12). Which means that, in the most important sense, Jesus’ life was prayer. And that prayer included specific words: “Our Father who art in heaven . . . .” And it also included times of solitude and silence. Times of teaching and healing and serving. Jesus’ life/prayer included parties with his friends and grieving over Lazarus and calling the Pharisees to account.

So prayer. Prayer is an important part of Lent. And sacrifice. And wilderness. And this feels a bit rambling, but there is just so much to cover. That can be the danger of observing Lent. We get grand ideas and try to be spiritual superheroes.

This past Thursday I heard an interview with Bill Gifford on Fresh Air. Bill wrote Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying), and he was talking about all of the research and things we can do to extend our lives. Some of it, to be honest, was beyond what I’m willing to do—take cold showers, skip lunch every day. But a lot of it was just your basic be healthy stuff that we all know already—get enough sleep; eat whole, unprocessed foods, exercise regularly. Throughout the interview I kept thinking, “I should do that. . . . I should do that.” And by the time the interview was over I was overwhelmed by all of the whole grains I should be eating and the miles I needed to run. And all I really wanted to do was sit on the couch with a tub of ice cream.

Lent can be like that. All those shoulds. Activities, attitudes, foods, vices we should give up. Bible study and prayer forms and service projects we should be doing. And maybe it’s all true. All that stuff we’re thinking of. Maybe if we could wave a magic wand and make it all happen our life would be better. But there is no magic wand. And all those shoulds will just wear us down and make us want to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

Lent is not a time to exhaust ourselves. It is simply a time to make space. And if there is one thing that you think giving it up might help make some more space for God in your life, try to give up that one thing—not forever, just for forty days. And if there is one spiritual practice you want to try and see if it opens up some more space for God in your life—give it a try.

If you want some encouragement and accountability, write your one thing on a slip of paper and put it in the offering plate—or give it directly to me. I’ll check in with you once or twice between now and Easter.

One thing. One thing. Not everything. We don’t have magic wands. What we do have is ourselves and each other. What we do have is the example of Jesus and the on-going presence of the Holy Spirit and the abundant Grace of God. Amen.

1. Laughter is Sacred Space by Tim Swartz, p. 240.

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