As much as during any season of my life, I reflected this Lent on the fact that there are deaths, and then there are deaths. All deaths are sad – but some we can reconcile in our minds as being timely, or even a good death. If your grandmother dies at 97 after a couple of grisly years battling Alzheimer’s, you grieve, you miss her dearly, yes; but the death is understandable, acceptable, good in a way.
Then there are the truly awful deaths, too young, too sudden, too knee-buckling. In our congregation, in the span of 3 weeks, we had 5 numbingly awful deaths. Out of the blue, no one saw it coming deaths of beloved friends aged 67, 33, 12, 52 – and then a child barely 2 years old. This is the sort of loss that Santayana had in mind when he wrote, “With you a part of me hath passed away… And I am grown much older in a day.”
We all weep, and shiver a little, a hug our loved ones – for we cannot dodge the truth we know but dare not stare in the face: that we are all of us fragile, vulnerable, mortal. I don’t want to sound like the manipulative, tedious preachers we’ve heard, warning us that we’d best get right with God now, for you just never know… But really, you never know, about those we love, and about ourselves. Our doctors are very clever – but we are fragile, and life here is rather rudely impermanent.
The lessons of Lent – and Easter? We love, we are tender with each other, and with ourselves. We ask about what really matters from the vantage point of What if it ended tomorrow? We don’t procrastinate on anything much that matters, and we really do get engaged with God.
Lent begins with the marking of ashes – a sign of our mortality, the brutal truth carved onto our foreheads that we might make it to 33 or 67 but we won’t make it to 1000 – that is, not without Jesus who endured the first Lent ever and dared to die at 33 on behalf of all who die too young, or in ripe old age. God told us the ultimate truth about him, and about ourselves, by raising him from the grave: God is never done with us. We belong to God, God treasures every one of us, and won’t let us slip from the mighty divine hands that made the universe and will bring all of us to God’s good end.
So be tender. Love God. Be grateful for the utter basics. Believe.
My nonfiction reading during Lent included a terrific book by Bill Bryson – One Summer: America, 1927, a spellbinding narrative of Americans doing the impossible in just three months. Charles Lindbergh flew N.Y. to Paris, unprecedented, alone, by dead reckoning, and in threatening weather; Henry Ford developed the Model A; Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs (when most entire teams hit fewer); and Mabel Willebrandt put Al Capone in jail.
All of us, even if not quite so spectacular as Lindbergh, Ford, or Ruth, are amazing, gifted, rippling with unrealized potential. God wants us to have a can-do, adventurous attitude. But no matter how strong the can-do spirit might be, there really are time you simply can’t. There are debilitating circumstances, diseases, hopeless scenarios, debilitating woes. The best intentions collide with impossibly difficulties. Nobody can effectively manage 100% of life.
Martin Luther scoffed at his fellow theologians who urged people to “Do what is in you,” to do make goodness happen. But there really are times you can’t. The only 100% reliable truths about our lives are Sin (we fail God and others), and death, even if there is much excellence in life.
It is wrong to think God is there when we can’t handle things ourselves. A guy I know wrote a book with an awful title: Do Your Best & Trust God for the Rest. God isn’t our assistant to help us with what we can’t handle on our own. God is in all of it. If there is human brilliance, accomplishment, excellence – then God did that! And we are all broken, all vulnerable and moral, and God is there too.
It is amazing what we can do. And it is even more humbling what we cannot do. God is Lord of all; God is the hidden author of all good, and the redeemer of all that goes awry.
I didn’t give up anything big or daunting this Lent. I did give up TV (no big loss there) and a few private things only God knows about.
I did engage deeply, every day, first thing (even before coffee!) a little book, a 40-Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, a marvelous, wise saint from 14th century England. The devotional book provided a reading from Julian for each day, and then some intriguing, inviting but not threatening questions about life. I learned a lot, and was sad when I finished reading day 40.
We speak of Jesus being risen, and alive now. Julian had direct, personal, unforgettable visions of Jesus speaking to her. If we doubt this, perhaps we are not inclined to believe Jesus was actually raised from the tomb!
Julian, who lived most of her life alone in a single room, doing little besides praying, had an intense fixation on the love of Christ – which is why Easter happened in the first place. This love of Christ probes deeply, even into the “shadowy, shameful aspects of our hearts” – and yet still loves, even though Christ sees what we think of as the worst in ourselves. And this divine love “frees us from destructive patterns and addictions.”
What are the destructive patterns of your thinking? or behavior? To what are you addicted? I read a book years ago about God’s power and the breaking of addictions – and the author, Gerald May, provided a surprisingly long list of what we get addicted to: not just alcohol or drugs but also shopping, attention, exercise, TV, anxiety, computers, gossip, the stock market, nail biting, work, hoarding, golf… His list seemed endless, and a bit scary, yet revealing. What are your addictions?
A “destructive pattern” might not be an “addiction” per se, but it’s a habit that might keep us from God. One pattern many of us slip into is impatience. A TV show can bore me in two minutes and I’m out of there. When I preach I know it had better hook people early. Make it good, make it quick! is our pattern.
The 40-Day Journey with Julian of Norwich started out okay week 1, then I got a bit bored with weeks 2, 3 and even 4. But I’d promised God I’d do all 40… and was richly rewarded. The best, most life-transformative stuff in the book was in the very last 10 days! The best wonder in Jesus’ life story was in his last few days too. I wonder if we can hang in there – and see that God’s best, if it’s in a devotional book, or in life itself, is coming if we stick with it. After all, Jesus hung with his Lent for the full 40 – and stuck with his love for us to the Cross itself.
In her 14th century Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich asked an intriguing question: “Who has custody of your heart?” The kneejerk reaction might be “I do, of course!” But you don’t, I don’t, none of us do. Your heart, that part of you that feels, fears, loves, frets, believes, and dreams: it’s in you, it is you – but it always beats for something outside your self.
Who has custody of your heart? We think of a mom and a dad arguing over custody of a young child. Who is battling for your heart? A romantic interest? A career? Dark, foreboding anxiety? Something addictive? Friends, or whatever people out there prevent you from feeling lonely? Cultural rancor? or acquisitiveness? Negative messages that have resounded in your head for who knows how long?
What would it be like for God to have custody of your heart? Julian can’t stop talking about the depth of Jesus’ love for each one of us; and she persuades me that “all that is in opposition to this reality of being loved by Jesus – all these impulses are false.” What impulses in you are in some way opposed to the reality of being loved by Jesus? In your imagination, can you stick a label on each one that declares it to be “False”?
If we see our wretchedness, our mistakes, our lostness, “Jesus does not want us to remain there, or to be much occupied in self-accusation, nor does he want us to be full of misery.” He does want us “to attend quickly to him, for he waits for us, lonely until we come.” Why is this? “We are his joy”
If God’s love is the custodian of your heart, if you are God’s joy, this doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly. But how you respond to whatever circumstance that plops itself down in your life will be different, maybe calmer, less frenzied, more contented and hopeful. The risen Jesus told Julian, “You will not be overcome.” He did not say “You will not be troubled.” But Jesus did say “You will not be overcome” – because he’s got your heart.
the Biblical Writers
Bible writers! Thomas Merton, in his wonderful journal called The Sign of Jonas, began thinking one day that, if he struggled to get anything out of Scripture, he might actually ask the Bible writers themselves for help – assuming they are in heaven, and living eternally…
He mused, “I have a great, though sometimes confused, affection for the writers of the Bible. I feel closer to them than to almost any other writers I know of. Isaiah, Moses, David, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all part of my life. They are always about me. They look over my shoulder, earnest men… I feel they are very concerned about me, and that they want me to understand what God had them write down – and that they have always surrounded me with solicitous prayers, and that they will always love me and protect me.”
Wow. Bible study feels like a solo activity: I open the book and try to make sense of it or find something helpful. It can be hard, we’re buffaloed at times, distracted or maybe even bored. Maybe I’m in a group, like Disciple – and I at least have friends helping me to reflect and dig deep.
But Merton expands the circle sumptuously! Maybe I am alone, I am hoping to read something from God, a word of hope, or just to know more about God and understand what the heck is going on in my life from God’s viewpoint. What if I could think of Isaiah, Matthew, Paul and John hovering above me, rooting for me, praying for me and loving me?
Easter is about the resurrection, about the dead having a wonderful communion with God – so we might well expect the ancient writers to enjoy each other but also be somehow palpably available to us, maybe even eager to see someone reading their material they labored over and treasured so much.
I’m a writer – and believe me, I think about this stuff long after it’s gone, and I hope and pray you get something from it, and I stand ready to help, to answer a question or two. How much more then would God’s inspired authors feel even more strongly about you and their marvelous library of publications we call the bible? Could Merton be right – that you have some invisible but real help?