For years now we have set on our annual Lenten journey. Each year, we start out with hopes of remaining faithful. Each year it is our intention to be disciplined and after these forty days we hope to gain new wisdom and insights. And yet, and yet so often our practice falls short. Speaking for myself, part of my problem might be that I am trying to put new wine into old wine skins. I’m setting out doing what I’ve always done. “Same song, 51st verse.” (give or take a verse or two) This Lenten journey may we consider risking something new and seek not the familiar path. May we look to follow one that is not already marked with footprints – ours or someone else’s. This year, may we take heart and follow a new path. We are meant to be out, away from what is familiar, what is practiced, what is routine. We are meant to enter into a new space.
So often for me when I able to get away, to go on a trip away from home, away from work I have more time to think. Less conversations, allow for more interior work. So often when I’m out and away I realize how very grateful I am. “Absence making the heart grow fonder” and all. So often I re-member how very thankful I am for this life that I have been given. I realize how grateful I am for my family, my friends, my home. And soon as I reflect upon this, I realize how rarely I speak about that.
The words from Psalm 20 speak about that. The writer talks about being in the midst of the congregation, being with like-spirited sojourners. Probably the psalm’s most powerful line is from verse 24, the one that reminds us that God listens for us and listens to us. We hear, “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; did not hide God’s face from me, but heard when I cried out.” For this and so much more, I give thanks.
Psalm 22 is perhaps known best as Jesus’ psalm. It was these words he prayed when he was close to his death. These words of angst that have sounded down the centuries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And it is important for us to remember that these are the beginning words of this prayer, not the ending words. This psalm speaks to the wilderness journey, the faith journey of moving from the desperate pain of our beginning place to a place of belonging and even proclamation. How is this possible? How is it possible for you and for me?
Maybe this question will be the pebble in my shoe as I continue on these days wandering through the wilderness. Can my faith move from the painful places that too frequently capture my spirit? Can it move to a place of proclamation and deliverance? I’ve witnessed this kind of faith all through my life. I saw it in the faces of the older folks who sang all the hymns by heart in the fellowship hall in the Methodist Church growing up, I’ve seen it at bedsides of folks who were nearing death, and now I sense it walking the hallways of CHOA most every day.
Ever walked with a pebble in your shoe? At first it's irritating, aggravating. A faithful pebble can be one that helps us shift our stride a little bit. A faithful pebble can move us from what has always been to a place to that calls us yet to be.
We are told in the gospel of Mark that Jesus was sent into the wilderness for forty days. Mark’s sparse narrative doesn’t give us much of a picture of what happened there. This time is left to our imagination. Perhaps in not being told, we are given space and place for our wilderness stories to walk with his. Perhaps in not knowing for sure, we are not limited to one particular story. Perhaps in the openness of this telling, we are given freedom to walk with him and he with us when our days feel desolate and empty.
We are centuries away from this story now. In our days of social media and endless news cycles it is nearly impossible to imagine the emptiness of his wilderness. It is not easy to try to feel what he felt, to hear and see and sense what he might have experienced. For these next days we are invited to let go of our busyness. We are invited to let go of our intense over-stimulated, constant global connections. In our unknowing, we are given the possibility of living into Jesus’ wilderness as we make our way through this Lenten season.
Many of us have known our own wilderness time. Many of us can point to past days when we, too have experienced our time of feeling lost. We can remember times when we have felt sent out, sent away. We can remember feeling out and away from familiar people and places, far away from the comfort of our routines. Left foot, right foot. Taking those steps were all we knew to do, all we could do. Left foot, right foot.
The Christian Century published a piece entitled “Wilderness” (11/8/17). B.L. Newell writes of wilderness saying,
“I go into the wilderness, no matter its size or locale, and find there some deliverance, a revelation, a knowing
or a joy. The wilderness of our earth and the wilderness at soul’s depth communicate. When I am in need
or searching for answers, untrammeled wilderness of place and untrammeled places of my soul reach out
to each other.”
As I make my way through these February into March days of 2018, I am leaning into Newell’s words about essential connections. Here in these days we are invited to let go of what is no longer life-bringing. Giving up our burdens is at the heart of giving in to the wilderness. Left foot, right foot. And perhaps the gift can come with that next step. Perhaps there or there, or on up there grace will find us. Perhaps we will step into what may be - to experience the interconnection of what is around me and what is within me - perhaps we will step into "some deliverance, a revelation, a knowing, a joy." To be held in just that moment that holds all time - what was, is and will be - ah...that would be worth the stepping out into what appears to be so barren and empty. Left foot, right foot.
Signs are all around us. Driving from here to there and back again, we pass road signs and advertising signs. So often we can be stopped in our tracks by signs outside of businesses or churches. Sometimes they can make us laugh out loud. Sometimes they plant ideas that take seed and grow. There was a sign outside of a Friends’ Meeting House the morning after the 2016 election: Let us see what love can do.
Signs can be words written on paper or on a poster board. They can be letters seen side-by-side that can shake us and wake us up. Letters side-by-side that can enrage or engage us. Letters side-by-side that can take us to something as inspiring as the cry of a newborn, or remind of something we’ve known our whole lives.
Signs can come in the sound of the wind through the trees or the song of the first bird of the morning in our backyard. Nature’s limitless teachers -- those buzzing bumblebees or the song of geese flying overhead. Signs come as we watch the path a dolphin takes just a ways out in the surf, or as we watch a cloud passing in front of a full moon.
Lent comes each year when we are gifted with signs of the one season moving into another. Buds into blooms. Winter giving way to spring. Daffodils. Crocuses. Blossoms. Spring bursting forth with colors that remind our hearts of YES and ABSOLUTELY and OF COURSE. Signs of spring come to us at just the best times, each year. Spring comes when we are winter-weary and the darkness feels like it is just too heavy for our spirits. Spring comes.
Signs are all around us. This Lent what signs are we following? Are we listening for familiar sounds only because we’ve heard them so often? Or are we gathering our courage to search the skies for some new message that just may appear on the horizon?
Have you ever asked for a sign from on high? I’ve done it many times. More times than not, it was in the waiting that the answers have come. For me there was never a parting of clouds or a deep booming voice sounding a message. My signs have come more often from that still, small voice. More often than not I have been renewed by remembering deep in my bones, that the one who created it all is creating still.
That sign on the board outside of the Friends’ Meeting House speaks to these days in which we are living: Let us see what love can do. This message allows no room for giving out or giving up. We are invited to hold on and to stay connected. Even when things feel overwhelming, feel messy and impossibly hard, maybe especially then. This sign encourages us to not lose hope. “Let’s see.” All of us. Don’t stop looking. Don’t stop painting or typing or yodeling. Messages come, one to another and back again. Who knows? There’s hope for us yet.
Let’s keep looking
for what love
(4) Make me to know your ways, O God; teach me your paths. (5) Lead me in your truth,
and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.
(6) Be mindful of your mercy, O God, and of your steadfast love, for they have been
from of old. (7) Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions; according
to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness sake, O God.
~ Psalm 25
Pilgrims sang and prayed these Psalms as they journeyed through the wilderness. Words known to them by heart. As they walked through desert, as they ascended steep hills, as they traveled they sang together, lest they forget. These were ancestral prayers. These were their ancestors’ words passed down father to son, mother to daughter to bring inspiration, consolation, reassurance. These words came from their hearts when other words fell short.
Today’s readings bring words from Psalm 25. Even though we are just beginning our Lenten journey, I feel an appreciation for the psalmist’s words, "make your ways known." Even though we have just started walking through the wilderness season, we know already that this is not what we are accustomed to. The human comforts have been set aside for a bit and we are intentionally focused on what is here now and what is just up ahead for us.
Verse seven entreats God to `forget what has been’ and instead look upon us with steadfast love. So much of our lives seem to be spent looking back, rehashing mistakes we’ve made or others have made against us. So much focus on what has been and because of that, time and again we’ve missed what is right here before our very eyes. What is done, is done. We can’t undo or redo it.
Perhaps in these Lenten days we can put aside a burden or two or three. We are just beginning these days and we have a long way to go, wouldn’t it be a kindness to your spirit (not to mention your weary back) to lay a burden down? Maybe it’s a “she said, he said” burden. Let it go. Maybe it’s a wrong done to you, something painful that hurt you deeply and you’ve righteously carried it a long time. Let it go.
Verse ten goes on to say. “All the paths of God are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep God's covenant and testimonies.” Here we are given words of encouragement for these steps we are taking. Here we are reminded that all along the way, God is with us, step-by-step. It is our work to be mindful of our promises to God, as well as God’s promises to us. It is our work to live into words of life and faith. And with the reassurance of God’s lovingkindness t is our work to keep going.
This season of Lent can be a time for stretching and risking, a time for re-membering and reclaiming our balance. This can be the season of praying and singing words passed down for centuries, and new to our hearts even this day.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
~ “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems
How can our hearts be anything but broken? How can we possibly hope to make sense of our country’s most recent brutal, obscene school shooting? How can we make it through the day without weeping? How long, o Lord will this senseless sin continue?
Driving home from work last night, I couldn’t quit crying. All I could think about was how scared everyone must have been. I grieved the reality of today’s school kids and how much life has changed since I was their age. I wept for how many places, we seem to have lost our way. For God’s sake. For the sake of our children.
It was a heavy day. Grey and long. When I got in the car, I called and spoke with the folks who work for our Senators. My tears started there and just kept coming..
This had certainly been an unimaginable start to Lent. Surely this feels like the most barren of wilderness places. Deserted. Lifeless. Endless. Wandering. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Especially in the desert you can’t stop walking. Especially in the desert, you can’t give up. If you do, you will die. Left foot, right foot. We step out in faith, searching on up ahead for some kind of sign. Searching for some signal that reassures us and provides some kind of hope.
I heard them before I saw them. That’s one of their gifts. Their honking song. And then I saw them. There must have been over a hundred. There they were in all their glory- an amazing flock of geese heading north, heading home.
Geese seem understand Mary Oliver's notion of `the family of things..' They get from there to here and beyond by moving as one. We’re told that each bird flies a little bit above the one in front of them, to help shield the next one from the wind. They don’t have one leader to guide them home. Each takes their turn. One in the front, at the point of the "V" for a time and when she grows weary, the next one senses it and he flies forward to take her place. They don’t break ranks, they don’t break rhythm. They just keep going. Together. Interdependent. Stronger for sure. Wiser than most of us on the ground - absolutely.
In these weary, desperately grieving February days we could all stand to pay attention to all our teachers - especially these feathered friends. In these days when we sense we have lost our way, let us dig deeper to try to reclaim, rename balance. It’s not insiders/outsiders, not powerful/powerless. It’s us, all of us. Especially today as I pulled over and stopped to watch, I was reminded of this age-old truth: it’s gonna take all of us if we’re gonna make it home.
Mary Oliver’s words bring me inspiration and hope - there is a place that holds us. Each one. If we live into the part we play in `announcing our place in the family of things,’ we might have the courage enough to step out and step up. And who knows, maybe we can even fly.
“In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong and unmended in the world.
Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what’s outside your reach,
by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that
is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion
of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause
the critical mass to tip toward enduring good.”
~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Some of us may consider ourselves “Institutional Pilgrims.” We’ve done this season of Lent before, some of us would say that we’ve done this Lenten journey our whole lives. We have walked this lonesome valley, we’ve prayed these prayers, we’ve practiced these rituals. Some would even venture to say “we know how this turns out four or five weeks from now.” But, what if we haven’t? Seriously, what if we haven’t done this before?
We are living in a time that most of us could never have dreamed of. Day in and day out we are living with a new normal that is anything but normal, and living through days that feel flat out wrong. Our faith in our institutions is crumbling before our eyes. For those of us still able to watch or listen to the news, there seems to be little hope on the horizon. These are mean-spirited times for us, especially if you are one or if you care about someone who is living outside on the margins. Our children are speaking to power in ways that feel new and tender / strong. It is here that we find our wandering spirits.
What brings you to these mending days? Are you continuing to engage with your sisters and brothers? Are you continuing to practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty? Are you continuing to work toward the best of who we are created to be? Are you continuing to live into the spirit of the gospel’s message?
What, then is to be our focus? For our sister, Clarissa it begins with our naming - each one of us naming and claiming the fact that we are needed. There is heavy lifting to be done all around us and there is no time like the present. Here, as we move in and through these wilderness days, may we take Clarrisa’s words to heart. May we commit to being about the work of mending. May we commit to focusing on the hurting ones and the broken places that are within our reach. Small acts. Kind words. Beauty re-claimed. Left foot, right foot.
It matters like it’s never mattered before. We are, each one of us called to go out in joy with purpose and with focus. We are seeking peace - for all of us, for each of us. Each day. This day.
From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return. (Gen 3:19)
With ashes on our foreheads, and these words of our mortality sounding in our hearts, we begin our Lenten journey. Left foot, right foot.
These words spoken to generations of pilgrims before us give us pause each time heard. From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return. These words, though familiar, speak to the core of our mortality, our finiteness. With these words as our beginning place, we set out for forty days into the wilderness. What is it this year you are seeking?
And so hearing these words as a cross is traced across our foreheads we set out. Left foot, right foot.
These words of returning to dust, can certainly get our attention. These words of our mortality bring to the forefront that our time on this earth is limited. We were not created to live forever. Our bodies are precious and vulnerable vessels meant for a time, not all time. We are pilgrims traveling through. These words aren’t shared for us to be fearful of an ending, but to mindful of this present moment. We are here. Now. This is our time for choosing to participate - in this season, in this moment. Now.
This can be our season of turning and returning. It can be our time of reflection and intention. It can be our time of claiming and reclaiming our yearning for deep connection. It can be as simple and as difficult as paying attention to our life’s path. The differences between a path into a maze or onto a labyrinth are subtle, but by paying attention we can recognize the differences. By paying attention we can come to understand where we are and where we are going. At times our path can feel fearful, like walking into a maze’s entanglement, or other times like the peaceful, purposeful walking onto a labyrinth. These coming days can be our season of lighting a candle and stepping out - left foot, right foot.
Readings for this day come also from Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
With these words as well we set out on this time of pilgrimage. With these words we set out seeking something new, something right within us that is waiting. With these words we set out to follow our life path, strengthened by God’s steadfast love for us, each one. Not because we must, but because we may.
If you’ve ever walked a labyrinth you’ll know that these words (about labyrinth-walking and often about life) are true: What we think we know at the beginning of a journey, are often changed by what we discover along the way. Likewise, what we think we know at the beginning may turn out not be nearly as important as we originally believed. Labyrinth-walking continually shifts, unsettles and then re-settles our questions and quandaries. Time and time again, I have been gifted with grace.
Grace found me again as I was preparing for this year’s Lent.
The weight of the world companioned me on my recent journey into the labyrinth. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. There is something about the turns and returns of her path, that faithfully seemed to jostle my mind and my spirit. I felt a gentle presence of a new companion and along the way, this sense grew more sure and steady. And then I understood - I felt peace. When I stood in the center and looked to the sky, I felt relieved. Maybe it’s the steps, maybe it’s the continuing on when I really wasn’t sure how the next turn would get me where I intended to go, maybe it was God’s lovingkindness, but as I turned and began to make my way back I experienced a deep, reassuring peace. And when I turned to make my way back out, I understood the words for me for this Lenten season: "For you will go out in joy, and come back with peace,” from Isaiah 55.
There are times and practices for fasting and prayer, for alms giving in this Lenten season. Their purpose is to slow us down, to call us back, to return us to God. This journey promises to take us into and through the wilderness. It is my intention to step out on this journey with joy, with God’s promise that I will return back in peace. It is with a mortal and vulnerable heart that I begin this season carrying with me the hope of shalom, salam, paz, mir, pyeonghwa, vrede. Always with us is God’s lovingkindness for us. As we set out into this Lenten season, may we prayerfully seek what is to come.
This Lent it is my intention to provide something three days a week.
On Wednesdays it will be `Lenten words,' on Fridays poems,
and on Sundays reflections on the Psalms of the day.
Working in Family Experience at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Lesley is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She and her partner, Linda Ellis are raising their two sons, Brogan (now a freshman at Guilford College) and Sam at sophomore at DHS in Decatur, GA.