I've just finished Gods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson, which is one of those perfect escape books. I slid into it easily like a pair of old jeans, and just didn't want to put it down. It's got some classic Southern characters - and I do mean characters in both senses of the word -- and there's a whodunit quality about it that sucks you in.
The presenting religious dimension is a deal with God, which doesn't take a lot of unpacking. But the part that's intriguing me is the way that truth, half-truths and outright lies play out in the story. There's too much here that I don't want to give away, but let's just say it has me thinking of all the ways that "speaking the truth in love" often means not speaking at all.
That can sound like making a religion out of Minnesota nice, which is not at all where this book takes you. In this story, the key characters have to move from keeping secrets to telling truths, but telling every truth indiscriminately is not the point. Real love is shown and redemption comes through the way some things are not said.
Realistically, this seems to be the way it works in families. We must address some elephants in the room, but there are still some things better left unsaid.
In Mary Gordon's Reading Jesus, she points out a stunning fact I hadn't noticed before: in Luke's Gospel, Jesus' first adult words are spoken to Satan.
Fresh from his baptism, where he has heard "you are my beloved Son," he is asked by the devil, in essence, to "prove it." Prove you are powerful. Prove you are beloved. Prove you can take on authority and glory. And Jesus words -- the first words he utters as a grownup -- are all essentially "NO."
Our baptismal rite reflects this same emphasis: you have to say "no" before you can say yes. "No" to all that draws you from God, our Lutheran rite says. Spit in the face of the devil, the ancient Orthodox rite does.
I know it's not popular to overemphasize the "giving up" part of Lent these days. But there is a truth in the reality of fasting that we may not get at by simply adding things to our days: there are things that get in the way of following Jesus, and we can't simply make peace with them. We have to confront them head on. Where have I given in? Where have I simply crowded God out because I haven't said no to things which, on their surface, seem pretty good?
“If a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, and
some great truth stands before the door of his life, some great opportunity to
stand up for that which is right and that which is just, and he refuses to
stand up because he want to live a little longer and he is afraid his home will
get bombed, or he is afraid that he will lost his job, or he is afraid that he
will get shot, he may go on and live until he’s 80, and the cessation of
breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of
The metaphor of a wilderness journey for Lent has a lot of biblical resonance, of course. From the Israelites' "wilderness school" after slavery in Egypt to Jesus' 40 days before he launches his ministry, the rocky places outside the Holy Land's cities are the thin places where the spiritual realities take concrete form.
But really, almost any wilderness journey will do as a metaphor for why we need Lent. Those of us who take an occasional trip to wild places know that these places can be life-giving, but you wouldn't want to live there. They aren't particularly good places for perfectionists, because no matter how well you pack, once you arrive you nearly always find that you either forgot some essential item -- or that you really should have left a few more things behind. As one friend put it this week, "I like the idea of Lent, it's the execution of it that I struggle with." The inability to "do Lent" well can be an great excuse to not enter into the wilderness at all.
Such journeys aren't particularly good for "purpose-driven" people
either, because an excessive focus on a goal is a sure way to miss one of the real lessons of wilderness: it's not about you. Wild places are there whether you enter them or not, and the weather, the flora and the fauna are going to do just fine without you, thank you very much. If you do go, and pay attention, however, you are opened up to a whole reality you miss the rest of the year.
In order to say, "one does not live by bread alone," we have to know that there IS a reality other than bread, other than the satisfying of our own insatiable hungers for recognition, security, accomplishment, or power. That realm is not about you. But it's very real. Time to enter in and see it.
Yesterday, because the first lesson included Isaiah's heavenly vision of seraphs singing "holy, holy, holy," we sang at least 3 hymns using those words in the course of the service. I handed out shakers and jingle bells to the young children and asked them to shake whenever they heard the word "holy" in readings, prayers or song.
What followed was amazing on two fronts. First, they got it right a great deal of the time. Every chorus of bells and shakers was followed by smiles from the adults in the congregation. And there wasn't nearly as much noise in between the "holies" than you'd think.
More importantly, even when someone shook at the "wrong time," it caused me to ponder how those things were holy as well. There was a long set of shakes as the names of the sick were read during the prayers, which felt like a special blessing for those who were suffering.
Finally, I think everyone present paid a little more attention to the words being used. A few adults commented that they had been "awakened" at several points during the service.
Which of course calls into question the common wisdom that small children are "not paying attention" or "not getting anything" out of worship.