I have to admit to having a conflicted relationship with Lent. I grew up in the common tradition of “giving up” something for Lent. Each year, I would wonder what thing I enjoyed that I would give up for 40 days. In many ways, that seemed right for many years, in my family culture where discipline, frugality, self-denial, and deferred gratification were not stated values or expectations, but simply a way of life.
But over time, that tradition of giving up something I enjoyed seemed only to darken the bleakness of a season that was already tough for me – cold, dark, and barren. So I began to yearn for a different way to live a Lent. For a time, I sought to do the opposite, to take on something each Lent – like working on a Habitat project, or attending Lenten services, like this one. Not giving up something, but adding something. And I found that to be a much more positive and rewarding approach for me. Good things, perhaps helpful in and of themselves, but particularly as guideposts or opportunities to try to assume new habits of thought or being.
The goal was to cultivate a more faithful way of life that would extend well beyond the 40 days. And I found these commitments to be very renewing, and conducive to thoughtfulness and self-assessment. Nonetheless, they still felt somewhat external and temporary. So I kept thinking and listening.
Over the past few years, I’ve been trying yet another approach – not “giving up” but “giving in.” (This is certainly not an original thought, and I may well have picked it up from a sermon here — my apologies and thanks to Rebecca if that’s the case!).
By “giving in,” I don’t mean a sense of resignation, “being resigned to one’s fate,” for instance, which would just be another form of giving up. Rather, I mean diving in, giving oneself wholeheartedly to what we are meant to be, what God wants us to be.
It’s the challenge to give up what we think we’re supposed to be, by the values and standards of the world, the expectations of others. It’s the question of whether in every decision, every moment, every day, we’re really living as though God really exists. That doesn’t mean relinquishing all responsibility and coasting along, knowing that “God will take care of everything.” In fact, it means asking hard questions about what we’re supposed to do in any given situation, and being willing to take a risk, to do the unpopular thing, to take criticism, to make the hard decision if that’s what we’re really called to do, if we really trust in our faith.
I think this is one of the things we’re supposed to take from the passage in the Gospel of Mark: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
I also think of our weekly prayer of confession: “O God, Source of life and grace, we are aware that we are, at times, prisoners of fear and habit…Forgive us we pray when our indecision or apathy hinders your Spirit’s work. Forgive us when we get so set in our ways that we close ourselves off to what you would reveal.” What are the times when we’re following what we want to do, or what is in fact the easy route, following our own will and closing our eyes and ears to the direction God is calling us?
And I think of a quote from the author Kathleen Norris, where she says, “The tragedy of sin is that it diverts divine gifts.” What are our gifts, and how are we using them? Have we diverted them to advance ourselves, our own will, our own comfort? What are we actually called to use our divine gifts for? Can we give in to how God wants us to use them? That’s really hard – and I fail every day.
I’ve come to see that security has been important to me, in many ways unconsciously – whether in my relationships, in my work, in my finances. I’ve worked to understand how to attain that kind of security and worked hard at it. So “giving in” is counter intuitive. But I’ve now realized how much more important it therefore is. I now treasure the exhortation to let go, to loosen my grasp – to try harder to be conscious of the times when I am holding onto things so tightly with both hands that I don’t have a hand free to reach out to new possibilities, or to reach out to someone else. I need to give in — to be conscious of how hard I’m grasping, and to let go. Not to try to have all the answers, to have it all figured out, but to step into the stream of faith.
And this notion of giving in has also helped me start to understand how I might reconcile two competing instincts in myself: the appeal of time apart, this kind of peaceful Lenten service, even the thought of a monastic retreat — against the insistence of the needs of the world, the call to do something about the serious injustices all around us, near and far.
In this frame, the lasting influences on my faith in my life begin to make sense: Fred Borsch and Sue Anne Steffey-Morrow, the dean and associate dean of the chapel at my college, who were such a central part of my life there, really my sanity through those years; and Rebecca, here. All three of them combine feet planted in this world with aspiration beyond the known, a unique gift to help us bridge the two, helping us intersect our daily existence with the great unknowable. Some faith leaders direct our gaze to the world beyond, sometimes as an escape or a relief from the here and now; others seem focused on providing comfort or guidance in this world. These three, whom I have been so privileged to know, help us discern and integrate a presence within the day to day, bringing the God into the day to day, yet not allowing the day to day to subsume the God.
Though I was born and raised in Chicago, I’ve been able to travel to Japan a number of times now. One of my favorite things has been the Japanese temples and shrines sprinkled all about the congested heart of Tokyo. In some places, you’ll come upon large temple grounds with centuries-old wooden buildings, majestic gates, and incredible gardens of rock, trees, and water; sometimes it’s just a three-foot wide monument carved from granite, sitting in a nook, tucked amidst skyscrapers and rushing hordes of commuters. They serve as a call to remember the sacred, the eternal – not just on Sunday morning, not just in a monastic retreat — but while walking a crowded urban street, while our minds are preoccupied with the demands of work and life — piercing the worldly, intersecting the worldly, present within the worldly, illuminating the worldly, calling us to walk in a different way, to think in a different way, to work in a different way, to be in a different way – while in the midst of this world.
Within, yet apart; apart, yet within. Giving in, not giving up.