A Stealth Version of Lent

The season of Lent slipped in quietly last week while folks around here were distracted by monumental snows and plummeting temperatures. Ash Wednesday was cancelled—the whole week was cancelled. Snow and ice along the streets are now the color of the ashes we didn’t wear. Surviving the weather felt like enough of a Lenten practice, and people joked about wanting to give up winter for Lent. This week the snow has melted enough to reveal the tips of daffodil fronds, but Easter still feels a long way away.

 

Maple Shadow and Robin on Snow 2015-02-28

 

But in spite of this stealth version of Lent, somehow a Lenten practice found me. Or rather, a constellation of practices both inner- and outer-directed. They balance each other. Some fill the well for me. Some are ways for me bring water to others.

I’ve been reading some excellent books, practicing meditation and doing “morning pages.” Complementing those inward disciplines are some outer commitments I’ve made. Through them I’ve been meeting some wonderful people, doing meaningful work at my church, and leading a group through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

I can’t take credit for arranging this rare balance; I’m simply grateful for it. Lately I’ve been trying to notice and respond to what life/God/the universe is putting in front of me, and what is arising within. “Synchronicity” is another way of describing this sense of things coming together. I think Paul refers to the same experience in Romans, when he talks about all things working together for good. Being open to the question of how God is working in and through my life seems to be leading to a place of balance and wholeness. At least for now.

There is much to be concerned about in the wider world. But in the midst of it all, my hope is to continue paying attention to the work that is mine to do.

What are you noticing these days?

 

 

 

Feeding the Dark Hole

Recently I had a lesson in paying attention, something that turns up for all of us from time to time–without too much pain, if we’re lucky.

I had taken the time to fill my thermos before leaving home, planning to have an organized, have-it-all-together kind of day. Unfortunately, I didn’t take time to be sure it was sealed.

The good news was that my laptop in the same bag was unharmed, but that was because my papers soaked up the spilled coffee. Handwritten pages bled through most of the notebooks, leaving an ever more ghostly imprint on each leaf. It was a stupid mess, made by no one but me, and there was nothing to do but pull everything out and clean it up.

I wiped the cover of my computer and set out the waterlogged paper to dry. I used a paper towel to soak up the liquid remaining in the bottom, all the while appreciating the excellent design decision to make the lining black.

But as I dried the interior I felt something beneath the lining—actually several somethings crowded together under there. I checked the inside pocket and sure enough, found a hole. It was an opening in the bottom corner, hardly noticeable but plenty big enough for a pen to work through. I made the opening a little bigger until I could get my fingers around a pen that had fallen behind the lining, then another one, and another. Suddenly I knew why a whole package of my Pilot fine-point gels had disappeared.

 

 

But there was more—a bottle of lotion from the Hampton Inn, a package of Kleenex, two tubes of lip balm, and a card from Laudanum Printing that I kept as a reminder to check their Etsy site. There were several paper clips, Riccola cough drops, plus a Hall’s, a couple of Dove dark chocolates, a Luna bar, a shoe shine mitt from the Inter-Continental in Seoul, and a sealed bag of Bigelow’s English Teatime.

All these important items I had squirreled away, thinking they might be necessary, only to have them disappear into a black hole in my bag. Who knows how long I hauled this stuff around, completely inaccessible but crowding my space and weighing me down. If these things were so important, how could they disappear without my noticing?

I can’t help wondering what other long-forgotten necessities are crowding my life, or what else I’m lugging around in my metaphorical baggage. What’s really essential, right now? What would happen if I could pay attention, fix the hole, and stop feeding the bag?

Jesus and Jerusalem

During Lent this year I’m thinking a lot about Jerusalem in the year 30 or so. I’m meeting once a week with a small group to talk about the last week of Jesus’ life and the events leading up to the crucifixion, and it turns out you can hardly make sense of the stories without knowing something about Jerusalem and the practice of Judaism. A good map and some background information on the city’s history and politics helps. A book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan called The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem is also a good resource.

 

Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover. Everyone did. The city of 80,000 swelled to a population three times its size during the festival. But why was Passover so important?

Some of us learned the story as children, but as an isolated and fantastical tale. To appreciate it we need to see the story within the bible’s overall narrative. In brief, God insisted that Moses lead the Hebrews out of their enslavement in Egypt. As Moses confronted Pharaoh, he brought down plagues on Egypt, demonstrating God’s power over Pharaoh and making the point that God’s people must be allowed to leave. There were frogs and locusts, boils and flies, and water turned to blood—ten plagues in all. Yet none convinced Pharaoh to allow the Hebrew slaves their freedom until God sent the final and most horrible plague.

The event that finally changed the fate of the Hebrews occurred with the final plague, which was the Passover.  The Hebrews were instructed to kill a lamb and ritually mark their door frames—the doorposts and lintel—with its blood. They were to roast the meat over a fire and prepare a meal to eat in haste. With no time for the dough to rise they were to bake unleavened bread, and be dressed to leave at a moment’s notice.

While the Hebrews were making their preparations, the Angel of Death was passing over the land, claiming the lives of the first-born sons throughout Egypt. Only those homes marked with the blood of the lamb were spared. As the cries rose from Egyptian households during the night, Pharaoh demanded that the Hebrews be gone.

The exodus that ensued was when Israel became a people. As they wandered in the wilderness they threw off their identity as slaves and formed a new nation. The Passover was an act of power that marked the Hebrews as God’s own people, singled out from those around them, and destined for their own unique place in history.

The celebration of Passover became a remembrance of what it meant to be God’s people, the heart of their religious identity. It remains such to this day. Perhaps the violence of the story is why we don’t dwell on it. We don’t want to think of God as sending an Angel of Death to anyone. Another discussion is the evolution in our understanding of how God operates.

What we have to remember if we’re trying to understand Jesus’ last week on earth, is that he was a faithful Jew. The scriptures he studied were the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures. The practices he followed were shaped by Jewish law and liturgy. The religion into which he tried to breathe new life was Judaism. He was called Rabbi—a teacher in the Jewish faith. His actions in Jerusalem in the days leading up to his death show his love of, identity with, and vision for God’s people.

If we care about the events leading up to Easter we need to understand that they are entwined with Passover and the practice of Judaism.

 

The Way of Remorse? or the Way of the Open Mind?

When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant.

Leonard Cohen
from “The Future”

 

 

This afternoon two young men knocked on my door. They wanted to tell me about their church a couple of miles away, and to ask me if I was 100% sure that when I die I’ll go to heaven. I told them I wasn’t 100% sure about much of anything, but that I believed God would take care of us.

I wish I had asked them why they felt they needed to go around scaring people. “Gospel” means good news, but there are Christian evangelists who want to withhold any good news until they’ve first convinced folks of their utter wretchedness. Unfortunately, they get a lot of air time.

These visitors showed up on the same weekend I was studying on the word “repent,” and learning that it’s considered by some to be a mistranslation of the Greek word, metanoia. From what I can tell, putting the wrong word in Jesus’ mouth has helped give rise to a version of Christianity that sends nice young people out to harangue their neighbors.

Repentance is a word bound up with a sense of remorse and sorrow. It’s about rejecting a former way of life, turning away from the wrong path and setting out on the right one. And sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do. There’s nothing wrong with talking about repentance, though it’s not a good way to start a conversation.

In the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, the word translated as “repent” means something like “to return,” or especially “to return from exile.” It’s not hard to connect this idea with turning away from a misspent life. Certainly it implies moving from a sense of desolation to one of belonging, which is a hopeful message. But even this is different from what is taught in the New Testament.

In the New Testament, the word translated as “repent” is metanoia. Scholars of the ancient Koine Greek of the New Testament say that it means changing one’s mind, or having a change of heart. It means suddenly seeing things differently, making a new decision in the light of new information. This article by Robert N. Wilkin offers some insight.

Wilkin points out that when the context makes it clear that the change of mind is in regard to sinful practices, then it’s appropriate to associate that change—turning from one’s sins—with a sense of regret or remorse about what has gone before. But there is nothing within the word metanoia itself that carries a sense of remorse in other contexts. It’s possible to simply act in a new way based on a fuller understanding, to see the light and make better choices.

So how did a word that means to change one’s mind come to be rendered as “repent”? Apparently the first Latin translation of the Greek used paenitentia, or “do penance” in English—a strange and harsh translation. But it was preserved in the first English translations, which were made from the Latin, not the original Greek. Tyndale’s English translation in 1526 changed it to “repent” instead, which at the time was an improvement. The King James Version retained “repent” and the translation has endured.

Wilkin says, “Nearly a century ago, in The Great Meaning of Metanoia, Treadwell Walden decried the Latin and English translations of metanoia as being ‘extraordinary mistranslations.’ I would agree.”

How many messages of “Repent!” have been shouted from pulpits and soap boxes, or delivered with an unexpected knock at the door?  When all the while, the more authentic translation of Jesus’ words, and the message repeated in strong and loving churches, is more like:

“Keep an open mind!”

“Be willing to see things differently!”

“Encounter the world in a new way!”

“Don’t be limited by what your life has always been!”

“Consider a new perspective!”

“Open your heart to change!”

 

 

It’s Not Too Late to Enter Lent

We’re a week into Lent, but it’s not too late to think about a Lenten observance if you haven’t already. At the service I attended on the evening of Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, the thing I heard that struck me most was, “At the end of Lent we will be different.”

It’s true. When we take up some kind of spiritual discipline for Lent, we will be changed. We can be sure that in knocking on that door, it will be opened to us. That’s the reason to enter into these forty days of spiritual focus—a period of time long enough to foster real growth yet limited enough keep from being too daunting.

Even a simple observance over the period of these weeks leading to Easter can make a difference. I’ve written about some ideas for that in the post, “Small, Gentle Ideas for Observing Lent.”

I’m exploring different kinds of prayer this Lenten season. This week I’m immersed in the psalms. Simply reading a psalm every day, slowly, listening for the word or phrase that speaks to you, can be a rich Lenten observance. Especially if you understand the enemies and foes mentioned there as being your own personal demons.

At my church we’re exploring the subject of prayer during Lent, in classes and in worship.  Our senior minister is talking about prayer during his sermons over the next few weeks; his first in the series is about the power of simple prayers and how there is no “right way” to pray. He mentions Anne Lamott’s writing about the two best prayers she knows: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  You can listen to his March 13 sermon, “Prayer: What’s the Point?” here.

Finding a way to pray, or perhaps even a new way to pray, over these weeks of Lent seems to me like a way of inviting transformation. But whatever we choose, taking on a Lenten discipline is not so much a matter of buckling down as a way of opening up.

It’s not too late. What would you like to find on this journey?

The Practice that Yields Spring

Winter seems endless about now. Even as the days grow longer, the snow piles deeper. With no discernable effect on the temperature, the returning light seems powerless over the season.

Yet exactly the right things are happening to bring life to a frozen landscape, even if the wintry scene appears unfazed. The earth continues its cyclical journey, progressing through the incremental changes that carry us into spring and the miracle of a new season.

But if spring were dependent on human motivation, it might be a different story.

If I committed to a vision and faithfully took a small step toward it every single day, I would want to see something happen. If I had begun a practice at the winter solstice, I would want to see some evidence of change by now. I would suspect I was wasting my time unless I could see some tangible result. Without that, I would probably be tempted to quit.

And then how would spring ever arrive?

I’m asking myself what small steps I need to be taking now. What does springtime look like for you, and what kind of steps might carry you towards it?

Small, Gentle Ideas for Observing Lent

The forty days of Lent, a time of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter, begins next week on Ash Wednesday. So I’m considering a discipline to take up for the next few weeks, though I have to admit that the word “discipline” feels pretty oppressive right now.

Back when I observed Lent by giving up something, such as desserts, I was glad for the reprieve on Sundays—they aren’t counted in the forty days of fasting. One of the best results was that Sunday became particularly joyful. Maybe that’s reason enough to go the route of sacrifice.

But I approach the Lenten season differently now. I see it as a time for study, or service, or entering into a new spiritual practice.

There are many great ideas for Lenten practices available. John Arnold’s ideas for Lent at The Practical Disciple is a good place to start. I especially like his innovative approach of carrying out forty bags of excess stuff in forty days, literally making room for the movement of the spirit in our lives.

But this year, I need a tiny idea. I’m not sure I’m up to anything more. A new project or a new practice simply feels too daunting.

Reading a psalm a day is one possibility. I could keep my bible on the table and read while I have coffee in the morning. It’s simple, not intimidating, and the psalms are rich in imagery, language, and spirit.

Another possibility is a practice I’ve recently encountered in several different places. If you’ve ever heard about a wonderful book from three different friends in the same week, or encountered a new idea that immediately come up in another context, you’ll understand why metta has my attention.

It comes from the Buddhist tradition, and is translated into English as lovingkindness. It’s a simple meditation, connected to the breath.

Breathing in, I cherish myself.

Breathing out, I cherish all beings.

Its practitioners find that metta cultivates acceptance, openness, connection, and charity—lovingkindness. Mary Jaksch at Goodlife Zen teaches about this practice in her post, “Can We Learn to Be Happy?” Jan Lundy at Awake is Good offers encouragement for using this meditation in her Day 25 Meditation Challenge: “Why I Do Metta.”

It can be used at the beginning of prayer or meditation, or while waiting for the tea to brew, the light to change, or the elevator to arrive.

This year, I’m looking for something to slip unobtrusively into my life, as some people carry a pocket cross. How are you thinking of observing Lent?