2022 03 13 Alan Storey
Lent begins with the shattering of our complacency or it does not begin at all.
For this reason prophet Joel gave us ‘what for’ on ASH Wednesday. The “fierce urgency” of his tone was to wake people up. To wake up a people living in denial of death about to engulf their world. This death was the consequence of forsaking the life-giving ways of justice, mercy and humility. Especially justice, mercy and humility in relation to the most vulnerable of society – contained within the vulnerable Trinity: widow, orphan and foreigner. Due to the way society was set up socially, politically, economically and theologically, these three groups were the easiest to exploit, scapegoat, demean and get away with it.
Too often we only wake up when the consequences of our complacency threaten to catch up to us. At this late stage it is difficult to see a way out and easy to be overwhelmed. We can move from denial (there is no problem) directly to despair (the problem is too big).
Realising this, Joel invites us to trust that “even now” we can act. In this we are invited to occupy the arena of perhaps. Perhaps, is filled with spacious possibility. Perhaps declares the future is not finitely fixed and therefore there is hope.
Once our complacency is shattered and we overcome the temptation not to act, we face temptations on how we will act. Regardless how well-meaning we are, our action can deepen the problem rather than bring relief. As Jesus’ wilderness wrestling reveals, the devil is in the detail of our actions.
The first temptation is to think we can bring authentic change without the transformation of the human heart that caused the problem in the first place. For example, we fall to this temptation each time we think technology will save us. The lie within this promise is that we can have change without actually changing ourselves. Lasting change demands we actually change.
The second temptation is that our relationships with the Divine, each other and creation are to rest on a quid pro quo formula rather than on grace and the gratitude and generosity that flow from grace. In the quid pro quo world the priest tells us who is in credit / debit or who is saved and who is not. It is a segregated world that states some are worthy while others are not. This world view is often what stubbornly validates structural injustice in the world. In the world of grace the priest reminds us who we all are…beloved. All are beloved and therefore all are worthy of love.
In a quid pro quo world we are only as good as our last deal. And so our third temptation is the need to prove ourselves over and over again. To prove ourselves by promoting and protecting ourselves. This poisons our action with a self-centredness and self-righteousness. We use false categories, like health and wealth to show we have sufficiently proved ourselves, while poverty and sickness are proof we have failed. Suffering becomes the sign of failure and thus God’s forsakenness. The ultimate aim of one’s life is then to avoid suffering at all cost. The fear of suffering limits our loving. Justice and mercy no longer set our true north and we are soon lost, having turned inwards. In seeking to save our lives we lose them. Suffering is not to be sought after for it carries no merit in itself. However, suffering as a consequence of resisting systems that are neither just nor merciful is the clearest sign of faithfulness. The Cross is a sign of such faithfulness.
As a result of Putin’s war in Ukraine many have rightly spoken up with fierce urgency at the complacency and hypocrisy of too many of us regarding other invasions in recent history. Racism has again been exposed in how the suffering of white people is more acutely felt and covered by the media than the suffering of black people. Instead of this truth silencing our opposition to Putin it should provoke us to raise our voice “even now” (especially now!) against all invasions and permanent occupations. This complacency and hypocrisy is clearly seen in relation to Apartheid-Israel (underpinned by USA money and military) and Palestine. I mention this in particular because of how so many Christians are not only complacent in the face of Palestinian suffering but actively endorse Apartheid-Israel’s theft of Palestinian land and subsequent violent oppression of Palestinians. Believing the violent occupation is a biblical blessing blinds them to the truth that God has no favourites and deafens them to the Hebrew prophet’s cry against those who turn justice back by acting inhumanely. No one. No one. No one. Gets a free pass to act inhumanely.
God have mercy on us … who struggle to live mercifully in relation to all our sisters and brothers.
Lent is a time where we lean into the work of sacrifice. It is a deepening time during our journey in the life of faith because we are committing ourselves in a more intentional way to journey with Jesus in quiet, in release, and in taking on a pattern of life that shapes us for the remainder of our days. It is something we participate in willingly, so the way that unfolds is a way we say, “yes” to even before knowing what lies ahead. Our yes is a “yes” that must be true no matter the turns, no matter the costs.
The image on the front cover, was painted by a woman named Jan Richardson. Jan illustrated Peter Storey’s book, Listening at Golgotha. She is such a beautiful human being. Her husband died in 2013. They were collaborators in so much of life, from the stories she shares. Jan writes about the gift of being able to walk back and forth in their home sharing the process of her painting with him. After his death, she took time for herself, but once she was ready, she began to turn her energy towards creating not just art, but blessings.
There is a holiness that lives in her blessings because they were born during a journey that we know was painful and the wrestle to the words must have been so alive in her, but they rose and found their way to the surface and she used them as a means of showering others with a sense of the divine that was alive in her even during a time of darkness for her in her space of loss. It is the same with her art. I find her art inspires me in an elemental way that opens movement within my spirit.
The blessing below came from her book, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessing for the Seasons.
Blessing that meets you in the wilderness
After the desert stillness.
After the wrestling.
After the hours and days and weeks of
emptying. After the hungering and thirsting.
After the opening and seeing and knowing.
Let this blessing be the first sweetness
that touches your lips.
The bread that falls into your arms.
The cup that welcoming hands press
Let this blessing be the road that returns to you.
Let it be the strength to carry the wilderness home.
If Jan’s life through her grief was a wilderness, her blessings demonstrate the reality that she was held along the way until the blessing of healing began to shimmer gently through. That is the journey of the Christian faith, we cannot know the beauty, the pain, the road before us, but we can know we are held in such a way that strength will rise for us to meet every turn.
Journeying with Jesus is not an easy road. We fool ourselves if we believe it to be. We are living in days where it is important for us to be awake to the reality of what it means to walk in pain with others, to sit with someone who has questions we are not the answer for, and to be in the journey with Jesus—in it.
May you be strengthened for the journey throughout these 40 days and may the wilderness be a place you find yourself coming home to again and again.
With you on the journey,
Held in the Spirit …
A couple of years ago, I was speaking at a youth retreat. After I was done preaching, I shared I would be outside at the picnic tables should anyone want to talk. I will never forget a young woman coming up to me and sharing that she had a secret she needed to share. She was dressed in black from head to toe and seemed to be hiding within the hoodie she was wearing. Her secret she told me was that she was being physically abused. She didn’t know what to do and she had been cutting her wrists, not to die, but in order that she might feel alive. She had lost the ability to feel her life she said. At least ten other young people shared their stories of pain and the reasons why they too were cutting themselves in order that they might feel alive.
The journey I went on with the youth at that retreat and the youth pastors that served them was one I never could have prepared for. It was painful, laborious, and held so utterly in response to the work of the Spirit that I was left feeling overwhelmed with a sense of certainty that holiness was in the ground. Now years later, I see that same young woman wearing pink, flowers even, and it makes me smile. She shares her story with others and has asked me to share it as well. Yet, underneath the surface of the colors she has allowed back in her life will always be the story of her pain that runs deep. She has learned to make friends with it, but it will always be there.
Trevor Hudson has shared that “everyone has a pool of tears.” There is such truth in these words. We all carry a hidden pain, insecurity, or a truth we hope for others never to know. During our first Wednesday in Lent, Alan spoke about the importance of confession. It is important to share our stories with others, to release some of the pain we carry in order that our brokenness does not become the gift we give to others. Yet, I want to challenge us all during this Lenten season to reflect on the holiness of sharing life together. Life together is a precious gift.
In order to be a confessing community, we have to understand the holiness that exists when someone shares with us. Are we a people who can hold a story and not breathe it into the wind for all the others in our circle to hear? Are we a people who witness the pain in others and hold it gently recognizing the fragility of their reality and the fragility of trust? Are we willing to be available? I must confess that I have always loved young people, but in small numbers. Had I known twenty of them would come to me that night, there is a strong possibility I might not have availed myself. Yet, I was blessed in a way that changed me that night. I can still catch the holiness of it in my breath.
When I think of confession, listening, and being real, those young people were heroes. They were brave enough to trust in the word of God I spoke of that night and brave enough to share their particular pool of tears. They were brave enough to do the hard work it takes to begin the journey towards wholeness, healing, and life. Let us in our life together be people that help each other along on the journey by listening, confessing, and holding each other in the light and love of the Spirit of God.
With you on the journey, Michelle