Can God set a table in the wilderness?
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
-from the liturgy for Ash Wednesday
To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness – especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.
-Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces
The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.
In like a lion…
This date reminds us: March comes in like a lion, out like a lamb. The point is that as we go through this month, we don’t end up in the same place we began.
That is also true of the season of Lent, overlapping this lion-to-lamb month. The expectation of the season is that we will change. When we arrive at Easter, we will be different than when we polished off those pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. It’s a season of transformation.
The image used for the season of Lent is a journey through the wilderness, specifically the story of the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. They began as slaves escaping Egypt. They wandered circuitously for forty years but ended up in a new place. They ended up a new people.
That image of wilderness only has power because we all know something about wilderness. One of my favorite cartoons shows a woman dressed in business attire standing in the great wilderness all alone. Above the drawing this title: A voice crying in the wilderness. The woman is yelling: Get me the hell out of the wilderness! Another cartoon illustrates Moses’ wife stopping the procession of the wandering tribes. She pokes her head in the convenience store and asks for directions. Clearly, her husband needed to know which way to go. Mythology has it that men aren’t good at asking for directions.
All of which is to say that Lent is a season marked by challenge, by testing. It’s why we always start the season reading about Jesus’ temptation in the desert. But it’s also a season of formation and discovery. Though it takes a while, the children of Israel end up in a different place from where they began.
Lent 2021 has its own feel this year. As we began the season, I’ve heard again and again that people feel like they’ve been in Lent for over a year, thank you very much. Since everything shut down last March, they don’t feel quite the same urgency about giving something up. Been there. Done that. The past year has been a wilderness experience, filled with wildest of beasts. A mind-boggling death toll indicates such. If the past year has been a Lent writ large, we may wonder how we will come out different than where we began when we all get back together. Some of that will be hard. Some of that will be a new creation. But we will come to a new place.
So as we move through the month of March, as we move through the 40 days of Lent, as we move through Covid-tide, what will be the things that help us come out as a new creation?The prayer book gives suggestions in the invitation to Lent we read on Ash Wednesday. Think of these suggestions as traveling instructions, leading us to a place we’ve not been before. These suggestions include the following:
- Self-examination: A rigorous look in the mirror at where we are, what we have done and what we have left undone.
- Repentance: It’s about the direction we’re headed, with consideration of whether it’s the direction we want for our lives, the direction we feel called to follow.
- Prayer: In its varied forms, it’s the recognition that we rely on help beyond ourselves as we give thanks for ways that help has come.
- Fasting: Traveling light, getting clarity about what we actually need for the journey.
- Self-denial: Again, figuring out what we can do without.
- Reading and meditating on God’s word: Hearing what the Spirit is saying to us.
We’re still early in Lent, definitely early in March. Apparently, we are not done with Covid-tide. So there’s time to take these suggestions to heart. Take this moment, maybe especially this week, to invite God to make something new out of your life, perhaps putting these several traveling suggestions to work.