From my kitchen window I can see a blue plastic sled stranded at the top of a small hill.
Last year, our first spring at Maplehurst, we edged the hill on one side with blueberry bushes. We shored up the other side with an asparagus patch. We planted a peach tree and a cold-hardy fig like two flags at the top, but the kids have carved a downward path that manages, usually, to carry their sleds around their mother’s precious plants.
The snowcover on the hill is shrinking, and the sled is marooned. I can imagine it still sitting there in July, nearly forgotten in the weeds.
The sled I see clearly, but it is much harder for me to imagine July’s green abundance. Here, in early March, there are no signs of new life. Instead, the snow seems to be coughing up rusted buckets and wilted kickballs.
These hinge weeks between winter and spring are always ugly, but, thanks to February’s ice storm, this one is particularly awful. Brown grass and mud are mixed with splintered wood; our world looks as if it has only just survived some disaster.
From my kitchen window, I see a waste land.
The trees, still bare, no longer remind me of elegant bones against the sky. Instead, they look naked, and I am ashamed for them.
At church, it is the first Sunday of Lent. The cross carried in procession is veiled in purple, as if we cannot yet bear the sight of our redemption. Easter, like spring, is still too good to be true.
The reading from the Old Testament this day is from Genesis. Adam and Eve discover their nakedness, and they are ashamed.
This season I am following my friend Sue’s example and praying daily one simple prayer: Search me, God, and know my heart.
This prayer is simple and brief, but it isn’t easy to pray. It feels like a deliberate stepping out into the open with no clothes. Not even a fig leaf.
I thought this prayer would open my eyes to some sin. Instead, my eyes have been opened to something much more complicated.
T. S. Eliot describes it in his own meditation on a wasted, blasted land:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow …
Winter’s rest is melting away, and I am waking up to a great desire. And I find this terrifying. Exhilarating, too.
Spring won’t truly arrive until I have dreamed and ached to pick asparagus, blueberries, peaches and figs. First, the longing. Then, the feast.
And the new plans God has for my life can’t be realized unless I first recognize the desire planted in my heart. Certain dreams will never come true unless I first wake up and remember them. But to remember them enough to pray for them is to stand naked before God. There is no more hiding the depth of my desire. There is no shrinking from the fear that he will say no or not yet. Sometimes spring is interrupted by a killing freeze.
God is tugging me – and you – towards resurrection.
But the road is a cruel one.
On the first day of Advent, our church sanctuary was draped in evergreen.
There were no shiny ornaments. There were no red or green ribbons. I looked at those unembellished greens and heard them say, “Not yet. Not yet.”
Our home looks much the same. Undecorated, except for the white pumpkin still sitting on the front steps.
It wasn’t intentional. Thanksgiving turned so quickly to Advent, all in a rush of visiting friends and family, that I couldn’t quite keep up. I found the advent wreath in the basement. The boys circled it with greenery. And that was all.
The world outside our walls has thrown on the glitz and made room for the glitter and every other year I have been right there keeping time with that fast Christmas beat.
Not this year. Not yet.
For more than a week, I’ve sat with bare branches, four candles, and a pile of Christmas books. Every other year I have rushed to fill in the gaps, to embellish the plain, and to pile on more. This year the Advent cry Come, Lord Jesus, Come has echoed in bare corners and across empty tabletops.
And I have heard something in those echoes. Something that frightens me.
I have heard as if for the first time the story of how God came and his own did not recognize him. Of how he appeared in a story crowded with a greedy empire, an oppressed people, and long-whispered promises of deliverance and restoration. A good story. A true story. And yet …
Living within the density of their story, God’s own people were unprepared for the ways in which God himself would turn the story inside out and upside down. They were unprepared to meet the Truth face to face.
And this is what I have heard echoing in the empty spaces of my house: who am I waiting for? Will I know him when he comes?
Year after year, I have rushed to fill the empty space of my fireplace with stockings. I have moved quickly to cover bare branches with ornaments. I have penciled in the calendar; I have filled the closet with gifts.
Year after year, I have greeted the Christmas season with everything I already know and all that I have figured out. I have said Come, Lord Jesus, Come to a face I find comfortingly familiar. A face with no more power to shock.
This year should have been the same, but a severe mercy and a difficult grace intended differently.
Without meaning to, I have decked these halls with empty space.
My prayer today remains the same. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. But this time, emptiness has made way for echoes. Bare corners have left room for the unknown and unseen.
And I prepare to have my world turned upside down by the King whose name I call.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come.
We married young and hit the road. All we wanted was Texas dust in the rearview mirror. The rumble of the El was our siren song.
We weren’t afraid because we carried this around like a turtle shell: Church.
Baptist, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Church of Christ … ours was a messy family stew that had finally deposited us both in a non-denominational box.
The box was what we knew. The box felt safe.
But boxes, it turns out, don’t travel well, and we were wanderers now. D.C., Chicago, Jacksonville, now this little country corner of the Philadelphia burbs.
Church has been a constant, but it’s been anything but safe. Anything but predictable. Not really a turtle shell, after all.
We thought there was one right way to do church. One right way to be the church. The way we were raised, of course.
But God kept us moving, and he kept our ideas about church moving, too. What had been small and safe became big and wild. Beautiful but unpredictable.
I’ve been thinking about those first Christians. They were “scattered” by persection, made wanderers for God’s own purposes. They wandered, and the church grew.
As we wandered, our understanding of church grew, too. Always bigger, always better than we knew.
I’ve sat in a Catholic mass and realized that the Eucharist might be more than the sum of its parts. Much more than the saltines and grape juice of my childhood.
I’ve stood in a gathering of Vineyard women when the doors of our meeting-place burst open with a loud wind. I watched that wind sweep around the room but I knew those doors didn’t open to the outside. What I saw and felt was no earthly wind but Pentacost miracle.
I’ve sat in an Easter morning service when the procession of colorful vestments and golden cross was so beautiful, so celebratory, I could have wept.
I once sat in an old wooden pew. A choir lifted its voice, and I suddenly knew what heaven sounds like.
I’ve seen adults baptized in Lake Michigan.
I’ve seen babies baptized with a cupful of water.
All of it so good.
Recently, we’ve taken to driving a long, long way to get to church. It’s something I’ve always said I’d never do. Join the imperfect neighborhood church, don’t go chasing “perfect” miles away. Perfect doesn’t exist.
But I don’t think I’m chasing perfect. I think I’m searching for home. The place where this wanderer can find rest.
Maybe this will be my church for a season. Maybe for a long, long time. Only my second Sunday there, and I was fretting about it instead of worshipping. I could hardly hear the music because I was listening to thoughts like these: Is this the place? Are we right to come so far? Will we make friends here? Or wil we set off searching, again?
The music finally broke through, and I realized what we were singing: Better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere.
I have been given so much more than one day. I’ve been given a lifetime of Sundays. A lifetime of small groups and youth groups. Of church retreats and coffee hours.
We pile the kids in the car and drive and drive. We do it because we need that soft brown bread. We need that sweet red wine.
We do it because one day in His courts really is that good.
I grew up hearing Christians say, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Maybe you did too?
It’s a sentiment that makes sense to me. Plenty of not-so-great things (and some down-right awful) probably fall under the heading religion. Yet, in the days since Easter Sunday I’ve been thinking how grateful I am for relationship and religion.
Because Jesus came to us, we can see and know God. This is true not only because he died and defeated death, but because he lived. He lived. And now we know what life was always meant to be. Through Jesus we can relate to a God who is vast, beyond comprehension, and yet personal in his love for his creation. Now we live, not by bread only, but by relationship with the Word.
What good is religion, then? Isn’t it merely the false, the superficial, the man-made?
It is also the form so many souls have given (and will give) to their worship. It is an often intangible relationship made material: in bread and wine, the washing of dirty feet, the standing, the kneeling, the hands reaching out in praise and in prayer.
It is candlelight. It is incense. It is light glinting on a gold cross. It is a crescendo of voices. It is one voice reading Scripture aloud for an entire hushed crowd.
It is astonishing and creative.
It is beautiful and traditional.
Of course, it can also be awkward and frustrating. The uncomfortable pew. The piano in need of tuning. My five-year-old deciding he must visit the bathroom just as our row is ushered forward for the Eucharist.
Sometimes we do religion well. Sometimes not so well. And it sure takes a whole lot of effort. The musicians spend hours practicing. The tech-savvy come in early, stay late, and shrug off the irritated looks when the sound system malfunctions through no fault of their own. A dedicated teacher takes the two-year-olds outside for an egg hunt, and some important but often unseen person lingers behind to turn off lights and lock doors.
Is it worthwhile?
Jesus showed us the value in celebration, in gathering, and in breaking bread together. He read Scripture aloud, and he taught. He often prayed alone, but he also begged his friends to pray with him. And in his eagerness to eat a Passover meal with his disciples (Luke 22:15), Jesus promised that our rituals and God-given traditions will one day find their fulfillment – their perfection – in the kingdom of God.
For now it takes effort, whether we gather in a home, a school gymnasium, or an art-filled, stained-glass space. The bread must be baked. The invitations delivered. The space cleaned before and after. But, together, we are creating an outward expression of an inner joy.
We are saying “thank you” and “please come” to all that has been promised.
“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before
the Lord our Maker.”
I live in Florida, but my inner calendar has been tuned by the north. In other words, no matter what I see outside my window, January means cold and snow and spring never shows up until after Easter. I suppose ten years living in Chicago did this, although I think it may go back even farther.
Growing up in Texas, I felt cheated by February heatwaves. I have always had an idealized version of the seasons; one more rooted in classic literature for children than in lived experience. Late winter meant sugar snow because I read Little House in the Big Woods no matter that late winter in Texas looks like fields full of bluebonnets.
In Chicago, Lent was appropriately dark, cold, and gray. A fitting backdrop for contemplating dust to dust. The right atmosphere for remembering the cross.
Last year, Lent in Florida surprised me with its very different rightness. The hot pink azaleas and vivid blue skies could not be reconciled with the grey smudges on our foreheads. They simply could not. But I decided that this was best. To practice Lent in such a place is to say, “I will not be distracted by youth or beauty. I will remember that death is ever present. I will not be seduced by sunshine and forget to pick up my cross.” How can we truly celebrate the resurrection power of God’s kingdom if we’ve forgotten how and why Jesus suffered?
Last year, I determined always to make an effort for Lent. It was necessary whether the fruit trees were blooming or not.
This year, I didn’t even make it to my church’s Ash Wednesday service. I was too tired. Too sick. Which says it all, I’m afraid, about the past few months of my life.
I thought about making an effort in some other way. What would I give up? Could I read through a special book of devotions? Make some goal for prayer or good works?
If only I weren’t so tired. If only my asthma would go away. If only I didn’t already feel crushed and weak. If only I didn’t already feel like dust, I might be able to make some effort to remember that I am dust.
Of course, If I had phrased it to myself just like that I might have realized sooner how foolish, how hopelessly circular my thinking had become.
Now I know that if Lent is about making some effort then the end result must always be gratitude that I need never make that effort.
With no effort on my part, I am loved.
With no effort on my part, I am redeemed.
Having made no choice, I might be led through a wintery, Lenten wilderness. Whether my calendar says it’s time for that or not.
Having done little but wait and rest, I will be led out again.
That in itself, I’ve learned, is a kind of discipline. God did tell his children, “It is a day of Sabbath rest for you, and you must deny yourselves” (Leviticus 23:32). Would he have put it like that if rest came easily and naturally?
What, then, is my Lenten discipline for 2012? Merely to rest in the shadow of the cross. And wait.