I remember this well. A friend was pastor of a congregation which was then a new mission. As a result, their membership boasted all sorts of people who were relatively young in the faith — or at least that is why I was told they made this decision. “We don’t celebrate the season of Lent here,” she told me. “It’s just too depressing.”
I remember walking away puzzled. I remember looking hard at myself knowing it would never occur to me to just ‘skip over’ an entire church season. I was surely neither creative nor courageous enough to do so. At the same time, I can also remember knowing that, at least in part, she was on to something then. For not long before I had seen the truth of this in the church I was then serving. We had experienced several devastating deaths — including that of a young child. It was a time of lament and I had not shied away from the difficulty of our shared experience in my preaching. We had a young family come to visit us in the midst of that hard time. I followed up with a phone call to learn that they were going to keep looking. Our place, she told me, was just ‘too sad.’
And it was. We were. I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t always that way, but that just then we were, as they had experienced in a ‘sad time.’ No matter. They continued their search for a congregation which they believed would uplift them on their journey.
I remember being sad about that, but I was not sorry. For such times of testing come to us all. Sometimes we can see them coming. Sometimes we can’t. But to ignore them. To pretend that they are not, would seem foolhardy at best. I am of the same mind about “Lent.” For yes, it can be sad — or “depressing” as another pastor once told me. But I have always been of the mindset that to enter into the experience of Lent even or especially with its sadness or its struggle — particularly at times in our lives when we are not ourselves especially sad or struggling — can be a great gift to us at those other inevitable times when we are. Sad or struggling, that is. It can be a time of looking at and “trying on” such struggles and losses head on with the result that in that time when they become ours to experience, and those times will surely come, we will then have some resources with which to deal with them.
Indeed, I expect this is why the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness here at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark before his ministry even began. I expect perhaps this is why Jesus had these forty days ‘apart’ so as to learn to face down the adversary, the devil, so that he might be better prepared to do so over and over and over again over the next three years. I expect those wild beasts stood in for Pharisees and faltering disciples, for Roman occupation and yes, for the struggles of hungry and hurting people. Even death itself. All of which Jesus would confront before he was nailed to a cross. And yes, I expect the presence of those angels ministering to him during those forty days also helped him to recognize the very gifts of God which walked alongside him and carried him through it all.
No, I cannot help but believe that those forty days were absolutely essential to all which would follow. And if Jesus needed them, how much more do you and I need such times ‘apart’ to prepare to face down everything in this world which would also tempt us to despair? How much more do you and I need to practice to learn to recognize and rely on the ‘angels’ — the gifts of God which are also ours through it all?
Forty days in late winter and spring seem a small ‘price to pay’ to prepare us for those Lenten times which will surely be ours in August or May or December. What would possess us to turn down the chance to spend a little more time intentionally walking alongside one, Jesus, who promises to be our strength and our hope, particularly in such times?
I know that much of the world does not see it this way. I know that many think like the pastor of a new church who decided Lent was just too depressing or like the young family which decided to keep looking so many years ago. I also know that many in the place I now serve will not embrace Lent in all of its fullness for the demands of the world are great. And yes, I am sometimes tempted to ‘despair’ that too much of the world does not seem to recognize the gift we are called to share. It can seem like a sort of wilderness for us all, can’t it? It is in these times, too, that I am pushed to recognize that Jesus preached and healed and fed the hungry and suffered and died in a world much like this one. The fact that God claimed this one as Beloved in such a time and has also claimed you and me, helps me keep my eyes open for ‘angels’ even as I acknowledge the wild beasts which threaten. It helps me to remember to recall other Lenten times — whether they happened in the 40 days leading up to Easter or at some other time when I was driven into the wilderness — and to lean into what proved true then:
- That such times do not typically last forever.
- That light prevails over darkness.
- That love triumphs over hate and life is so much more powerful than death.
- And that most of all, God was present. So far it has always been so that ‘angels were there.’ I, for one, cannot imagine that is going to change any time soon!
- What are the gifts of Lent for you?
- What or who are the ‘wild beasts’ which threaten now? How might these forty days be a time of ‘trying on’ and ‘facing down’ ‘wild beasts’ so that you might be equipped to do so in other times and places?
- How might these Lenten days help you to recognizing angels ministering to you in the midst of your life?