Lent, Week Two: Light and Dark

Right, so I know I said we were going to work with the elements of the wilderness but the Blogging Spirit says pairs.  So we’re going pairs.

It snowed this morning here in the Wicket Gate; this is remarkable because this is the American South and it doesn’t really snow all that often here.  It was warm even before global warming.

4ab51967138a6856445430523bbfce5dThis is also remarkable because I absolutely love snow.  I love it.  I love the way it slows everything down, I love the slight weight of it as it falls, I love the silence it engenders, I love the chill of it and the sting the air bites into your cheeks, I love the way snow outlines everything and makes every single twig and parapet a white exclamation point against dark tree bark and grey shingles.  I love the snow.  And it has affected me more than I realized that it doesn’t really snow here—I apparently count on winter as a breathing respite far more than I knew and I think the lack of it has contributed a lot to how overwhelmed and de-centered I’ve felt.  So the snow today was a precious gift and I literally skipped through it across one of the major roads singing My Favorite Things to myself because it was beautiful and there were so few cars it was laughable and running errands in that kind of silence was so, so wonderful.

Light in the darkness.

After getting ink (a necessary though expensive reality, especially now that printers have been programmed not to recognize the cheaper off-brand cartridges) I took myself out to brunch for a sandwich at one of the local fast-food places.  The life of the student is a glamorous flirtation with the poverty line, something I point out not to get into an appeal for money or onto my soapbox on the stupidity that we as a society feel students somehow “deserve” to be poor but to underscore that breakfast out isn’t something I do every day.  As I was sitting down at the restaurant, a man came up to me and asked if I had a dollar to spare so he could get breakfast.  It’s unusual, even here in the city, for someone to come into a place to ask like that; there’s kind of an unspoken agreement that begging as a transaction remains outside, but like I said, it was snowing.  Hunger can prompt some incredible things that we would never have thought ourselves capable of, and hunger with cold demands to be fixed.  Mindful of having recently preached a sermon on Jesus’ differentiation between the hunger of the body and of the spirit, I said come on, I’ll buy you a value meal breakfast, I can do that much.  I intended to have him eat with me since I think that giving money without even the attempt to build connection isn’t helpful to anybody.

We went up to the counter and I gestured him ahead, determined not to speak for him, trying desperately to figure out how this would work since I’m bad at small talk and I really just wanted to watch the snow.  He ordered some eight or nine things, still not an exorbitant cost because it’s a cheap place but way over what I was prepared to spend, especially after having spent so much on the ink.  I didn’t know what to do; I had not expected him to take liberty of my offer, which is perhaps woefully naive.  A manager passing by stopped and said no, he was just in here with someone else; apparently this man had been working the system all morning, waiting for new customers to cycle in and then getting them to buy him more things.  She asked if I still wanted to continue with the transaction and I said no, I couldn’t afford what he was asking, cancel it out.  He asked me when he was going to get his food and I said I can’t give you what you want, I can do this and nothing more.  He looked at me disbelievingly and left.

Darkness in the light.

I tell you this not to say that all beggars are crooks (they certainly aren’t) nor that I’m a saint for having tried (goodness, no).  I wish I could tell you how to respond to those who ask for alms, I really do; I feel like, especially as a pastor, I’m supposed to have some kind of answer for how to react, when to give money and when not, what to say.  I don’t know any of that.  I’m awful and uncomfortable and conflicted as all get-out when it comes to these kinds of interactions.  I tell you this because it is so incredible to me to have it juxtaposed against the beautiful snow, the crisp clarity of the flakes nearly lost in the murky confusion of how to look another human being in the eye and say I cannot give you what you want.

Darkness, and light.

When Jesus looks Satan in the eye and says I will not give you what you want after He is starving in the wilderness, after His face has become chapped not from the cold but from the sun that burns and the wind that scratches sand across the skin, does He hesitate?  Does He wish there was a manual of how to interact with this, how to look at the darkness and still be the light?  Or is He the manual, sure-footed and strong even in His exhaustion, knowing that the light will always win out?  Here in the wilderness I wonder, aware that God is in the snow and the stranger and wishing I understood what She wants of me in either situation.


In him there was life. That life was light for the people of the world.  The Light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overpowered the Light.  (John 1:4-5, ICB)


Lent, Week Two: Eucharist


Deep breaths.  Deep breaths through the fact that I’m utterly failing everything I set up for myself in observance of Lent (how Lentian, perhaps).  Deep breaths through having had a week of incredibly stressful travel and being unable to find my footing on returning to this life I’ve made that increasingly seems almost foreign.  Deep breaths through yet another meeting, yet another task, yet another extroverted moment when all my introvert heart wants is to curl up and read for a day.  Deep breaths through a lunch eaten at my desk as an afterthought, the thousandth of such lunches and breakfasts where I eat because the clock tells me to.

One of the two sacraments that survived the transition from the Catholic Church to the Protestant ones is that of communion, the Eucharist.  I recently heard a professor say that the Protestants have made it unrecognizable from what it was originally as a sacrament, but I’ve no desire to get into that here.  I’ve also no desire to get into what the meal is.  I want to get into the fact that this is the one people know—the bread and the cup, the Last Supper, that moment when Jesus says some crazy stuff about dinner.

This is the one that, honestly, is hardest for me.  There are many reasons why, but you don’t need to know them, Reader.  What you do need to know is this crazy story about a man and a woman and some soup with bread.

Here’s the thing:  I don’t like soup.  I’ve never liked soup.  The older I get, however, and the longer I live in places that get cold for part of the year, the more I realize that whether I like soup or not is somewhat irrelevant.  I’m going to have to eat soup sometimes, especially because well-meaning people serve it to me and there’s simply no point in continually reiterating that I don’t like soup because they will tell me that this is because I haven’t had their soup and proceed to serve me their soup and I will have to be polite about it.  So I’ve developed a sort of cultural resignation toward soup, an attitude where I won’t necessarily choose it but I no longer refuse to eat it.  This past week I had a rather intense couple of days of driving and stayed with a very kind couple whom I had never met before and who had graciously made dinner.

Which was, of course, soup.


It was fine soup and I was very much aware of the gesture of the thing, but the best part of the dinner was that there was this bread, a honey-sunflower-seed wheat bread that was fresh from the oven and warm and crackly and wonderful.  It was soft to a perfect degree of softness and crusty but not painfully so and just damned delicious.  I ate rather a lot of that bread, smeared with real butter because this was the country and that’s how it’s done.

I say all of this not to go all Instagram on you (don’t worry, there are no photos of this bread) but to showcase this incredibly ordinary moment of communion.  That was not the sacrament, to be sure, but it shared the origins of the sacrament.  Jesus’ conversation with His disciples, His friends, was at a dinner table; it was taking the things of the meal and reshaping them.  He didn’t go out to Kroger and buy bread and wine specially to make a point like show and tell.  He used what was already in front of Him, pieces left from a ritual already drenched in sacredness both by its religious connections and the very necessity of eating to maintain this frustratingly blessed thing called a body.

Communion is done in a thousand ways these days; some go for intinction, some are fed by the priest, some have the pre-packaged wafer and grape juice, some will only serve crackers, some separate the wine from the bread and devour fistfuls of the latter in the delight of breaking fast.  It has had some super bizarre moments of importance in the past.  But hopefully the concept always remains—in this act we remember that Christ sat down and ate with those who loved Him (and those who didn’t) and said this will be a new world.  This will be a new way, a way that takes what you understand and turns it upside down but I will be there with you always, I will be in and through this act of remembrance because I am bringing you into Me and into relationship with all the parts of Myself.

Eating is a powerful bonding experience.  I don’t know why, but I designed an entire service-based house on the idea when I was in college and I believe still that the best way to join people together is over food and drink.  Whole relationships have been shaped by coffee for me, others forged over sandwiches and Gatorade or shared Kit-Kat bars that break apart to bring together.  For God to put a meal at the heart of this faith is gutsy and genius and utterly, utterly human; we have to eat.  This is an earthy thing wrapped in such divine understandings that it points us in receiving it to deeper aspects of this faith life—somewhat like accepting soup because the bread is so delicious and so freely offered.



Then Jesus took some bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to the apostles, saying, “This is my body, which I am giving for you. Do this to remember me.”  In the same way, after supper, Jesus took the cup and said, “This cup is the new agreement that God makes with his people. This new agreement begins with my blood which is poured out for you.”  (Luke 22:19-20, NCV)

Lent, Week Six: Love

At my college, the end of the winter semester was in about mid-April, so if Easter was late (as it was that year), it came pretty close to the end-of-term deadlines and papers and such.  Also, I was going abroad that May to England, so all of the getting-prepared-to-travel-for-a-month things were added to my usual scholastic freak-0ut.  I was a mess, and as Lent wound toward Easter and school, travel, and faith worries collided with ever-increasing regularity, my friends decided there needed to be a bit of an intervention.

Two of them checked that I didn’t have anywhere I absolutely needed to be one evening and showed up in my room saying they were kidnapping me.  And they did, sort of; they blindfolded me and guided me to a car, turning up music so I couldn’t hear anything we were passing.  I was super disoriented and, as a control freak, more than a little nervous, but they were insistent that I just let them handle things.  After about 15 minutes of driving around to disorient me further, the car stopped and they helped me climb ungracefully out.  We had come to a wonderful Chinese restaurant in the town next to our college; they bought me dinner and refused to talk about anything related to school or God.  Later we went for milkshakes and did the Electric Slide in the parking lot and walked along the river, and then we each went back to our rooms and our lives and our deadlines.

That is what love looks like—well, at least one of its faces.  Those two had their own deadlines and worries and stresses; one was a theatre gal and was just finishing a show, the other was fighting her own battles with whether or not she wanted to take her theology major toward ordination some day.  But they understood that I could not handle the patterns I was creating for myself and stepped in to say, “Let me pull you out that you might better see what you can and can’t do.”

Another example:  about a week and a half before Easter, I went to see a show on campus called Fish Eyes by a comedy duo called Ted and Lee.  In every way this was a direct violation of my Lenten promise; it was a Christian show about Jesus and the disciples, which was about as about-God as I could have wanted.  But by that time, I was beginning to figure out my original God-less goal wasn’t quite what I had thought it would be on Ash Wednesday, so what the hell.  I went.

And I laughed—loudly, because after 20 or so years in choir I have a diaphragm to make myself heard in Egypt.  It’s something I’ve never really been able to tone down—and that can be fine, and Lee even told me after the peformance that the two of them considered loud laughers saints.  I totally enjoyed myself because it was a good, funny show, but the main thing that I got out of it was that this Jesus that Ted and Lee were talking about, this Christianity that they were able to laugh at and have fun with; well, that was a different kettle of fish.  This Jesus was funny and mystical and, well, human—and God-like at the same time.

I’d come across this idea before, about thinking of Jesus not as the unreachable spiritual king of this huge religion but as a guy who lived and led some people and gave some talks and was pretty genuinely awesome in the original sense of “awe-inspiring” awesome.  And I’d thought about the disciples several times before—even talked about it with some of my friends at Bible Tuesday—as just regular guys that were caught up in some pretty irregular and extraordinary events.  So here I was sitting in an auditorium as a self-proclaimed agnostic, “hardened” by almost forty days in a God-less world…and I was falling in love with the man that these comedians were talking about.

I don’t mean to say at all that right then I said yes, Lord, come on back in!  My pride was still in gear, and I had a week and a half left of Lent.  But I do mean to say that this guy, this Jesus?  I don’t think He was what I set out to give up.  He attracted people like me; sarcastic, cynical, and sharp-witted Peter, doubting Thomas, prideful James and John, Andrew who was always a few mental steps behind…they found something in this guy, this Jesus. He had a “glow”, Ted and Lee (as Andy and Pete) said, a certain “glow” about Him.  Maybe He was the One.

Maybe He was, I found myself thinking.

After the performance I walked home with one of my podmates, the one with the theology major. Somehow we got to talking about vocation and she was telling me about how it frustrated her that everyone seemed to think that she was going to be in the ministry.  She wasn’t sure she wanted that, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do at all, and she had gotten tired of everyone else knowing for her.

“Is there just something I’m not seeing here?” she asked me.

“No,” I said. “I don’t know that you should be a minister. I mean, I could see you as a minister, but I don’t know that that’s what you have to do.”  I told her that maybe people always told her she should be a minister because that’s the side of her that they saw. The side that I saw was the side that wanted people to understand, that delighted in people learning something that she herself was passionate about, that found joy in finding others who loved what she loved; more professor than minister. “It’s all about the people you hang out with and what they see of you,” I told her. “Come hang around us agnostics, we see you differently.”  She chuckled and thanked me and as I was heading back to my room, it struck me that really, everything is ministry if you spin it right because it’s about loving the other person, and what I had just done for her was a type of ministry.

I hate when God gets inventive.


To be continued…

Lent, Week Five: Hell and Heaven Are Other People

I’ve always really appreciated that saying of Jean-Paul Satre that “hell is other people.”  As an introvert, this is true on a number of levels.  And in the midst of a week of remembered loves and weighty conversations and SO MUCH happening at work, it’s kind of hilarious to go back to these memories of that past Lent and know that, just as much as hell is other people, so is heaven.  God was in so many people as I ricocheted around the world of faith, it’s a little laughable.

The broad indicator was commercials.  While I won’t here debate about whether or not Christianity is dead in the U.S., I will point out that fish commercials and specials at fast food places are everywhere during Lent.  Seriously.  Turn on the TV and let me know how long it takes before you hear about Culver’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, or whatever, and how their fish is awesome/cheap/featured.  Of course, no one ever says why, but do you see fish being lauded in September?  Nope.  Because Catholics and semi-Catholics focus on fish on Fridays during Lent, not Ordinary Time.

So any TV that I happened to catch during that Lent in college was laced with these fish commercials, little 30-second alarm clocks that we were in this season, that I was still fighting this fight, that I wasn’t winning.  It was very annoying, to be honest.  It still kind of is.  And I even like fish sandwiches.

That was the background noise.  On top of it were all the people with whom I interacted, which is everyone at a small midwestern college.  I found all of the right people who were “spiritual, but not religious,” which for us meant that we recognized there was something going on in the universe but didn’t want to be bothered to care about what. I found the people who weren’t even spiritual— there was no point to any sort of faith for them, no difference big enough between all of the faith systems they could think of that would matter more than studying through the week and drinking at frat parties on the weekend. This laissez faire approach to the whole idea made sense to me; I had enough to worry about getting through college, getting over my first true love, trying to figure out what was going on with my life—who’s to know the big questions anyway, right? This is why some people are theology majors—I saved myself the headache and befriended several of them. Hopefully they’d give me the right answers if ever I cared enough again to ask the questions.

And here’s the thing:  I tend to dislike Christians.  I understand that this is a terrible bias and, these days, rather self-incriminatory, but there it is.  So it’s very interesting to me that, then and now, I tend to befriend theological types—not just the preachers and the preachers-in-training, although I know a somewhat alarming amount of those, but also the mystics, the agnostics, the atheists, the anti-religious folk; all of those who have truly and lengthily considered the studies of the Divine and hold fast to some idea of how it all fits together.  I like these people; they push my buttons, but in good ways.  I had a slew of them around me during that Lent; like I mentioned, a lot of them were living in my apartment with me.

There’s a friend of mine (whom I don’t think I’ve mentioned on here, but trust me, she’s awesome) who says brilliant things a lot.  She’s a Catholic now, but in college she was still navigating, and she decided part of navigating was getting into the text.  We were all humanities people at a liberal arts school, so this is no surprise, but her pitch was this:  Bible study without thinking of it like The Bible.

Man, I wish as I were as creative as she.

A lot of us came from churchy backgrounds to some degree; what if, she posited, we looked at the Bible like it was a book of stories?  It was a throwback, for me, to how I’d originally been introduced to the book—not as a Tome of Faith but as a work of great literature, in line with The Odyssey and Great Expectations and Anna Karenina.  It was something to be understood, referenced, and admired; somewhere along the line I’d gotten kind of afraid of it because it had all this other baggage attached.

So, in the heart of this God-less Lent, Bible Tuesdays were born.

Yeah.  Try telling me God doesn’t have a sense of humor.

They weren’t terribly successful because we were all super busy, but what meetings we did have were marvelous and uncomfortable and odd.  There wereabout six of us (give or take, depending on schedules) who would get together for an hour or so, usually in my room, and talk.  Sometimes we had reading beforehand, sometimes we just let it drift to whatever we were thinking, but it was all about digging into this text with all the skills college had handed us and really fighting with what we found.  It was, frustratingly, one of the best building blocks of faith I could have found, because it was challenge and honesty and realization that the Bible is a seriously messed up book.  Reading it outside of faith made it a whole new experience—in fact, I’ve only ever been in one study since that even came close to that level of growth and, in a strange sense, spirituality.  Sure, a lot of it came from my friend being one of the most brilliant and mystical people on the planet, but it was also the permissive state we created to tear this thing apart.  We allowed each other to get angry about things, to dismiss things, to engage or disengage with the text.  We created our own little community that would have made Paul proud, composed of roughly half believers and half we-are-so-over-religion folks.  And we learned.  Together.


To be continued…