Week 3 of Lent: Suffering

But first I mean
To exercise him in the Wilderness,
There he shall first lay down the rudiments
Of his great warfare, e’re I send him forth
To conquer Sin and Death the two grand foes,
By humiliation and strong sufferance: [160]
His weakness shall overcome Satanic strength
And all the world, and mass of sinful flesh;
   —  God speaking about his son in John Milton’s Paradise R’gained, Lines 155-162 —

Traditionally Lent has been a reflection of the fasting and temptation of Christ. For 40 days he was in the wilderness fasting, then he was tempted, an event so important that Milton’s Epic poem Paradise R’gained is about this season, not about his death and resurrection: an idea I’m not so sure I love but is a part of church history not to be ignored. So in reflection of the Regaining of Paradise, Lent is a voluntary entry into that superimposed weakness, where we lean into suffering, because for a reason beyond my understanding, it is good for us.

I told my brother about a guy I know who has tattooed on his arms “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” and my brother’s response was “if you have pain and aren’t suffering, you’re probably not really enjoying life.” It was a weird thing to say, unless you know my brother. What he meant was that if there is pain and no suffering, there is some sort of denial going on, and if you numb yourself to suffering, and don’t lean into it, you probably are numbing yourself to deep joy as well. So, if I were to concede the distinction between pain and suffering (which I’m not sure I do) as pain being a thing that happens to you (like lose), and suffering being a thing that you do (like mourning) then perhaps suffering is something that we ought to learn how to engage in well in order to not make ourselves numb, like learning how to mourn well.

Perhaps Lent, among other things, is about suffering well, choosing to step into the wilderness because we learn about ourselves and our relationships and our heart when we suffer in solidarity with Christ. And even though I say that it is we who choose to suffer with Christ in the wilderness, isn’t it really the other way around. Ultimately it is Christ who joined the suffering of humanity in order to free us from it…but not yet. This is where I get hung up. I don’t share with you a gospel of prosperity. We are not saved primarily from our suffering, but from our sin. And because our world is broken, sin causes suffering regardless of whether or not you engage in it. Scriptural stories are clear that the righteous suffer along with the unrighteous (Job, and Pharaoh for instance). So, when we ignore suffering, we fail to acknowledge the gravity of our sin collectively as humans and individually as people. And when we fail to acknowledge the gravity of our sin, we also fail to realize the power of God’s grace. For it is Lent: both in the liturgical season, as well as its themes in the daily difficulty of faith, and worldwide lack of love and justice which reminds us of the importance and even the necessity of Easter:  both in the liturgical celebration as well as its themes in our incremental redemptive steps, and the impending ultimate renewal of all things.

Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.


Week 2 of Lent: Home

During Lent I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of home, and I came across a poem I wrote a few years ago. I was going to give it explanation, but I think I’ll let it stand on its own instead.

‘I am a wanderer,’ I think as I awaken, ‘part of a great diaspora.’

I lie in bed and wonder what this entails. Eventually, I get up to make my coffee. It is a piece of home, one of the things I wander towards. Home is where the heart is. Where your treasure is there your heart will be also. My heart is inclement.

I am a wanderer; I go outside to begin my journey, but I find my lock broken and my bike gone. Something is livid in me. Home is where the heart is. Where your treasure is there your heart will be also. I am distracted from my wandering for a moment, but it doesn’t last. In my car I engage in a riddance of things that do not belong, and I feel home become clearer as something resembling grace for the thief enter my heart.

It takes a while for me to get places; I’m a road driver my American Literature teacher says. I think I might be a hitch hiker instead, or perhaps a bike rider, or a walker, definitely not a plane flyer. But I am in class now, head and heart running, body still. I am a wanderer. I wander towards the ulterior parts of the world in my thoughts.

I grasp at ideas as they flit through my head, too fast. It’s hard to keep up sometimes. Organizing my thoughts is overwhelming; instead of being slow enough for me to mull, they burst forth as if scared to be seen too closely.

I’m somewhere between Canaan and Egypt, leaving where I was brought up as I realize it’s not my home after all, but concurrently filled with the terror of the knowledge that I move toward enemy territory. And as for my pillar of cloud to follow? It rains down aspersions. Sometimes I don’t believe home is a place I can get to by walking anymore so I stop and set up camp. I get connected, plant roots. Home is where the heart is. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. But what if the place I settle down isn’t supposed to be my home anyway? It occurs to me that home doesn’t travel toward me. It doesn’t find me; I have to seek it.

Home is like a mustard seed, it’s very small, but bears a large tree. Home is like leaven, it’s good for baking. Home is like a treasure hidden in a field, sometimes it’s hard to find. There’s no place like home. I find myself flippantly calling my apartment home. Home isn’t like a mustard seed, or leaven, or treasure. A place where me and things go together. I don’t know where it is, but I know what it’s like; it’s like Tiffany’s. Home is where the mean reds can’t pass cordon.

            Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. I can no longer tell if I’m running from something I used to be, or running toward something I long for more. Am I a dumb beast of burden that I am propelled by a carrot in front of my face and a switch at my ass? No, I’m propelled by something far less tangible than a carrot. I am a wanderer. I am driven by the hope of things not yet seen: hope for home. I find it sometimes, in bluegrass music or the landscape west of San Antonio. I write a list of places where I find it, a list of 1000. Home is when the wrong is undone and all is made right. Home is where your heart is. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Week 1 of Lent: Boldness

This year for Lent, I set a record. This year for Lent, I broke the fast I had decided on within 67 hours.

Several weeks ago, I decided that although February is hard enough on its own, I would observe Lent again this year, because I know that God has always taught me so much through the times when I have. I decided, like I have the last few years that I would give up something good (not something I should be stopping anyway) for the 40 days of Lent in remembrance that Jesus is the greatest good, and every Sunday until Easter, I will celebrate a miniature Easter, and eat pork (the thing I had given up) and remember that Jesus loves me even though I’m broken.

I gave myself a single caveat: if someone invited me over for a meal, and served me pork, I would eat it, because I don’t think that my personal Lenten journey ought to burden anyone else.

On Friday night though, I was babysitting and for dinner was none other than fried rice with pork. It was amazing. I warmed some up for the kids, and after they were fed, although this was not made for me and I could have easily gone another hour without eating, or eaten something else, into my mouth the rice and the veggies and the chicken and the egg and the pork went. It was delicious.

Lent is a time when I feel like I set myself up for failure. I take the hardest month of the year for me to love people and be an amiable person, and I take something away from myself that I crave, so that even if I am successful in the physical fasting for a few days, my heart fails in so many other ways.

So then why do we fast? Why do we do things to make loving others more difficult? Because that’s what Jesus calls us to. We are called to boldly promise what we cannot possibly do on our own, like not drink coffee and still be a kind human. And it is this boldness, the boldness that Lent stirs up in us that is so beautiful. In The Present Age, Kierkegaard complains that “one is tempted to ask whether there is a single man left ready, for once, to commit an outrageous folly.” And I echo his sorrow in that for it was a fear of committing an outrageous folly which made the Pharisees rework the law into something that they were capable of keeping; so then, when Jesus said that hateful thoughts are the same a murder and lust was the same as adultery they either had to come face to face with their failure, and realize their need for mercy, or they had to accuse him of blasphemy.

Lent isn’t about following rules well, because Christianity isn’t about following rules well. Lent is about coming face to face with your failure, because you bet when its 8 degrees outside, and I can’t have exactly what I want for lunch I’m going to realize how truly bad I am at loving my co-workers. But it can’t stop there, it never stops with brokenness, for Easter is about brokenness being undone. And Easter is where it stops, with the concurrent realization that we have failed to do what has been commanded and that Jesus loves us anyhow. Not because of our failure, but within it. So, let us during this Lenten season, boldly set ourselves up for outrageous folly. Realize the things we count on that are good, but aren’t Jesus and realize that when they are taken away love comes harder. And if we can start to realize the gravity and depth of our sin, we can begin to revel in the mysterious wonder of Easter.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

The Return of Frodo

I read Lord of the Rings recently for the first time (yes all of them, but you can’t separate them really, so that’s a dumb question). It had always intimidated me with its length, and it was quit a journey, one from which I emerged a bit older. In particular the ending was one of the hardest thing I’ve ever read. I don’t mean stylistically or hard to understand. I just mean that I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. I’d seen the movies. Frodo takes the ring, Journeys to Mordor, has a hell of a time trying to destroy the the thing, none of the well developed characters die, and the Liv Tyler gives up her immortality to marry Viggo Mortensen, because let’s be real, who wouldn’t?

Now, for the most part I think the movies did a decent job of capturing the books, far better than the Hobbit (the rant for which I will not share but I’ll have you know is a doozy). But when Frodo returns to the Shire in the books, it is not like the film. Sauromon has taken it over with a band of ruffians and many of the lovely trees have teen torn down, the townspeople imprisoned, the hobbit holes replaced with ugly box houses and worse of all, the food, is running low, and the beer and pipe weed are gone.

I was mortified, like Frodo. I thought that after the Ring was destroyed I had 75 pages of elf, dwarf, and hobbit celebration, but it turned out I had to deal with another battle and a broken heart due to the distruction of the beautiful home place

The Hobbits take joy in simple pleasures which are all taken away from them.

And poor Frodo.

He has destroyed the biggest evil and all he wants to do is go home and rest and be healed, but it is at this moment that he realizes home is not the same, and he can never be fully healed until he goes across the sea. It never ends, and time only moves in one direction. Eventually, the Shire is healed for the most part, even made better in certain ways through help of the elf gifts given to the Sam, but hobbits had to become warriors and the land which had been closer to Eden than our own had drifted ever so slightly East.

It’s hard to read because you feel like when they get home and the evil should have already been undone. And part of me wonders if Jesus felt this way when he came back from the dead. Well perhaps not him; being God he probably didn’t have misconceptions about what hes death and resurrection meant. But what about the disciples. I wonder if when he came back they thought that was it. Every evil undone and death declared untrue, but instead what they got was the Lord of everything not freeing Israel, not defending his disciples and then leaving. What they got was not the world made new, and whole, but themselves made new and whole, while also still in the struggle.

My least favorite liturgical season is approaching in two days. Lent. It’s a time when we make life more difficult than it need be so that we can remind ourselves of the suffering of Christ. A time when we take something good out of our lives, not because Jesus makes us not want cheeseburgers or chocolate, but because we need to be reminded of the greatest good, for we are a forgetful people. Therefore let us fast and mourn well while the bridegroom is away and realize with sorrow that the world is not as it ought to be. And then, when we break our fast in the memory of the Power of Christ, let us celebrate well, the promises to come.

Given Good

C. S. Lewis is not my favorite author. In fact, as far as complete fiction collections go, he is not even in the top 5. That said, he wrote this really phenomenal sci-fi trilogy that blows his other fiction out of the water. The books follow the protagonist, Ransom, to Mars and Venus (Malacandra and Perelandra respectively in the book? and there is a scene from the second book, Perelandra, which has been on my mind lately. The Queen-Mother (an Eve-type character in her world) is talking to Ransom.

“One goes into the forest to pick food and already the thought of one fruit rather than another has grown up in one’s mind. Then, it may be, one finds a different fruit and not the fruit one thought of. One joy was expected and another is given. But this I had never noticed before–that the very moment of the finding there is in the mind a kind of thrusting back, or setting aside. The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished–if it were possible to wish–you could keep it there. You could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other.” 69

At the turn of years, I like to look back and reflect on what I’ve learned, and this year I have had an inordinate amount of change which left, at times, deep holes of longing in my heart for what was. Ironically enough, I have a similarly strong longing for what is to come. I think I actually got worse at waiting this year. I have come to realize though that Ransom longed for the fruit that was on his mind because he it was good, but it was a good of the past. And so the good of the past, good though it was, could turn the present given good insipid if it were held to. Equally the good of the future is good only when it has been given, when it becomes the good of the present. Had he looked forward only to what he expected based on what he had experienced he would have missed the given good, the true good.

So as I exchange one calender for another, I am reminded to seek the given good, the present good, the only good. For this doesn’t mean that the good of the past wasn’t good in it’s time or that the good of the future cannot be even better. On the contrary, dwelling in the good of the now lets the good of the past stay good without developing a sense of loss or even worse, regret for not holding on, and it lets the good of the future be good when it comes instead of ruining it with impatience. So in this new year, I’d like to suggest that even more than living in the present we live in the present good. For it is the real good which, if refused, becomes good for nothing.

Part 4 in an Advent Series: Love

On this, the fourth Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of love. My brother read me a short story recently entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The title as well as the story discuss the difficulty in defining love. It’s a thing poets and philosopher s and theologians and scientists have all tried to define. Furthermore, having just one word for it in English (as opposed to the Greek four) doesn’t help to clarify what is meant.

I watched the movie Frozen recently. In it, someone says that love (true love) is putting someone else’s needs before your own, to which I agree, but the poet in my heart has two favorite definitions of love: one written by St. Paul and the other, by St. Shakespeare, and both in the form of lists. Each recites attributes of love, and at the end of each list is strikingly similar attribute.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” – 1 Corinthians 13:7 ESV

“Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom.” Lines 11-12

Love is a lot of things, but as this Advent season comes to a close, I am drawn specifically to the notion of love as long-suffering. During this season we practice hope, and we are reminded to wait in love for Love. As the whole earth groans for her savior like a woman with child, we are to keep in mind that our long-suffering (which often falls short in its perfection) is but an echo of Christ’s patience. He asks his disciples, “How long am I to bear with you?” to which the answer seems, just a little longer, and He always does. There is this wild relentless patience which is born out of Christ’s love for us that far overshadows our own strength in waiting, for even as we fail habitually, He forgives yet again. So with Advent coming to an end, we are gratified with the end of our waiting in Christmas, and yet the waiting for the renewal of all things goes on until Christ’s return. We are charged with continuing to bear and endure in our love because Christ continues to bear and endure in His.

Chances are this Christmas will bring you around people who try your patience (as if everyday life doesn’t) and speaking strictly for myself, I know that I will fail in bearing out my love to the edge of doom. My endurance will falter and I will fall short, but it is ultimately because Christ was able to endure all things (including me and my habitual faithlessness) that I am forgiven and empowered to love better the next time around.

Part 3 in an Advent Series: Joy

No more let sins and sorrows grow.
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

It’s the third verse of Joy to the World, the verse that is frequently dropped from popular renditions of it, and my favorite verse. Last Sunday was the second Sunday of Advent when we light the candle of Preparation, and I mentioned that sometimes living a life of preparation can feel very much like you are bound to not be present-minded.

One of my very favorite things about bluegrass music is the common theme in much of it that things will be better someday. Song after song about heaven and glory, things made right, and hearts once more made whole; but there is also a tendency to let our desires for Tomorrow promote contempt for Today. During the third Sunday of Advent we light the candle of Joy, because as much as we hope and prepare for the arrival of the baby king, we must find Joy in the days before as well. And yet sometimes the sin and sorrow overwhelm. In recent weeks finding Joy in the days at hand has been a certain task, and I long for nothing more than injustice being undone and wrong being made right, yet this song has the gall to demand that we find Joy now.

Several years ago for Christmas I received a book about being thankful from my sister-in-law. Encouraged by her and the book to do so, I wrote a list of 1000 things I was thankful for, 1000 ways that I felt God’s love. It was a good practice in gratitude and through it I learned that there is great Joy in counting blessings. I don’t mean to propagate a surfacy “look on the bright side” mentality but a deep and profound Joy because Jesus loves well. For Christ in all his Glory, in all his Power, in all his Wonder put aside his Kingship and became a baby, helpless and humble. Jesus declared unlike the Greeks and Romans of the time that the world, the material world was worth something because he made it, and that he would be a part of it, and that he would save it. Joy because of things to come, yes, but Joy also because chocolate and coffee exist; Joy because snow is beautiful and because people fall in love. Cultures all around the world have celebrated the Winter solstice (or something around that time) because people all over the world have realized the importance of finding things to celebrate during a season that has a tendency to be so bleak and to inherently long for later tomorrow.

That is why a land such as Narnia which has an eternal winter and no Christmas is so heartbreaking. It is the eternal waiting and no Joy to hold you over till springtime, and it is in that place that Hope dwindles, for we are not strong enough to keep Hope alive when there is no Joy.