Snowed in: Lent 4

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The snow still covers most of the story from our awareness. Buried deep within our hearts the fullness of all that makes us who we are is waiting to emerge. On the slow and steady movement on the Lenten journey to the springtime release and new life, we must embrace what is revealed, good and bad.

The first figure that I recognize is Joseph, praying. Joseph, the father of Jesus. Joseph, the father. What in my soul does ‘father’ mean to me? My father, Jan, died this winter. His memory resonates in my heart and I still feel the pang of grief. What is his legacy– as father, pastor, male– in my life? Faithfulness. Vulnerability. Physical strength. Passion. Feeling. Human-ness …

What does the revelation of the springtime structures within your heart tell you about you? About God? About your relationship with others, this earth, and Jesus still waiting to be released from what binds him on earth? Jesus, still waiting to be expressed and resurrected in your heart anew?

On the journey, even though the snow still covers so much (in Eastern Ontario anyway!), let us be buoyed by true signs, indeed, that the snow is surely melting away.

With us, snowed-in

I wasn’t able to remove the Christmas manger scene from our front yard in time, before the snowstorms left everything buried. As we’ve approached Lent, the joke in our household is that Jesus, like us, is snowed-in.

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It likely won’t be until late April now when I will be able to remove the tableau from the frozen earth and its snowy cover. When will Jesus be set free from the tomblike confines of winter’s grip?

When exactly, no one knows. Meteorologists are calling for a cooler-than-normal late April /early May. It might be a while.

The Jesus story, for us, begins in winter around the winter solstice on Christmas Day. We begin again our Lenten pilgrimage in the throes of winter, when snow and ice cover everything. When will the sky brighten and warmer temperatures heat the ground again? When does the journey end?

The poet, Mary Oliver, who died in January of this year, wrote primarily about winter. In several pieces she twins snow with wisdom, the capacity to live with questions in silence, surrendering to its beauty. “I love this world,” she wrote, “but not for its answers.”[1]

I’ve considered Christianity to be a winter faith. We, as people of faith, live with many questions that are largely unanswerable. Why do we still live in a world beset by injustice, intolerance, hatred—despite all good effort in the name of Jesus to the contrary? Why death and disease? When will we find the answers to our deepest questions? Why? Why? Why? Winter is a time for questions.

And so, we continue to search, wander, and wonder with Jesus snowed-in, by our side.

But, is Jesus in over his head?

The temptation of Jesus—as this story is famously called—happens near the beginning of his divine calling and ministry.[2]He goes into the wilderness, the desert, for forty days. He goes into a place of harsh simplicity, stripped of all creaturely comforts, to serve a holy purpose.

We wonder, will he survive the challenge?

Given his life purpose on earth, he meets with what could be his greatest vulnerability—the seduction of power and its forceful implications. The man who is the Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Almighty and Everlasting, the man whom people would look to for guidance and leadership, the man who many would lift onto a pedestal—would Jesus succumb to everyone’s expectation?

Would Jesus yield to the temptation that he, the Messiah, will now lead the revolt to free the suppressed and oppressed Judeans out from Roman occupation? Would he be the political rallying point around which the crowds would mobilize and generate an effective, political movement?

And, in fact, the evil one touches on this potential weakness. Notice in different ways each of the three temptations seduce Jesus to grab hold of power that would make him this kind of King: One who satisfies his every appetite and hunger using whatever means at his disposal; one who creates God in one’s own image by forcing God’s hands, one who offers blind obedience to those still ‘above’ them while climbing the ladder of ‘success’.

But that’s not what Jesus was going to be about. We know that. In order to embrace his true identity, what happens?

Jesus is first led by the Spirit into this vulnerable place, not away from it. He was to first meet this human, shadow side.

The point of Lenten discipline, whatever it may be for you, is to be led into that shadow place in our own lives that we, on our own, don’t want and even can’t go. The Spirit leads us to face that which we normally distract ourselves from, where we normally deny, avoid. What is that vulnerability for you?

What does the light and Spirit reveal in the dark corners of your life? Is it a fear? Is it a conversation you know needs to happen? Is it confronting a situation you have been trying to avoid? Is it coming to terms with what is really going on deep down in your heart?

How does Jesus respond to his temptation? How does he return to his identity in God?

The scriptural quotations he cites are signs of his true identity—his ‘touchstone’, if you will. The scriptures point to his true self. By citing the scripture, he reminds himself, he aligns himself, he allies himself, with what grounds him in who he is. By citing scripture he relies not on his own humanity and resources of his own making, but rather on God.

This text provides rich support for our own journeys of Lent. As we wander into the wilderness of our lives and continue to trudge through the snow wary of still slipping on the ice, as we wonder with our questions, we meet our own shadow sides. And are called to stay rooted in who and whose we are.

And what is your touchstone for remembering your identity in Christ? Is it scripture? Is it the bread and cup of the sacrament? Is it a song? Is it an act of repeated service for another? Is it a prayer?

In her poems about winter Madeleine L’Engle writes a word of hope for the journey:

“Snow does not obscure the shape of things. It outlines them, like an icy highlighter, revealing the deep structure of the world. We walk through the woods, seeing differently, and, when we glimpse the hidden structure, we ask questions even as we experience its stark beauty.”[3]

Writer-theologian, Diana Butler Bass takes it further: “Strangely I have found in my own life that it is only through a wintery spirituality that I am able to affirm summer and sunshine. A friend wrote me recently, ‘Winter reveals structure’. Only as the structure is firmly there are we able to dress it with the lovely trappings of spring, budding leaves, rosy blossoms. Winter is the quiet, fallow time when earth prepares for the rebirth of spring.”

The word, Lent, means ‘springtime’. While the Lenten journey begins in the frozen winter, we can say in faith that the purpose of the journey is to bring us to Spring. Because by the end of the Lenten season, the snow will be gone revealing the soft, verdant earth underneath where new life is just budding to sprout.

In the end, the disciplines of Lent, the questions we now pose and with which we struggle on the journey, these are gifts from God. They point us to God’s presence in our lives and in our world. In the end, that is what faithful observance of Lent is—“a grace-filled return to the Lord our God.”[4]

Who begins with us, snowed-in and under.

 

[1]Cited in Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage: A Winter Faith (January 18, 2019)

[2]Luke 4:1-13

[3]Madeleine L’Engle cited in Diana Butler Bass, ibid.

[4]Kimberly M. Van Driel, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Vol 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.25.

Not all wanderers are lost and alone

The pathways through the forest are tricky, these days. With winter and spring battling it out for seasonal supremacy, the snow-melt leaves walking paths uneven and icy. It’s a challenge simply to keep on the path.

I make my way through the Grove with a destination in mind. But the forested parkland is marked with a web-like array of criss-crossing trails of dog-walkers, ski-enthusiasts, snow-shoers and joggers. So I leave it up to the inspiration of the moment to choose which path I take, keeping in mind where I eventually hope to end up.

But there are options. I’m reminded of the Psalmist who doesn’t just talk of one path describing the Lord’s way, but of many: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 25:9-10). And so I have some fun deciding which path to take; that is, which one is suited more to my abilities and interest on that day.

In describing the kingdom of God to Nicodemus, Jesus talks of salvation, and being born again (John 3:1-17). In case Nicodemus is tempted to believe life events such as birth and re-birth are something he can direct and control, Jesus talks about the nature of God’s work in the matter: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (v.8). There’s a wild, free, untethered quality integral to the journey of life and faith.

To be sure, some pathways are easier — wide, flat and well-trodden. Others require me to focus more my attention on where I place my feet, lest I trip over an exposed tree root or sink into foot-deep snow. One thing is for sure: It’s very satisfying to discover a new path I never knew was there, a path that gives me a new perspective on the forest, regardless how uneven or narrow it is.

To the casual observer I may appear directionless, lost, wending my way around and through the Grove. Some may wonder what I’m doing in there. Is there not something more productive I should be up to rather than wandering in the forest? Sometimes going to worship, participating in activities of the church, engaging the ministry and mission of God in the community may seem rudderless, unproductive.

This faith journey can appear to some rather cavalier and pointless — a glorified hobby of self-indulgence and of no real consequence: Because Christians like everyone else suffer and experience the difficulties that everyone does. What sets us apart? Why bother?

When the hardships come as they do to us all, the journey of the faithful starts to nudge at something deeper inside us. Deep down, though on the surface it may look otherwise, we know we are not lost in our wandering. We look up, from time to time. When the journey gets difficult, it’s natural and rather tempting to look down all the time, to be constantly turned in on oneself, to see only one’s own problems and disregard altogether the world ‘out there’.

When the journey of life gets difficult, our hearts are nevertheless open and free to accept the gift of faith. This gift of faith declares in our hearts the conviction that: I am not alone, in this dark, dangerous forest of my life. I am not alone.

There is a broad consensus that Psalm 121 was not expressed in the faith life of ancient Israel by individuals, on their own, by themselves. In other words, these words weren’t spoken originally between one person and God. It’s not about ‘me and sweet Jesus’.

It was a song sung responsively as a congregation, an assembly, a caravan, on the road together from Jericho — some 1500 feet below sea level — up to Jerusalem where God’s presence awaited in the temple of the Lord. The structure of the poem suggests a question-answer kind of liturgy between various voices — voices assuring one another of the hope they had on this dangerous road. A hope they would find by lifting their gaze towards their destination.

In this stance to life, individuals would be guarded against falling into the trap of feeling isolated in their suffering. At the same time, the different voices would challenge any potential “misery-finds-company” quality in relationship. Ample differentiation in the community encouraged the paradox of ‘hopeful realism’ on the journey of life; that is, on the one hand not denying the pain of the journey; but, doing so in the conviction that ‘death has not the last word’.

The predominantly old-growth stand of Hemlock trees in the Grove through which I wander contrasts with the white of snow on the ground. Even during the brightest part of the day, this is a relatively dark spot in the forest. And I can’t see where the path leads through the thick, coniferous growth. Nevertheless, I can’t help but occasionally look up, with a smile on my face. The trees reach to the sky, reminding me of the direction of our faith.

When we step out on our journey — whatever that journey is — we can do so with confidence and trust in the One who calls us and sends us out on the path. You may be embarking on a new journey in your life — a journey to change jobs, move to a new home, a journey of exploring a new relationship, or renewing old ones; your journey may be a challenge to live with the reality of increased physical limits, or, dealing with a newly diagnosed illness. You may find yourself at a cross-road in your life. So, what do you do?

At those moments of decision and sometimes despair, think again when you are tempted to feel that you are lost, and that you are alone on this journey. Because you belong to the church — the Body of Christ — to share in prayer and song on this road we travel together. And you know, in faith, the end of the story, the end of the road — which is good.

Some helpful thoughts on the journey of faith come from Charles Foster’s “The Sacred Journey” and  Alan Roxburgh / M.Scott Borden in “Introducing the Missional Church”

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