Monday, February 20, 2012

Looking Toward Lent


We threaded our way down narrow, rough-hewn stairs chiseled into stone; the walls of the cavern rose up to swallow and surround us.  In silence we stepped into that great pit, a hole carved down into the bowels of a mountain made of rock, hidden beneath the streets of Jerusalem. The air was cool and tasted of earth; the increasing gloom could not be completely dispelled by the row of electric bulbs along our descent.  We pressed in close until we were all gathered on the cavern floor; that is when the lights went black.

Our eyes adjusted slowly. The only bright spot was a small sphere some 60 feet overhead. It was the hole through which prisoners were lowered in or raised out, a hole through which only a meager ray of sunshine weakly penetrated the darkness.  Through this opening rainwater would fall, filling the cistern with just enough of the cold deluge that, once upon a time, the captives sat constantly in it, in their own excrement, in the stink of their own unwashed bodies.

This pit was the place of Jesus' captivity before being brought to the Sanhedrin.  This was the holding cell for criminals and miscreants, perpetrators, the fruit of society's greatest failures.  I stood in that darkness with 66 other pilgrims on a pale day in March as someone recited Psalm 88:

I am overwhelmed with troubles 
   and my life draws near to death. 
I am counted among those who go down to the pit; 
   I am like one without strength. 
I am set apart with the dead, 
   like the slain who lie in the grave...

With a sudden palpable realization, I began to weep:

Christ has been with me in the darkest places of my life.

I have experienced deceit to the extent that it robbed me of all I thought was good and pure in this life.
I have experienced unfaithfulness and betrayal that destroyed everything I had - and nearly destroyed me.
I have known a loneliness and heartbreak of which I hope others will never even dream.
I have understood the depths of grief, the price of hiding, and the pits of death and the grave.

And Christ was there.  Christ covered me there with his blood that I would recognize my own precious value and live in spite of it all.  Christ raised me in the mornings and laid down with me at night.  Christ breathed breath into my lungs that I might keep breathing.  Christ was there with me in the darkest night of my soul.

And that day, in a cistern in Jerusalem, Christ shared with me the darkest hours of his soul.

Christ invited me into his darkness, to be with him.

I sobbed there among 66 friends-yet-strangers, there at the bottom of the pit.  I wept for the enormity of it all, for the recognition of great tragedy, for the beauty of communion in its midst, and for the sacred intimacy that is being allowed to know another's deepest suffering.  I was overcome with grief, but also with the promise of Emmanuel: God-with-us.  I was overcome with mourning but also with a great, reverent, humility that Christ would share his broken heart and his journey with me.

I have likened that moment to the moment in which a lover chooses to let down the walls and let the beloved into the deepest, most vulnerable parts of the heart, into the frailty of human experience.  

It speaks of great trust.  It is a painful, humbling honor, an intimate communion. 

That is the invitation that I hear on Ash Wednesday.

The liturgies and traditions are ebenezers, stones raised to mark a sacred space.  They are poles in the Tent of Meeting where we have the opportunity to enter into the very presence of God by inviting Christ to share with us the story of his sorrow, by walking it with him in mindfulness, fasting, and prayer together as his body, his bride.  It is a rich and beautiful time, a time of awareness of all that was dead, all that is dead, all that cries out for life and resurrection.

As the Lenten season approaches, I am keenly reminded of those parts of my heart and life and experience in which I long for resurrection.  I am reminded of my own story; I have been invited to share my testimony the last two years at church but I have been unable to do so.  I have been too ensconced in the thick of recovery to feel like I can offer meaning to others.  I have been too aware of all that doesn't makes sense and that doesn't yet seem to bear the mark of redemption in my heart, mind, and life.  I have been too needy for something more in my own journey with Christ to offer my story this time, though I have offered it 7 years in a row.

It is for these parts that I pray during Lent.  It is for these parts in all our stories that I pray, these parts in the story of the church, in the story of our culture, in the story of our world.  I pray for those whose imagination has been captured by sexual exploitation through media, movies, pornography, and advertising. This is part of the reason that I give up movies during Lent even as I offer myself a reprieve from the bombardment of images.  I pray over the deep isolation that we experience in our culture and our church because we do not know how to be in relationship with one another: we hide, we numb-out, we seek instant self-gratification, illusion, and looking good on the outside until we don't even know how to be present, authentic, honest.  This is one of the reasons I fast Facebook and other forms of social media during Lent even as I sensitize myself to my own need, my own relationships, and my own character defects.  And this year I will add to these practices an endeavor to write my testimony one more time. I hope to share it at the end of Lent with the understanding that, just as Christ shared with me, I share as one who lets down the walls and invites the beloved in to the most vulnerable places of the heart and human experience.  I share it so others can know Christ, know him through our suffering ... and our resurrection.

Because looking toward Lent is about getting in touch with, feeling, and naming the things that have died and are dead.  Looking toward Lent is getting in touch with the need for Resurrection.  Looking toward Lent is simply that: Looking toward Christ.

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