The landscape of Lent is often painted as a desert. These weeks before Easter can be a thirsty time, a lonely time. They invite us on a journey of examining our souls to see where we fall short, making our way between the oases that reveal God's mercy.
The journey may seem unending at times. We make it in the shadow of the cross. But we gently carry the knowledge that death doesn't have the final word. There is new life on the other side-and joy. So we are invited to enter the season boldly, knowing that we walk toward a promise.
February 19: The Courage to Forgive
Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50; Luke 6:27-38
Last fall, 25 members of Murder Victims' Families for Reconcil-iation toured Georgia on a "Journey of Hope," speaking throughout the state about their experience. All had lost a loved one to murder. And all had taken the long journey from grief through bitterness to forgiveness. They had discovered, as Don Mosley of Jubilee Partners, a sponsor of the tour, put it, "the power of compassion to heal their own wounds."
The community at Jubilee Partners gathered one evening to hear George White, one of the tour members, share his struggle to overcome the hatred that had poisoned his life for years after the murder of his wife.
"A man kills your wife, and you forgive that man?" responded an emotion-laden voice in the crowd. "I don't understand how it is possible!" The voice was that of a 16-year-old Bosnian who had recently arrived at Jubilee as a refugee from her war-torn land. "I hope..." she continued softly, her eyes brimming with tears, "I hope I can forgive the Serbs like that in 10 years."
Mr. White, who has a daughter about the same age as the young woman, crossed the room and gently placed his hands on her shoulders. "Honey," he said warmly, "you have to try. It's the only way to find healing from all this rotten mess."
From two very different situations, half a world apart, two hearts met and beat together with truth. It is a truth as ancient as the story of Joseph, brutally sold into slavery by his brothers, who wept and kissed them upon seeing them again. It is the truth of the psalmist who exhorts, "Do not fret because of the wicked."
It is the truth of Jesus, who went to the cross for the sins of others, uttering among his last words, "Father, forgive them...." His gospel command remains before us as a challenge, seeming like an impossibility: "Love your enemies." But it is attainable. Others have shown the way. God, give us the courage to follow them.
February 26: Confession and Joy
Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15; 1 Corinthians 15:51-58; Luke 6:39-49
Our scriptures this week contain a clue as to how to attain that near-impossible task of forgiveness. It's so much easier when we understand our own weaknesses and failings. Yet so difficult to see them, as our gospel reminds us.
They are there, big as life-big as logs. We need to do a little clear-cutting to move them out of the way. That's what Lent is all about: taking a good, hard look at those realities about ourselves that we would rather not see. It is a time of penitence, of confession, of relying on a faithful God to see us through.
I am grateful for our Isaiah passage as we embark on this journey this week. It presents us with a vision unsurpassed in joyous splendor: "For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands."
I encourage us to fix that image firmly in our minds as we make our way across the desert that is Lent. On the dry, thirsty days-when our sins seem like weights that slow our steps to a crawl-remember hills singing and trees clapping. Think of all of creation conspiring for our wholeness and joy. And know that new life awaits us on the other side.
March 5: A God Who Delivers
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
Telling the great stories builds up the faith of the people. And so the tale of the mighty deliverance from Egypt was recounted again and again among the people of God: the pillars of cloud and fire, the outstretched arm, the parted sea, all manner of signs and wonders by a steadfast and strong God.
Jesus would have participated in the ritual of remembrance at least 30 times before he stood on the edge of his own wilderness. He entered the lonely time of temptation confident of the God who is shelter and refuge, protection and deliverance.
Famished after 40 days without food, Jesus refused the invitation to satisfy his need with acts of magic. On the verge of launching his ministry, he rejected the offer of easy glory and power. About to reveal to the world his true identity, he refused to force God's hand.
Jesus rejected the showy, compromised power of the world and chose the power of the Holy Spirit. Some would say it was a mistake. You can wind up on a cross that way. But it was that compassionate emptying that turned the world upside-down.
As we venture through our own wilderness time this season, may we have the strength to embrace that power. And may we trust in a God who still delivers.
March 12: Vulnerable to the Powers
Psalm 27; Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
The deliverer God of last week is contrasted this week with an intimate God who comes to us in comforting images of light and salvation. This God desires that we seek her face. She takes Abraham by the hand and shows him the stars, promising him countless descendants. She is like a mother hen, who desires to gather her brood protectively under her wings.
It is no coincidence that Jesus compares himself to a hen and calls Herod a fox. The threat is obvious. The children of God are vulnerable to the powers of the world.
Soon the strength of that power will be all too real. Jesus knows what waits in Jerusalem. The cross is already in view.
But the promise of victory is just as real. The day is also coming when the powers will know their limits. "Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!"
March 19: Thirsting for God
Psalm 63:1-8; Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
In our culture, it's hard to understand thirsting. Most of us can have all the water we want at the turn of a faucet.
These scriptures bring to mind images of women I saw in South Africa several years ago. At dusk they lined up, with children at their sides and on their backs, containers balanced on their heads. Long after nightfall, they were still there, moving slowly toward the one spigot that served most of the black township outside Pretoria.
Those women had no choice. Patience and long-suffering were required to obtain water. And life could not go on without it. Water was necessary for cooking and washing. But it was also bedrock sustenance for people who often had little else.
In those days, the thirst for freedom was as strong as the thirst for water. People were willing to die for it. And then last May rivers ran in the desert for the people of South Africa. One overwhelming thirst was quenched.
It is that sort of thirsting that our scriptures talk about. In the desert landscape of Lent, our souls long to know God, our flesh yearns to be refreshed by the promise of new life. The longing consumes us, superceding all else.
Therefore repent, and know God. Turn from sinful ways and be welcomed back to the springs of forgiveness. And be assured by this promise from today's epistle: "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful and will not let you be tested beyond your strength."
March 26: A Little Confession
Psalm 32; Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Rosette was a long-eared mule who carried me into the Grand Canyon early one summer morning. Before we even began, she was off the trail, munching on leaves from a cottonwood tree. She fell far behind the others, and no prompting on my part convinced her either to speed up or to walk straight. She had a propensity for walking way too close to the edge, and her gait made me doubt that the term "sure-footed" applied equally to all mules.
I love the psalmist's rich imagery. When he says "Do not be like a horse or mule" that lacks understanding and needs to be bridled, I know exactly what he means. Perhaps that's because I've been told before that I'm stubborn.
I'm also quite adept at being judgmental, wanting everyone to walk the "straight and narrow," and believing that somehow I know exactly what that means. So if I see myself in the mule of the psalm, I suppose I must also confess to being the older brother in the gospel.
I would have been just as angry. I probably would have put on a better façade, but inside I would have been whining just as he was. I would have been self-righteous about it, considering it a matter of justice. I would have had a terrible time at the party.
But, fortunately, the father in the story didn't give the younger son the dressing-down that he appears to have deserved. Instead, he threw a grand celebration. Grace unbounded. None of us gets what we really deserve. No justice. Thank God.
A little confession is good for the soul. But it is not enough. As the epistle reminds us, we have all been entrusted with the message of reconciliation. Once we get straight with God, we need to get straight with those around us. Even the squandering younger brother-or anyone else in our life that challenges our capacity for graciousness and mercy. It's the least we can do to thank a God who always throws a party to welcome us back.
April 2: A Torrent of Hope
Psalm 126; Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
The cross is looming large now. It is good to turn again to the comforting and poetic words of the psalmist and the prophet Isaiah. We may sow our tears in many places, grieving that our families, our communities, our nation, and the world are not as we would like them to be. We see brokenness all around, frightening times ahead.
But when we water the earth with our tears, we can expect to harvest joy in the next season. A new thing will be upon us. Rivers will spring up in barren places and refresh the earth. Perhaps the rivers appear when enough of us have been moved by the earth's pain to weep, to add our ounce of compassion to what may become a mighty torrent of loving hope.
Mary knew what lay ahead for Jesus. She prepared the way with her tears and a jar of precious ointment. Unlike the others at the table, she knew that she was anointing a prophet for burial.
Jesus received the intimate and priceless gift. And then he set his face toward Jerusalem and walked toward the inevitable. May we so face the trials in our own lives, buoyed by the promise of a harvest of joy.
April 9/Palm Sunday: Scandalous Love
Psalm 31:9-16; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
The events of the last week of Jesus' life have a disconcerting familiarity: the Last Supper, the lonely agony in the garden, Judas' betrayal and Peter's denials, the humiliations before Pilate and Herod, the clamor of the crowd for his death. What often gets little attention is the dispute that broke out among his friends at the table.
They wanted to know which of them Jesus regarded as the greatest. That moment must have been among Jesus' loneliest-like his discovery of them sleeping in the garden, or the interchange around drawing swords. Facing the most anguished time of his life, Jesus was utterly alone. His closest friends still didn't understand.
It was a scandal, after all-this surrendering, emptying, going peacefully to the cross. What about insurrection? What about calling on God to do a miracle and save them from this terrible ending?
They never understood that to lead meant to serve; to save meant to let go; to live meant to be willing to die. It is a tough lesson for all of the followers of Jesus.
April 16/Easter Sunday: Joyful Witness
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18
The gospel accounts vary as to which women stood by the cross and went to the tomb. But all agree that Mary Magdalene was there. This devoted disciple was the first witness to the resurrection, an astounding truth considering that the testimony of women was not considered valid in a court of law at the time; women were deemed unreliable witnesses. In Luke's account, when the women went to tell the disciples about the empty tomb, they considered it "an idle tale" (Luke 24:11).
But in John's version, Peter and John ran straight for the tomb on Mary Magdalene's word. They saw the linen wrappings and believed that what was promised had come true. Then they went home.
For Mary Magdalene was reserved the special grace of seeing the risen Christ. The tender beauty of the garden scene was all hers. Jesus' first word out of the tomb was "Woman." He spoke it gently. Then he spoke her name, and her tears of sorrow became tears of unspeakable joy.
Good news can't be contained. The one who knows it always has to run and tell someone else. So it was with Mary Magdalene, who passed the word on. And from her testimony, the word spread around Jerusalem, across the globe, and through the ages.
The calling of Mary Magdalene is the calling of us all. Jesus still calls us by name. We, too, commune in intimacy with him when we accept the gift of abundant life and live bearing joyful testimony to the resurrection. By our testimony, we join all the followers through the centuries who can say, as Peter did, "We are witnesses to all that he did...."
April 23: Doubt to Faith
Psalm 150; Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
Ilove the post-resurrection stories: confused minds and burning hearts; Jesus walking through walls, strolling the road for a stretch, eating broiled fish, serving breakfast on the beach. It is all so human-and yet so miraculous. Dared the disciples believe?
I am most grateful for Thomas. He knew it was all too strange just to accept at face value. He needed to touch it-to place his fingers on the wounds and know for himself that this was indeed Jesus come back to them.
Earlier, upon hearing of the death of Lazarus-when the people were threatening to stone Jesus-it was Thomas who had boldly declared, "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:16). But of course more than one follower had found his performance falling short of his pronouncements.
Jesus honored the doubt. At the same time, he encouraged faith. He invited Thomas to see and feel the truth for himself. And he issued an invitation to all of us: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
April 30: Mourning to Dancing
Psalm 30; Acts 9:1-6 (7-20); Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
It is fitting to end this season with the beautifully moving scene of Jesus' conversation with Peter on the beach. It contains all the irony, poignancy, and background scenery of a spectacular climax to a great story.
The scene opens in the same way that Peter's relationship with Jesus began long before: Peter and the others are in their boat; they have fished all night and caught nothing; Jesus tells them to lower their net one more time; the net is too heavy with fish to haul in.
Peter's response was instantaneous. He threw on his clothes and jumped overboard, bounding toward the figure on the beach whom he knew to be Jesus. The others were left fumbling with the awkwardly overflowing net.
Jesus already had a charcoal fire going. He shared bread and fish with them, just as he had done so miraculously on a mountaintop before. Not a word was spoken-nothing needed to be said. What gentle and joyous communion!
Then Jesus turned compassionately toward Peter. The echo of the rooster's crow likely still reverberated in Peter's soul, the pain of his three denials overwhelming. It had been a dawn much like this one, the stabbing light that day exposing his fear and cowardice. But on this morning, the light encircled the gentle face of Jesus.
"Peter, do you love me?" Jesus asked three times. And with each affirmation, a denial was healed and forgiven. Do you love me? Do you really love me?
Peter finally understood. This time, he knew he was willing to go to his own death to keep the faith. Jesus knew it, too. What a poignant moment as Jesus proclaimed again that first invitation issued on this shore many months before: "Follow me."
The moral was clear. No fear is too great to overcome, no sin too great to be forgiven. Love, indeed, conquers all.
And so we-like Peter, and every other follower who has needed and known the grace of God-can join the psalmist in proclaiming: "You have turned my mourning into dancing....O Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever!"