listening in the wilderness

I feel strange about taking Lent seriously this year because, on the surface, I’m mostly participating on my own. This isn’t something my church (or even my husband) is observing, and so I find myself feeling a little misplaced. I know many people in evangelical circles might argue against Lenten practices like extra church services, fasting and “giving things up.”  And regardless of one’s stance on observing liturgical seasons, every Christian would agree that faith is an internal work of God, not external, not of ourselves. I believe there is much value in traditional celebrations like this, because corporate expressions of faith that spring out from the genuine belief of individuals are a strong witness of our Christian unity and devotion. And though the people I spend my day-to-day life with aren’t really walking on this road with me, I’ve found encouragement that I am actually not alone. Since this Lent thing is something many Christians all over the world are doing right now, too, by setting aside a few weeks as a significant season of prayer and repentance in my own life, I’ve found common ground with friends and family who worship in a variety of traditions and styles very different from my own.

One of my dear Lent-observing friends, Bethany, is a treasure all her own. We met when I was leading her freshman bible study in college and really hit it off over some cookie-baking in my apartment. I always felt those bible study girls taught me more than I ever hoped to teach them, and my friendship with Bethany consistently reminds me of this unexpected blessing. I continue appreciating her beautiful articulations of faith and life, especially recently while reading the same copy of the Bible I used when we studied together, rediscovering profound “Bethany Kj” commentary scribbled in the margins.

While she blogs occasionally about teaching, literature, food, church, and having a cool apartment, Bethany agreed to share some “serious” reflections about Lent here. Her thoughts on this topic began at a young age with the traditional soup dinners and extra services at her Missouri-Synod Lutheran church, and today she finds Lent observance as an encouragement in the midst of weariness and brokenness. In reading this, I found myself thinking of the seventh chapter in Romans where Paul talks about wrestling with the “body of death,” which is what we do during Lent, and praises God that the solution is in Jesus and the resurrection.

“Thoughts on Lent,” from Bethany Kjergaard.
My earliest memories of Lent are sense memories. I remember the smell of the soup for the communal supper before the service (I didn’t eat soup, too picky). I remember the early darkness. We would arrive to church at twilight, and we would leave just before my bedtime. I remember snatches of the liturgy we sang (“let my prayers rise up like incense before you”). The hymns we sang during these Wednesday night services were much more melancholy than the ones we sang on Sunday morning. The services were much shorter too.

As I grew older, Lent became one of my favorite seasons of the church year. Last year I don’t think I missed a Lenten service (and I really don’t like going to church all that much). I think I treasure Lent because normally I feel that I’m supposed to pull it together for church each week. We are exhorted to be joyful in the Lord. Most Sundays I’m surrounded by happy, smiling people. Not so during Lent. During this season I can take the time to be grief-stricken at my sin and my hard heart. I don’t have to “fake it until I make it.” Rather, I can look around me and see that I am broken and the world is broken. As a Christian, one of the most difficult things is looking at the world around me and realizing that while Christ came and was resurrected and lives, it often does not seem that he has made much of a difference. We still have wars, poverty, and famine. The universal church does a lot of good things and a lot of bad things. Time marches onward.

I’ve been reading different meditations on Lent and what this season ought to mean to us. One of the most powerful comes from St. Benedict, and it is the idea of the New Adam and the Old Adam. Old Adam fell and was cast out of paradise into the wilderness. Humanity wandered in this “wilderness” until the New Adam (Christ) journeyed out into the wilderness to bring him back. Lent is recognition that although our path has been made known to us, we are still in the wilderness, the darkness of this world.

I think the darkness of the church during these services made the biggest impact on me. It was very dim with only the altar candles lit. Bernard Clairvaux commented that sin entered the world through sight (Eve being tempted by the beauty of the fruit), but salvation comes through the hearing of the Word. Darkness certainly obscures sight, but it cannot stifle sound. Lent is a time that allows me to admit that I am fallen, in the wilderness, in the darkness and yet despite that I can listen.

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