Before you know it, we will be celebrating Shrove Tuesday (Feb. 9) with a pizza party. We’ll be following a centuries old tradition of using up all the dietary fat that is sitting around so that we can be austere and fast on Ash Wednesday and in the weeks to come. We’ll gather in church the next day for the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday. Then we are plunged into Lent – 40 days of preparation for Holy Week and Easter. These days the Church isn’t as into austerity as much as asking us to develop a different way of doing things so we are mindful of the need to get spruced up for the Easter Dance.
Lent mirrors the time that Jesus spent in the desert being prepared for his ministry. The Devil put in a mighty appearance to tempt Jesus to give it all up and act more human than divine. We try to develop a habit of discipline that might remind us of the same temptations. We too carry the divine spark within us, and we are always forgetting it is there. Things temporal easily tempt us. So we can add something to our lives during Lent like a special meditation time or do an anonymous good deed for someone every day. Or we let something go – perhaps fast from something you really love or make an intention to stop doing something that has been causing you problems.
All of this is to remind us that there are desert times in our lives just as there were in Jesus’ life. In Lent we go there willingly, and that always makes me a little nervous. In Godly Play, any story that involves the desert (and there are a lot of desert stories in the bible) starts out the same way. As the storyteller flattens out sand on a makeshift desert floor, he or she says, “This is the desert. The desert is a very dangerous place.” That’s right, I think to myself. Who knows what might happen in a Lenten desert?
Yet it can also be very beautiful. There’s an amazing poem called “Passover Remembered” by Alla Renee Bozarth. The whole of it is at http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/passover-remembered/, as well as in our February Canterbury Tales.
Alla Renee was in the first group of women priests to be ordained in ’74. She writes about God’s call to the Hebrews as they slipped out of slavery in Egypt towards new life in the Promised Land. You might remember that God led them into the desert or wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. This is a poem that speaks to people like us today – people who are being called by God into a new life.
“Pack nothing,” Bozarth writes. “Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free…You will learn to eat new food and find refuge in the new places. I will give you dreams in the desert to guide you safely to that place you have not yet seen. The stories you tell one another around the fires in the dark will make you strong and wise.
“Sing songs as you go, and hold close together. You may, at times, grow confused and lose your way. Continue to call each other by the names I have given you to help remember who you are. You will get where you are going by remembering who you are. Touch each other and keep telling the stories.”
In our desert times, we turn our hearts and listening ears toward God with faith that he will show us the way just as he did he did the Hebrews. Come to think of it, he is always calling us out of ourselves and into something deeper – and surely he knows how scary it can be. I think about Alla Renee’s ordination 41 years ago. Retired bishops defied the canons to ordain the first women priests. Both the women and the bishops were acting out of love of God, but they sure weren’t playing it safe.
The poem continues, “Set out in the dark. I will send fire to warm and encourage you. I will be with you in the fire, and I will be with you in the cloud. You will learn to eat new food and find refuge in new places. I will give you dreams in the desert to guide you safely to that place you have not yet seen.” As Christians, this is what we do – we keep stepping out into the unknown with faith in our hearts that we will find God in the fire and in the cloud. We hold each other close and become willing to be open to new “each others” who will come into our midst.