Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lent's Pilgrimage, Lent's Joy

Lent signals a certain sobriety. It’s a season of renunciation, where your piety is pitched to how much you depend on whatever it is you’ve decided to do without: alcohol, meat, that shot of vanilla in your favorite caffeinated beverage – that favorite caffeinated beverage itself.

When I traveled with a more Catholic crowd, we had a St. Patrick’s Day party, and we decked the house in green, made buckets of Irish stew, and stocked the bar with Guinness – which, to the Irish, is liquid bread. Well, that year St. Patrick’s Day fell in the dead center of Lent, and all of my husband’s high school buddies had given up alcohol for season. They looked longingly at the Guinness – and sipped on water. We told all the old stories anyway, this time at half the volume and without forgetting any of the punch lines.

Scripture commends fasting, almsgiving, and prayer as signature Lenten practices. All of them are practices of renunciation: fasting gives up food – at least, in excessive amounts; almsgiving gives up material goods, urging us to spread the wealth – and in so doing reminding us how much we have and how little we need; prayer gives up control, nudging us to listen to someone else.

The point of renunciation is to create space: carve out openings in busy lives, so that we too can set our faces toward Jerusalem, as Jesus did, so that we too can journey in solidarity with him along the way.

Lent is a season of renunciation, and sobriety is one of its soundtracks.
Yet there’s another soundtrack in Lent, fainter perhaps but more compelling. Lent is also a season of completion, and joy is its soundtrack. Some people live out of this Lenten counsel. A man decided to work in a soup kitchen during Lent, and suddenly all the panhandlers he’s seen in the streets had names: Shafik, Richard, and the ubiquitous Dot Lady. A woman adopted the practice of writing a poem each day. As she sipped her morning coffee, she’d traced a circle onto a piece of blank paper with one of her saucepans. She stared at the blank space until the words came. And if they didn’t come at the moment, she simply finished her coffee and moved into the work of that day. But periodically she returned to that blank circle, adding words until the circle filled, a poem complete. She wrote in pencil; she allowed herself to erase; the whole exercise gave her great pleasure – another word not used often enough in Lent.

I’ll cite Luther on that precise point – he seems to have some credibility around here. Luther gives us that wonderful snapshot of Adam in the Garden of Eden, drunk on God – or as he puts it, “ intoxicated with rejoicing toward God and ...delighted also with all the other creatures.” (LW 1, “Lectures on Genesis,” 94) Not exactly a picture of sobriety, but the image captures something important. We are hard-wired for joy.

Scripture seconds this impulse of completion and joy as well, perhaps most powerfully in the final counsel Jesus gives to his disciples before his death. It’s Lent in this season of his life, and he knows what lies ahead: the certainty of death and the promise of resurrection. So what does he spend this last supper talking about? Not so much renunciation and sobriety, but completion and joy and love: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Jesus’ death will leave a huge hole in the disciples’ lives: he knows it. And, beneath those gluey, obfuscating layers of denial, they know it too. And yet, he tells them: “You will not be left comfortless. When I go, I will send my Spirit – in fact, unless I go, my Spirit cannot come to you.” (paraphrasing John 16:7) There’s this economy of the Spirit in John’s gospel: the Spirit can’t come unless and until Jesus goes away. But when Jesus goes, the Spirit will come. There’s a similar economy of the Spirit in Lent: the Spirit can’t come until and unless there’s room. Renunciation clears out a space the Spirit fills.

What does the Spirit bring? It’s very simple: joy. Paul expounds on the fruit of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). And the apostle only elaborates what the psalmist delivers with lapidary punch: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Jesus’ final speech to his disciples – which takes chapters and chapters in John’s gospel – could be boiled down to two words: “Expect joy.”

It’s so easy to get dragged down by the renunciation and giving up, by sobriety and the gritty reality of loss, we forget that other pulse in Lent: joy. Here are three things to remember:

1. First, remember to breathe. Whether you give up eating meat or take on writing poetry, renunciation and completion are like respiration, breathing in and breathing out. We need to do both to live. If you only expel, you will surely collapse. Equally, if you endlessly inhale, you will explode. Renunciation breathes out, expelling toxins even as it creates space for the next breath. Completion breathes in, taking into that empty cavity oxygen, the breath of life.

2. That’s the second point: breathe in joy. Lent’s joy comes into that empty cavity, whether the space has been carved out by renunciation or deep need or grave loss. Joy comes in – if we but let it. In their book The Cultural Creatives (Three Rivers Press/Random House, Inc., 2000), Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson interviewed a young mother:

“She had four children in five years. The most significant thing that happened to her life, she told us, was losing one of those children to cancer when he was five years old. “I don’t talk about this very easily,” she said, looking down and speaking very quietly, “but it was pivotal for me. It changed my life – jelled it in a profound way. I have an image that comes to mind about that time. It’s of a white fire roaring through my life and burning out what was superficial, frivolous or unimportant and leaving a core of ... I don’t think there’s any other word for it than love. A core of love.”

Whether we choose it or it chooses us, renunciation and loss hollow out empty spaces within the soul. And, make no mistake, that’s a vacuum that all kinds of things can fill: anger, bitterness, resentment, distraction, or perhaps most sinister of all, just general busy-ness. But Jesus promises to send his Spirit. All we have to do is breathe it in.

When we do, joy comes – or as this young mother put it, a core of love. I can’t explain it any better than she couldn’t, but I know it’s true.

3. And that’s the final truth of Lent’s joy: it’s social. The joy I can generate on my own is always incomplete. It must be completed by another. As Luther sees him, Adam in the garden, drunk on God, needs something to complete his joy. So, he delights in God -- and also all the other creatures. Creator and creation complete his joy. Jesus completes the disciples’ joy; they complete his. The apostle Paul – speaking simply for once – tells the community at Philippi: “make my joy complete” (2:2). It’s kind of like the dare Clint Eastwood utters as Dirty Harry (Sudden Impact, 1983), “Go ahead, make my joy.”

Lent invites us to dare the Spirit: make our joy.

Lent leaves us with these lessons:
Remember to breath;
breath in joy;
lean on someone else to complete that joy.

Mere happiness cannot stand up to the harsh truths of loss and war and tsunami. Lent’s joy is truer than all those things: it’s the promise that we are not in free fall.
And that death is not the final word.

Start with that at least.
(From a talk at Foss Chapel, Augsburg College, April 9, 2011)

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