Five days since Ash Wednesday, and Lent has done its work already. In the brilliant collection of readings for the season found in Bread and Wine, Edna Hong writes:
The purpose of Lent is to arouse. To arouse the sense of sin. To arouse a sense of guilt for sin. To arouse the humble contrition for the guilt of sin that makes forgiveness possible. To arouse the sense of gratitude for the forgiveness of sins…Edna Hong, Invitation (Bread and Wine)
Five short days, and I have experienced all of this, and I was not expecting it, at all.
In fact, even my observance of Ash Wednesday in a formal form was a fluke, a happy accident of a cancelled meeting that made space for a quick dash to the local Methodist church for the imposition of ashes.
I am gratefully acknowledging today that sometimes liturgy and ritual work for us, in spite of us. Because not 24 hours after Pastor Aaron pressed his thumb on my forehead and reminded me of my mortality – “to dust you will return” – I came face to face with not just my mortality, but my stupid ego and the immense capacity within me to do harm.
I will share here, at the risk of the reader’s pity – which I do not want – because the weight compels the public confession. For someone who has publicly sought wisdom, the fact of my continued folly insists on revelation. And wrapped up in it all – spoiler alert – is the truth Edna Hong shares, that a season of penitence brings with it the opportunity for a journey along the pathway of contrition, smack dab into forgiveness and an overwhelming gratitude.
Something about that resonates with what, it seems to me, is the entire point of everything.
But I digress: Here’s the story. Thursday afternoon, a long, circular walk enabled a good conversation between friends, honest and open. I need to tell you something, my friend said, and I was confronted with a way in which my careless words had caused this friend pain, I expressed apologies and sorrow; I was grateful for their willingness to tell me, and our conversation continued. We each of us owned the ways in which we don’t always communicate well, and we parted with the air cleared, but the fact remained; I’d been careless, spoken without thinking, and I’d caused harm.
Later that very same afternoon, another friend came to me to say that my careless words had caused great pain. Good conversation ensued, and forgiveness was present, and one might say that it all worked out well. But if one was paying attention, one might wonder just what was going on…
And so shortly after that second conversation ended, the epiphany arrived; what I recognized as the gentle voice of the Spirit whispered with a firm, unassailable truth: This is the fourth time you have had this conversation since the year began.
It wrecked me, I tell you; I instantly recognized it as truth, and I felt wretched, which is not a word I use often, but it is the only word that would suffice in the moment. Four distinct instances, four different people – all of whom represent incredibly important relationships in my life – who had reason to come to me in kindness, but in brutal honesty, to say, You said something that really hurt me.
I am grateful – deeply grateful – that all four of these people trust me enough to be honest, to express a desire for things to be right. That, in itself, is a gift of grace.
But here I am, focused on all the coming year might bring, excited about a shift in my ministry role towards deeper, one-on-one conversations about spiritual health and healing…and I’ve already been careless enough with my words to hurt people I care about. And as this truth was illuminated in a sickly neon-green realization in my head and heart, I was astounded.
What the hell is wrong with you?
This Bread and Wine book brought light to the lack of novelty to my situation, and I can say that it is some small comfort that my situation is far from unique. I am clinging to Hong’s statement that “…a guilty suffering spirit is more open to grace than an apathetic or smug soul.” I need – long for – am desperate for – that grace, because this is not the person I want to be. I want to reflect kindness and truth and peace and gentleness; not only do I want this, I am compelled to live this way. It is the expression of every bit of my purpose and value structure and desire. I want to be as Jesus was. I don’t want to be mean and cause pain.
And yet, here we are. And, yes; I am forgiven, by God and by my friends, but it still stings, you know? I don’t want to be a jerk, and yet, I am so capable. There is reason for introspection, for some spiritual practice that might deal with my inability to lead with kindness in these recent days. There is something going on here, some stirring of ego poking its ugly, thoughtless tentacles up through the surface that needs examination. I need to reckon with this.
And so: This is Lent, then, so far. Five days in, and I’ve been wrecked and am being remade. For that, I am grateful. I have hope. I am grateful for this season.
I end this post with images of grace; after navigating the remainder of the week, I had occasion for a very quick out-of-town trip. Unfamiliar surroundings bring the opportunity for perspective, and I tried to be aware and notice and take time and be still and shut my stupid mouth.