We are at the beginning of Lent, that season of the Church’s year that beckons us to turn away from those things that have separated us from God, or are separating us from God, and to return to God in penitence and hope, as we prepare to celebrate the glorious mystery of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.
My twelve year-old godson has informed me that he is giving up chocolate for Lent. I’m not sure at this point that he understands why this might be a good thing to do; nor am I sure that this is connected in any way, in his mind, with growing closer to God. I suspect it’s more of a personal challenge at this point, a test of his will and self-restraint. But I encourage him, because it is not a bad thing to learn to say ‘no’ to ourselves, to control our desires, or to limit our appetites.
The spiritual practices we are encouraged to adopt in the season of Lent often require a kind of “stripping away” or letting go of something – perhaps some behavior or habit or wayofbeingintheworld. We might recognize that this thing has become more important to us that it ought to be, or that it has, in fact, become a barrier between us and God, or between us and others, or between us and our true selves. So we try to lay it aside or let it go, so that we might refocus on what is essential in life, rather than what is peripheral.
In Lent, we fast from these things. We may need to fast from shopping for new clothes, or from watching too much television, or from eating to soothe our emotions, because we recognize that we have been engaging mindlessly in such things, without reflecting on what we are doing and why.
We may need to fast from anger or resentment or a critical spirit, because we see how these things are corroding our souls and damaging our relationships. Or we need to set aside our tendency to overwork, to over-schedule ourselves, to try to have and do more than we should.
We may need to fast from over-consumption or wastefulness or greed, because we see that the extravagance of our first-world lifestyle is affecting that balance of life on this planet. We may need to strip away some of what we have allowed ourselves to accumulate, or reduce our levels of consumption of the world’s resources. We may need to let go our national pride, to begin to see ourselves as citizens of the world rather than of one particular country.
Or we may need to take on something, rather than letting something go. We may need to take on exercise, or prayer, or meditating on Scripture, or planting a garden, or painting with watercolors – because we have lost touch with what is essential in life. Our lives have fallen out of balance, and we have become alienated from our bodies, our souls, and our true selves – and from God, who is the creator and sustainer of all that is life-giving within us.
In Lent these things may be stripped away, our hold on them loosened, so that we might rediscover what is essential to the abundant life for which we have been created, and so that we might rediscover God, who is the ground of our being.
The story is told about a stone carver who was asked how he was able to transform a shapeless block of stone into an animal or a person. He replied, “I spend a long time just looking at the stone, imagining the animal or person or thing that resides within it. And when I have a clear picture in my mind of what that is, I simply chip away all that does not belong to it, until I am left with the thing itself.”
Lent strips away, not to deprive us of anything, but rather to uncover and reveal what is essential and true. In this process of stripping away, the Spirit leads us into truth – the truth of who we are – in relation to God, to our world and to ourselves.
In today’s gospel lesson, the truth about Jesus is both revealed and affirmed at the moment of his baptism in the River Jordan. He is the Beloved Son of God, one in whom God is well pleased. And yet, soon after this truth is affirmed, he is led into the wilderness, where he is tempted to abandon this truth and to seek fulfillment in power, popularity and possessions. The Evil One puts before him the illusion that he can have it all, and tries to convince him that having it all will bring him fulfillment and happiness. But he recognizes this as a deception and lie, and refuses to abandon the essential truth about himself for the glittering attractions that are placed before him.
Like Jesus, we too are beloved children of God, and like a stone carver uncovering the figure within, God chips away all that is superfluous and non-essential, so that the essence of who we have been created to be may be revealed. The Spirit strengthens us to let go of patterns of pretending and performing that have nothing to do with who we truly are. She strips away layers of anger and jealousy and resentment and pride that have encrusted our hearts and separated us from ourselves and others, and reveals to us the beauty that lies hidden within, the essence of our being, the very image of God. She peels away the illusions which cloud our perceptions of ourselves and others, and helps us to see the truth. All of it is the work of love. It is God’s work.
Sometimes the process takes place in spite of ourselves. Some of you may remember a former brother of our Society, Bob Greenfield, who lived for a time at St. John’s House, the retreat house we operated here in Durham. Bob was a brilliant man, a wise and compassionate priest, a good and gentle soul. His life was marked by accomplishment – a PhD from Oxford, a position as Dean of the Cathedral in Portland, the major contributions he made to our present Prayer Book. As he grew older, many of these things slipped away. Sickness left him unable to preach or preside at a Eucharist. He became feeble and dependent. And yet, as one by one his many talents diminished or were taken away, the inner beauty of who he was became more transparent. Over and over again, guests to our monastery commented that the most important moment of their retreat had been when they watched Bob enter the chapel, assisted by a younger brother, or when they sat across from him at a meal. What was not essential to who he was was being taken away, and what was at the core of his being was revealed. Bob knew himself to be a beloved child of God. The life and love of God dwelt within him, and nothing – no sickness or weakness, no diminishment or disability – could take that away. In fact this light within him only grew stronger and more apparent as other parts of him faded away.
Sometimes this spiritual process of stripping away what is superfluous in order to reveal what is deepest and truest and mostessential is a process that takes place in spite of ourselves. But it is, nevertheless, a process in which we can be fully engaged. I once met a Jesuit who was aglow with serenity and joy. When someone asked him the secret of his vibrant inner life, he replied, “I’ve given it all away.” Letting go of his need to achieve or to distinguish himself or to accumulate honors or possessions, had set him free to give himself away in service to others and to God. And in this he had discovered a profound joy and a deep serenity. He had become the person God meant him to be: what was external had been peeled away and only what was good and holy and true remained.
In his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul relates how at one time his identity was defined by things external. He took pride in being a circumcised Jew, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee who was righteous and blameless and zealous for the Law, a persecutor of the church. But, he says, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Phil 3:4b-9a). These external things had become for Paul a covering of illusion, and a barrier that separated him from God and from his true self. He rejoices that they have fallen away, and that that which is essential and true has been uncovered. His identity is now rooted in the knowledge that he belongs to Christ, that he is loved by God, and consequently he knows that NOTHING – no hardship or calamity, no principality or power – can ever separate him from God’s love, the love which has been made known to him in Christ. Even in prison, he experiences deep joy and peace.
Friends of God, sometimes we awake to find that we have lost our way. We discover that we have invested our lives in things that are of no lasting value and we have neglected or abandoned what is deepest and most essential to the abundant life God offers us. We have allowed our lives to become encrusted with fear and anxiety, driven by selfish desire and greed, rooted in stubbornness and rebellion, or paralyzed by pity or grief. When we discover that we have lost our way, when we find ourselves sitting in the muddy mess we have created of our lives, we have only to recall who we are and to whomwe belong. We have only to believe that God intends some-thing more for us – a life that is abundant and true and deeply satisfying. At times like these, grace enables us to stand up and dust ourselves off and begin to make our way home. And the God who created us and loves us more than we shall ever comprehend, will come running down the road to meet us, to wrap us in his love, and to renew in us that which is true and lovely and good. This is a true promise and a sure and certain reality. We are children of God, created and redeemed and loved beyond all telling. That is who we are. Ask God to help you uncover and rediscover it this Lent.
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