A Prayer in the Wilderness

based on Matthew 4:1-11

Faithful God, at the beginning of this 40-day journey of introspection, we’re prepared to face our central temptations.

When we are tempted to abuse our privilege, may we instead be humble.

When we are tempted to exploit your name for prestige, may we instead heed our call to service.

When we are tempted to sacrifice our integrity for power, may we instead remember who you made us to be.

O God, we stand here at the edge of the Lenten wilderness wondering what we might encounter. May your angels attend us, and keep us faithful. Amen.

Five Reminders for a Meaningful Lent

Ash Wednesday is tomorrow, officially kicking off the season of Lent. Lent is one of the holiest times of the church year, a season of 40 days and 6 Sundays leading up to remembering Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It also seems to come with some misconceptions from both observers and non-observers alike. I thought that it might be helpful to share a few reflections and remembrances to help clarify what Lent is. Hopefully it will aid those making this journey toward Easter.

So here are some things to remember about Lent:

1. It’s about self-examination, not self-flagellation. Many people recoil at this season because it just seems like such a downer. Who wants to sit around beating themselves up? The larger point is to take honest stock of yourself, and that includes habits, behaviors, and attitudes that don’t line up with God’s vision. You’re invited this time of year to examine yourself, and to identify and seek God’s help in transforming those things that hinder or even destroy life (including your own), rather than create it or build it up. Sure, doing that has a good chance of causing you to feel bad about some things. But the intent is to move through the discomfort of facing difficult truths into new ways of viewing God, oneself, and the world.

2.It’s about awareness, not artificial sacrifices. A common Lenten tradition is to “give something up” for the duration of the season. Over the years, I myself have given up chocolate, cookies, television, alcohol, the internet, and fast food. A critique that I see fairly often is how First World Problems it all seems, as if staying off Facebook for 40 days is really supposed to bring you closer to God. True enough, by itself giving up sweets probably won’t do much for your spiritual life. The other part of the equation is the awareness that this act of self-denial is meant to help cultivate. In part, you can consider how much time you may have spent indulging in the thing you gave up and the disordered attachment you have to it. In the meantime, you can fill that space instead with any number of spiritual practices such as devotional time, meditation, lectio divina, and many others.

3. It’s about Jesus’ suffering, as well as ours. People see Lent as a downer not just for the self-examination component, but because it focuses on Jesus’ suffering, including his temptation in the wilderness and all the events of the final days leading up to his death. People are uncomfortable with this for a variety of reasons. But we don’t focus on these events as voyeurs or glorifiers of violence. Instead, we are meant to journey with Jesus through them, sorrowing with him. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) to feel the suffering of these events as an integral and inescapable part of Jesus’ life, and 2) to consider how God suffers alongside us in the same way.

4.Holy Week makes Easter what it is. I get it. Your week is busy and there’s a premium on your weeknight hours. Getting to a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday observance takes a lot of planning and rearranging and it seems like too big of a hassle to attempt. Nevertheless, the events of Jesus’ passion, complete with their agony, uncertainty, emptiness, and seeming finality are what give Easter its celebratory power. We can’t understand the joy of the resurrection without traveling through the crucifixion. If you can’t make it to a service during that week, reflectively reading one of the Gospel accounts a little each day could be a sufficient substitute, as one possibility.

5. Lent was made for people, not people for Lent. This season is what you make of it. Take up practices that speak to you, leave behind those that don’t. The journey won’t be, and isn’t meant to be, the same for any two people. To observe practices that are going to be burdensome, arbitrary, or based on others’ expectations rather than help open your heart to the possibilities of the Spirit is counter-productive to the entire exercise. No matter the specifics, the ultimate goal is for you to deepen your awareness of and relationship with God, and to immerse yourself in Jesus’ road to the cross. The way you mark this time is between you and God. However you do it, may it be inspired and transformative.

Make Everybody Be Twins

For people who consider themselves creatives, it’s quite rare that good ideas fall out of the heavens full cloth, uninterrupted by lesser iterations in between.

In reality, one may come up with a snippet, a wisp, a hint of something that may one day lead to something great. But that will include an entire process of building upon that hint, expanding upon it, adding other hints to it, erasing, painting over, and even starting again entirely before quality work becomes what it is in the end.

To complicate things even further, those little wisps come in the midst of other wisps as well. These are lesser wisps, pretending to be something better than they are, hoping that you’ll choose them instead only to find that doing so leads to malformed abominations that should never see the light of day.

Still, it’s difficult to differentiate between the better snippets and the lesser ones. One may need time to sift through them.

That’s why I’ve taken to keeping a pocket-sized notebook with me at nearly all times. It’s my scratch pad in which I write down whatever comes to mind and whatever I need help keeping track of. Sometimes I just need to write a to-do list or to remember a notable quote that I want to transcribe into my journal later. At other times, I get an idea for a blog post or a podcast episode or something to put in a book, and my notebook becomes a convenient repository to revisit later when I have more time to mull it over.

Sometimes these lead to something worthwhile. Other times, they’re left on the scratch page never to be heard from again.

The latter for me always brings to mind a scene from the movie Baby Mama where Tina Fey’s character talks about a notebook she keeps on her bedside table for when she gets an idea in the middle of the night. “And then I wake up,” she says, “and I have these little notes that say things like, ‘make everybody be twins’ and ‘electric toilet.'”

Not everything I jot into my notebook is worth pursuing. Sometimes ideas that I have for posts or episodes are the equivalent of “make everybody be twins,” and they don’t see the light of day.

But figuring out which is which is an important part of the creative process. Sometimes you don’t know until you begin to work with one for a while. And then you’re either back to the beginning or you’re moving toward something good.

Writing down the wisps and hints is the first step.