Opportunities for love’s bond begins close at hand as paths cross in ordinary circumstances: within families (among the most severe testing ground), workplaces, classrooms, churches.
A close encounter could lead to dramatic outcomes. Those faithful in large things have surely been faithful in small ones, as William Blake observed: “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.”
Love’s aim is mutuality. Be wary of the charitable impulse that leads (however unintentionally) to dependency, requires public recognition or demands gratitude.
Those without material resources may know more about the work of the Spirit. Let them teach us.
In Thomas Klise’s futuristic novel, The Last Western, a roving band of people with the quirky name “Servant Society of the Used, Abused and Utterly Screwed Up” function as a vivid re-imagination of what the church could be:
“The Servants will always choose the way of serving the poor, the lonely, the despised, the outcast, the miserable and the misfit. The mission of the Servants is to prove to the unloved that they are not abandoned, not finally left alone. Hence, the natural home of the Servants is strife, misfortune, crisis, the falling apart of things,” Klise writes. “The society cherishes failure, for it is in failure, in trouble, in the general breaking up of classes, stations, usual conditions, normal routines that human hearts are open to the light of God’s mercy.”
A commitment to kindness and civility should be taught to our young. But they also should learn when the peaceable are called upon to be troublers. Some tables, as Jesus demonstrated, need overturning.
Civility does not mean passivity. Bearing the servant’s towel to wash soiled feet (see John 13) does not mean being a doormat. Lent’s labor includes learning the difference between washing and wiping.
“Our hope for Lenten practices: Create a creeping discomfort about my confidence in the way I’ve always viewed the world,” writes Rick Steves, in his book Travel As a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind.
One of our congregation’s retired farmers suggested our Lenten theme, “Set your plow deeper,” as I wrote previously.
“Most farmers plow at the same depth every year,” Marvin explained. “The bottom of the plow compacts the soil beneath it, so that, over time, a thick crust forms, separating the plant roots from essential nutrients. To prevent this from happening, occasionally you need to set your plow deeper.”
This is the resolve of Lent: facing a mortally diseased world and proclaiming Heaven’s “nevertheless,” affirming that we are not, finally, left to the consequences of our calamitous choices. Another world is not only possible, it is promised.
The fruition of Lent’s labor has less to do with what you give up than with what you take up, allowing the promise of the season’s eventual delight be sufficient to endure its demands.
“I imagine Lent for you and for me as a great departure from the greedy, anxious, anti-neighborliness of our economy, a great departure from our exclusionary politics that fears the other, a great departure from self-indulgent consumerism that devours creation,” Walter Brueggemann observes in A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent. “And then an arrival in a new neighborhood, because it is a gift to be simple, it is a gift to be free; it is a gift to come down where we ought to be.”
Knowing friends who were in harm’s way, I followed news of the 2020 Mexico City earthquake with alarm. One photo was of a man holding high a large sign that read “¡silencio!” Silence — so the workers could hear the sound of life under the debris.
“¡Silencio!” is our Lenten watchword.
The silence to which we are called is not that of candlelit baths, champagne and Coltrane playing, as delightful as that may be. Rather, silencio is practiced amid the rubble, as we listen for the faint cry of survivors from earth’s trauma and human atrocity.
This listening posture aligns us with God’s hearing, for the groans of the enslaved and remembrance of covenant ties. This posture is captured well in the song “Holy Mother”: “Holy Mother, where are you? Tonight I feel broken in two. / I’ve seen the stars fall from the sky. Holy mother, can’t keep from crying. / Oh I need your help this time, Get me through this lonely night. / Tell me please which way to turn / To find myself again.”
The Gospel account of Jesus “being led by the Spirit” into his wilderness ordeal, then sorely tempted by the Deceiver and thereafter ministered to by the angels, is the narrative point of departure for Lent’s observance.
Note that Jesus did not undertake this severe trek without the blessing “from above” (in other words, from beyond human calculation and control) upon immersion in the Jordan River.
By the way, Lent’s penitential work is not a transaction as if X amount of repentance is offered for Y amount of forgiveness. There’s no “getting right” with God. There’s only getting soaked.
Desert excursions — where sustenance is scarce, and threats are plentiful — must begin with a blessing. Lent’s ashen imposition is prelude to Easter’s emancipation.
Editor’s note: This article is the third of a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action, and author of, most recently, In the Land of the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions. He was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.