I wasn’t ready for this week. It’s been theological and emotional whiplash. And we’re only to Wednesday.
The Grammy Awards, the State of the Union address, my daughter’s mid-winter teacher conference and three-day break, traveling, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s dinner arguing over politics. Whew!
Where does one find a center point in all of this?
I’m not sure there is a center-point in all of this. But there are some questions. The season which began tonight in a pot of ashes, a loaf of bread, and a cup of wine is one of hard, deep, soul-bearing questions. If my hope for Lent is both to repent and to experience God’s grace, then it will take some really good questions to move me out of my comfort and inertia.
Tonight in Knoxville I had a bit of a tangle with my past. When my husband and I decided to go ‘old school’ and have a Valentine’s dinner at Louis’ Restaurant (est. 1958) we were not thinking about Ash Wednesday. When we decided to take this trip because out daughter is our of school, we were not thinking about being away from our own community on such an important day, when we recall a shared loss and support each other through the grief.
Tuesday night the convergence of all these disparities of schedule and purpose came together. I needed to make a better plan. Fortunately I know people.
I contacted my friend who is one of the pastors at St. John’s Lutheran Church and asked about their services. Rev. Amy Figg offered a warm welcome and said yes, they would impose ashes at the 6:30 service. So we kneeled to pray and stood to sing, tasted wafers and wine from familiar hands, all the while missing our Glendale friends. Rev. Amy preached a beautiful homily. Most helpfully she said in Lent (as in other seasons of life), “What we want is to know and be known and to love and be loved by a gracious God.” She walked us through a series of honest and probing questions for reflection in the weeks ahead.
After the service I hugged Amy, and we said out loud to each other how many years it has been since we were in seminary. Oh my! How time has slipped away. I will indeed be dust before I know it.
We drove out Broadway and back in time more than two decades, passing stores, neighborhoods and landmarks that brought that long ago season when we were dating right back into the moment. Dinner at Louis’ a day early for Valentine’s was filled with just the nostalgia we were expecting. The restaurant is a 1950s replica of service and food. Take for instance the butter that still comes out with crackers, and chopped iceberg lettuce salad, and waitresses that call you honey and draw little pictures on your hand-written receipt. Then over dinner we fell into an old argument. There is no nostalgia in our political differences.
But we also moved to somewhere new. We literally drove to Starbucks. That helped. Then I asked some better questions, not about the politics but about my spouse’s motivations. We do live by some different values. They overlap on several significant points, but we are worlds apart on others. Once I asked some better questions and listened – really listened – the grip of resentment loosened.
Loving relationships don’t grow over time by simply becoming larger or stronger. They change shape. We change shape, and we stop needing some things and come to need others. There are no guarantees. Marriage can be one of the most enduring proving grounds for faith and trust. Most of us have no idea what we are committing to when we are in our late teens and early twenties.
What has this to do with Ash Wednesday? With Lent?
Well everything, I think. Religious people can make pronouncements about what we’ll give up or some new discipline we’ll take on, some repentance, some new commitment. But what of the old discipline? The everyday commitments of family, work, parenting, marriage, spending, saving, eating? These are the places where faithfulness, discipline, grace and mercy live or die. Coping honestly with these things is the everyday work of grace and God’s presence to be missed or embraced. Here is where repentance is the most difficult. Here is where love of the other, the stranger, the enemy begin, in the everydayness of our lives. Anyone can be brilliant 300 miles from home. It takes unwavering honesty and courageous humility to face one’s own life and ask: What is needed? Where is the sacred calling? How will we get through?
The pot of ashes, the bread and wine, the soul-searching questions, ought to shape our big callings, and public vocations, but they also need to do their work in the butter and crackers, the iceberg-lettuce moments, the shared griefs and the long-standing arguments. The work of Lent rarely has the grandiosity of the Grammys or the largess of the State of the Union, but it matters deeply in the everydayness of our lives, where we are not always brilliant or funny or right.
What we want, O God, is to know and be known and to love and be loved. Grant us courage to live unflinchingly in the life here at hand . . . and the trust to believe it is enough.