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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Joyful, and Mournful, Journey of Lent

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This year my employer, Friends University, a non-denomination Christian liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, decided to develop, in conjunction with our regular chapel observances, a calendar of Lenten devotionals, and they asked for students, faculty, staff, and others to contribute. Some of those who contributed were Roman Catholic or from other high church Protestant traditions, and thus the language and rituals of Lent were familiar to them. For Mormons like me, obviously, that isn't the case. Still, this is my contribution; hopefully it fits the spirit of the occasion well.

Sometimes, when I read one of the Psalms, I can’t get out of my head the image of an ancient gathering of people, speaking (or singing) in a language I do not know, in a time and place I can barely imagine, conveying sentiments that are pretty much exactly my own. Jews of twenty-five hundred or three thousand years ago, writing down the pleadings, the hopes, the fears, the longings, the demands, and the celebrations of their hearts, and the spiritual language they used sometimes manages to express something that strikes my modern, Christian self to the very core.

One such Psalm is 105. It is a psalm that surveys the history of the Jewish people, as they understood it at the time--and it also, from our Christian perspective, helps us see that history as pointing towards something else, something greater. “Give thanks to the Lord,” it begins (v. 1). “Invoke him by name, make known his deeds among the peoples.” And what great deeds they were! In 45 verses, the psalm reminds us of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron. The Abrahamic covenant, which began with a single family—“A small company it was, few in number, strangers in that land” (v. 12)—is unfolded all the way through the Exodus and the arrival of the children of Israel in the land which was promised to them. “He opened a rock and water gushed out, flowing in a stream through a parched land; for he was mindful of his solemn promise to his servant Abraham” (v. 41-42).

Lent can be productively understood, I think, as time of wandering. Through fasting, prayer, and selective attempts at change (this year, once again, I'm attempting a Facebook break), I put myself, as much as possible, outside my daily routine, and attempt to see in myself not someone perfectly at home in this fallen world, but a pilgrim, an exile, a stranger, one who is wandering through the desert of preparation, waiting on God’s promise of Living Water. Turning to these ancient words--these songs, these poems, these heartfelt pleadings and hopes--is thus appropriate, I think. Abraham and the world of those who honored him in psalms is unimaginably distant from us today--yet we are part of that story nonetheless. It is a story which weighs us down with its length--but also lifts us up, with its promises of what awaits us at the end. Perhaps being reminded of this great distance, this immense journey, all encompassed by God’s reach, and all of it encompassing us as well, is exactly why we are invited, as Christians, to wait and wander through Lent every year.

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