Lent was my favorite season when I was in the corporate world. It was a season to slow down, to attend noon services in a chapel not far from my office, to go home at five and take no work with me, to meditate on life and God, and to become more deeply engaged in the life of my parish. You can see where that got me. Into seminary and the pulpit. After that Lent became more problematic. Extra courses of study to lead, quiet days to plan, an uptick in parishioner counseling, Easter arrangements to be finalized, with the usual array of glitches littering the path, and my own desire to be a model of lenten discipline.
In other words, life accelerated during Lent. It wasn’t a bad thing. I enjoyed and was energized by it, but forty days, not counting Sundays, took its toll. It became something like a liturgical triathlon for which I had not adequately trained. Looking back on it, maybe that’s what Advent and Christmas are for. But I digress.
In retirement, Lent has once again become a slow season of contemplative grace, especially on Sundays with the small rural congregation I serve in partnership with two other retired clergy. Most weekday mornings can be filled with as much time for prayer and reading as I desire. I can participate in, as well as lead, whatever special services or events I choose. Lent is a good time.
So what is my lenten discipline now that things have slowed down? It’s something that may take me through all the Lents that remain for me. It’s the problem of learning to love, as Christ loves, the people I don’t like very much, the people I try to avoid if I can. Being in Christian love with people I like is easy. Being charitable in a Christian loving sort of way to people I hardly know, or don’t know at all, is not that hard either. People I really don’t like, well that’s another matter. I do know them, or think I do, and I don’t like them.
My new lenten discipline forces me to confront two very difficult sets of questions. Why don’t I like them, and is that objectively justifiable? What would I have to do or feel to love them as Christ loves them?
One part of the answer has to do with becoming open to hearing their stories, the events of their lives that have formed the persons they have become. Doing that always opens a door to empathy that I had never seen before. But one can’t go around probing into the private lives of everyone one doesn’t like. It’s rude, and more than a bit arrogant. More Christlike is patient listening when the opportunity to listen has been offered by someone who needs to tell their story. And who has time for that, especially when it’s someone you don’t like and don’t want to be around?
I have found that more than a few are eager, hungry even, to tell their stories, and offer frequent clues they hope will entice a willing listener. Becoming more alert to those clues takes some new listening skills of their own, and I’m working on that. And not having the time? In retirement, time is what I do have.
Another, and more important part of the answer, has to do with a truthful self examination of myself. What are the prejudices, unwarranted assumptions, and ignorance that I bring to the judgments I make? What is it that inclines me to like or dislike a person? What about my own story, and the emotional baggage that I haul around with me each day? What obstacles do I place in my own way as I trod the path toward Christian love of neighbor and enemy alike? Nasty little questions aren’t they? They’re especially troublesome because I don’t like to think of my wisdom, long study of ethics, and intelligence as being the bearers of prejudices, unwarranted assumptions, and ignorance. It’s just plain humiliating.
I don’t ignore these sets of questions the rest of the year, but I don’t spend much time on them either. Now, in this Lent, and in each Lent to come, they are the focus of my daily conversation with God, and I trust that I have enough years left to make some progress.
I suppose on Ash Wednesday I should be writing a deeply spiritual meditation on the meaning of Lent, at least for me, and, indeed, one is rattling around in my head. But first, some thoughts about the ocean.
My practice of morning prayer during our annual Maui sojourn is to sit on the lanai enjoying the early hours of dawn, slowly letting the words of scripture embrace my thoughts. This year, for the first time, we have rented a fourth floor condo right on the beach. Our lanai looks out over a well tended koi pond, a popular beach walk, with the beach and ocean just beyond. There is something about the ocean that I find almost hypnotic. What begins as scripturally ignited prayer quickly becomes a nearly absent minded contentment at just watching the ocean, the shore break, and the occasional whale antics between here and Lana’i. Somehow it seems a part of prayer, but prayer with no object and little subject.
As the morning progresses into warmth, the beach becomes alive with tourists. Some are taking long morning walks, some are running, and some begin to populate the beach with folding chairs and umbrellas. A few get in the water. The crowd, on this multi-ethnic island, is mostly white, very white, and determined to be less white when they go home in seven days. Beautiful agile young people with sculpted bodies mix with their less agile elders whose bodies bear the marks of surgeries for heart, back, knees, and hips. I wonder if the young will take better care of themselves than many of us did, and do they have any recognition that they are looking into the crystal ball of their own future as they walk down the beach.
Far out against the Lana’i coastline, a tug pulls an enormous barge laden with all that civilization can produce. Sometime tomorrow it will arrive at the Big Island to disgorge its wares. If it’s on the barge, you can buy it. If it’s not on the barge, you can’t. These islands are two thousand miles from any mainland. It’s easy for tourists to forget. To live here is to be dependent. No sane person can take seriously the notion of virile self sufficiency. Survival, even for those living in aboriginal isolation in remote valleys, means dependency on others. That’s something mainlanders often ignore, or even deny, about themselves.
Lent is a good time to think about dependency. On whom are we dependent, and for what? Maybe what we can give up for Lent is the hubris of imagined self sufficiency. Come sit with me and look out at the ocean, and listen to what God has to say.
Sometimes I think I could be content just to sit here all day looking out over the beach and ocean as a form of unspoken prayer. Old men can do that, you know, and get away with it. As it is, we will soon head to church for ashes and Eucharist. This afternoon, God willing, we’ll head out onto the water in a kayak, or maybe I’ll do some paddle boarding. That will be prayer too.
The Ukrainian crisis has sparked the usual media frenzy intent on inciting hysteria. And there is nothing as likely to get a good round of public hysteria fired up than the old bugaboo of Russian imperialism and military bullying.
It might be worthwhile noting that world military powers have a solid record of occasional military incursions within their self appointed spheres of influence whenever they think it appropriate. The Brits did it throughout the empire for several centuries. We Americans have been known to use a little muscle in a variety of Latin American countries now and then. So it’s not a purely Russian thing. It’s something big, powerful countries do to protect what they say is their legitimate sphere of influence.
In the case of Ukraine, the news reports that about sixty years ago Khrushchev transferred Russian Crimea to Ukraine, and that the region was never integrated or assimilated into Ukrainian culture, society, or loyalty. Assuming the reports are accurate, the question I keep asking myself is why would he have done that? The only answer I can come up with is that he wanted to establish a strong and loyal Russian foothold in a region that he knew to be independent minded. If you are ruling the USSR that might make some sense. If the USSR has disintegrated, and its former member republics want little to do with mother Russia, it is bound to break down sooner or later, and so it has.
So, if the Russians want Crimea back, and the Crimeans want to go back, and the Ukrainians don’t much like the Crimeans anyway, why don’t the rest of us relax and let this thing work itself out? Maybe you have some thoughts on why that’s a bad idea. Maybe you know a lot more about the region than I do. After all, what I know is what I read in the papers, and that’s always problematic. There is one caveat. Just because Putin is a jerk on so many levels is not a reason for us to get involved.