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February 21st 2021

 In the latest Church Anew blog, Angela Denker, a Lutheran Pastor and veteran journalist, wrote about the beginning of Lent.  I laughed when I read her opening two paragraphs; she has connections to the mid-west of the US:

Every year, I look forward to Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent with the kind of relish that only one raised with a certain sort of Midwestern stoicism and glory in suffering can amass.
Maybe it is the same part of me who brags about walking outside in 15 below (Fahrenheit), up the hill both ways to school growing up in Minnesota, or having to shovel the church sidewalk before waving palms on a chilly April morning.[1]

            Angela talked about Lent in a serious but humourous way.  She talked about humility and the need for us all to be real in what we are feeling; if we’re feeling pain, feel it and share it with someone.  If we’re feeling lonely, feel that and share it with someone.  If we’re feeling upbeat, don’t be shy in expressing that even if others are feeling down.  What Lent calls from us, beginning with Ash Wednesday, which was last Wednesday, is to be humble and real with one another in what we’re experiencing.

Ash Wednesday, as an introduction to Lent, reminds us of mortality.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we say in the Ash Wednesday worship service.  The only other time we really use this phrase is at a funeral, especially a burial.  It is a quote from Genesis 3, right at the end of the Story of the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve are set to leave.  As a reminder to Adam and Eve of their mortality, God said, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19) Remembering we are dust and that we all go back to dust is the great leveler and can cast aside any arrogance we might be harbouring.

            As a Worship Planning Team this year, we decided to follow the Rev. Laura Turnbull’s Lenten Candle ritual that she wrote when she was at Penticton United Church.  She’s retired now but is filling in at the United Church in Creston temporarily.  Laura invited us to focus on the cross, which for us United Church folk seems a bit “churchy.”  Aren’t there other denominations who like to speak of the cross?

            I grew up in the United Church, as many of you know.  My dad was a minister, but I don’t remember him speaking much of the cross.  Yes, our church had a cross in it.  There was a big cross on the outside wall of the new wing that was built during dad’s time at Knox United Church in Kenora, Ontario.  Certainly, the church in Nanaimo, Brechin, had a big cross right at the front of the church embedded into the wall and one you couldn’t miss coming up from the Departure Bay Ferry Terminal, a lit cross on a high tower; the cross and the church are no longer there.  My recollection was that dad didn’t talk much about a theology of the cross.  I don’t think it was because of triumphalism; maybe it had to do with his own struggle as a child and young adult with his family, that he didn’t want to dwell on suffering and pain.  Dad never talked about his family and growing up in Nova Scotia and consequently, there are things we don’t know about his background.

It wasn’t really until dad had a brain hemorrhage in 1982 that he came to grips with his own mortality and perhaps even the pain and struggle he experienced as a child although that is speculation on my part. I do know that the poetry dad wrote in the 3 years after 1982 until he died in 1985 was very poignant; he’d have spells in the hospital when he couldn’t speak but could still write.  His suffering was very real and, while not saying so directly, expressed a theology of the cross.

            In the United Church of Canada, probably Douglas John Hall is the one who best articulated theology of the cross; he was a scholar who taught at McGill University in Montreal.  I’ve read a number of Hall’s books and heard him give a lecture through VST quite some years ago.  He’s retired now completely and probably is in his early 90’s.  It would have been nice to have had him as a professor as my experience of him was as a gentle, wise, and compassionate teacher as well as a deep thinker.  He was steeped in Martin Luther’s theology of the cross.

            Essentially, what Hall argued is that the cross represents the suffering and struggle that we all face in life—these are my words; we can’t and shouldn’t deny that we all experience suffering and struggle at different moments.  Because the cross is empty, though, it means that while pain and struggle are part of life, God’s love is at work in the world to help us find a way through the pain, suffering, and struggle to healing and wholeness.

            I think that the brief story from Mark of Jesus’ time in the wilderness really begins the theology of the cross.  His time in the wilderness was about confronting pain and struggle.  Jesus knew that pain and struggle is part of life and that he couldn’t speak authentically of God’s love and compassion without also understanding pain and suffering, of course, which reached agony on the cross.

Jesus talking about suffering is kind of like when we talk to someone else with some depth of understanding because we’ve experienced struggle.  However, one of the things that we were taught with respect to pastoral care—and I learned from my own experience—is that you never say, “I know how you feel.”  We can never know how another person feels with any precision; we can use our own experience of loss and suffering to empathize, but everyone’s experience is different.  Our own struggles and challenges do give us an insight into how to be more fully human and alive, and how to be a listener and accompanier to someone facing their suffering.  That’s a theology of the cross.

            Lent is our time to acknowledge our suffering—not wearing it on our sleeves, perhaps, but not denying it also.  And working through our challenges can lead us to new perspectives and new directions.  Maybe the reason that Lent is 6 weeks is that we don’t want to rush this.  We take our time and work through things.  In humility we acknowledge that we are human, not perfect, and that we can always learn more, that we come from the dust and will return.

For example, a few weeks ago in a sermon, I said I wanted to learn a bit more about the Enneagram for my own self-growth.  So, I’ve got a couple of resources and am working my way through, journaling my thoughts.  I found at the beginning of 2021 that I was in danger of sliding into a cycle of negativity and depression.  So, working through the Enneagram and doing some yoga, first because of my back but discovering it as a rich spiritual resource, too, has been very helpful.

This is my 40-day journey in the wilderness during Lent.  This year seems much more poignant somehow, perhaps having to do with COVID-19 and all that we are facing in the world.  So, I want to do my part in becoming healthier in my own spirit and engage in this discipline of considering the Enneagram and developing a deeper yoga practice.

So, what is your Lenten journey going to be?  Amen.

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[1] See her blog at https://churchanew.org/blog/posts/angela-denker-the-lent-i-didnt-want.