Behind Your Tears, I See Beautiful Things

During the Lenten season, I’m going to try to post a series on Mondays reflecting on different aspects of the season. This post will be just a little different, because it’s not just about Lent, but about all of us who face our doubts, face our darkness, whatever the season.

You don’t know I’m watching you across the sanctuary.

The room has mostly cleared, most of the people have hurried off this first warm(ish) afternoon for afternoon activities outside, but there you are, deep in conversation and there are tears filling your eyes. I noticed them throughout the teaching time as well as I talked about unanswered prayer. Somehow your blue eyes shine even more brightly when they are filled with tears.

I know this journey is difficult. I know it’s hard to pray when you’re not even sure what – or even if – you still believe. I know that even to show up at church on a Sunday morning is difficult, surrounded by people who by all appearances seem to have it all together. (btw: they don’t!) And I know that you don’t even always have the words to express exactly what you feel. Sometimes there are only tears.

And still you come nearly every Sunday. And still you keep fighting, arguing, naming your rage, identifying your doubts, rebuking the angry, vengeful God that was pounded from the pulpit into your young mind. And still you keep talking about what you think and what you feel, saying the truest things you know how to the people who are safest to you.

And in this season of Lent, you still lean in. You still create spaces of quiet and reflection, even though the quiet only seems to lead to fogginess of the soul and not the enlightenment promised by so many. And still you come.

As your pastor, let me say this to you; behind your tears, I see beautiful things developing in you. I know naming your doubts feels vulnerable and scary and I’m so privileged that you’ve chosen to include me in the journey. So many people would cut their pastor/priest out of dark conversations like the ones we’ve had. And even though it feels scary to you and you feel alone and more than a little lost, I can tell you from where I sit in my office and in coffee shops and in bars and restaurants talking to so many people, there are many of us that wrestle with the same doubts, the same fears, the same “not-knowing” that you feel. And we are in it with you.

So, please, keep moving forward. Keep stumbling in the dark, because even though it doesn’t feel like it to you, even though you feel broken and fragile and vulnerable, what we see is an incredibly strong person who is willing to face the darkness and keep wrestling with God. You may never arrive at the assuredness of the faith of your childhood, but – as we’ve already discussed – that was a lie anyway, God isn’t that simple. And in exchange you’re figuring it out for yourself, and in the end, I’m confident that where you arrive will be beautiful and strong.

[And just to be all “pastoral,” let me remind you, you’re in good company. Moses argued with God, Jacob wrestled with God (perhaps literally) and David specialized in bitching at God about nearly everything. And these were God’s “favorites.”]

So – especially in this season of Lent – keep at it. We’re in it with you because we believe in you and behind your tears we see beautiful things at work.

Training for Lent

During the Lenten season, I’m going to try to post a series on Mondays reflecting on different aspects of the season. On week one I talked about identification with those who ache and creating void. This week we continue on:

My boys are hilarious when it comes to Lent. Completely unforced by us, they started conversations about what they were going to give up in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday after hearing their pastor talk about Lent coming. They chose chips, Minecraft, electronics (Wii & iPod) and chocolate. I think. And that’s what’s so funny because I think it’s changed some in these first couple weeks of Lent.

In one case, we talked one of them into a less stringent observance and in one case they’ve just chosen to cheat. And you what? I don’t care. I just love that they’re trying. I love that of their own free will, they’re trying to engage with the spirit of the season.

I wonder if God feels the same way when we cheat on our Lenten fasts? Because while I haven’t cheated yet this year – I’ve cheated in the past. And then I’ve spiraled into a morass of guilt and shame and self-loathing. But I wonder if God doesn’t really care that much. I wonder if God feels about me what I feel about my sons – that he’s just glad for whatever attempt I make at taking my faith seriously – even if I’m not perfect about it.

If that’s true, then this God I worship today is an even much better God than the one I’ve believed in for most of my life. And that’s really, really refreshing.

Of course I’m not saying to go out and break your fast just because you can, but I am saying, that if in a moment of weakness you had a sip of coffee, a glass of beer, or an ounce of dark chocolate and you’re tempted to hate yourself for it think for a moment how you might feel about your kid trying really hard and slipping.

This is why I say to new parents at a baby dedication, “becoming a parent really softened my understanding of God as ‘father’.”

Anyway, the whole point of this Lent thing isn’t about perfection. And it’s probably not about coffee, alcohol or chocolate either. But rather it’s about training ourselves for the really hard stuff. It’s about preparing ourselves for a time when the temptation is really strong and there’s something we really want, and we know it’s the wrong choice. It’s about creating the moral muscle memory in us to say, “I know how to say ‘no’ to things I really want because I know there’s something better.”

So, what do you do if you slipped in your Lenten determination?

Admit it. Own it. Confess it to someone you love – or more importantly, someone who loves you and is safe. Then start again. It’s really that simple. It really is a simple as getting back on the bike after you fall.

A couple years ago, when I was in the midst of shedding many pounds, this was the lesson I had to learn. By temperament, if I made bad choices at lunch I would tend to throw up my hands, call myself a failure (and worse… my mind is an ugly place sometimes), and then binge eat the rest of the day. And what I learned was that it doesn’t have to be like that. I learned if I made bad choices, I just needed to own it, and then move forward.

So, here’s the whole idea. I don’t really care if my kids switch their Lenten fast. I don’t even really care if they cheat. I love them so much, and I love the idea that they’re doing this of their own volition. And I’m just really proud of them anyways. Same goes for you. If you’ve cheated, slipped or changed your fast, it doesn’t matter. I think the fact that you care at all, that you’re engaged in the conversation, that you even just want to do something, that’s pretty cool. So, dust yourself off and get back on the bike.



Nagging Ache

During the Lenten season, I’m going to try to post a series on Mondays reflecting on different aspects of the season. Hold me to it!

A couple weeks ago I wrote about my friend Gina who was having brain surgery in San Fransisco. (She’s doing well, btw.) The day of the surgery, I couldn’t go more than about 5 minutes without thinking about her and Justin. I prayed with them on the phone just as she was being wheeled into the operating room, and I called Justin throughout the day, checking in. I just couldn’t stop myself from worrying/praying/thinking about these people whom I love and what they were going through.

It’s kind of like that, when you have crisis going on. No matter what you’re doing, your crisis is always in the background. No matter how light and breezy you try to keep things, no amount of television, food, alcohol, prayer, laughter, music, stupid iPhone games (insert your own distraction of choice) can really take it away. You may have a few moments of respite here are there, but something will always jerk you back down to reality and you’ll remember the thing that’s weighing you down. And it will sit in your gut like a ton of bricks.

Jennifer and I were talking last night about people we know who have serious stuff going on and how you can’t compare crises. You can’t say, “this person’s marital difficulties is more of a crisis than this person health issues.” These things just can’t be compared. Crisis is crisis. Period. And yet, we find ourselves sometimes minimizing our stuff because “hey, I’ve got a friend with a tumor in her brain,” so my stuff isn’t really that important. Except that it is, to us at least. And so we carry it all the time.

But this isn’t about us, it’s really about how many of us are carrying something that’s heavy to us. Many of us it seems are trying to keep it light and breezy but inside we feel like last hiker on the trail with a backpack full of stuff and we can barely carry it anymore, and everyone ahead seems to be so strong and having such a good time. And so, no matter what we’re doing, there’s always this thing.

Saturday night, I was skimming my Twitter feed and came across another excellent poem from Micah Murray that captured this really well. Here’s an excerpt:

there’s a lot to make a heart sad

we have all these songs and prayers and candles and poems about
hope and healing and all shall be well but

it’s february and i can’t tell where advent ends and lent begins
i can’t tell much of anything anymore

do you have any idea how impossibly impractical
hope is?

dear god i have a love / hate relationship with
(well, everything these days)

but specifically the gospel because
“all shall be well” feels less like

a fragment of light on the horizon and more like
a fragment of shrapnel in my gut

(excerpt from, “A Psalm for Lent”)

So, here’s what this has to do with Lent. Jennifer said to me last night, “once we get through this season of our life, I never want to forget how it feels. I never want to forget that in a room full of people, somebody is full of ache.”

I think Lent is a season where we artificially create ache. We create a void through fasting from something important to us that causes us to reflect, to help us remember what it’s like to carry heavy burdens. Lent is a season that is supposed to drive us back towards prayer, towards desperation, towards identification with those who ache.

So, in this Lenten season, may your fast – whatever it may be – cause you to ache. May it cause you to remember the times where you’ve cried out to God in desperation because you just didn’t know what else to do.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.