Winter in Wisconsin. It gets long and lonely. By the time we hit March, we can find Winter quite irritating. We are weary of it all. The bleak barren landscapes. The cold. The snow. The ice. The frequent bouts of difficult driving and impossible walking. The claustrophobia. Cabin fever. The need to see the sun more than twice a month. The relentless piling on of clothes and scarves and hats and gloves and boots. We are also often sick and tired of being sick and tired.
In the midst of this somewhat brutal midwinter, the Church chose to plop Lent. Lent is a span of forty days. 40 was used by the Jews to indicate a long span of time. Noah and the 40 day rainfest. Moses and the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. So, Lent falls in scriptural line as a lengthy time of what I would call cleansing and purification. Think of it as a bath for the heart and soul.
I guess it was a good idea to put Lent in the middle of a season which forces you to stop, go slow, be silent and still. Maybe this is why we always associate Lent with the giving up of something, as it seems like an appropriate time to shed some spiritual clutter. With everything else swarming in gloom, it seems to be a good time to be asked to make a sacrifice.
I find an irony in Lent. I think of Lent as a time when we are being asked to take a long hot bath in an ocean of Grace. We need to soak in the awareness that we are God’s beloved children, and that we are cherished and adored by a most loving God. We need to let these Lenten waters heal us. To restore our faith in Life and ourselves. To relieve the pain and hurt of having failed to be true to our longings. To mend the cuts and bruises of the soul created by our futile efforts to be in control. Lent simply asks us to soak for a good long time. Let the water get good and dirty before it descends down the gracious drain.
In other words, Lent is not a period intended for punishment. It is not a time for spiritual scolding. It is not when we should feel bad about being bad. It is not about wallowing in guilt. Lent is not about feeling lousy so can then know the joy of Easter. It is about knowing exactly why Easter can be an “eastering” event of joy in our lives.
So…look outside. The black tree laced landscape. The lovely little lingering patches of snow. The arrival of the occasional spritely crocus. The softening winds. The fertiling soil. The readying for Spring. Lent is like a house cleaning of the spirit. Creating a clean heart in us. And Lent is Christ’s effort to do just that. To whiten us. To make us clean and fresh. Forgiven and adored.
Easter is coming, but don’t miss Lent. Yield to it. Dive in. Soak. Be cleansed. Be made whole. Be healed. Be calmed. Be quieted. Be sure of the Grace which embraces you. Lent has a job to do, but it cannot do it unless we choose to immerse ourselves. So…sit your Self down in this holy tub and let these baptismal waters do their work.
Water. The grand means of erosion. The flow of the river of Life to the sea of Easter. The wandering and meandering trail of an eternal truth which empties into an ocean of Grace. A good hot bath might be just what we need. It sure can’t hurt. It just might bring our weary souls back to life.
Watch for the daffodil. The forsythia. God is then buttering the earth for the feast we call Easter. It is coming. But first things first. Lent is required. It is the tilling of the spiritual soil. It is the weeding out of the world. It is the cleansing of our sins. Simple sins. Times we chose not to love as we should or could.
Lent is to Easter what death is to life. It offers depth and perspective and a rich appreciation. It is the mat and frame to the painting. It is that which brings out the true beauty. That which enables us to see the whole picture. That which frees us to celebrate the mastery revealed in the art.
There is a reason why we seldom choose to hang a frameless painting on the walls of our homes. It would just fall flat. It would lack depth and light and crispness. It would fail to invite you inside. It would, well, just not be as beautiful. It is the mat and frame which offer the painting the gracious gift of being fully seen.
In the bleak midwinter. The mat and the frame for the lush lime lace of Spring. The season of Lent. Time spent becoming holy. Healing and whole. So, that the soul can be amazed again by the incessant giving of new life.
She was 83 years old, she told us. She said she had come to this workshop on spiritual discernment, because she was flummoxed. Several of us commented on the beauty and age of this word, and how seldom we ever heard it used. She gave a quick and precise definition.
“Flummoxed is when you haven’t got a clue. You do not know what to say. You do not know what to do. You are simply at a complete loss. That is what it means to me, at least.”
I affirmed her explanation of the meaning of the term. I also noted that it appeared to have hit a nerve with many in attendance – including myself. Then we talked about it. The state of being flummoxed. I suspect it is most common. I am convinced it is rampant in American culture.
The world we live in has grown to be so bewildering. The savage wars being fought over religion. The squandering of our natural resources. The suspicion we have gone over the environmental edge, and are hurtling toward the sea like a pack of lemmings. The swarming growth of technology. The malignant growth of greed. The sneaky and friendly fascism that has crept into our politics. The resurgence of racism. The gun violence which is so foolishly defended as a constitutional right. As if what the Founding Fathers meant by defending ourselves, was the capacity to wipe out a village in a minute or two. The terror and the terrorism.
I could go on and on. You could go on and on. Depending on our perspective, the list of absurdities is infinite. God created a world from chaos, and we are creating the chaos all over again.
What struck me in our discussion were the answers – Not solutions, per say, rather, strategies for handling that of being flummoxed. Most of them were remarkably simple, and many borrowed heavily from the wisdom of the 12 Step Movement.
KEEP IT SIMPLE.
ONE DAY AT A TIME.
LET GO, AND LET GOD.
BE SATISFIED WITH BABY STEPS.
WE MUST BE SMARTER, NOT BETTER.
LOVE IS ALL THERE IS.
WE MUST FUNCTION AS A TRUE HUMAN FAMILY.
WE MUST AGREE TO COMPROMISE.
WE MUST BUILD CONCENSUS.
WE NEED TO BE A COMMUNITY.
There were 31 folks at this workshop on spirituality. We were in agreement that being flummoxed is a consistent state of the spirit for many of us. We also concurred that the only way we knew out of this mess, this maze, this fog, was to go slowly and together, and to make a little bit of a difference each and every day.
Several people commented on the use of 12 Step motto's or jargon, depending on your perspective, or attitude. I stated that this came as no surprise, as addiction was the primary sign of just how chaotic and out of control our lives can become. Addiction was what the Bible called idolatry. Anything we believe we cannot live without, well, we are addicted to it.
I was proud of Beverly for coming, for still seeking answers at 83, and for possessing the insight to accurately name her spiritual state - Flummoxed! At a loss. Being the absence of a presence. I thanked her at the end of our time together. She said that the conversation helped. She felt less alone. She no longer thought she was just being emotional or silly.
Her worries were uniquely female. Her bravery in claiming the flummoxed condition of her soul, was also particular to women. It seems that when it comes to the state of the soul, mainly women are truly aware of what they are experiencing. Spirituality is primarily feminine. It is the female spirit. God as Mother.
If we are able to save this planet from the downward spiral that it is in, I would bet that it will be due to the leadership of women. Female insight and vision. A woman’s ability to know this is just plain wrong, and to demand that it stop. Men appear to have one gear. Drive. Even when they haven’t got a clue where they are going. Even when the edge of the cliff is mere feet away.
Men don't ever admit to being flummoxed, even though most are most of the time.
It was almost 50 degrees the other day, and they are predicting a high of 50 degrees later this week. For February, this is remarkably mild. I felt like going to work wearing a T-shirt. Funny, but had it been September, after a long steamy August, 50 degrees would have called for a sweater or jacket. The context determines the experience.
I love the word MILD. It is lovely concept. Most often, I hear it spoken along with the word unseasonably. This hints of a bit of surprise, just a touch of shock, when the weather teases us by showcasing an upcoming season. A mild autumn foreshadows a winter that might be brutal. A mild spring heralds a sweaty summer.
Mild mannered, mildly offended, not too much, just enough, in balance, and just right. This is why I love mild weather. These are the days that are right in between. They are not too cold or hot. Not too wet or dry. Not too harsh or soft. Perfect.
I think of mild as a perfect spiritual state. An excellent attitude. A good solid perspective. To be a mild spiritual individual, is to know when to adapt and when to accept. A mild soul is humble. Has no need to stand out, nor does it demand to be noticed. It fits in. It takes its place in line. It is part of the gathering.
I think of mild as being kind. Gentle in nature. Soft of heart. Generous of spirit. Full of grace. Full of love and life. Relaxed. At ease. Calm. When I am mild in manner and spirit, I am in a zone. The zone is defined by God. God has marked the boundaries, and stated the rules. I am ready to accept Life on God’s terms. I am at home in my body, and on this good earth. My mind and heart are in sync. Things flow. The days are slow, and the nights slower. I am keenly aware. I notice. I pay attention. I am remarkably alive.
Much of this winter has been pretty mild. 50 degrees in February. Pretty sweet. Feels great. I feel like a kid. Ready to play and explore. Ready for summer vacation. Ready to ride a bike with no hands. Wind blowing gently and cleanly on my grinning face.
Mild can forgive seventy times seven. Mild can love an enemy. Mild can bind a broken heart. Mild can lift a spirit. Mild can guide us home. Mild is liquid Grace.
A fifty degree day in February. Shocking. A joke. I am the punch line. It makes me laugh out loud. God gifts such lovely little gifts. All God asks is to open our soul and receive the gift. Today, I do. I wish us all a mostly mild March.
I went into one of those warehouse bookstores today, and headed to the section clearly marked CHRISTIAN. There were covers carrying the chicklet smiling faces of a vast array of white male preachers, except for that one woman who has surgically stretched her face into the likes of “The Joker”. They were all mega-preachers to the mega-churches, and I would contend, all believe in religion’s obvious capacity to make mega-bucks. This is the new Christianity, the American version, and it is built upon a belief in an All-American Jesus.
I gazed at the covers, read back pages, and browsed the tables of contents. The messages were clones of one another. They all speak of the human need to be popular and powerful and right and better than others -- the sleazy drive to show ourselves superior. For all their claims to be biblically based, which remain remarkably selective, they seem to have forgotten the admonition not to make God over in your own image. Their Jesus is strikingly white and American, a devout capitalist, and a fierce Republican – I also suspect, from the South.
The Jesus they are selling, and marketing IS their forte, is a corporate Jesus, a capitalist Jesus, a quietly secretly greedy Jesus, just as long as you throw a few benevolent checks the way of the poor. Good news to the poor is not their mission. More good news for the very comfortable is their well-disciplined strong suit. Their bottom line is that some folks are good and clean (whatever that means) and responsible and hard-working and true patriots, but most of the rest of us are, well, NOT. They are selling the marine brand of Christianity -- fit only for the few, the strong and the supposedly brave. Obviously, liberal weeping weaklings need not apply.
The deeper I scanned this constellation of Christian books, the more aware I became of how the Jesus they advertised bore little resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels. I would have thought it pretty clear that Jesus – of, if you have two cloaks give one of them away fame -- was not and never will be a capitalist. He doesn’t believe in private property. Thinks talk of ownership to be at best foolhardy. He has permanently knocked out all the rungs on the ladder of success. He must be repulsed by the notion of a third world. I cannot even imagine the fury of Jesus witnessing the widening gap between rich and poor – I suspect he would be tipping over tables all over town again.
Upon taking a seat and perusing a few chapters of several books, I was quick to recognize that for these mega-church preachers, the great enemy of Jesus is the bleeding heart liberal. Greed is not the enemy. Destroying the earth and its resources is not the enemy. A wanton disregard of the poor and outcast is not the enemy. Nope…it is those damn fools who care too much, and give away too much, and fail to see how their compassion is no more than self-serving and loser-enabling stupidity. Those evil liberals are excessively loving, forgiveness obsessed, way too open hearted and minded, way too tolerant, and yes, they remain sex-crazed. They continue to refuse to observe the mature approach to human sexuality which has long dominated the history of the church in such a healthy way – oh, the shame of it!
Then there is the matter of heaven, which gets abundant attention in these books, and offers the reader clear instructions on how to get in. Heaven is treated as sort of a country club for Christians. If you have a few good folks to recommend you, your chances for entrance improve. Still, the essential requirement is to confess that you believe in Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior; as do all of the members of the Ku Klux Klan, and did most of the card carrying Lutherans of the Nazi party. From this perspective, the decision as to who goes to Heaven is solely up to us, our words, our claims, and our approval. We make the rules, and Jesus abides. (It says so in Scripture – somewhere.)
For all the times Jesus spoke out against Scriptural literalism, as he even did when discussing the concept of being born-again (John3:3-5), or in railing against the scribes and Pharisees for being clean and shiny on the outside, but inside full of dead bones, all of these books declare the ultimate literal truth of the Bible. It is contended that these good Christians know their Bible, and the bad Christians, progressives and liberals and main-liners, are, well, they are best thought of as dead again, and as biblical illiterates.
I sat there dumbstruck. How on earth has the Christian church in America gone corporate? How can we be selling a Jesus who is just a perfect fit and reflection of our culture? In fact, this Jesus brand believes America to be the new Promised Land, and we Americans the new chosen people. Our destiny is to lead the world, and when Armageddon comes (which these books strangely seem to anticipate with glee) we will be left resting atop the decaying corpses of the rest of the world. By the way, it is hard to pick-up in these mega-church manuals for salvation, that there even is a rest of the world -- America is pretty much the whole story here.
I returned all of the books to their correct shelves. I then looked for almost an hour, to find one prophetic book listed as Christian. A prophetic book would be a manuscript whose pages are devoted to an urgent message calling upon a culture and church to change. Prophets are those who let us know that we must be better than what we are seeing in Ferguson, or Baltimore, or Sandy Hook, or pretty much anywhere in America. Prophets are those impassioned souls who dare to call upon us to want and need less, and to serve others and make genuine sacrifices. Prophets have zero tolerance for the gap between rich and poor, and even less so for the brutal either/or ethic which dominates the values of the All-American Jesus adherents. Prophets celebrate diversity, justice, tolerance, and real peace making.
I did not find a single such book. I found a few by Henri Nouwen, whose spirituality is grounded splendidly in Grace and whose life was a magnificent testimony to the holiness of care-giving, in Nouwen’s case, for the mentally and physically challenged. He is Catholic, and since he was posthumously outed as gay, his works show up less and less frequently. There was one book by Frederick Buechner, THE GOSPEL AS COMEDY, TRAGEDY AND FAIRY TALE; the title alone must have sent shivers up and down the spines of the true All-American Christians. Most of the remaining books were about how Jesus can help you leave this crazy world of mayhem and chaos, and know the sweet bliss and calm of the Holy Spirit. This is the same Holy Spirit which drew John the Baptist to a desert wasteland to call upon folks to receive a boiling baptism of renewal; folks he also referred to as a brood of vipers.
I put all of the books back in their appropriate places, and then on a wild whim, I went home to retrieve a few of my own favorite Christian books. I looked over my collection, and chose Desmond Tutu’s recent title, GOD IS NOT A CHRISTIAN; one of Forrest Church’s first titles, and still one of his best, GOD AND OTHER FAMOUS LIBERALS; and a well-worn oldie but goodie by William Stringfellow, the lawyer for the Berrigan brothers in the infamous 60’s and 70’s, AN ETHIC FOR CHRISTIANS AND OTHER ALIENS IN A STRANGE LAND. In total I gathered up a dozen prophetic manuscripts, and gleefully headed back to the book selling mega-store.
I walked with confidence and purpose back to the CHRISTIAN section, and placed my selections right smack in the center of the All-American Jesus section. I also put out a small framed sign which simply said, “THERE ACTUALLY IS ANOTHER POINT OF VIEW”. My books and sign took up little room, and I am afraid could barely be noticed, but I smiled with pride. Maybe somebody might realize there is a bleeding-hearted liberal Jesus out there somewhere, even if you have to work hard to find a book about him or his ministry. Of course, you could start by simply reading the Gospel of Luke.
As I left the store, strangely smug and self-satisfied, I knew my choices would be removed quickly. But maybe, just maybe, they lasted a couple days, and drew a couple glances, and even created a few smiles along the way – for the few who just might have gotten the point. Jesus was and is a bleeding heart liberal; he was and is a prophet; and he was and is the Lord of the whole world. He will celebrate a universal salvation, bringing home all of His children at the end of their days.
Reverend William R. Grimbol has spent the past 30+ years helping people create and develop strong spiritual connections with loved ones and God. He is also a published author, with over a dozen books to his credit.