Happy Lent - or is it a Merry Lent? We don't really have a standard Lenten greeting. A year ago I tried to start a new thing at our Wednesday night church service - I suggested that we just say “excel-LENT” and do a fist bump. It hasn't caught on.
“Happy” and “merry” aren’t really the right words to describe Lent. There’s a lot of spiritual heavy-lifting going on as we try to bring ourselves into a better understanding of God, and who Jesus really was, and as we try to resolve our own unworthiness with the grace that we know is available through our faith. Lent is serious. Lent isn’t a birthday party or a resurrection celebration. For these six weeks there’s a higher expectation of intellectual engagement and emotional wrestling - trying to understand God and Christ and ourselves.
We’re over half-way through Lent. We’ve spent the past four weeks in prayer and meditation: trying to come to terms with who God is, what God has done for us, who God wants us to be. By the end, I wonder, what will we have we learned? Some of us may have had great discoveries of faith. Some of us may form new prayer habits. As we try to make sense of God and His creation and our place in it, many of us will probably have learned that we, ourselves, are incredibly complex, and that we have within us elements of both good and bad, both faith and disbelief, both charity and selfishness. Who we are can change by the day, the hour, the minute as these varied elements of our character alternately become dominant, and then subside. We can be almost unknowable, even to ourselves, and if we are unable even to know ourselves, how can we possibly hope to know God? The pursuit is obvious folly, yet we engage anyway, driven by the urge to connect with our creator. This makes Lent, more than anything, a time of questions - a time of seeking.
During his imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis, the often-quoted Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer essentially endured an extended period of Lent - a period of examination, meditation and prayer. While in prison, he had a lot of time to think and pray and write. Shortly before he was executed, Bonhoeffer wrote a poem exploring the various sides of himself and repeatedly asking, “who am I?”
I’m not really into poetry, but Bonhoeffer's Who Am I is a beautiful piece of writing. In the first half of the poem, he looks at his life from the outside, how he imagines others see him, and asks, “who am I?” The second half of the poem is more introspective. He looks at himself from the inside and confesses the insecurities that many of us have about ourselves - have I lived the life I was meant to live? - and he asks again, “who am I?”
He ends the poem with the poignant line, “whoever I am, You know me, and I am Yours, O God”. In the context of his pending execution, Bonhoeffer’s words are very similar in spirit to those of Christ as he hung on the cross, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit”.
In both of those statements, the speaker is confessing that ultimately, inevitably, and eternally, our lives and our spirits are God’s to do with as God pleases. It is a realization that is both comforting and ominous. As we realize this, we pray all the more for mercy and grace.
That’s the spirit of Lent: to explore ourselves and our God deeply - to come to terms with the idea that we may never understand our God, but that God is to be loved and trusted nonetheless, and to realize that regardless of what we do or don’t discover, God knows us, and we are His.