Last week, on Fat Tuesday, Bill and I started discussing during dinner how we are going to observe Lent this year. This is an annual conversation that we’ve had for the past 36 Lents. We want to be supportive of one another, of course, and it sometimes can be helpful to warn your spouse if you are doing something drastic that might impact them.
We both sort of hedged a bit, and then we admitted that it felt like we already had a big jump on Lent this year. Lent seemed to begin in our house at the end of the year when Bill was diagnosed with stage four abdominal cancer. With absolutely no warning or preparation, we suddenly found ourselves wandering in a wilderness with more questions than answers and where shadows represent very real threats to all we hold dear.
In my sermon yesterday, I talked about wilderness as a place where the Spirit accompanies us to help us unlearn some beliefs that are toxic to God’s dream of who we can be. All those militaristic expectations of the Messiah that Jesus probably grew up with, for example, had to be unlearned before he could hear the call of who God really wanted him to be.
The wilderness was a choice for Jesus, just as Lent is for us. He went there to confront his demons, reject lesser calls, and clarify his unique expression of what it meant to be baptized and beloved. He later would come into a wilderness that was not of his choosing: betrayal, arrest, torture, abandonment, and execution. The wilderness test he did not choose revealed the importance of the voluntary wilderness struggle at the start.
I’m not sure if the story would have ended in the same way if it had not begun as it did. I do know that we aren’t forced to do the tough internal work to which Lent calls us. We can avoid it and go merrily on our way. Sooner or later, however, life will lead us all into a wilderness of pain, sickness, grief, loss, suffering, and despair. It simply is part of what it means to be alive. What truth is revealed about us in those times is determined by the inner work we have done when we had the chance.
Rev. Michael Piazza