--Today I humbly give you the talk I gave at church this morning as part of a Lenten devotional service.
This Lenten season has been different.
In the past, I have usually made it a habit to enter into this journey with some forethought, intention, and purpose. This year, however, has found me detached and distant.
When we lived in Atlanta, the church that my husband and I attended held a solemn yet meaningful Ash Wednesday service each year. It was a simple and stripped down occasion wherein those attending would spend a significant time in quiet contemplation and meditation. In those quiet moments we would search our hearts for all the things that stood between us and God—for all the things that sought to compete with our full attention on the Lord of the Universe who wanted so desperately to have us draw near. We would write them down on small slips of paper, fold them up, and place them in a bowl. The pastor would then set them aflame, offering them up as a collective burnt offering. Once the flames were extinguished, the ashes that remained were the very ones that were used to draw the Cross of Christ upon our foreheads. As we left the service, we literally bore our sins upon our foreheads, hoping and expecting to better understand the meaning of this symbol of repentance. The goal: to spend the next 40 odd days learning the gift that lies in changing our spiritual direction.
In the past, I have also dedicated much more of my time to effecting spiritual change within the darker sides of my soul, always with the prayerful belief that Jesus garnered more strength and power while in the desert with Satan. The result has almost always found me waking on Easter morning with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and with a newfound sense of awe.
But as I said earlier, this year has been different.
This year, around Ash Wednesday, my husband received the heartbreaking news that his sister’s cancer had spread and that the very tools that they were using to fight the wicked disease was actually beginning to kill her, as well. We now found ourselves waiting for the inevitable.
Thankfully, her suffering did not endure too long. She passed in the early quiet of a Sunday morning. As is always the case with death, but most especially with the death of someone who dies too soon, the living are left with cyclic thoughts of “Why?” and “What for?” and “What good can come from this?”
And, I suppose, in a way, this line of questioning leads us through our mourning. Seeking out the answers to the things, seemingly, unanswerable carves out for us a journey.
It is only now, at the distant end of this Lenten season, that I am able to see how that line of questioning has helped me carve out a journey toward Christ, as well.
As I walk through this Holy Week and hear the stories of Jesus predicting his death and betrayal… of him inviting his disciples to an intimate meal at which he humbled himself in an unbelievable act of service…of his desire to do the will of his Father but also of his honest desire to let that will pass him by…of him watching his closest friends turn their heads in detachment as he was taken away by Roman soldiers…of the flagrant miscarriage of justice and acts of cruelty that he beheld at every turn…and, finally of his sacrifice on the cross that proved to be the touchpoint of a spiritual revolution…as I progress through these happenings, I find myself asking the same questions one asks when someone dies too soon.
“What good can come from this?”
The answer is: For the joy.
The writer of Hebrews writes: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who
for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
My journey this Lenten season—the journey that has been so different, so unintentional--has led me, most surprisingly, to joy.
But how can this be? How can a season wrought with sorrow and heartbreak, a season of darkness and distance…how can that kind of a season break through into joy?
This is from a book titled Sparkling Gems From the Greek by Rick Renner:
"The Greek word for 'joy' is chara ( pronounced "KARA"), derived from the word charis, which is the Greek word for 'grace.' This is important to note, for it tells us categorically that chara is produced by charis of God. This means 'joy' is not a human-based happiness that comes and goes...Rather, true 'joy' is divine in origin...it is a Spirit-given expression that flourishes best in hard times."
Ahhh…grace. Of course. That Amazing Grace that the Lord has promised to me. That mysterious grace that the author Anne Lamott says " meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us."
That grace. The one that flourishes in hard times.
It is that grace that flowed down…mingled with Christ’s blood and sweat and tears…and birthed something that the world finds intangible: Joy.
Christ was able to endure the unendurable because of the promise of joy.
It is the same joy that burst forth when, after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. Upon entering they found an angel who said to them,
“Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said…
And so… “the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid… yet filled with joy…”
As we examine what transpired when Jesus died on the cross--the amazing bestowing of unmerited favor that immediately became ours for the taking –do we take the next step and allow it to birth within us that same joy? Can you come to the end of your Lenten journey and discover that you have been led, not into death but rather into joy?
We need to be people of thanksgiving for thanksgiving is the soil in which joy thrives.
As you approach Easter this week, take with you these words from Fra Giovanni:
“No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest today.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy.