Lent: Wanting, Waiting and Wild Hope
So often around this time of year, we talk about Lent and stillness, the remembering of what Jesus did for us. We do this by giving up something, letting something go, in remembrance of what big thing Jesus did for us.
To be honest I used to struggle with this – what to give up? How? Why?
For a number of years, I gave up anything from gummi bears, chocolate, wheat, shopping, to thinking about myself, and even social media. Giving up social media is especially entertaining; it’s hard to give up if it’s one’s job, as it is mine. The one thing I’ve discovered about all of my giving up for Lent – it’s all worked for about a day or two. Then I’m back to beating myself up, angry and upset about the whole thing, until I realize that perhaps this example of Lent is not what God wants from me. Perhaps this is further from the example of God than closer.
In my house, instead of giving something up, we invite something in – we practice stillness, waiting, a quiet expectation. With my anxiety about all things left undone and things still to do, stillness and waiting may very well be much more challenging than gummi bears and chocolate. The waiting is not easy on me. Lent, this in-between waiting time, isn’t meant to be easy, nor is this in-between waiting easy on anyone.
That was why He came, after all, for this in-between waiting we call Lent, and some days, life.
Every evening during Lent, we go over what it’s about. What is Lent? If it’s waiting, what are we waiting for? For Jesus. Why? Because we’re so excited he’s coming back. That’s it. Nothing dramatic. There are no finger plays, puppet shows, songs or dances; because well, I can’t remember all of that, nor do I have the time. For all things God, I stick with simple because what my children really need to know and understand about God is how much He loves them, and how they in turn need to share that love for others. If there were puppet shows that I needed to act out to communicate this, it would never be communicated in my house.
Here’s the thing: if the only lesson they remember from all this is that we are waiting, God loves us, we love God, and everyone is made by God, this will perhaps be the greatest sermon that I preach to my kids. Beyond, of course, sneaking marshmallows before breakfast and reminding them to grab a coat before heading outside.
Lent is hard because it is waiting. It is a measured stillness, and quite frankly our world doesn’t work that way, and it certainly doesn’t reward stillness. We are all left wanting for Easter, for the finish line, so much so that towards the end it’s that giddy wonderful sort of waiting. It’s the "night-before-can’t-sleep" syndrome that children get before something exciting: a birthday party, a parade, promises of a fun-filled day that doesn’t specifically include naps.
We realize we cannot wait for Christ to get here in late March, and, no, that is not just the desperate need for chocolate talking. We realize we cannot wait. We cannot wait any longer because there is so much he needs to come for, to redeem, to help us just hang on through the weeds. Easter’s arrival is slow, gentle and builds, and all of the sudden we’re all shocked (me, still even after all these years) by the bold and joyous return of Easter. It buoys our spirits that have been so still, calculated, a little tired, dormant and bundled against the cold winter winds of life.
Lent and Easter were made manifest in our NorthPark community about two years ago. One of our dear friends in this congregation had cancer, the definition of a long cold winter in its truest sense. A cold, bitter place for all of us as we prayed and loved the best we could with Jennie and her family.
To make matters worse, after we found out about her cancer and how serious it was, she went into the hospital for a procedure, and then, as things happen as they do, she contracted an infection while there. And then boom – she needed open heart surgery when her heart suddenly failed as a side effect of the infection.
We were all left gaping, grasping for straws, smelling salts, and prayers. It was all in a matter of hours that this transpired; we went from waiting patiently with some sense of control and dignity to waiting on our hands, impatient and distraught. We were sleeping next to our phones, eager for the texts to say she was okay and recovering from surgery. If ever we needed God, those were the moments.
Literally, the eve of Easter all through the night, we were texting and praying, hoping and waiting, checking phones and messages over and over for evidence of our prayers making it through. Did God hear us?
Please hear us, we begged, that our dear friend Jennie would make it through surgery. We were desperate, needy, praying the sort of prayers everyone has prayed but the kind of prayers people rarely admit to praying. Knowing how weak she was already, how surgery and infection and cancer and life can complicate things, it didn’t look good.
Uncomplicate it, I prayed. Keep her here, I prayed.
Then our season of waiting got worse. We heard the bad news just days before Easter – family coming to see her. Outlook not good, dismal. We sat with this a little while, prayed and consoled each other more. Then we heard the terrible pit-in-the-stomach news, the very worst news. Her heart had stopped. Stopped? Stopped!, we cried. Our friend! So close to Easter! What about her family? What about her, what about us? We could not believe this. It could not be happening. We prayed, moaned, wailed and cried, the light fading from the afternoon sky, days before Easter.
As a group we hoped against hope, we huddled, we prayed, we wretched hands tired and aching with so much emotion; we wrestled and begged and pleaded with God. We begged, desperate on her behalf, on her children’s behalf.
We again wondered aloud, if God had heard us, does he really answer prayers? Does he still answer prayers, or is that another thing from that Bible that had gone by the wayside? Like burnt offerings, I had wondered myself and hoped that I was wrong, that God would show up and prove me so wrong.
On Easter day, all of us tired from keeping up with the updates and the prayers, we heard the miracle. That Jennie made it through. She was going to be fine.
At once we all rejoiced to get – finally – to Easter. And then we quickly realized we had been through an intensified, shortened Easter experience ourselves – a 36 hour Lent and Easter all rolled into one.
And my, what a sweet one it was that Easter Sunday. Though I’m pretty confident all of us would agree it was as close as we all hope to come to the original one. Not that we don’t love Jesus and all He did for us, I just don’t think our hearts could take the beating again of the impatient waiting, the anguish, the sadness. But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story – there’s also the triumphant overcoming.
We all looked around on Easter morning, hearts filled to the brim with joyful fullness and the anticipation for the future. We blinked back tears of gratitude. We noticed the small shoots of grass popping through the greyness; we saw the return of butterflies. We said thank you. We embraced each other probably a little too long and looked at each other probably a little too closely. If you were a visitor that Easter Sunday, it was enough to make you nervous, jumpy. Just who were these weird huggy Presbyterians?
But we didn’t care. Easter had come. God had come. Jesus was about to come back, and we could not have experienced the expectation and the waiting any more in our bones than if we were back with Mary, hanging around the tomb.
Somewhere deep in our hearts, a ray of hope had cut through. And we could not have been happier. Let us not forget this – that Easter is a return to hope, a great wild hope that does not disappoint.