We're inching our way toward March, which always makes me a little squeamish. "It is the hollow month of March now sweeping in," sings Kristian Matsson in his lovely song, The Wild Hunt, which pretty much sums up the way I feel about the third month of the year. The weather is always weird in March, vacillating back and forth between Winter and Spring. I don't much like March, not just because she can't make up her mind, but because she swallowed up two young men who should still be here doing cool things and hanging out with their moms: Josh Rehm died ten years ago on a snowy road in Wisconsin and Reid Winpenny left the world three years ago, on 3.30.13.
That's a lot of threes.
Easter falls in March this year, so we're in the season of Lent right now. "Lent," from the old English, Lecten, which means Spring. As we move, for forty days, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday the days get longer and warmer. It is meant to be, while Mamma Earth does her slow-motion reawakening dance, a time of quiet introspection. According to the story, Jesus went into the desert for forty days, right after he was baptised, to ready himself for his upcoming ministry. I can imagine it going something like this: Jesus was a regular guy, busying himself with carpentry projects with his dad, when it kind of became clear to him that he was supposed to be doing some other things, so he went to see his cousin, John, who was already well into his ministry, and asked to be baptised. And on that day, when he emerged from the river, a voice came out of the heavens and told Jesus, "You are my beloved, and with you I am well pleased."
And if you think about it, that's pretty cool.
But it was a lot. I mean it's a lot, right? To get this nudge from God telling you that you're great. Even if you haven't done anything all that great yet, even if you're just getting warmed up, the deal with God seems to be that "with you I am well pleased."
Fortunately Jesus didn't respond in the way most of us would, which would have been to say something like, "Yea, right." He headed out into the wilderness to figure some things out.
He didn't need a spa day or a therapist. He didn't go home and eat a pint of ice cream or pour himself a scotch; he headed out into the desert, where, free from pretty much everything, including food, he gave himself the opportunity to find himself. He actually subjected himself to a harsh and barren environment so that it would become clear to him just what it meant to be...well, Jesus.
And if you know the story at all, you know that while he was there, at the very end of his dry and dusty desert vacation, he was tempted in three ways, in regards to provisions, protection and power. One could imagine that he was desperate for all of those things after forty days alone in a hostile environment, but by the time the temptations arrived, he knew the deal. He knew that God was on his side, and so he didn't cave. And, too, he knew he had work to do, that the world needed him, so he basically responded with a "nice try, but I'm all set."
And off he went to help the sick and the poor and all of the marginalized people whose paths he crossed. That's one of the things I love about Jesus. He didn't make a big show of his life, he didn't let everyone know that he had survived something terrible; by embracing adversity instead of avoiding it, he came to understand why he had been born and then he got to work, helping other people.
The desert will do that to you, you know. If you let it. And you don't even have to actually go to the desert, which is the really great part. Because your very own life will put you in your very own wilderness, most likely on a fairly regular basis. The trick is in not trying with all your might to get out of those uncomfortable places: your dog dies, your relationship ends, your mom is placed in hospice care, your husband is diagnosed with cancer. I know these things are hard; believe me, I know. But I also know that the wilderness is our greatest teacher. And if you refuse to learn what you're supposed to learn in those dry and dusty times, life will keep sending you back there.
Some people think that Lent is a time to give something up, candy or red meat or Instagram, whatever your thing is. But I think that's only part of the story. I think the forty days of Lent ask us not just to remove the obstacles from our lives that keep us from being fully present in our lives, but to sit there in that uncomfortable and unfamiliar space long enough so that we come to understand what it means to be God's beloved and what we're supposed to do with that. And for sure that could mean giving up texting for a few weeks, but that's just the start. It's what you do with that new space in your life that matters. Because when you start to remove the things that anesthetize you: Facebook or whiskey or TV or cookies, then you're in it, then you're in your own little desert, and what you do there with all that new space and time, when it's just you, stripped down to the bare and essential you, is what makes all the difference.
There's no getting around the reality that the desert times of our lives kind of suck. When we're in them, we want out as fast as possible, and the world in which we live today gives us lots of doorways out: social media, booze, pills for every imaginable emotion or sensation we don't want to feel. It's very easy to numb ourselves into not feeling that thing that's hard to feel, but I'm pretty sure that that's not what God had in mind when God let each of us know, by virtue of our birth here into this life, that we are beloved. I don't think we're supposed to run away from that; I think we're actually supposed to take that pretty seriously. I think that every single one of us has ministry shoes to lace up while we're here.
When Reid died, it brought into my own life an entirely unexpected moment of sorrow and darkness. When I walked into his room in the ICU three years ago, on Good Friday, I had no idea that my life would be forever changed and that that would mark the beginning of my own understanding of why I'm here, of what it means to be...Melissa; that the death of a beautiful young man would teach me things about myself that I never knew before. And you don't have to believe in any of it: Lent or Jesus or temptation in the desert; take it or leave it. But you do have to believe in yourself and in your own goodness. And when the wilderness shows up on your doorstep, you have to swim around in that muck for a while. Be quiet, don't try to make it go away, ask it why it came. Because, quite oddly, the dry and desolate times of our lives often turn out to be the richest, juiciest teachers we will ever know.
March is hard. March is my wilderness. But there's good news; there always is: Easter's on its way. “For I remember it is Easter morn," said the lovely poet and educator, Alice Freeman Palmer, "and life and love and peace are all new born.”