March 2009

Go to the Breaches ©

Whether we enter the season of Advent or the season of Lent, I always like to compare the two. I find it interesting how we make huge distinctions and tend to forget the similarities.

If we were to draw a face beside the word “Advent,” it would probably sport a broad smile; if we were to do so beside the word “Lent,” many of us would draw a sad face. That’s because in Advent, our mind is focused on celebration, while during Lent, our mind is fixed on suffering.

These are important and relevant subjects for mediation. But what we often forget is the renunciation that is needed to make room in our heart to receive Jesus at Christmas, as well as the celebration of what came from Jesus’ death—his Resurrection.

Lent, therefore, is a time of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, but the purpose of these is preparation, like at Advent. It is a time of preparing for the joy of our resurrection. Let’s be clear: this is much more than a fulfillment of God’s promise of heaven for those who believe. It is also about the declaration by Jesus that he came into our life, so that we might have life in abundance.

One of my favourite books is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. In it is a priceless passage in which she writes about raising tomatoes while we should be raising Lazarus. She’s talking about what she calls “itsy-bitsy” lives—lives not lived abundantly.

I was reminded of that claim recently when I saw the stage production of Shirley Valentine. There’s a great line in which she says, “I used to be The Wife. I used to be The Mother. But now I’m Shirley Valentine.” On more than one occasion, she describes her own as an “unused life.”

Paul says that we’ll be judged by the law of freedom—and the law of freedom is what Easter is all about.

Lent, therefore, should be a time of understanding just what freedom Paul is talking about.

Paul is writing to the Galatians about the freedom to move from duty, to need, to desire. Let me give you a familiar example. It is like those of us who move from going to church first out of obligation, then to doing so because we don’t feel complete without it to finally doing so because we seek the encounter for its own sake.

Paul was writing about being less preoccupied with doing things right and more concerned about doing the right thing. Paul was focused on the heart more than the body or even the mind.

This reminds me of the passage in Luke’s gospel about the poor widow who gives all that she has—two small coins. Her contribution might be thought to pale compared to that of the rich man who gave much more money, but gave only a portion of his abundance.

Let’s not be too hard on this young man. He was probably faithful to all of the duties of his religion, including tithing. He probably thought that this was all that was necessary. But he was not free to give the other 90 per cent. He clung to duty because it allowed him to cling to his resources at the same time—to cling to self-reliance rather than reliance on God.

I think that Lent is a time in which God asks, “Do you want to walk with me? How much do you trust me to take you safely to a place where you will find true joy?”

Ezekiel is the prophet most associated with repentance. In the book named after him, we find prophets being admonished for not “going to the breaches” of the city walls. This is a powerful image.

We imagine the people seeking safety behind thick, high wall. But there are gaps in this wall—breaches. In fact, the wall is only as secure as the gaps. These gaps are the unused parts of our life, the unknown, undeveloped and unused gifts from God.

This is the point where the threads of this reflection all come together. First, our identity is key. It is the unique name by which God calls us. Our identity is not our role: that’s something different. It’s not what we do, but who we are. Second, God’s gifts are the blossoming of our identity. We need to know our identity to appreciate our gifts. Third, we are all called to a special mission, which uses these gifts for the building of God’s kingdom.

Here’s the catch. When we take a small part of our mission and call that our identity, we are not living abundantly. Many of us identify with our role rather than our soul because it’s easier.

Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with being a husband or wife; mother or father. These are wonderful roles. But they are not our spiritual identity. Identity is something much bigger and more elemental. When we get confused about that, we lose our identity and our ears slowly deafen to God’s call. Your role is not your soul. Of the two, your soul is much more important.

Of course, we don’t have to do what Shirley Valentine did, and certainly we don’t have to travel to Corfu, although that’s very tempting in the midst of a Canadian winter. But we do have to care about reclaiming our name.

Annie Dillard uses an expression that conveys the same message. Referring again to the itsy-bitsy lives that we are inclined to live, she writes that “we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain or raising Lazarus.” Raising Cain is not always a good thing, but raising Lazarus is.

Raising Lazarus is what I want you to focus on during this Lenten season. How is God calling you to walk with Jesus on a journey to the Resurrection? I’d like you to consider this season as a call to freedom—a call to being raised by Jesus to abundant life, an invitation to go to the breaches of unused gifts in your life.
In Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness after his baptism. This wilderness may be seen as the breaches to which Ezekiel refers—the less secure parts of the wall—the hidden parts of identity, giftedness and mission.

We are told that, during this time, Jesus was tempted. This indicates how perilous this journey to the gaps can be. It takes us beyond our zone of comfort to where danger lurks. But, scary as it may be, it is also necessary. Going to the breaches is an indispensable part of abundant life.

There is something odd about the sequence of events here. It is after baptism that the temptations occur. Shouldn’t we expect the opposite to happen? Before baptism, we are exposed and after we are safe, right? No, in fact, the greatest temptations come after we’ve dedicated ourselves to God.

Why is that? Before our baptism, we are in a wilderness of a different kind. We wander through a vast wilderness of ideologies, beliefs, values and psychological impulses. Our baptism, confirmed at the age of consent, is a decision for a belief system that draws us closer to God.

It is that decision to follow God’s voice that provokes the evil one to act ruthlessly. We are tempted to change course, often with small diversions at first, until we find ourselves far off course.

The confusion—even the doubt—draws us off course into a new wilderness. It is the more hazardous wilderness of human emotions in which there is lots of resistance to following God. It is also the wilderness of renunciation—the hard work of saying no to the excesses of self-satisfaction and self-centredness.

Coming out of the wilderness takes time. It requires us to opt for abundant life First, claim your name. Your soul is bigger than your role. Second, claim your gifts. God intended them for a purpose. Third, with God’s grace, claim that purpose; it is your mission.

We are called to walk with Jesus to the Father. We are called to walk with Jesus because he is the exemplar of what it means to be fully human, not just an itsy-bitsy facsimile. On this journey, we join with the psalmist in asking, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.”