Reflection

beheld in the desert

camille-corot-hagar-in-the-wilderness-1835-oil-on-canvas

Camille Corot, Hagar in the Wilderness, 1835, oil on canvas.

Mental illness flung me into a desert last Lent. It wasn’t a desert I planned to enter for piety’s sake—not a safe desert and not a desert I could find my way out of when it got too hard.

I called it a desert because I wanted to find meaning in what I was suffering. I wanted to believe that the Spirit had flung me out there like he flung Jesus after his baptism, and that, after some pain and struggle, I’d come out victorious and find that the season had a purpose. I wanted to write a good story.

But I quickly realized that the metaphor wasn’t romantic. The desert was cruel and incoherent. I still can’t wrestle a narrative out of it. And I certainly came to no victory on my own.

Most of the time my thoughts were abusing me in the pit of the netherworld. On rare occasions, they’d swing me up to a height where I’d wonder why I’d ever thought anything was wrong with me. Neither world told the truth. So I couldn’t trust my thoughts. Even my therapist told me to distract myself from them. Prayer and reflection, the two things that keep me grounded in myself and God, weren’t safe anymore. I didn’t know who I was, and I couldn’t see God either.

Imagine bringing that wounded, estranged self out in public. I felt like a leper. I spread shame wherever I went. And at home, my instability brought out latent sins and magnified others till I’d never felt so dirty and so powerless to become clean.

I kicked against the meaninglessness of the desert. I fought for a story. And I came up with nothing.

I did nothing, and something changed.

God entered my imagination, toward the end of the forty days, and I saw myself in the presence of the Father. I was dirty, wounded, naked—and yet covered from head to toe in tender love. I could stand in that loving presence fully exposed, and yet fully at peace with myself. That love stilled my questions and my search for meaning. It was the Answer and the Satisfaction. And in the stillness it brought, I found the freedom to truly lament.

That Sunday, I sang the Kyrie like it was a wail—and I saw Jesus look at me. I was in the crowd watching him on the dusty road to Golgotha, and he stopped, and turned, and looked into my eyes—oh, the gaze of my Lord—and I looked into his. In that brief beholding I knew he was there in all my suffering, and he felt the pain of it too. Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.

The desert didn’t end there, but it was changed. I didn’t experience a dramatic healing; I couldn’t write a story of triumph. But I could say with Hagar that “I have seen the One who sees me.” And I have seen that he is good.

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Reflection

the last alleluia

The last alleluia came and went, quietly.† When I caught it, it startled me: a sudden loss. The moment felt heavy and solemn. I knew that I must turn my face toward Jerusalem with Jesus and not look back.

I’ve never felt a true desire to make a change for Lent before, but this time I knew that I could not do anything else.

The word faithfulness has been on my mind for the past few weeks, perhaps a gift-word whispered by the Lord himself. When I first heard the word I knew it was a deep desire of mine: Faithfulness to the kingdom of God. Faithfulness to my dear Lord Jesus.

I have little faithfulness. When I’m weary, worn, and sad, I lose it. I let hours and days slip by in aimlessness. I forget my prayers. I forget who I am.

What if I pattern my life on the faithfulness of Jesus? I remember him forty days hungry but still holding fast to the word of God and his identity. I remember him on the road to Jerusalem, each step growing heavier until he stops and turns and warns his friends that he’s going toward his death. Can you imagine the effort it took to walk for hours and days toward that? Weary, worn, sad, faithful.

When I’m weary, worn, and sad, I make the couch my home. I settle down and let the clutter of life rise around me. Foxes have dens, Jesus said. Birds have nests. But the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. When the last alleluia came, I knew I’d have to leave all of it behind to follow him.

But how do I get from the last alleluia to the first? I don’t know. Not by my faithfulness in the end. It’s a mystery of grace, and it’s so sweet. It’s why I call him my dear Lord Jesus: he loves me enough to invite me into his faithfulness and he gives me his faithfulness when I don’t have enough. No matter what happens in the forty days to come, I know I’ll be his, and he’ll be mine, even if he has to carry me all the way. Thank you, Jesus.

†During Lent, we do not speak the word alleluia. It’s restored to us with much joy on resurrection day.

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Reflection

welcome home

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Pompeo Batoni, oil on canvas, 1773
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

A reflection on the beginning of Lent

For months and months, I’ve been reflecting on glory— the glory of God—and that mysterious promise that we humans will one day attain it. All have fallen short of the glory of God, Paul says, implying that we humans were intended to participate in God’s glory. We can (and must) still hope for it, for Christ in us is the hope of glory. I’ve been dreaming of that glory, of my union with Christ, his love for the world flowing through me without ceasing. I’ve dreamed of the day when I’ve grown to my full height; all my gifts and talents mature and excellent, useful for love.

And I’ve been living lately, too. I’ve chased after my own comfort and independence instead of my union with Christ. I’ve watched as the energy inside of me to love has withered up, dry and fragile. Things that once gave me joy have been made a trudging through resistant soil. The skills and talents I’ve been given, buried under dust. I’ve been fading, scrambling to redefine myself, and then wearing thin all over again. I have utterly exhausted myself, but I have not yet rested, nor climbed into the lap of Christ.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

On Ash Wednesday, it was made clear to me that I cannot have life without utter dependence on the presence of God. My sin in this regard is humiliating, but it is also what the ashes smeared cross-shaped on our foreheads represent. We are all made of dust, we all fall short of the glory of God, and we are all utterly dependent on the mercy of God. In my cries for mercy, I felt the welcoming arms of the Father. And this, my friends, is what Lent is about. Lent is a welcome home to all prodigals. Lent is our repentant journey home to the Father before we celebrate the great feast of resurrection.

This Lenten season, I want to take a journey into greater dependence on God. I want to give up my desperate scraping for independence and my habit of distracting myself from my own feeble condition. I want to pursue rest. I want to learn to lay down my weary head on the breast of Jesus Christ my Lord. Journey home with me, this Lenten season. Walk with me, with a contrite heart, into the healing presence of God.

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