One of the best things about the American West is that we have mountains to orient us. Nearly every time an Airbnb guest set out for the day, I said this: “The San Juans are to the south, the Plateau is to the west, and Grand Mesa is to the north.”
Using the landscape this way is ancient, of course. But it’s not without its pitfalls.
Back when I was living in Utah, a parishioner and I were asked to serve on a Rocky Mountain Conference committee that met in Denver. Rather than spend a full day driving there and then an entire day driving home again, it made more sense to catch an hour-long flight to DIA, jump in a rental car, and zip into the city.
Flora (let’s call her) offered to be the driver. It fell to me to ride shotgun and refer to the printed directions the conference secretary had provided for our maiden voyage.
Safely buckled into our rental car, Flora and I pulled out of the parking lot and headed off to find our hotel. “South on Such and Such,” I said in my best co-pilot voice. Flora promptly turned north. “South is that way,” I offered. Flora swung a quick U.
A few miles later, again reading from our directions, I said “We need to take This and That west.” Judy turned onto This and That alright but instead of west we were now pointed east. Time for our second 180.
This pattern continued and I was genuinely puzzled. I’d never known Flora to be anything other than a fabulous driver.
Then it dawned on me. Flora had spent her entire life in the Salt Lake area where the Wasatch Range is to the east. But in Denver, the mountains are to the west. All of Flora’s instincts and impulses were the opposite of what we actually needed.
To get where we needed to go, Flora was going to have to let go of the familiar and do what felt unnatural, wrong even. As hard as that was, as counterintuitive, Flora managed. We made it to the hotel at last. Home away from home never looked so good!
On this first Sunday of Lent, the church remembers that immediately following his Jordan River baptism Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. This sustained solo quest wasn’t Jesus’ idea; it came at the Spirit’s urging. Wet from his plunge in the river, the sound of heaven’s bold announcement still ringing in his ears, the Spirit knew that Jesus would need time and space to orient himself before beginning his ministry.
We need to orient too when something of great consequence happens, whether it’s word of a baby on the way or news that our job has been eliminated. Without time to reflect, without a way to contemplate the impact and import of whatever new development is unfolding in our lives, we can easily set off in the wrong direction.
Patterned after Jesus’ 40 days of prayer and contemplation in the wilderness, the holy season of Lent calls us into a similar time of considering our lives and the directions they are pointed. As with Jesus when he was on his own with thoughts in his head and time on his hands, we too are prone to Lenten temptations.
A common temptation is to be casual about or even trivialize Lent and the practices it invites us to embrace. Some of us are seduced into doing what my school-aged friend’s father did. Every Lent her father proudly announced he was giving up rhubarb pie—but only because he didn’t care for it.
Another Lenten temptation is to become a spiritual overachiever, giving up or taking on something that’s much too ambitious. With the bar set impossibly high, a Lenten overachiever moves through the season like a backpacker weighed down with an impossibly heavy pack. Every step feels burdened and there’s no joy, no learning, nothing beyond labored plodding toward Holy Week.
A third Lenten temptation relates to the call to repentance we heard from Jesus earlier. Remember? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Some of us hear “repent” and reflectively distance ourselves from it because we associate it with a kind of Christianity we’ve been hurt by or don’t embrace.
But there’s another temptation related to repentance that American Christians in particular are especially vulnerable to. And that temptation is this: to hear in Jesus’ call to repentance an appeal to individuals alone. To think that Jesus’ principle concern is our private actions and personal choices. But that was not Jesus’ aim. And I’ll say more about that in a moment.
First I want to point out something that many of us have forgotten or perhaps never learned. When Jesus speaks of repentance, the word he uses conveys a meaning both simple and gracious. “Go beyond the mind that you presently have and return home.”
Go beyond the mind that you now have. Return home.
Easy to say, hard to do. Circling back to my adventure with Flora, we couldn’t get home (to our hotel) until she was willing to go beyond the mind that she had. Her mind said east was west, south was north. Had Flora not been able, finally, to go beyond the mind she had, we would have wound up spending the night somewhere in in Nebraska or Kansas.
To repent is to admit that we’ve pointed ourselves in the wrong direction. To repent is to confess that we got mixed up and need to turn around, turn toward home.
When it comes to repentance, American Christians have a huge challenge. Because our culture is incredibly individualistic, our faith is too. It’s private, personal, ours alone. And yet this is not faithful to Jesus’ frame, his perspective. Jesus was focused on the salvation, the redemption not of single souls but of the collective, the community, the whole people of God.
Jesus didn’t invent this; he inherited this framework, this orientation to life with God. As a Jew, as someone well acquainted with the teachings of the prophets, Jesus understood that God’s concern centered on the nation of Israel, on the priorities and choices of a people. Were these choices and priorities serving just some or all, just one or many? Were these priorities and choices privileging the already privileged or did they take into account the needs and realities of the most vulnerable, the people who could easily be ignored, overlooked, or taken advantage of?
As a faithful Jew, as a man whose heart’s home was in God, Jesus understood that if the community as a whole was not being served, then repentance was in order on a collective level.
It was clear as day to Jesus—especially because of his wilderness time—that God’ realm was close at hand, that it was within reach. That it was waiting in the wings to be ushered in. His nature and his time in the wilderness also had him understand that what kept the kingdom from coming, what always keeps it from coming, were the choices we make not simply as individuals but as whole communities. Plain as day to Jesus was this: when our priorities and choices as a people are incompatible with God’s aims and God’s ways, then we must go beyond the minds we presently have and return home. We need to change course. Repent.
What would happen this Lent, this year, if Christians near and far were willing and able to hear Jesus’ call to repentance not simply as something that relates to our own private reflections and personal account taking but rather as something that arises from reflecting and reckoning we do together about our common life?
Our year of pandemic has certainly been hard but it has also given us a shared experience. And in this shared experience we have seen, as a people, any number of inequities and injustices that cannot be ignored. We see that the richest nation in the world is heavily reliant on workers who are not paid a livable wage. That there are far too many who do not have access to affordable health care. That the most vulnerable among us are often blamed for circumstances they have had no part in creating.
During this time of pandemic we have also come face to face with the devil himself and his name is white supremacy. His name is systemic racism.
As Jesus begins his public ministry, he sees himself and the world as they really are. North is north, west is west, and nothing can convince him otherwise. Repent he says. Confess those places where we have gotten turned around, admit where we hae gotten mixed up or misdirected.
Repent, he says to us. Go beyond the mind you have now and return home. The good news is waiting to be heard and believed. North is north. Love is love. Justice is justice.
The good news is that there is good new! Not just for you, not simply for some, but for the whole of the human family. What God wants for one, God wants for all.
Who are we to believe otherwise?
Let us pray:
Your aim, O God, is liberation. Not guilt. You aim, O God, is freedom. Not paralyzing shame. You invite us to step into lives that are laced with the good news of your love not just for each of us but for all of us.
Help us through the wilderness of Lent with its unsettling solitude, it’s wild beasts, its tempting thoughts and choices. Help us notice how, even how, your Spirit is sitting right next to us, guiding us even when we make wrong turns. Help us know more deeply than ever before, your abiding love and your eagerness to welcome us home.
Grace us with expansive hearts. Grace us with the capacity to see beyond our circumstances to take in the big picture. Show us your true north, that we might move toward it with confident joy, bringing others with us.
All this we pray in the name of the one who continually calls us into abundant life.