LENTEN REFLECTION #2 - LET US hold onto hope
WRITTEN BY JENNIFER GORHAM
Hope is a word I have wrestled with in the last few years. It’s overuse in our culture, even as Christians, often makes me sick to my stomach as though I ate an entire bucket of cotton candy. When we see the word ‘Hope’ materialized, it is often in pastel colors or on a shirt with flowers or some other image that is so nicely cultivated. But my experience is that hope is not light nor wispy. These images make it seem less like the anchor that it is meant to be in our walk with Jesus.
One of my first graduate courses in psychology looked at the core factors that influence the outcomes of being in therapy. Everyone wants to know how to make therapy work, right? If you picture a pie graph, one of the two largest slices is the expectation of change a client brings to therapy. Factors like what tools the therapist uses or how research based they are not nearly as important as this expectation is.
The other word for this is HOPE.
Often, people’s ideas about how things will be different must also be wrestled with. They have a picture of how this hope they have will play out, and the work they have to do is often about accepting the ways that change will play out in reality - letting go of how they thought it would happen. In the end of their process, their hope often looks different than where they had originally placed it.
Welcome to my walk with Christ.
Tish Harrison Warren tells a story in her recent book (Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep) of a couple who say, as they watch their infant son being rolled in for a major and invasive surgery, “We have to decide right now whether or not God is good, because if we wait to determine that by the results of this surgery, we will always keep God on trial.”
A few years ago, I went through a series of trials in rapid fire succession, losing several members of my close “village” to death while also undergoing financial stressors and caretaking demands in my home to abrupt and unexpected health issues. I was so tired, so grieved, and if you were to read my journals you would see a great deal of tears and anger and confusion. You would see my desperate desire to believe that God was good while wrestling with the reality of my pain and grief, and not always believing it because of how easy it is to tie this up with circumstances. If God is good, then why is life hard? How do I keep confessing hope when there is so much hard?
We, I, have to let hope be transformed. To be examined honestly. To have the chaff blown off so that we can hold fast to a real, substantive hope. Lent is a perfect time for this, because we abstain from things to expose where false trusts and hopes. This week already has shown my cracks again, these deep questions of God’s goodness no matter what is going on in my life. I have to be careful not to tie my phrases of “God is good” to when things turn out well, as we and I so often do.
Hope was forged in sweat and tears in Gethsemane, at the bloody and gut-wrenching cross, and the dust and ash of a rising body from a grave. This is not a light story. It is not fluffy, but rises from the pain and suffering of human existence by the tender presence and mighty hand of God. Hebrews 10 says, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” God is faithful in bringing about resurrection of life and salvation. This hope is not in what the Trinity will continue doing for us, but what has already been done that keeps shaping us. The hope is in his presence, and his faithfulness to make all things right at some point through this narrative of death bringing life.
Even while the process is hard, it is also profoundly more hopeful to me than keeping God on trial. God does not change. This hope I have will never fail, because the one who promised is faithful. We confess this hope together as it anchors us as a people walking with Jesus through turbulent circumstances, because this hope was forged in the very types of circumstances that we walk daily. Our communal confession holds and binds us, as we speak hope over each other when sometimes we personally cannot confess. Hope is risky, and vulnerable. Hope allows space to open in our hearts rather than it becoming jaded and deadened. Sometimes we avoid hope so as to avoid disappointment. But God’s hope, not rooted in circumstance or people or outcomes, stands, holds and anchors, and never disappoints.
Lent brings me back each year to this hope, often through pain as a pathway to the hope found in the garden, at the cross and the empty tomb. I sing through tears as each year of my life etches this more deeply into my soul, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”
The Gift & Mystery of Lent
Lenten Reflection #1 - Let us draw near
Written by Jennifer Gorham
I was 23 years old when I became aware of the church calendar. Celebrating Advent worked naturally into my Christmas celebrations; Lent was an interruption in time and disconnected from the spiritual rhythms I was comfortable in. Even so, the discipline and focus on growth in Lent drew me into the practice. Self-awareness was my jam, so this fit well with my personality. Even though positive in a lot of ways, this trait of mine also held a healthy dose of legalism as well as the desire to be successful. Lent was inviting me to use this self-awareness to orient myself towards God in the harder moments. It was easier to practice my own self-sufficiency and willpower, struggling to maintain self-discipline in moments of need and failure rather than turning to God.
Why would I not turn to God? This is not a hard question for me to answer.
It was easier. I felt less needy, and as though I was proving myself to him, which was far less vulnerable.
It has taken more than a decade of Lenten seasons to begin to understand this deep reality and disconnect from what God desires. He already knows my weakness, and I prove nothing but my humanity and pride when I think I have to prove myself before coming to him. Even though my mouth would have said God’s grace is sufficient, something inside me, much more subconsciously and much stronger than my words, said that God would reject or tolerate me, or worse, grow and change me, if I came in my vulnerability and weakness.
Draw near to God, says Scripture.
This is the gift and mystery of Lent.
Before the author of Hebrews encourages the community to draw near to God, he/she shares that the sacrifices and offerings that were a part of their rhythm of life are no longer necessary. Jesus was the sacrifice once and for all. This sacrifice makes us perfect as we are also being made holy. Lent is not a time of sacrifice and offering in order to gain salvation, favor, or to show our holiness. It is a season to focus, and recognize that Christ’s sacrifice gives us the ability to enter into God’s presence with confidence rather than trepidation, no matter our situation.
This process is not easy. Facing my need and humanity directly is tough. There are so many options for me to use as a shield to protect myself from it! Sitting in the process, and the accompanying emotions, is often the hardest part. Not trying to make it better, not trying to grow on my own, but listening to what Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit have to say to me.
Jeremiah 2:13 says, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” These patterns of avoidance and self-sufficiency are my broken cisterns that cannot hold the whole of life. These ways of managing fear, anxiety, shame, and sin are what feel comfortable to me. No matter how familiar, they are not sturdy and do not lead me into God’s loving presence. Lent gives us the chance to face the death of self, of false and fleeting comfort, of repentance, so that God can give us springs of living water to quench our deep thirst. We face our need and train ourselves to orient ourselves towards Christ rather than something broken, unsatisfying, and that does not heal.
What I have found during Lent, which is beginning to bleed through to the rest of my year, is that God is waiting for me in my joys as well as my laments. Honestly, I would rather skip the pain and head to the party, but the lament is where he meets us to heal. He waits with tenderness, mercy and love rather than disappointment and judgment. I usually am still trying to work on my speech presentation, like the younger brother returning home to his father. This comes from my felt need to establish rightness with him again (offering, sacrifice, penance). He is simply delighted that I have returned, as he knows that orienting myself in his love is what will correct and actually transform my character.
If you have never practiced Lent, you might wonder what this practically looks like. One year I gave up criticism. When halting my tongue, I realized that my tendency was to stew on the reasons for my criticism even without saying it aloud. Lent helped me move from the place that built resentment to one of turning to God in the moment, asking for his truth and comfort for whatever anger, hurt, or shame was driving the criticism. As I sought his forgiveness, he gave it, and this tenderness wrought tenderness in me over time. Authentic encouragement became the fruit.
Lent can be hard. Facing our broken cisterns doesn’t feel good, and it will be tempting to bypass the hard work of lament by focusing on success and the trophy of making it through to the end. But success isn’t the point. The point is the process. We should not rush the process as we ask for God’s comfort and restoration to our lament, and end in a posture of worship. Practicing Lent as a community gives us necessary support to share what we learn about ourselves and God in the process, which might be less earth shattering and less than flattering than we want it to be. We do it together so that we can encourage each other when we fall, receive grace and gentle direction, not to avoid the hard things discovered, but to sit in the discomfort and let Christ do his work within those discoveries. The joy that comes from God healing our laments is so worth the wait.
Let US draw near to God. “How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” Psalm 36:7-9