“Lent is the perfect season for losing one’s mind,” Micah observed this morning, and, I mean, yes. Lent invites us into so many paradoxes, which I think has to be a theme of this season in a way I’m not sure I ever really noticed before. This week, it’s the paradoxes of being both trapped and free, of being both holy and reasonably low-key about it, paradoxes designed to drive us crazy—to borrow a phrase from Carole King, to take our souls if we let them—if we don’t balance ourselves in the tension of them like the fulcrum of a seesaw.
How can we not turn to prayer in the face of the death of fifty people who wanted nothing more than to be in loving community with each other and with God? How can we not join with our friends and neighbors in the streets, if necessary, to share that prayer? We have to know, though, that if we do, we open ourselves up to the fear, the skepticism, even cynicism, of folks who have given up on prayer, as happened to Micah when he was taunted while participating in a prayer vigil. And maybe it’s not hard to understand why. In an era in which “thoughts and prayers” has deservedly become a meme, we run the risk of being seen as, or even being, the hypocrites Jesus warned about in the Sermon on the Mount, dealing in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace rather than doing the hard work of chipping away at the intractable problems of hatred and violence manifested all too often by white supremacy and other original sins.
In the face of this exhaustion with “thoughts and prayers,” what can the “incorrigibly religious,” as Elaine Pagels called herself in her most recent book (this morning’s Modern Testimony), do to stay holy, to not give into the fear that we’ve lost the way out of nihilism and imprisonment and grief? Sometimes it’s more of the same. Sometimes it’s coming back together every week to mourn and celebrate, remember and look forward. This week, the little girl I remember showing me her children’s book of Hindu deities is visiting the city to look at colleges. Jane’s carpal tunnel surgery went well. Molly’s new job starts next month.
Institutionalized Christianity has many faults, but it’s worth remembering what the Christian message still has to offer the world: humanity’s end is usually not God’s end; there is nothing, ultimately, to fear; there is a way out. The paradox of the death and resurrection into which we are leaning in Lent is the message. Of course it doesn’t make sense. Of course it isn’t the same as the stories we tell ourselves, the ones that really are meant to drive us crazy and take our souls, the ones that tell us over and over that we aren’t good enough or should have been able to do more and better and who knows what else.
In this Lent, I’m trying, after an inauspicious beginning, to find myself in the middle of these paradoxes, to not let the season drive me crazy but let it lead me to place in the middle of each end.