A Lenten Forgetfulness

A Lenten Forgetfulness March 18, 2018

A child said to me a few days ago, “I really gotta think of something to give up for Lent. I just don’t know what.”
“That’s interesting,” I said, “Lent is almost over. That ship has almost completely sailed.”
“I don’t have a ship,” said the child.
“Of course you don’t,” I said. “Neither do I.”

Lest you are inclined, like me, to be discouraged about your failure to even choose a Lenten thought, not to mention discipline, rejoice that sometimes life itself, in its pure essence, is Lenten. I don’t have to worry about picking something up, or putting something down for a while, because God, in his mercy, arranges the decision for me, in all times and seasons. Not to say that it wouldn’t have killed me to discipline myself just a little, to fight in some small way against sin.

This year, who even knows. I have completely forgotten about it being Lent at all, except on Sunday mornings. Then I stand up and sit down and kneel and see the plain purple draped over the altar, and handle the clunky but fragile pottery chalice, thinking all the time about the shiny golden one sitting silently in the cupboard until the fractious joy of Easter. Gosh, I think, I should really figure out what I’m doing for Lent this year. But then I go home and forget all about it. I just go day by day through the week, trying recover from the time change, trying to cling to the basic components of a decently ordered life–sleep, food, exercise, work, reading, prayer, the impossibility of actually having time to take a shower, the irritation of going all the way to the store to acquire food, of trying to figure out when and how to cook it every day, of trying not to forget a whole subject per child for more than two days at the most, and my favorite, writing.

And, of course, trying, at least every other day, if not every day, to read or listen to the Bible. I escaped Exodus, finally, and got embroiled in the depths of Leviticus for a while. God keeps saying, “I am the Lord”. He says it every time, over and over, as if somehow the people of Israel will forget. There they are, hearing the law, serious and purposeful. Of course they’re going to keep it all. They’re not going to do any of the prohibited things, and they’re going to do all the required ones. They will go into the land and plant their vines and build their houses and it will be peaceful and fine. They won’t forget. By which they mean, they won’t sin.

But, of course, they don’t immediately go into the land. They get the law, and even before they can fall into a vaguely ordered way of keeping it, let alone the proper rhythms of holiness, of disciplining the body and mind to turn again toward God, rather than constantly and in a thousand imperceptible ways running, but really more sailing at full clip across the horizon, away, they break it. No matter the intention or desire of the heart, they can’t keep the law. They can’t remember who God is even. And then, after a very few minutes, the desire itself to know fades away.

Thousands of years later Jeremiah, crushed to earth under the merciful word of God, delivers this interesting news.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

You won’t have to be reminded, says God, because you’ll know me. The least to the greatest. Technically, of course, by the power of the Holy Spirit, this is absolutely true. If you know the Lord, he himself is there writing the law on your heart all the time. He is muscling you back, turning you again and again towards himself. You may forget for a while, but it won’t be very long. The misery and loneliness of your own neglect and forgetfulness will compel you back.

The promise of Jeremiah, that you will ‘know the Lord,’ sounds so very peaceful, a smooth sailing on a bright halcyon sea. You are hopeful, delighted, sure, just like the people of Israel so many thousands of years before, convinced that keeping the law will be no big deal. But then you wake up to reality. The morning light, which comes an hour later now, hits your eyes and you discover that the sense of struggle doesn’t go away at all. Honestly, it intensifies. Whereas before you could just disobey God and be done with it, you didn’t have to forget because there wasn’t anything to remember, now you are pitched on the high seas of God’s attention and remembering of you.

A different kind of remembering, though. The kind that doesn’t include a memory of your sin and failure. So when you are counting over all the things you wish you hadn’t done, or things you wish you had, it’s you counting them, not God. He remembers them ‘no more.’ Which you have to be able to identify with. You forgot Lent. You know all about forgetting.

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