Lent: It’s more fun and alleluias than you think

If you spend any time with social media, you probably noticed the number of Facebook postings that featured Puritan Valentine’s Day Cards.  The artwork wasn’t very elaborate, as should be the case with Puritan cards.  But I loved the sentiments.  One card read:

“You’ve bewitched me.  There’s no other explanation for the gophers in my garden.”

Another announced:

“I thought to write you a love poem.  For that thought I have beaten myself with a rough branch each night hence.”

And another turned to what can only be called a Puritanical flair for poetry:

“Roses are red, violets are blue and neither are useful or necessary at all.”

The series got me thinking.  In retirement I may launch a greeting card company devoted to under-observed Christian holidays.  If I do, Lent will be a great place to start.

It’s early days and I don’t have any artwork yet, but I wondered if these might work:

“Ash Wednesday….if you want it “to go” find a McDonald’s.”

“Lent…it’s tough, but it can’t be Christmas all year long.”

“Lent…if you want chocolate right now, get another religion.”

Or one of my favorites….

“Lent…getting clear that you aren’t God since the garden of Eden.”

That last one certainly brings us to the lectionary reading from Genesis that figures in the first Sunday of Lent:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Why begin the observance of Lent with a passage like this?

A lot of people have suggested we shouldn’t read passages like this and they offer a lot of reasons:  Some get bogged down in the question of whether there really was an historical Adam and Eve.  Some complain that the story focuses on shame — fig leaves and all that stuff.  And some just protest, “God made me and God doesn’t make mistakes.”  But these reactions to Lent and to this passage from the Old Testament really miss the point.

For one thing, this story from Genesis really doesn’t rest on proving that there was an historical Adam and Eve.  Adam is every-man and Eve us every-woman.  The deeper point of the story from the ancient Jewish point of view is “This is who we are: We were created by God.  Sooner or later we act like we are God.  And that always gets us in trouble.”

Nor is the story’s purpose to make us ashamed of ourselves.  Its purpose is to alert us to the danger of forgetting that we are not God.  And the purpose of putting it first among the readings for Lent is to get us to reexamine our lives in the light of that wisdom.

Think about it, there is – after all — almost no harm we do to our relationship with God, to ourselves, or to our relationship with others that doesn’t start here.  The violence that takes a life we didn’t create begins with the God-like assumption that we can give and we can take away.  The avarice that lays claim to things that are not ours, rests on the assumption that the world is ours.  The pride that convinces us we can go it alone is based on the assumption that we are self-sufficient.

In one way or another, all of those sins and others are rooted in our failure to remember that we are not God.  And the result is often something that is ugly, mean, grasping, and controlling.  Even the earliest monks who pursued holiness in the deserts of Egypt knew this.  St. John Climacus wrote: “A proud monk has no need of a devil; he has become a devil and enemy to himself.”

The inner wisdom of this story, then, isn’t about a place that God puts us.  It is a place that we put ourselves when we forget who and whose we are.   In some ways the most poignant lines in the whole of Scripture are those describing God, calling out for Adam, even as he hides.  God loves us, calls us, longs for us, but we run in shame and longing for continued control into the ruined garden of our own making.

The inner wisdom of this story, then, is not about inescapable shame.  It is not a hopeless place or an impossible place.  It isn’t about a place that God puts us — or even about what God thinks of us.  It is a place that we put ourselves, if we forget who and whose we are.

But if that’s true — and it is — then it is also true that we don’t need to remain ashamed or burdened.  When we let go and let God be God, the Garden of Eden becomes a place of reclamation.  A place where we no longer need to hide.  We no longer need to live without hope.  We no longer need to carry burdens beyond our strength.

The ironic and strange truth behind Lent is that when we own our need of God, we stop living in need.  When we love God, all of our loves return to us in balance and no longer threaten to consume us.  And when we own our frailty, our frailty ceases to be a source of embarrassment and humiliation.

Lent, in other words, is spiritual jujitsu.  Just as jujitsu uses the strength of one’s opponent against him, Lent uses the strength of owning our weakness against the power of our weakness to overwhelm us.  Imagine these possibilities and apply them to your own life:

When we recognize our worth as the children of God, we no longer need to anxiously establish our worth at the expense of those we love.  We can let go of petty, degrading slights.  We can let go of nagging insecurity that makes it impossible for us to love and be loved.

When we realize that there is a God and we are not, we can begin to trust God with those things that lie beyond our control.  We can be a friend and counselor to our adult children, but we are free to acknowledge the limits of our ability to shape their decisions.  We can work hard, but rest in God with whatever results may come.

When we recognize that our lives are rich gifts, bounded by the one who made us and the one who raises us to new life, we can check our fears at the door and live with freedom as the children of God — building lives that witness to the love and grace of God.

I have a friend like that.  He was one of the few people who befriended my brother, Dave, during his 8 year long battle with cancer.  And he was able to be there with him, facing his own frailty and vulnerability, because he had faced it as a recovering alcoholic.  Bigger than life, Cliff laughs and lives with open-handed generosity.  He gives unexpected gifts to complete strangers.  And he was there with my brother in every twist and turn of his treatment.  Cliff says, “I was a Harvard MD.  I was God and I was socialized to be one.  I found my spiritual life when my addiction brought that act to an end.  Now I love and let myself be loved.  I give the reason I have for hope.  And I tell the truth.  (And it’s a good thing, because I was losing track of the lies.)”

What an exciting way to live: Open, laughing, confident in God’s love as God’s child.  Take that vision into this season and ask God to nurture your own version of joyful abandon to the realization that you are not God.

If you do, you may discover there is room for another greeting card…“Lent, it’s more fun and alleluias than you think.”


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.