Giving Up for Lent?

And who shall I blame for this sweet and heavy trouble? 
For every stupid struggle?
I don’t know.
I could buy you a drink.
I could tell you all about it.
I could tell you why I doubt it, and why I still believe.

But I can’t say it like I sing it.
And I can’t sing it like I think it.
And I can’t think it like I feel it.
And I don’t feel a thing.
Oh no – I don’t feel a thing.

I’ve quoted Pedro the Lion/David Bazan’s “The Fleecing” lyrics before, and for good reason. I don’t feel a thing, usually, and I doubt “it,” usually, but still believe (usually). These days, and for some time now, the sweet and heavy trouble I would sing of is simply life itself. It is so very, very heavy; yet thanks to the presence and love of my wife and children still retains some of its sweetness. But the struggle is so very stupid, and in short, I’m tired. I don’t feel a thing because I don’t dare. There’s simply too much risk involved. Readers of this blog know my story; so there’s no need to tell it again, and I suppose that’s part of the problem. When I was younger and had opportunity to begin telling my story, I found it cathartic. It helped to get it out, especially when my hearers really made the effort to listen and empathize. Questions like, “how do you keep at it?” or “how do you get out of bed every day?” were not uncommon, and I found them comforting. They meant that someone actually “got it,” for once.

I’ve had occasion to tell my story numerous times now over the years, and the cathartic effect seems to have waned. Perhaps my story still holds the same power; I don’t know. Usually I would tell it while making an effort to build community, often in a “cell” or small group, occasionally with new friends. Always, though, the need to find and build such community drove much of what was happening. Some of those efforts historically have met with success, but they were always later disrupted by one out of state move or another. Here in Northeast Ohio that struggle for community has been equally difficult, and has met with only mixed success. Eight years (this fall) after buying our house here (minus our 18 month sojourn in Dallas for my dad’s death), we have just a handful of good friends, but those relationships are limited by just a little bit of geographic distance and ever changing dynamics. Moreover, we’ve struggled, for eight long years now, to find our place in a church community here. We’ve made various commitments to several congregations, only to struggle to follow through with them for a variety of reasons usually having to do with perceived “fit” (or lack thereof). In short, the closest Circle of Hope-like cell church network working hard to “be the church” for the next generation is five hours away, in Philadelphia (namely, Circle of Hope). Likewise, the nearest House of Mercy-like church for the “un-“ and “over-“ churched that “isn’t that bad” is 7+ hours away, in the Twin Cities (namely, House of Mercy). There is no local congregation that gets that it needs to “be the church” for the next generation and that can effectively do so for those for whom the “good news” of the gospel has become bad news while simultaneously speaking truth to power and working to fight injustice in the city. There are some great groups locally doing great things, and I’m privileged to know some of them, but there are none that do all of the above, all at once.

I know; I’m asking for too much. If the gospel is true, if God is and if God is love; if love is about relationship, about community, and if the “rules” we seem to need are for relationship; then I have to believe not only the good news, but also that God is building that community I yearn for, even here in Northeast Ohio, and both the big picture and all the little details are best left up to him, all of which means I must embrace community as I find it, not as I want it to be. I must accept what is and work with what partners I can find to together become what God dreams for us all. I must love those in front of me and quit trying to change them, especially when I myself am in need of so much change.

I get all that; I really do. But it’s so, so very hard, and I am so, so very tired. I’m tired of telling my story. My story wears me out. I’m tired of trying, of starting over again and again and again. I feel…….old, ready to lay my burdens down. Maybe this is good. Maybe my struggle is part of the problem. Perhaps I’ve been fighting so hard for so long to will into existence myself that which only God can create. And this, finally, brings me to today, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Today many would be Christ-followers get a visible reminder of just what following him means. To follow Jesus is to follow him down the path of our own death, our own execution. Dust we are, and to dust we shall return. We die with Christ in hope of resurrection, to be sure, but I must echo those who would say that we move on to resurrection much too easily, much too readily, as if it wasn’t the most profound and enduring miracle. Among my many struggles is the struggle to believe despite so many good reasons not to, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe this too isn’t a labor from which I need to rest, an enemy to which I need to surrender. Luther (and Paul) reminds us that faith is a gift, after all, and so I am reminded that I need to receive that gift and quit trying to create it myself. I can’t give it to myself, after all; it is sui generis. It is unique; it stands alone. It comes from outside me and does not relate to anything that I can make or force to be. Like matter, it cannot be created (or, one hopes, destroyed). It simply is.

So I must lay this, this struggle to believe, and all my burdens down as I follow Jesus to the cross, to the executioner’s chair, to the guillotine and the firing squad, to the place of so many skulls….to death. I do it, as I hope to do all things, for love. Christ loves me, after all, while I am yet a sinner and will soon die for me and with me rather than see our separation continue. But this is a long journey, and like all journeys it starts with a single step. Today, Ash Wednesday, I take that step. So for Lent I’m giving up the struggle to believe. Sure, I’ll take some things on too, like the usual effort to run, eat right, and observe “the hours,” but those are all things that I at least want to do year-round. They aren’t “new.” No, my primary Lenten discipline will be the effort to…make no effort, to quit trying, to open up enough of a space for Jesus to maybe get in for once. Lord, let it be so.

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