pilgrimage into winter and lent...

It is brutally cold outside and growing colder.  The old timers have been waiting patiently for this
moment when the frigid air steals your breath unexpectedly. Like a friend long gone into mystery, who suddenly shows up one night at supper time with a bottle of wine and tales of adventure and romance, this part of winter is welcome in these parts. I heard the understated gratitude in the voices of those who gathered at a church business meeting last night. I saw it on their faces, too: this is a homecoming of sorts for our friend has returned. Not that they want her to overstay her welcome, mind you. New Englanders love to complain about this guest's overdue departure almost as much as they cherish her arrival.  We're a cranky and stubborn lot. And yet at least for a few days, the bitter chill feels right.

Parker Palmer was observed that seasons are a "wise metaphor for the movement of life." Rather than speak of life as a battlefield or a game of chance, he encourages us to think of life in ways that are "infinitely richer and more promising."

The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all - and to find in all of it opportunities for growth. If we lived close to nature in an agricultural society, the seasons as metaphor and face would continually frame our lives. But the master metaphor of our era does not come from agriculture - it comes from manufacturing. We do not believe that we "grow" our lives - we believe that we "make" them. Just listen to how we use the word in everyday speech: we make time, make friends, make meaning, make money, make a living, make love. (Let Your Life Speak)
For the past decade I have been trying to fast from marketplace metaphors like bottom line thinking, making a decision, and earning the right to be trusted. I know it is the dominant theme of my era and infects all aspect of life. Still, for people committed to creativity and compassion, there is a richer, more nuanced, and even more satisfying way of speaking and thinking. Palmer quotes Alan Watts who said:  "A Chinese child will ask, 'How does a baby grow?' But an American child will ask, 'How do you make a baby?' From and early age, we absorb our culture's arrogant conviction that we manufacture everything, reducing the world to mere "raw material" that lacks all value until we impose our designs and labor on it."

Such arrogance also promotes an addiction to binary thinking: life is about winning and losing, solving problems, discovering cures, and eliminating pain. There is a place for this, of course, and I enjoy seeing my favorite baseball team win against their historic rivals. I am relieved when my doctor finds a solution to Dianne's back pain after carefully eliminating possible causes..But sports, science and industry are not the totality of life. They have a place within the whole, but only just that: a place. Intellectual and moral obsession with utilitarian paradigms promotes a shriveled imagination and a stunted conscience.  "What does it profit a man (or woman) to gain the whole world but lose their soul?" asked Jesus.  Palmer concludes:

If we accept the notion that our lives are dependent on an inexorable cycle of seasons, on a play of powers that we can conspire with but never control, we run headlong into a culture that insists, against all evidence, that we can make whatever kind of life we want, whenever we want it. Deeper still, we run headlong into our own egos, which want desperately to believe that we are always in charge. We need to challenge and reform these distortions of culture and ego - reform them toward ways of thinking and doing and being that are rooted in respect for the living ecology of life. Unlike "raw material" on which we make all the demands, this ecology makes demands on us even as it sustains our lives. We are here not only to transform the world but also to be transformed.

Small wonder that some sigh in quiet relief that a wind chill of 35 below zero has returned for a
few days. There is a truth greater than our arrogance, a wisdom and rhythm to life beyond our control. I feel this way about the return of Lent - and have been aching for it just below the surface of my awareness. Like our homecoming for winter, I too breathed a sigh of relief on Ash Wednesday. Joining with six other clergy colleagues, we marked the start of a Holy Lent together with the imposition of ashes, prayer, song and Eucharist. Over 30 people from my congregation joined our ecumenical feast that starts the great fast of this season.  Snow was falling. The wind hurt my face in the dark of night. And still, people of all ages, classes, gender and race made a point to be present in community. Clearly, we needed to be together to pray: Create in me a clean heart, O God.

Tomorrow we'll head out into the cold to join our children for pancakes at the beginning of the maple season. On Sunday, when it will be colder still, we will mark the first Sunday of Lent. I have no idea how many will show up for the predictions are for a chill of painful proportions. I can't wait. This year, we will be experimenting with walking meditation during worship. Five rest stations have been set up throughout the Sanctuary to parallel places of reflection on a pilgrimage through Lent. After my homily, we'll play some introspective jazz and invite the gathered folk to pray with their feet for a time. They can wander throughout the wilderness of the church, pausing to kneel or light candles, or simply sit and take in the beauty of God's grace.

Lent, like the deep wisdom of winter, "clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being." Palmer ends his reflection on winter spirituality with words that resonate for me about Lent: 

Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them - protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or inner discipline or spiritual guidance - we can learn what these fears have to teach us. Then we discover once again that the cycle of the seasons is trustworthy and life-giving, even in the most dismaying season of all. 

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