An aging Hindu master grew tired of his apprentice complaining, and so, one morning, sent him for some salt. When the apprentice returned, the master instructed the unhappy young man to put a handful of salt in a glass of water and then to drink it.
“How does it taste?” the master asked.
“Bitter,” spit the apprentice.
The master chuckled and then asked the young apprentice to take the same handful of salt and put it in the lake. The two walked in silence to the nearby lake, and once the apprentice swirled his handful of salt in the water, the old man said, “Now drink from the lake.”
As the water dripped down the young man’s chin, the master asked, “How does it taste?”
“Fresh,” remarked the apprentice.
“Do you taste the salt?” asked the master.
“No,” said the young man.
At this, the master sat beside the serious young apprentice (who so reminded him of himself), took his hands, and said, “The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains the same, exactly the same. But the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things…. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.” [Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening, p. 17-18.]
Lent is the time to become a lake. We often think of Lent as a season of giving things up, of discipline to remove things from our lives. The problem with this approach is that we can make ourselves small, like the glass. What if we re-think Lent as a sabbath practice – a pause for space and quiet to expand our selves into the whole love, goodness and mercy of God. Time to become a lake, able to absorb life’s pain knowing who we are – beloved children of God.
Jesus would face constant suffering in his ministry, and his forty days in the wilderness was his space and quiet to become a lake. To connect with his identity as the beloved child of God, the pronouncement of his baptism.
Jesus would soon encounter the distractions we all face – to satiate our bodies, to choose our personal safety needs, to grab for power. These are not unique distractions to Jesus, but are common to all humans. I am using the word “distraction,” for “temptation” today. It is really the same thing, but focuses on what we lose. A distraction is something that draws our attention away from who we are. The young monk was distracted by small things and he became small. When we focus on the big things, we live large – lake-sized.
The Devil says: Let me call attention to your body’s needs: Since you are so hungry, why don’t you make these stones into bread?
Jesus: Because physical food is not what will sustain me in this life journey. It is only my identity in God which will do that. God will be my food.
Devil: Let me call attention to your purpose: Since you want to change the world, I have a short-cut for you. Power. I have it all. Use it with me and I will give you all the world’s people.
Jesus: You are not on God’s side. You have power, but you are not with God. I will stay with God.
Devil: Let me call attention to power: Since you are so confident that you are with God, let’s test that. Throw yourself down from the top of the Temple and let God catch you.
Jesus: To test God that way would only show that I doubt my oneness with God. And I don’t doubt it. No need for a test.
Do we live small in this little world of ours? Or do we live large in the identity of child of God?
Lent is the time when we let go of our complaining, blaming, shaming, in order to find our identity in the God of the Universe, the One who created and loves us, the one who watches our fumbles and picks us up, dusts us off, sets us back on our feet again, with a pat of encouragement to “Go on, you can do it!”
Lent developed in the first decades of the church. It wasn’t named yet. But the time has its roots in the time of fasting in preparation baptism and membership in the church. Those were times of pervasive persecution – sometimes violent, and government-sanctioned. Sometimes simply social isolation and rejection. The Way, this new thing, was threatening to family, to social structures and to the powers. The church took a very long time, often years, to “vet” new members of the church. They needed to know, like Ananias before he would go to minister to Saul the persecutor, that the applicant was worthy of trust. It was a period of mutual scrutiny. The applicants, too, had to make sure this was a decision they could stake their life on. They were literally becoming new people, with a whole new identity as part of the people of God and followers of the way of Jesus.
This period of preparation for full inclusion in the earthly body of Christ varied in length, but finally settled to forty days. Forty days of fasting and prayer, with Sundays maintained as feast days.
In the Bible, forty days is used as shorthand for a significant, threshold period of time. Sometimes it refers to the passing of a generation. Sometimes it refers specifically to a time of testing or deciding. We will be talking about more of these “forty days” during Lent this year. What happens to God’s people during these significant times?
In Lent, every year, we have a “forty days,” a hinge time. It is when we pause and reconnect to who we are, no matter where we have been. With what identity will be forge ahead on the way of Jesus?
Are we a glass or a lake? Whose are we? These are questions of identity, which face us as a culture in ways we may never have known before.
The Millennial Generation, generally those born between 1980 and 2000 are often known as a generation of “Patchwork Selves.” David Elkind’s book, All Grown Up and No Place to Go: Teenagers in Crisis, describes a disease of identity known as the “patchwork self.” A patchwork self is the result of different attitudes, values, beliefs and habits that do not really connect with each other. There is no cohesive character. It happens when a person tries to create a personality that mirrors someone else – a popular or powerful person in the social system, perhaps – rather than engaging the struggle of trying to decide who they really are and what they value and want from life as an individual. The patchwork self acts according to whatever the norm is in the group they are in at any given time. An example would be a business person who extorts money from the company with fellow co-workers, then punishes children for stealing at the grocery store.
I am not talking about going to a Mexican restaurant because it is your friend’s birthday and they like Mexican food, even though you don’t. I am talking about the decisions which form a life, a destiny.
This is what Jesus was doing before he entered his ministry. He took time to find out who he was and how it would shape his decisions from that moment on. This is what the applicant is being tested for in the early church. Do they know who they are as committed, “all in,” followers of Jesus? It is crucial to know. It will make a life-and-death difference for them all.
So Lent is a time to remind ourselves who we are. Remember the movie the Lion King? Simba gets distracted by his uncle, who is power-mad. When his father is killed, Simba leaves the pride and runs as far away as he can in the other direction? He got lost in his guilt and shame. The wise trickster baboon leads him to look at himself in the water and his reflection becomes the face of his father Mufasa.
Simba, you have forgotten me.
No! How could I?
You have forgotten who you are, and so forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the circle of life.
How can I go back? I’m not who I used to be.
Remember who you are. You are my son, and the one true king. Remember who you are…. Remember who you are…. Remember who you are….
And the voice and vision fade away.
The disciplines of Lent are an opportunity to let go of the things that distract us and remember who we are. Let go of the personalities of success, fame, winning which dazzle our culture. I was impressed by Adam Rippon, a US figure skater, who said in an interview: “I know I’m not a medal favorite. And you know what, I know I might not be the best, but I’m the most fun. So I think that tonight, I’m really gonna enjoy myself, I’m gonna do my best to skate my heart out.” One gets the feeling that this young millennial knows who he is!
Do we? Is our identity formed as a child of God? Why do we gather every Sunday in this place? To remember who we are! Intensely during Lent, we take on practices to be reminded of, and given again, our identity as beloved children of God. We take time to put aside distractions and remember who we are.
The author of Hebrews says it so well: “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)