Friday, March 11, 2011

Lent as a Place

A few years ago I wrote a book, You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives, published by Upper Room Books (2006). The following isn’t a plug for the book--maybe a little one--but a paraphrase of some material in chapters 1 and 4 and also new thoughts that have to do with Lent. I was thinking about Lent, and also the theme of “place,“ which is one of my favorite subjects. I wondered: Lent is a period of time, but can you think of Lent as a place?

We can connect the temporal season of Lent to particular places in our lives, and also we can think metaphorically about the place of Lent.

One place is the wilderness. As I wrote in my little book, we tend to have a positive feeling about natural wilderness in our own time, more so than the Bible in which wilderness is either neutral or threatening: for instance, the different kinds of geographical regions, or specially the area of the Dead Sea, or the Sinai region that was the scene of the Israelite wondering.

“Wilderness” is an apt spiritual metaphor. In Exodus 15-17, for instance, the Israelites moved among dry places where no drinkable water was available, and they grumbled with sufficient seriousness that Moses sought God’s help. Many of us can think of times when we felt discouraged and tested; we couldn’t see the nature of God’s provision and wondered what was going on. Perhaps other people had let us down; perhaps we messed up our own lives; perhaps life was filled with stress through no one’s particular fault. Anxiety, distress, “what if” thoughts, difficult periods of waiting, and other things fill wilderness times. In turn, we associate particular places in our lives with feeling lost and discouraged. What are the places of your own life that you connect with "wilderness" and an apparent lack of fulfillment of God’s promises?

Waiting on God is actually a positive thing, though it may not feel very positive! Read scriptures like Isaiah 40:31, Psalm 25:5, and Psalm 33:20-21. But even Bible people struggle with a sense of God’s absence, for instance, the author of Psalm 42 and 43 which expresses emptiness and disappointment. The psalmist wants God, wants to be with God, and knows that he will eventually praise God again, but for now, God seems missing. I love this psalm because here, in God’s Word, are words about a person who is having a faith crisis! The psalm’s sick bed is, because of its immobility, also a place of “wandering” amid a feeling of God’s absence. What are some of your places of waiting on God?

Along those same lines, another place of Lent is the familiar place that has been changed in such a way that our comfort is disrupted. As I wrote in my little book, the telephone or the mailbox are innocuous places--until we are waiting on news of, for instance, medical results, or the safety of a loved one. In those times, everyday places can become foci of fervent prayer, waiting, and dependence upon God.

I'm also thinking about how our worship experiences can become focused during the Lenten season. For instance, a pastor might change the nature of the congregation’s worship space in order to help people understand God and faith in different ways. I found a blog,, that described ways this congregation has experimenting with worship space and styles.

How wonderful! I pray for any pastor who tries to find helpful ways to challenge people that does not elicit so much frustration from the congregation that the purpose is defeated. I remember visiting a church years ago; suddenly the older lady to our right reached over and snatched the hymnal from the pew rack in front of us. We’d taken her pew spot--we literally had taken away her "worship place"---and she got back at us by claiming “her” hymnal, so my wife and I had nothing to use for singing! With some church folk so stuck in their ways--and punitive if you upset them--the pastor has to use patience, discernment, and prayer in order to challenge folk in their worship. A pastor can make Lent-oriented worship changes that are both interesting and spiritually helpful so that people can experience God in fresh ways that, in turn, can build upon their previous experiences of God.

The main “place” of Lent is God! You can think of God as a place! It’s a venerable tradition. I noted in my book that the Bible sometimes “localizes” God’s presence, as on the mountains of Exodus 19 and 1 Kings 19, and verses like Deut. 16:16 and Isaiah 8:18. But these have to do with God’s desire to be present in certain places rather than a limitation to which God is obliged. Even the holy Temple is not the special place of God apart from his will (e.g., Jer. 7:1-7; 22:16, Isaiah 66:1-2, Acts 7:48-50).

The Bible refers metaphorically to God in place-terms. God is our machseh, that is, “dwelling place” (Deut. 33:27, RSV), or “refuge” (KJV and NIV). Psalm 46:1 calls God “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In Genesis 28:17, God is maqom, or "place": “How awesome is this place!” During the rabbinical period the word maqom became a metaphorical name for God, as in Philo writes, “God … is called place, for He encompasses all things, but is not encompassed by anything.” Also, a midrash refers to God as "place" because God is “the place of the world.”A scripture like Psalm 139:7-10 shows how God comes to every place where we are and is not limited to our circumstances.

As I write in my book (p. 26): “Christians, like Jews, honored God who is unbounded by time and space, the God who is a dwelling and refuge for all who call upon him. Jesus becomes the “place to go” to know God in spirit and truth (Matt. 7:25, John 4:21-24), the “new thing” that God has done by which we might know God (Isa. 43:19, Heb. 1:1-2). Jesus is the place that encompasses all places, because in and through him all things came to be (Col 1:15-20). Not only that, but through Jesus Christ God has broken down all barriers and has accomplished all that is necessary for peace, reconciliation, and salvation (Eph. 1:5-14, 3:8-14). He is present for us in whatever place we are, until the close of time (Matt. 28:20, Rev. 22:13).”

Sometimes Lenten practices stray from the main point: to center us upon God and to larify God's providence and will. If we think of God our maqom and machseh, our Lenten observance is focused upon our true place and true home.

(A repost from March 2010)

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