Being Content

“The life of contemplation in action and purity of heart is, then, a life of great simplicity and inner liberty. One is not seeking anything special or demanding any particular satisfaction. One is content with what is.” –Thomas Merton

At the end of this week, just how content are you? Are you content with your home, your relationships, your clothing, the food you had to eat, your car, your job? Do you find yourself saying, “I wish…” or “If only…”?

Lent invites us to journey inward to find contentment so that we can look outward and share our lives with others. How wonderful this world would be if we all stopped seeking any kind of preferential or special treatment or ceased to make demands! What might our world look like if knowing we have enough we can look to see that our sisters and brothers have plenty, too?

Today I watched a short video about “first world problems” voiced/acted by people in developing nations. It was a humbling few minutes. Even though I consider myself a person of fairly simple needs, I was struck and a bit embarrassed by all that I take for granted during the course of a day. I say this not to shame or point a finger at anyone, only to share my experience.

How much is enough? How much is too much? What does it mean to be content? I can answer these questions for myself, but I cannot answer them for you. Why not spend a few minutes contemplating these questions as you lean into a new week?

Here’s the video if you’d like to watch it:

Photo by JustinLowery.com. Thanks!

Note: I will be taking a Sabbath from blogging every Sunday during Lent. I hope you will enjoy some quiet time, too!

Cobbled Hearts

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Joel 2:12-13

I have a favorite pair of winter boots. My cousin gave them to me for Christmas almost a decade ago, and they’re wonderful, waterproof and classics from L. L. Bean. They have spent considerable time in various cobbler shops in North Dakota and Pennsylvania, and each time I retrieve them, I am rewarded with good fitting, attractive footwear for a fraction of the cost of replacing them. I take them in, scuffed and sad with broken down heels, and pick them up shiny and fresh and ready to go. It’s a good use of resources in the “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” spirit of thrift and frugality. When I first slip my renewed footwear back on, I am reminded of how God renews us.

The passage above, taken from the Ash Wednesday lectionary, always moves me. The entire lesson, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, is a call for communal lament and a reminder that no matter how we mess up, God is faithful and just. God is always there to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts and tattered lives, to make of us something new and beautiful in spite of our bruises and cracks.

But what God looks for is not the outward shows of religiosity but the lament of a broken and contrite heart. The Creator of the Universe is good at fixing what we break, even (or maybe especially) when that which is broken is our own self.

We humans are good at messing up, at hurting one another, and at causing others pain. We do it knowingly and we do it unwittingly. We hurt with our careless words, our thoughtless consumption, and our selfish fears and vitriol. We curve inward upon ourselves as the Apostle Paul lamented in Romans 7:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. (Romans 7:15-25)

Augustine of Hippo described this tendency as “Incurvatus in se” or the notion of living life inwardly for self rather than outwardly for God and others. Martin Luther took this concept further in his Lectures on Romans, saying

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, [being] so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake. (Luther’s Works, Volume 25)

While we try to patch together our broken hearts with the duct tape, chewing gum, and spit of this world and all its empty promises, going on as if nothing at all is wrong with us, God invites us to bring the broken pieces of our deepest hurts, our dreams denied, and our shattered faith. Nothing is beyond fixing in the master crafter’s hands.

We will never be perfect–at least not in this life–but when we rend our hearts and return the pieces to God we will be repaired, refitted, and made new. Even with cracks, crazing, and chips we are better versions of ourselves in the hands of the Divine One.

This Lent, instead of trying to hold your hurting life together on your own, instead of facing the world with the lie of a brave face and an independent, untouchable spirit, return your rent, spent, and damaged self to your Creator and be renewed.

Thanksliving Activity

Find something in your house that you’ve been meaning to repair but have instead shoved deeper into a cabinet or closet. Pull it out, examine it, and figure out a way to fix it. If you can’t fix it yourself, take it to someone who can. Give that item a second chance at a worthwhile life and reflect on how God does the same thing with you–over and over again.

Photos by CarbonNYC, flicktone, and SanFranAnnie. Thanks!

Nurture Relationships

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. — 1 Corinthians 13:13

Happy Valentine’s Day. I hope you were able to tell the ones you love how very much you love them. Better yet, I hope you were able to show your love in a variety of simple, kind, and generous ways.

So what does Valentine’s Day have to do with keeping a simple Lent? The answer is nothing and everything. The commercial celebration we are urged and guilted into celebrating has nothing to do with Lent. The idea of love–of God, neighbor, and self–has everything to do with today.

…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these. — Mark 12:30-31

A simple Lent begins with tending to those things most important in our lives–God, neighbor, and self. Our fast-paced hyper-connected world tries to tell us that many things demand our attention, our time, and our money; however, this is a lie.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. — Matthew 6:21

Our needs as human beings are quite simple–food, shelter, clothes, and relationships. If we strip away all the extraneous “stuff” of life and focus on the basics, then life begins to look quite different. We find ourselves equipped to really live each precious minute.

Whoever and whatever you value–that’s where your time, your attention, your focus, your money, and your heart will be. To keep a Simple Lent spend some time this week reflecting on the three scripture passages above and on whom and what you treasure.

Choose wisely; if you do not, your heart will surely be fragmented, broken, and battered by the storms of this world.

Photo by Alice Popkorn. Thanks!

Simple Lent Begins

Today is the first day of Lent. I’ve taken a short break from the blog due to an overly busy schedule and the need to prepare for this series–Simple Lent.

For those of you who don’t keep Lent there will still be much of value for you in this 40 day series. Do keep checking in. The emphasis will be on examining identity and on simplifying life by stripping away non-essentials to live the days you are given fully and joyfully.

Ashes: Reminder and New Beginning

This day in the liturgical Christian tradition is Ash Wednesday. Priests and pastors will rub the ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday palms into each person’s forehead in the shape of a cross. This simple act with its words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” illustrates the reality that our time here on earth is fleeting.

Every year my spouse and I undertake the duty of burning the palms and preparing the ashes for our congregations. One can buy ashes–sifted, smooth, and silky–for Ash Wednesday, but somehow it doesn’t seem right to purchase them. Just as life must be lived and cannot be bought, so too the palms should be burned, the ashes sifted and pulverized. It is dirty work, humble work, and in a way, holy work. The joy of Palm Sunday is reduced to a tiny pile of dust, changed in form and reduced to almost nothing. As I said, it is humbling to witness.

Burning the ashes raises a question that is also a lament: Why do we so complicate our time and our lives? This question has been asked through the ages, and unfortunately is nothing new. British poet William Wordsworth wrote “The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/Little we see in nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The cross of ashes sears into our soul the bittersweet news that time is elusive and fleeting. Our days are short and are made for more than getting and spending, more than rushing here and there, and more than turning inward to focus on our temporary existence of flesh and bone.

The soul seeks more. The soul is the self burned away, the beautiful remainder of our identity as created beings designed for relationship, for love, and for sharing.

This day, whether you bear the ashen cross on your forehead or whether you simply reflect on your life and its meaning, commit to a 40 day process of stripping away that which is nonessential. Accept the invitation to reduce the adiaphora of your life to ashes.

Remember, from ashes mixed with good soil new life may spring. The seed may grow, flower, and bear fruit. But nothing new will ever grow if the detritus of life covers and chokes the garden.

What is your hope? What are your dreams? What is essential? Ask the questions. Strip away the layers. Welcome to Simple Lent.

Thanksliving Activity:

Here’s one of my favorite songs by the group Casting Crowns. “American Dream” addresses the question of what’s really important and what matters. What is your dream? To what do you cling? What legacy are you building?

 

Photos by dennysmagikland and auntjojo. Thanks!