Updated: Feb 24
"If Lent is all about doing more, forget that. I'm worn out already! I don't need more items to add to my to do list!" When it comes to the season we call "Lent," that's usually my first reaction. Not only that, I don't want to do Lent because I'm resistant to becoming more aware. Any time I spend more time with the Source of all Breath, the Creator awakens my senses. I become more God aware. I become more self aware. I become more aware of Redeemer's hopes and dreams. I become more aware of ways I disappoint. I become more aware of the world's dysfunction and my own. I become more aware of the groans arising from persons buried beneath rubble caused by earthquakes resulting from sin. I become more aware of brokenness and alienation. When I hear the word lent, all I want to do is cry! "Lord, Jesus! I can't do Lent!"
Instead of working harder to become somebody I'm not yet, I have learned to view the journey of Lent more like a prayerful time to pray and practice becoming childlike.
For example, what does it look like to prayerfully play at embodying the two great commandments Jesus of Nazareth taught?
"You must love the Lord you God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
(Matthew 22:37-39, "New Living Translation of the Bible.").
What would happen if we looked at the two great commandments and the journey of becoming Christlike less like actions we achieve and more like ways of playing with Big Brother Jesus?
Along these lines, I invite you to think back to your childhood. What was one of your favorite ways to play? When I recall an enjoyable way to play, I think back to when I was seven years old. Dad placed a basketball goal above the garage a short distance away from my brother Bryan's and my bedroom window. Except for when I was in school, I used to go outside rain or shine, hot or cold, and shoot ball from sun rise to sunset. Like on Saturday mornings, I used to wake up early in the morning and go next door to my ten year old neighbor's house. I usually woke up his parents by ringing the door bell, waiting for someone to answer, and then asking, "Can Mark come outside and play some basketball?" Mark was an excellent athlete. He taught me how to dribble and how to shoot a set shot and a jump shot. He taught me how to pass and how to play defense. Later on Saturday mornings, other guys from Rawlings Heights, Maryland where I grew up until the age of thirteen, would gather at our house to play some b-ball. They ranged in age from seven to twelve. Usually, we played three on three. Playing basketball lifted my soul soaring higher than I could shoot and the birds could fly.
So, one good way I enjoy practicing Lent occurs when I forget I'm sixty-three and go to Asheboro Y.M.C.A. to shoot some ball! When I go to the Y., it's all about playing ball! I spend the first thirty minutes on the treadmill and about fifteen minutes stretching and doing other warming up exercises. Then I travel back in time. I lose myself running around the court practicing a variety of shots and moves. Every now and then, I'll play a game with some other guys. I lose track of time... When I'm finished, sometimes I walk to the weight room and lift some free weights, just enough to maintain strength so I can make consistent three's past the N.B.A. line. Then I change into my swim trunks, swim a few laps, and calm down.
After I play hard exercising my body, my breathing is more relaxed. I feel more at peace. It's like I take a swim in the means of grace empowering me to let go and trust God more.
Even though I don't plan on entering into deep conversations when I'm at the Y., ,my why has a way of showing up any way, any where. Indeed, I think this has something to do with the mystery of taking care of my body. Taking care of my body helps me take care emotionally and taking care of my emotions connects me more with the presence of the vine we call Holy Spirit. Taking care helps me become more aware of other persons around me including the stranger I have yet to know.
For instance, recently as soon as I entered the locker room in my soaking wet swimming trunks, I heard someone shout across the way, "Bart!" I looked up and saw the young adult I met a couple of weeks earlier. "Hey Cole!" I said. "How's it going?" "It's going well," he said. "How's it going with you?" "Better," I answered, "now that my work out is done!" Cole said, "I better get to the weight room to work out!" "Good to see you," I said.
As I took a shower, I remembered the first time conversation I had with Cole in the locker room a couple of weeks prior. As we were both getting ready to work out, I looked at Cole, noticed he was pretty muscular and said, "You look like you enjoy lifting weights." He said, "I'm not so sure I enjoy it, but it's something I gotta do!" "You gotta do it? Why's that?"
"I hope to be a SEAL one day," he said. "A SEAL?" "Yea," Cole answered. "I'm having to push as hard as I can to get ready!" "I understand," I said. "My nephew is in the Navy. He almost became a SEAL. He made it to week four, the week that is one long drill other wise known as Hell Week!" "Yea," Cole said. "I've heard a lot about it!" I responded, "When my nephew was in training, he hurt his ankle real bad during week three. It was the kind of injury that was very hard to ignore. He was concerned he was holding back his team. He hated to ring the bell and admit that he was not ready to become a SEAL. It broke his heart! He went all the way to do his very best. I read somewhere that everyone who survives the fourth week of intense SEAL training ends up with some kind of life time injury. Instead of a SEAL, my nephew became a Naval Aviation Rescue Swimmer. He loved it! A few years after he was stationed in Hawaii, he decided that he wanted to become a pilot. He entered officers's training, graduated first in his class, and is stationed in Florida now doing aviation training. I think he'll find out in about a year what plane or helicopter he'll be flying."
Cole paid very close attention. He seemed focused and determined. He said, "I'm going to do my very best to make it!" I said, "That reminds me of something my nephew, Taylor, told me. He said, The more I train, the more I realize that training is more about the mind than the body! If I train my mind, then I can train my body to do anything. What I envision, I can do. Keeping a clear focus makes all the difference!
I said, "I often wondered what it would be like to go all out! I'm a follower of Jesus and I believe we can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens us. I believe our Father God acts through Jesus to help us be all we can be!" Cole got real excited and said, "I'm a Christian too. Being a Christian gives me the strength to do what I do!"
"For instance," he said. "I was swimming the other day, doing deep diving exercises. I was trying to swim underwater two lengths of the pool. Right at the very end, I started to run out of breath and I asked Jesus to breathe for me. The prayer gave me the extra boost to complete my goal."
I told him, "That makes me think of something that may help you with your training. Have you ever heard of contemplative prayer or centering prayer?" "No," he said. I said, "I think if you learn this way of prayer, it will help slow down your breathing, and help you keep your focus on God with you. No matter how vigorous the exercise, I think this way of prayer will help you during Hell Week too!"
He leaned forward and his eyes got real big. "Tell me how to do it," he said. "It's pretty simple. Think of a sacred word from the scriptures. Every time you have a thought or a feeling whatever the thought or feeling, gently focus your attention back on the sacred word. This will remind you that you are spending time with God. Your mind will wander and wonder, no problem! Gently focus your attention back upon the sacred word. At the end of this way of prayer, envision telling God thank you! A lot of times, I envision saying Thank You by giving Jesus a big hug." Cole smiled and said, "You know something? I'm going to give that a try." I said, "I think it will help you get through Hell Week because I think it will help you not feel trapped in your state of exhaustion or misery. It's a way of letting Jesus carry the burden for you! Also, when you're having to swim underwater for a very long time, this way of prayer will slow your heart beat too and help you not get trapped in a space of anxiety."
Cole looked at me and said, "I think God worked it out for me to meet you today!" I told him, "I feel the same way."
During this season of Lent that started a couple of days ago, I have thought a lot about what my conversation with Cole teaches about the journey of becoming Christ-like. Lent is not about trying harder to make ourselves better. It's more about practicing the means of grace that immerse us in the presence of God and remind us to invite the living Christ Jesus, the One God raised from the dead, to breathe through us.
Practicing habits that help us prayerfully play with Big Brother Jesus in the waters we call grace, the gift of God's unconditional love, opens up our imaginations to realize God goes before us to provide resources enabling us to respond and become all our Holy Father God envisions us to be.
God goes before us to help us embody the two great commandments. More than resembling hard work, practicing the disciplines that help us become Christlike looks a lot like children prayerfully playing in a lake or an ocean or a swimming pool at the Y.M.C.A.
A PRAYER FOR LENT
Holy Lover, sometimes I feel like I'm going to drown from treading water. I want to deny the tears of humanity! I want to fight the tears of humanity! I want to hide from the tears of humanity! I don't like Gethsemane! I don't like the cross! I don't like Lent! Dear God, if Lent looks like adding more and more weight to the burdens I bench press, all in an effort to be like Jesus, I don't want to be like Jesus!
If I have to achieve the two great commandments to be faithful, I'll take a vacation instead!
Come Holy Spirt like gentle rain or roaring river! Immerse me in seasons of grace so I may dare to die to self and rise in Christ!
Divine Surfer, teach me how to ride the waves! Teach me how to float on my back trusting baptismal waters to carry me in streams of righteousness. Lover of children, show me ways Lent can be pregnant with moments of play and pray.
Holy streams, carry me into communion, community, conversion. May our all encompassing focus be inspired by the two great commandments!
(A picture of our son, Ryan, and our grandson, Daniel, at High Rock Lake in Lexington, North Carolina taken in 2021)