Almost every Lent, I return to Walter Brueggemann’s essay, “Remember, you are dust.” I return because I need to know all over again that God remembers that I’m dust, and that that remembering awakens in him not judgment but profound compassion.
“As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him, for he knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust.” (Ps 103:13-14)
Lent is a season of repentance and renewal. It’s a season I need—a season, maybe, we all need?—a time to return and remember once again who God is and who we are. But perhaps precisely because of our brokenness which makes us need Lent so badly, we can turn it into a season that more deeply ingrains the patterns from which we need to be freed, just in a different form. We can make Lent about trying harder to please God—maybe, even, trying to earn his approval—rather than turning toward him and letting his gentleness open us up to live in the love that is already ours.
“Lent is about love,” spiritual theology professor Bruce Hindmarsh reminds us. It’s about paying attention to God’s love and giving him ours, hearing and responding to God’s plea repeated through the Old Testament prophets, “Return to Me.” Jesus echoes the call to come close in different words, “Live in me. Make your home in me. . . Make yourselves at home in my love” (John 15:4,9, The Message).
We are all different, and in each season of our lives, God’s specific invitation may be different. For some people, some years, God’s invitation may come as a call to weep and to fast. For others, the call may be to turn from trying to prove ourselves worthy. To trust that, as Jesus said, “It is finished.” To return to the love that calls and let ourselves rest there. Whatever the details of this year’s invitation may be, the core invitation is always the same: “Return to Me. Live still more deeply in My love.”
A Horse and Two Owners
As I was praying a week or so before Lent, a picture came which I’m still living in. It helps me open to God’s deep knowing and tender love of me. I share it in case it helps you too.
In the first frame, a horse is tightly bridled, head pulled back sharply so she can’t properly breathe or freely run. She shakes her head, trying to rid herself of the bit in her mouth, and receives a sharp pull on the reins. Her rider doesn’t hesitate to use spurs and a whip. He shouts and demands. The horse is tense and jumpy and frightened, easily startled, quick to bolt. Though she has every reason to want to buck the rider off her back, it’s not her intent. She’s just tense and frightened and unable to help the responses of her nervous system.
In the second frame, the same horse is in a pasture, relaxed and free, able to breathe and graze and roll in the grass. Her new owner loves his horse and she loves him, feels safe with him. He knows her sensitivity, her quickness to startle—and, rather than impatience, her sensitivity awakens in him the greatest depths of his gentleness. Often he comes and strokes her nose and whispers tender words. Though the horse loves the freedom to rest and roll in the pasture, loves it when her owner whispers and strokes her nose, her greatest honor and delight is when he comes and says, “Shall we?” and together they run, fast as the wind, him on her back. For this she was made. He rides bareback, so in tune with the horse that he can feel the slightest tension and whisper a word of comfort or calm her with a touch. Likewise, a slight nudge is all she needs to know what he wants, and she follows instantly because she trusts him implicitly. There’s no need for a saddle or spurs or a whip. And as I watch, I see how, in the right hands, her weakness becomes strength, her sensitivity a delight to them both.
A Return to God
Lent is not about a return to rules, but a return to God—the God who loves us and desires to set us free. As Kevin O’Brien, S.J., says,
“God seeks to free us from everything that gets in the way of loving ourselves, others, and God. The focus is not simply naming our sins, which can itself become a form of self-preoccupation. Instead, we focus on who God is and who we are before God. With this orientation, we discover the source of our liberation: the boundless mercy of God. (The Ignatian Adventure, p. 97)
The writer to Hebrews says a similar thing:
Therefore, 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. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb 12:1-3)
Do you hear it? Throwing off entangling sins and hindrances is a key part of being able to run. But we persevere in running the race by fixing our attention not on the hindrances but on the One who loves us at the cost of his own life—and who does so for the joy of union with us.