Lent begins this Wednesday, and, as crazy as it might sound, part of me can hardly wait. In spite of God’s repeated invitations to enter it lightly, Lent often feels like a heavy season for me. But this year there’s a longing deep within me that feels like it starts in the heart of the One who loves me.
Curious? Me too. Here’s what I know so far as we prepare to enter Lent:
I’ve never before bought a book for Lent and read seven chapters before the season starts. But the book I’ve bought this year is one where the heart of Jesus is so strong on each page that I find myself drawn back again and again and again to soak in the love I see there. The book, in case you’re wondering, is, “Gentle and Lowly,” by Dane Ortlund, and I’ll give you a glimpse of its treasures in a moment. But first I want to tell you about last Thursday morning.
I woke to a thin layer of snow where, days before, I’d spotted snowdrops and crocuses. So, instead of biking, I walked, savoring the scrunch of fresh snow beneath my feet.
As I walked, a song sang itself over and over in my soul. It had been recorded by our worship team on Christmas Eve and played on repeat again the evening before my snowy walk as we waited for a church business meeting to begin. What better way to create space for us to pause and settle, to recenter our hearts and our hope on the One for whom we wait, than to sing this prayer, whether in Advent or Lent or any other time of the year?
“For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits.
For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits.
Surely our hope is in you.”
With that Christmas Eve song still playing itself in my mind, and the fresh snow on top of the bravely blooming crocuses, it felt like the seasons were blurring. I suppose it didn’t hurt that—should I confess this?—I rolled date balls, a typically Christmas treat, while I was listening and praying and voting my way through the Zoom business meeting. Or that the huge house where the crocuses grow, the one that looks like a gingerbread house itself, still has its white twinkle lights rimming the eaves.
But it was more than the sights and sounds and tastes that caused the seasons to shift and echo and merge before me.
I heard the echo, the overlap, of the two seasons in my thoughts. The wait, the preparation, for the gift of the baby in the humble manger—and the wait, the preparation, for the gift of that babe, now man, laying down his life to birth us into himself. Two seasons, two birth stories, his leading into ours.
More still, I felt the echo, an intentional love-whisper, like the One at the center of the story was reaching to me, giving me a deeper glimpse of his heart that extends throughout all the seasons, across the ages, reaching to me on that day in that moment in that snowy, crocus-laden place.
It was the sense, even before I could put it into words, that this same God who stooped to come among us as a helpless newborn, and who entered Jerusalem “gentle and riding on a donkey” rather than a kingly war horse, still comes gently and humbly, reaching out to me in my ordinary life.
Gentle and Humble in Heart
Those hours when I felt like Advent and Lent were superimposed, drawing me deeper into the grand love story that they help to tell, took place on Thursday morning.
Later that same afternoon, the book I’d ordered to read during Lent arrived. And the first chapter? It’s on the same verses that I wrote about a few weeks ago: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest . . . . for I am gentle and humble in heart. . . .” (Matthew 11:28-30)
I’d love to share with you the whole first two chapters of the book that arrived, but barring that, here’s a bit from the first page of the first chapter:
“. . . In the four Gospel accounts given to us in Mathew, Mark, Luke and John—eighty-nine chapters of biblical text—there’s only one place where Jesus tells us about his own heart. . . And when Jesus tells us what animates him most deeply, what is most true of him—when he exposes the innermost recesses of his being—what we find there is: gentle and lowly” (Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, p. 17, bold mine).
We talk a lot here in this space about listening to the heartbeat of God. And, as Ortlund points out, “If we are asked to say only one thing about who Jesus is, we would be honoring Jesus’ own teaching if our answer is, gentle and lowly” (p. 21).
“In the one place in the Bible where the Son of God pulls back the veil and lets us peer way down into the core of who he is, we are not told that he is “austere and demanding in heart.’ We are not told that he is ‘exalted and dignified in heart.’ We are not even told that he is ‘joyful and generous in heart.’ Letting Jesus set the terms, his surprising claim is that he is ‘gentle and lowly in heart’” (18).
To understand the significance of this, we need to know this too:
“[W]hen the Bible speaks of the heart, whether Old Testament or New, it is not speaking of our emotional life only but of the central animating center of all we do. It is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what we daydream about as we drift off to sleep. It is our motivational headquarters. The heart, in biblical terms, is not part of who we are but the center of who we are. Our heart is what defines and directs us” (18, bold mine).
The Heart of Lent
This changes Lent for me, when God directs my attention first and foremost not to my own sin, or to sacrifice—mine for him, or his for me—but to the gentle love that is reaching to me in the middle of it all.1
I need this reminder as we begin Lent. Lately, I’ve been grieving my lack of compassion, seeing how far my own heart is from God’s gentle one. I’m grateful for the gift of seeing, because then I can ask Jesus to do in me what only he can do, deepening his compassion within me. But as I wait for him, I can carry that awareness of my sin and the accompanying grief heavily. And as Lent begins, it is good to be reminded that, in the end, Lent is about love. First of all, it’s about Christ’s love for me. And then, as I learn to make my home in his love, it’s about him shaping my heart to beat in rhythm with his, deepening in me his love for the world.
So, friends, whether you’re from a tradition that observes Lent or not, join me? Over these next weeks leading towards the cross and the empty tomb, let’s soak deeply in Jesus’ surprisingly gentle love, and ask him to mold our hearts to beat a little bit more in rhythm with his gentle and lowly heart.
1If you are wondering whether Ortlund’s words about Jesus’ gentleness are too good to be true, perhaps unbalanced, minimizing the fact of sin, never fear. Ortlund often quotes from seventeenth century Puritans, and there is no lack of emphasis on the reality of sin. While there are places I need to ponder, and I suspect I’d nuance some things differently, the fact that Jesus’ gentleness tugs on my heart so powerfully on most every page in the midst of this stark view of sin makes the truth of Jesus’ gentleness shine all the brighter.
P.S. Want more on God’s gentle, compassionate love that reaches to us even (especially?) in this season of Lent? Try these:
And the one I return to year after year, Dust You Are: A Call to Pay Attention, Walter Brueggemann’s words forever a gift to me.