Preparing for a Holy Lent

Last Sunday After Epiphany – February 11, 2018

2nd Kings 2:1-12;  2nd Corinthians 4:3-6;   Mark 9:2-9

            We’ve just read the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark, where, on a mountaintop, Peter, James, and John who were with Jesus saw him transformed into an unearthly manifestation, and then saw Moses and Elijah talking to him. As Mark tells it, after the experience was over and Jesus and the three disciples were on their way down, Jesus “ordered” the three not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he was raised from the dead. The next verse, just beyond today’s reading, says that the three speculated about what Jesus meant about being raised from the dead, but for a moment, let’s focus on Jesus’ instruction not to tell anyone what they had seen until the right time, for it gives us an opportunity to think about the matter of telling others about our religious experiences, and what we should share when we do so.

            As a way of getting into this, consider this report from one young mother whose name was Mary:

There is a funny social dance that happens when parents from her daughter’s elementary school got together (not EDS, by the way). Mary said she noticed it at the end-of-year gathering of the Parent Teacher Association. They were all chatting over hors d’oeuvres about summer plans. The woman next to Mary bought a pool membership. “You’ll never get your kids on the swim team if you’re not at the pool every day in the summer,” she told me.  Mary reflected that she had no idea the swim team should be an aspiration for her child. Another mother nodded in agreement and told me she’d also signed up for some literacy tutoring for her child for the summer — “... they can lose a whole reading level over the summer!” she exclaimed. I had planned to sign up for the summer reading program at the local public library but didn’t know that other people went beyond that. Finally, a mom across the table from me told us all about the beach house she and her extended family rent for a week and a half. Although the property is right on the beach, it’s very important that it also has a pool and is walking distance from the boardwalk. When Mary’s family goes to the beach, it’s at a state park and there are no boardwalks or pools.

            Mary went on to say that she left the event feeling small and unworthy of the companionship of fellow parents, who seemed to have everything all figured out and the resources to manage it all — time, money and energy. In fact, she felt so insignificant that she didn’t talk about any of the things her family planned to do together over the summer break. She said, “I didn’t mention that this year we had tried to be intentional about not over-committing ourselves so that we could have a slower pace of life. I didn’t tell anyone about the low-cost or free programs I had registered my kids for during summer months, not just because we couldn’t afford a pool membership (though they couldn’t) or a private literacy tutor (they couldn’t afford that, either), but because we value unstructured time, imagination,, creativity and long days with little else to do but read.”

            She felt embarrassed, naive and like she didn’t fit in. “In spite of spending two hours with people who were her neighbors, the people with kids the same age as hers, people she should have a lot in common with, she felt lonely,” she said.

            Have you ever been in a situation like that, where you get a glimpse into other people’s lives but see only the very best parts ….the shiny bits, the neatly ordered pieces, the glossy cover show? Not one parent this mother listened to that day gushed about how long she had to save to afford a pool membership, or that she was actually paying for that high-end summer camp with credit cards. Everyone shared the flashiest, most enviable parts of his or her life, and allowed everyone else a glimpse.  Social media gives everyone this type of platform.  When we edit our lives to let others see only what can be easily and superficially judged as “successful,” we invite others to become voyeurs into our lives in return for a fleeting feeling of superiority.

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus warns us against boasting about what they have seen or done, just like we heard today.  Doing so creates an invisible barrier between you and your neighbors. This can make others feel just like the young mother did at the end of the dinner with other parents from her neighborhood: small, insignificant and, most of all, lonely. Our interactions with other people, and especially our acts of piety, should make us feel exactly the opposite: connected, confident and strong.

            When we invite people into only the most prideful parts of our lives, or when we shape our exterior life to match the expectations of others, we’re lying to others and ourselves about all the pain, grief, loss and sadness of life’s journey. Boasting about anything, but especially about our relationship with God, means we lose out on one of the most rewarding parts of human relationships: building a community that can carry us through the worst of life when we feel too weak to continue on our own.

I am not sure if you are familiar with TED Talks, but they are a great way to learn new ideas, new ways of thinking and are great professional development for everyone.

            A recent TED Talk titled “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success,”  by Alain De Bottom suggests that what we all strive for is to be deeply known by others, which is utterly impossible when you are consistently evaluated by superficial observations, such as what career choices you’ve made, what car you drive or what home you own or what you post on social media. This is why social media can cause such anxiety and depression for some. Social media has become the platform for redacting or editing, our lives to show only the parts that others will judge to be “successful.” In other words, social media has become the way we boast about what we want others to envy about us. By De Bottom’s analysis, this means it is impossible for others to know you deeply via social media, and if this is the medium by which most social interaction takes place, it is bound to be deeply unsatisfying.

            Perhaps this is part of why Jesus told his disciples who’d just seen his transfiguration to not start talking about it as soon as they got off the mountain. It is also what Jesus so succinctly warns against in the Sermon on the Mount. Those who boast about their relationship with God have already received their reward. What is missed is the opportunity to be deeply known by another human being.

            Of course, this does not mean we should never discuss our successes with others. The problem with this approach, of course, is that we never have an opportunity to learn from each other. There must be a middle ground.  

            I would offer that there is a middle place, one where we can love and support each other in Christian discipleship without boasting or bragging, but with an earnest desire to grow closer to God. This may take the form of small groups who share a ministry or prayer, where members agree to meet regularly to discuss life’s journey and their Christian walk with God. These relationships are not about bragging, but about encouraging fellow Christians and learning from each other. The key element is the commitment to honestly share one’s hopes and aspirations, difficulties, hurdles and even successes with brothers and sisters in Christ.

            Our earthly lives are full of happiness and angst, joy and grief. These things become more bearable when we’re honest about the less glamorous aspects of Christian discipleship. One of my realizations after so many years dealing with families who go through rough times is this:  We do a disservice to our children when we hide from them any of our struggles.  They grow up thinking grown-ups don’t have problems.  The result is that they have no model to rely on when a hurdle comes up.  Too many just have no idea how to struggle or sacrifice for the other or the good of the whole.  They only know how to turn away.  I am not advocating that husbands and wives should fight in front of their children but I am advocating that we model how we get through the hurdles and setbacks in our lives. 

Lent is a great time to get closer to God and each other.  A time for family prayer in the evening or early morning allows each to hear the other’s prayers.  That helps us know what those difficult days are about and that getting closer to God with the support of family and friends is the answer to getting through life’s challenges.  Think about what you might do this Lent.  It could be to be more authentic or vulnerable.  It might be to limit screen time or social media in order to be deeply known by your family and friends.  I can guarantee one thing.  It will be transformational just like Jesus was transformed in our gospel today!

We’re free to experience the joy of strong, fulfilling and committed relationships when we allow ourselves to be deeply and fully known to others. 

My prayer for you is a holy Lent, one that is truly transformational!  AMEN!