Vulnerability and authenticity

Lent 2B
Mark 8:31-38

From time to time, Bishops will issue “Pastoral Letters” to their dioceses.  By Canon Law, when this happens, it is the responsibility of Rectors and other clergy in charge to see that these letters are faithfully presented to the congregations of the diocese.  This week we received one of these letters from Bishop Hughes.  One of the ways that distribution happens is by reading the letters from our Bishop in church – which I’ll do in just a moment.  In addition to that, this letter will also appear in our monthly newsletter that will be released later this week.  Hear now, from Bishop Hughes.

Dear Companions on the Journey,

How shall we keep a Holy Lent this year? It will help to start with where we are right now.

In some ways, it feels as if Lent never ended last year. In March 2020, we entered the wilderness of pandemic. While we have grown accustomed to living with COVID19, we also carry the sorrow of so many lives lost, along with the loss of our way of life. It has been a hard year marked by tragic death, historic conflict, racial killings, economic upheaval, and the never-ending worry about the unknown.

Grief may be one of the most underestimated responses in this year of pandemic. At this writing 502,000 Americans have died of COVID19. So many funerals we could not attend. Countless memorial services waiting to be scheduled post-pandemic. We also grieve who we thought we were, a country of people who could unite and conquer any foe. Our nation’s inability to work together created a landscape of unnecessary death. Division has lengthened the time we have spent in the wilderness of pandemic, racial strife, economic distress, and political conflict.

Many of us are working or studying at home. Fortunately, many of us stayed well. We have been generous with ourselves and our resources to make sure others have food, friendship, and our prayers. We have learned how to volunteer from our living rooms. And those who are able, have run errands for those who cannot safely do so themselves. We are getting through this. We have adapted to pandemic and we are grieving.

Grief has become a defining characteristic of this time and we are slow to recognize its presence. We tend to say and believe we are “okay” if our life is safe and our family members are well. Yet, we are the body of Christ. We feel losses in the body because compassion is a defining characteristic of our faith. Compassion makes us wonder how others are doing, brings tears to our eyes when we know of suffering, motivates us to care beyond our tight circle of family and friends. Compassion makes us more like Jesus.

How are we to keep these forty days dedicated to God? We could start by bringing our authentic selves rather than an aspirational self into the presence of God. When Jesus heard of John the Baptist’s death, he went to a desolate place to be by himself (Matthew 14:13). Could it be that shock and sadness motivated him to be alone in sorrow and prayer? What happened in the short time that he travelled and arrived in a desolate place to restore his compassion for the crowd that soon followed? While we can imagine the scene, we cannot know for sure what took place in his time alone, but one thing is certain, Jesus was his authentic self.

Every year we are invited to observe a holy Lent. This year, I encourage you to bring your authentic self into Lenten observations. Your grief, gratefulness, sorrow, relief, anger, frustration, hopefulness, and all that is your response to this time are invited to observe Lent with you. The practices of Lent found in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 265) require facing the truths of this challenging time. While this is hard spiritual work, it is also freeing spiritual work. God loves us as we are and will not leave us stranded in wilderness or grief.

I know God is calling us to be a new kind of church for the future. A church that sees the hungry crowd in need of healing and is moved by compassion to respond the way Jesus did. Perhaps Lent in this long wilderness of pandemic is shaping us into authentic followers of Jesus Christ. Our sorrows and sighs may take us to a desolate place on the way to finding the promise of God’s healing and restoration.

You have my prayers for a holy and authentic Lent.

Grace and peace,
Bishop Hughes

One of the things that I’ve come to respect most about Bishop Hughes is that she has this never-failing ability to reframe conversations and situations that help me to see the world in renewed ways.  This year, I’m particularly grateful for her focus on authenticity in our Lenten observance – bringing our whole selves to this season of deepening communion with God.

Earlier this week, in a meeting with the clergy of the diocese, Bishop Hughes posed the question to us that she has been posing in her parish visitations for the past year.  She asked, simply, “How are you doing?”, but her question came with the injunction that we were to be honest – to avoid platitudes, and to really think about our answers.

As I thought about it, my first response was, “I’m okay.”  Just like she said in the letter.  But, as I thought about it more, I realized that maybe “okay” wasn’t entirely honest.  This has been a challenging year for all of us, and it’s dishonest for me to act like that’s not true for me, too.  I am okay – at least in this moment.  I’m okay in most moments you might ask me that question.  But it’s not the whole truth.  I’m okay, but I do notice that get angry faster than I used to.  I’m okay, but I’ve been getting sad more easily than I used to.  I am okay, but I’m more often afraid than I used to be.  I’m okay, but if I’m entirely honest, sometimes it’s a little harder for me to pray than it used to be.  This doesn’t mean that I’m falling apart – I’m making my way through this slow-moving, long-lasting global tragedy about as well as anyone, I think.  But to ignore the whole truth is a disservice to me and to everyone I love and serve.

As your priest, it doesn’t help anyone for me to put up a veneer of perfection.  That’s not what I’ve been called to do.  I’m not a perfect priest.  I’m not a perfect Christian.  And that’s not what any of us are supposed to be.  Instead, my job is to be on this journey with you.  And your job is to be on this journey with other Christians, too.  This part of our journey is a little rougher than some other parts.  And that’s okay.  And we’re okay, even if where we are is not entirely, perfectly okay.

In the Gospel passage that we read this morning, we have an example of Jesus sharing hard truths: following him will often be hard.  There will be suffering and rejection.  Peter challenged him on that, and urged him not to be quite so honest.  We often have the same pressures in the church.  We feel pressure to paint rosy pictures and to keep up appearances.  But the fact is, following Christ is still sometimes hard.  It’s not all potluck dinners and feeling bathed in the warm love of Christ.  And when we deny that truth we aren’t being honest and we aren’t being authentic.

Lent is a time to lay it bare.  It’s a time to feel things that are hard to feel and to face truths that are hard to face.  It’s a time to bring our most honest, most naked and vulnerable selves to our faith, and to let the inauthenticity that keeps us from being the truest representations of the people God created us to be die, and in its place to let our best selves be resurrected with Christ in the image of God.

The first step is to see the ways that we’re not okay.  To be honest, and not just putting our best face forward.  Because here’s the truth – God loves even those ugliest and most detestable parts of ourselves.  God loves the ways we need to grow as much as the ways we have grown.  God won’t love us more for trying to be better versions of ourselves – because God couldn’t love us more.  But it may be easier for us to love ourselves if we’re a little more honest with ourselves.  This year, may this Lent be a time for us to become more of ourselves – as God intends.  Amen.