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We think of Lent as being all about sacrifice, but it can also be about joy.
I was only in Washington, D.C., for the day. Yet I couldn’t leave without visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I had read and heard about it, but I’d never seen the wall myself. That it was the beginning of Lent made the visit more urgent, for isn’t Lent all about life and death, sacrifice and renewal?
A gray sky shed a coat of drizzle. I pulled my collar tight and descended a sloping sidewalk. There it was, the wailing wall of my generation.
As far as the eye could see, the black stone was carved with name after name of soldiers who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Behind each name was a bereaved widow, an anguished mother, a fatherless child.
At my feet lay a dozen roses, soggy and frosty from the weather. A girlfriend or wife had come to say, “I still remember.” A couple walked behind me. They were looking for a name and had a map. “Did you find it?” I heard the woman ask. “Every name has a reference number.”
True, I thought. Every name does have a number, and sooner or later every number is called.
For a moment I relaxed my focus and stared at the shiny stone. As I did, I saw myself, my own reflection, reminding me that I too have been dying as long as I have been living. I too will someday have my name carved on a stone.
Lent is that season when we stare directly at our own mortality. We make tiny sacrifices of our own to recall the incomparable sacrifice Christ made for us. It might all sound quite dreary, except on the other side of Lent is the enormous spiritual crescendo of Easter.
Jesus unmasked death and exposed it for what it really is–a 98-pound weakling dressed up in a Charles Atlas suit. I don’t doubt that at the end of that first Good Friday, the disciples thought, What a waste of a life. If they could only have seen what was coming. But to them the hour was too dark.
In my work as an author and pastor I remind people that God can use tough times to help us accomplish great things. I’ll be in my office listening to a woman whose husband just told her he wants a divorce. She takes a tissue from the box on my desk and sobs, asking questions I don’t have answers for.
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What she needs more than anything is a word of hope. “God is at his best when our life is at its worst,” I tell her. We learn much more from our trials than from periods of happiness. “Get ready,” I say to her. “You may be in for a surprise.”
Do you need the same reminder? Stay close to God’s people when you’re in despair. God’s right there even if you can’t see him. That’s the message of Lent and the Resurrection.
Years ago, my wife, Denalyn, was fighting depression. Her life was loud and busy–three kids in elementary school and a husband who didn’t know how to get off the airplane and stay home. The days took their toll, each one grayer than the last.
Depression can buckle the knees of the best of us; it can be especially difficult for the wife of a pastor. Congregants expect her to radiate joy. They want her to be superhuman. But Denalyn, to her credit, has never been one to play games.
One Sunday when the depression was suffocating, when she could barely drag herself and the kids to church, she armed herself with honesty. If people ask me how I am doing, I’m going to tell them, she thought.
Friends, acquaintances, church members she hardly knew, came up to her and said, “Good to see you. How are you doing?”
She didn’t hedge. To every questioner she was candid. “Not well,” she said. “I’m depressed. Feeling completely overwhelmed. Will you pray for me?”
Obligatory chats became conversations. Brief hellos became heartfelt moments. By the time she left that day she had enlisted dozens of people to hold her up in prayer and to look out for her. She was not alone.
Denalyn traces the healing of her depression to that Sunday morning service. On her darkest day she found God’s presence among God’s people.
My father, a man of rock-solid faith, would have understood. No one had quite as much goodness as Dad. He worked as a mechanic in the oil fields of West Texas. Never finished high school, never went to college, but he learned the important skills in life.
He knew how to listen, how to love. His younger brother, my uncle Carl, was unable to hear or speak. Nearly all of his 60-plus years were spent in silence. Few people in the hearing world knew how to communicate with him in sign language.
Dad did. He took the trouble to master American Sign Language so he could communicate with his brother. Let Dad enter the room and Carl’s face would brighten. The two would find a corner and the hands would fly. Carl’s huge smile left no doubt that he was grateful.
Love is about listening and Dad listened to Carl.
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Dad retired in his late sixties and he and Mom bought a travel trailer. Their plan was to see every national park in the country. As for me, I dreamed of doing mission work with Denalyn in Brazil.
I had finished college, gotten married, become a minister and served a church in Florida for two years. Finally we were ready.
Then my world darkened. Dad was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a cruel and fatal neuromuscular condition. Within months he was unable to feed, dress or bathe himself. His world, as he knew it, was gone.
I wrote him a letter, saying that Denalyn and I had decided not to go to Brazil. We needed to take care of him and be with Mom. He wrote back, just two words that looked almost carved into the paper: “No! Go!” with big exclamation points. He had no fear of where he was going.
I prayed and prayed that God would heal him. I expected a miracle, demanded one. I remember driving out into the country near Mom and Dad’s, looking up to the huge Texas sky, pleading with God for healing. That’s what God did for those he loved, right?
We went to Brazil and I still struggled with my doubts. Dad was getting worse, just as the doctors had said. I was bewildered, angry, as hopeless as the disciples on that first Good Friday.
Dad kept trying to teach me. He wrote what would be his last letter to us before the disease took his handwriting away. Angled lines. Irregular letters and inconsistent spacing.
“Max, you and Denalyn always stick together, whatever happens...I hope to see you all again on earth–if not, I will in heaven. Lots of love, Dad.”
I flew back and sat by his bed. He slept for most of those last days, awakening only when my mother would bathe him or change his sheets. Next to him was a respirator–a metronome of mortality that pushed air into his lungs through a hole in his throat.
The bones in his hand protruded like spokes in an umbrella. All he could move was his head and his eyes.
I was watching a movie on TV while Dad dozed. “Max, your dad’s awake,” Mom said. Her words seemed to come from another world. I turned toward my father. His eyes called me over to his side. I sat on the edge of his bed and ran my hands over his barreled rib cage.
I put my hand on his forehead. It was hot and damp. I stroked his hair. “What is it, Dad?”
He wanted to say something. His eyes refused to release me. If I glanced away for a moment, they followed me and were still looking when I looked back. “What is it?” Suddenly I knew. I’d seen that expression before.
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I was seven years old. Standing on the edge of a diving board for the first time, terrified I wouldn’t survive the plunge. The board dipped under my 70 pounds.
I looked behind me at the kids who were pestering me to hurry up and jump. I wondered what they would do if I asked them to move over so I could get down. Tar and feather me, I supposed.
Caught between ridicule and a jump into certain death, I stood there and shivered. Then I heard him: “It’s all right, son. Come on in.” I looked down. He had dived in. He was treading water, awaiting my jump.
I could see his tanned face, his bright eyes assuring and earnest. Had he not said a word they would have conveyed the message. But he did speak. “Jump. It’s all right.” So I jumped.
Twenty-three years later the tan was gone and the face was drawn. But the eyes were still bold and their message hadn’t changed. He knew I was afraid. He perceived I was shivering as I looked into the deep. And somehow, he, the dying, had the strength to comfort me, the living.
I placed my cheek in the hollow of his cheek. My tears dripped on his hot face. I said what he wanted to but couldn’t.
“It’s all right,” I whispered. “It’s going to be all right.” When I raised my head, his eyes were closed. I would never see them open again. He left me with a final look, one last statement of the eyes, one concluding assurance from a father to a son: “It’s all right.”
Staring at my reflection in the Vietnam Memorial wall I was suddenly aware of my own eyes staring back at me almost like my father’s eyes. We face our fears, we grow in our struggle, adversity deepens our faith.
There is always something wonderful and surprising around the corner on earth and beyond. That is the sacrificial truth of Lent, the music that builds to the miracle of the Resurrection.