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Monday, March 7, 2011

Take up the Wood: A Green Lent

As a spring thaw moved into New England over the weekend, I arose today with determination to get outside into the vast nature preserves around the retreat house. Scents from the soil told me that the earth was awakening from its enforced frozen slumber. Tree buds were becoming swollen giving hints of their soon-to-be fullness. I stood and mused about the direction I would take on my early morning walk. I decided to forego vigorous walking in favor of doing a little spring cleaning.

As Lent is upon us, I decided to take a traditional route of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. I tried to be creative over the past few years in my Lenten observance and while my practices have been meaningful and personal, a traditional approach can never hurt. Therefore, I will fast on Ash Wednesday and Fridays and I will abstain from meats on Fridays. Actually, I do that every year. This year I am making grand plans to abstain from meat for the entire season and to limit my portions more strictly. The biggest sacrifice will be to abstain from snacking on certain types of foods in between meals. I plan to do it, not because Christ asked me to do it, but because I need a more sensible dietary practice. O.K. So much for holy sacrifices. I could put a holier spin on it, but that is dishonest.

I decided that my greater Lenten devotion this year is to clear the brush away from the Stations of the Cross at the Retreat House. The woods are overgrown and the Stations are inaccessible. Insidious bittersweet vines are choking the life out of hardy trees. I want to liberate those trees from the attachments that suck the life out of them. I want to make the Stations available for retreatants who come to walk the way of Christ.

Each of us has to pick up his or her cross and heave it onto less than sturdy shoulders. What better way to go through Lent than picking up dead wood and hauling it away? It is difficult work. I am already cut and bruised by the branches that refuse to give, but I am determined to clear out what no longer belongs.

The Stations of the Cross are located in a swampy tract of land at the entrance to the retreat house. The thick woods look foreboding and many a retreatant has asked, "where are the Stations?" From the retreat house, you cannot tell there is anything but a menacing, uninviting overgrown forest. Pruning has not been done in many seasons. No one can walk the Stations because the metal posts have rotted and the markers have fallen to the ground.

My first pass through was to clear a passageway that could provide a devotional worshipper with a clearer path of entry. I began to trim some of the overgrown bushes. Cutting them back makes them look manageable in scale. Then I trimmed the edges of the pathway that are sprouting new growth that covers any signs of tracks.

My plans were soon enlarged when I became entangled in the insidious vines that are choking creation. On some bushes, I can't even figure out where to begin because the formidable vines cut into me. I think about walking away because that would be easier. No one has paid attention to the mess in years. Why should I do so now? What sort of masochist am I? I don't want to be defeated.

As I tear into the vines, I discover that I am most effective if I take the tinier parts of the vine first. If I clear out a passageway, I can soon discover where the roots are located. Eventually, I can strike the root and check the vines' progress. Patience with my methodology will tell me if I'm on the right track. I realize that it will take much time, more than I want to give it, because it is designed to ensnare. It builds duplicate feeding systems so that if I sever one artery, another one will nourish the plant. This is going to be a project where I commit many hours of my resources knowing that the deck of cards is stacked against me.

I see that these vines are representing the sin of the world and that sin is so endemic to our human institutions that no one person can be victorious. Each of us is defeated because of sin. No one can save himself or herself from the deconstructing spiral of sin. Even a large dedicated group of people seem to have no commanding effect upon sin. The vine will also find a way to come back in new and clever ways.

Addictions are extremely devastating. Many people will say that becoming sober was the most difficult act they ever did. Others say smoking was horrendous to beat. Gambling is a silent killer. Sex and love addicts struggle to retain control over their behaviors. The newest forms of addiction seem to be pervasive and the most virulent: technology addictions, including online pornography. Each of these addictions go to the root of our human strengths and weaknesses. We seldom give much respect to the power of our sexual natures.

In the church, many people are unwilling to talk about our sexual nature unless it is only discussed within the extreme ideals of church documents. Being at ease with sexuality helps us dealing with our predicaments. Many penitents confess the sin of masturbation over and over again without a deepening examination of their belief systems. Many penitents focus on the clinical act he or she committed without a more expansive regard of the relationship system that was violated. Sexual sins are sins because they affect human relationships.

Disordered attachments are also like vines. Life's experiences form us. Each of us has some part of our formation that is incomplete or undeveloped. We get hooked by our psychological and emotional needs and we act out of them. We sometimes don't even know why we act in certain ways. We are blind to areas and if we do have sight and insight, we may be powerless to do anything about it. We are wounded in some way. If we don't allow our wounds to be transformed, then we transmit them.

When we add my personal sin to your personal sin, we have social sin and these larger sins are more difficult to transform. Social systems, institutions, governments, and all human infrastructures are besieged by our social sins and they are as unrestrained as the vines that choke the healthy plants beneath them.

Why do we try? Because a beautiful tree lies underneath it. The solitary tree is worth saving. It has beauty (especially if it is damaged) and dignity and potential. It deserves to live as fully as it can, even if it cannot reach the height of a California redwood. Life is better lived when it is unimpeded and cleared of unwanted obstacles. This is why I try.

I realize I am not doing this work alone. I am standing together with Christ - face to face, arm in arm. He has a dream for each of us where there is no more violence, killing, or starvation - of plants or people. Nothing is to waste away. Sure, it is just an idea, but an idea needs flesh, and the time is now.

Christ can hear his brothers and sisters cry out, "I want to live. I want to grow. I want to see. I want to know. I want to share what I can give because I have something good to contribute. I want to be beheld and respected. I want to do more than dream. I want to take steps to make my dream come true."

This is why I try.

This is why my boots get muddy and my feet get cold from the soaking ice puddles. This is why I get scratched and wince in pain. This is why I tug at the thick tree-like branches that wrap parasitically around a defenseless tree. My blisters will heal. My cuts will fade. My feeling of being "a fool" will cease when Christ and I look back on our efforts and we see a tree standing taller, standing straighter. My folly will seem like wisdom when people can see Christ in his Stations and realize they too have to one day pick up their own cross of wood. My delight will be when others can see a clearer pathway to him.

At the end of this day, I'm tired. New muscles ache, but it is a good pain. It is a pain from knowing that the possible results will be worth the effort. Striving is always the better route. As I look at the approaching Ash Wednesday, I realize my Lent will be green. If I can pick up one more stick each day, the forest will be clearer for me and for others. It seems daunting right now. I dream of what it will look like on Easter morning.