Sunday, February 18, 2018

First Sunday of Lent: Breaking Through the Ice

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.
-Henry David Thoreau

Lent. How many of these have I been through now? I became a Christian at age fifteen so that means my first Lent was spring of 1964. Of course as a Baptist we didn’t talk much about the church year like that, but I must have known something. That was a much different religious environment than we have today.

As I grew into a broader and more “liturgical” model of the faith I learned that Lent was about sacrifice and even suffering. After all, that is what Jesus did. That comes from an attitude that we have to tame the things of the body so the things of the spirit can grow. This is an outgrowth of what amounts to a more Greek than Hebrew understanding that says:

Thoreau would probably not agree with that, at least in the ways we often mean it. I picked the quote at the top of the post for this First Sunday of Lent to bring into light the idea that heaven is more than a place we go after this life and the earth is as much a part of our heaven as heaven itself, whatever that may be. This quote comes from Chapter 16 of Walden, titled “The Pond in Winter.” The chapter begins:

I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward! Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. She has long ago taken her resolution. "O Prince, our eyes contemplate with admiration and transmit to the soul the wonderful and varied spectacle of this universe. The night veils without doubt a part of this glorious creation; but day comes to reveal to us this great work, which extends from earth even into the plains of the ether. [Emphasis added.]
Nature itself is the answered question; the glorious creation, “this great work” extends to the limits of the universe. Even in the midst of the coldest time of the year, Thoreau decided that much was going on that is the Creation itself. He continues:
Then to my morning work. First I take an axe and pail and go in search of water, if that be not a dream. … Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was so sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half… it closes its eyelids and becomes dormant for three months or more.
The pond is not just some geographic occurrence. Thoreau senses that there is life there. Even at great depths. Many thought it bottomless but he will show more than that. Later in this chapter he will tell of his method of measuring its depth through an understanding of other measurements.  He will look at the water of Walden Pond as being part of all the waters of all the earth. He will understand that in some way more mysterious than magical, all creation is connected. The pond is now like a field.

Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet is well as over our heads.

Thoreau, in chapter 16, has rediscovered the spiritual under the material. He may have been fooled for awhile by the coldness and seeming lifelessness of winter. In this morning’s awakening he has the answer. Has he cut through his winter state, as the Cliff Notes suggest? Is he now about to open up to find new insight and new spiritual direction? It would seem that way. He has, in the metaphor of looking into the window under his feet, discovered himself and his own soul, alive and well. Heaven is not just some far off place, it is accessible here.

It does take work to get there, though. He had to cut through the soft snow covering and then the thicker, solid layer. Then he can drink from the source. It does not come either naturally or even easily. Our lives, our souls, are like the water beneath Walden Pond. Covered with soft and hard layers. These are the layers we have allowed to accumulate over our spirits. These are what we have felt the need to build in order to protect something we are afraid is too fragile- or perhaps too dangerous- for us to easily touch it. Perhaps there is more to this than that as well. Or perhaps we make too much of it.

Why is is that it takes us so long to become spiritual. I don’t mean religious. We easily and willingly follow rituals, especially ones of our own making. Even those who abhor ritual will do the same things over and over in a kind of religious fervor. Those rituals can and do keep us grounded; but they can also keep us frozen in place. It is when we dig through and discover the window into who we are and what Creation is that we can move beyond ritual into the spiritual.

Don’t get me wrong. I love liturgy and ritual. That is why, even all these years after having left the ministry of preaching I am compelled every Advent and Lent to write about them, to seek new answers and new questions to explore. In that I am part of a long history, my own of 54 years as a Jesus follower and the journey of other followers of Jesus for nearly two millennia.

It has a different meaning today. It was at one point all about some sacrifice on my part. It  meant giving up something, some symbolic action that showed I was serious about being a Christian. We didn’t put it that way, of course, but that was part of what we were doing. Now I write. I pray and ponder some very simple and even simplistic prayers. In the complexity of all that is happening in the world, I need to come back down to earth. I need to look around and find God in the details of every day living and my soul under the mid-winter layer of snow and ice. That snow and ice is not always of my own making. The world pushes and prods, undermines and challenges what I understand as the things that we as Christians are to stand up for. It can get mighty cold and frightening.

These are difficult times we live in. But then again, what times aren’t difficult if one is serious about finding the ways of God as one understands God? What times are not difficult when we are constantly searching for ways to be faithful to the Creator and the Creation? What times are not difficult when we are being pulled away from the task of being more fully in touch with eternity? Which is why we need a Lenten Journey every year.

Adopt the pace of nature:
her secret is patience.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

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