Lent this year did not follow my very well thought-out, spiritually enlightened plans. That’s not a new phenomenon – I am notoriously bad at sticking to whatever Lenten discipline I choose for myself. Last year I tried to be more creative in my prayer life. Newly ordained and still trying to learn the names and nuances of the congregation I’d been called to serve, this endeavor lasted all of a week before I went back to my well-worn routine. In the years before that, Lenten dedication drowned in the fast moving current of work and school obligations.
But this year is different. This year, things haven’t fallen apart for the usual reasons or in the usual way. Actually, things haven’t fallen apart at all – my Lenten discipline of a new prayer routine is going strong. But Lent has not been the beautifully clean season of spiritual renewal that I had envisioned. Lent this year has been messy and painful and terrifyingly convicting. Lent this year got interrupted. And I’m not sure I like it.
I suppose I should have seen it coming on Ash Wednesday. Because we do a joint service with three other congregations, this was the first time that I’d ever been the one to put ashes on anyone’s forehead. A woman came forward – she must have been in her late 80s or even perhaps 90s – leaning unsteadily on the pews and her grandson’s arm. She smiled at me when it was her turn and kept smiling even as I marked her forehead and said, “Remember you are from dust and to dust you shall return.” I wondered what those words sounded like to her; how she heard them. Just after her came a young girl – five or six – wide eyed, blond and a little uncertain. Putting the ashes on her forehead and saying those same words, there was a sudden bloom of sadness in my chest. She certainly didn’t understand what I was saying or why, but I was inescapably aware of the fact that her life was no less fragile than the woman who had gone before her.
There was another little girl I remember – six or seven – also wide eyed and blond, named Rachel. She was a friend of mine in Mrs. Antonelli’s first grade class. I remember her as someone who smiled a lot and I can still picture her grin – though I think those memories come from much later; there were photographs of her in the newspapers that my parents saved and on the news clips I saw just after Easter. I didn’t have the opportunity to make other memories of her. Rachel died that year.
Most people (if they remember the day at all, and most don’t) would likely know April 4th, 1991, as the day that Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania died in a plane crash. For those of us who attended Merion Elementary School that year, we remember the crash too, but we remember it because the plane and the helicopter that collided with it crashed onto our schoolyard. Two of our first grade classmates – Rachel and Lauren – were killed. Others were wounded, one severely. Many of the first graders witnessed it, myself included. Many remember it well – I do not. What I do remember, though, is the moment that I realized, back in Mrs. Antonelli’s classroom, that Rachel wasn’t there.
I have known since that day that life is a fragile thing. And I have known since that day that there are no guarantees that I will make it to my 80s or 90s like that woman on Ash Wednesday. Such knowledge encouraged me to focus on what was really important, on living life to the fullest and trying to do some good in the world and not getting caught up in the little stuff, and I had convinced myself that I was doing a pretty good job of that. But then that little girl appeared before me to have ashes put on her brow. And as the days rolled towards another April 4th, I couldn’t get her – or Rachel – out of my head. My perfect Lent was interrupted by the heart-cleaving realization that, quite contrary to what I had convinced myself, I wasn’t focusing on one of the things that really mattered – my relationships with those whom I love. In fact, my Lent was interrupted by the sudden recognition of this one sin that had so woven itself into the fabric of my life that I didn’t even realize it was there – for all of these years the fear of suddenly losing the people whom I cherish the most has led me to keep them at an emotional distance.
Before this year, I had never considered the possibility that building stronger bonds with my family and friends might actually be a valuable Lenten discipline. I suppose some small voice within me would say, “That’s not spiritual enough. That’s not what a pastor should be doing. It’s not as overtly ‘Christian’ as revamping your prayer life, or giving something up, or serving others, so you should steer clear.” But Lent is a time of penitence and reflection – and if there is something that I need to repent of, it is the way that I’ve allowed fear of loss to dictate my relationships with the people I hold most dear. For me, the most honest and difficult act of repentance might be the discipline of picking up the phone and calling my brother once a week.
Of course, contrary to what that small voice in my head says, that act of strengthening relationships is just as integral to our lives as disciples as praying or serving. We are, after all, created and called to live in community – and not just any community, but community that seeks to reflect the self-giving love of the trinity, the self-giving love that Christ embodied in the incarnation. Which is hard to do if you’re trying to protect yourself from the pain of loss as I am.
But I imagine I’m not alone in falling short when it comes to developing relationships that are deep and authentic and Christ-like in their quality of love. After all, relationships like that take time and they require vulnerability; they aren’t neat and tidy, and they do not necessarily contribute to the bottom line. Which perhaps makes them even more of a discipline than giving up chocolate or trying on a new kind of prayer. And which – perhaps – makes cultivating them even more fitting a practice for this season of Lent.
Jennifer Barchi is serving as the Solo Pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.