On Saturday, March 16, Rethink Church’s suggested word for the Lenten “Photo of the Day” was surround. That evening, I saw my daughter setting up the nativity set that my Aunt Marie gave to me the Christmas before Hannah was born. The set she now thinks of as hers could not be more different from the set I played with as a child, an unpainted cast of dozens carved from olive wood in the West Bank circa 1970; but my six year old self had the same instincts as my daughter when it came to the arrangement – everyone crowding around the baby Jesus, surrounding him. After all, he is the main attraction! He is the one everyone is there to see.
SNAP! Once she saw I was taking photos, Hannah started arranging the characters differently, everyone facing out as if they were posing for a group portrait. But without reference to the camera, her gaze and the gaze of the figures were directed towards the baby Jesus.
You may or may not have known that I started off Lent with Rethink Church’s Lent Photo-A-Day challenge. And you may or may not have noticed that I fell off the wagon not quite two weeks into the project. Various life challenges intervened with my ability to stay on track with taking the assigned photo each day… but when I did have time, I didn’t know what to do – should I just take the photo for that day? Or didn’t I need to catch up? If there were gaps in my photo list, people would notice! They would know that I was not keeping Lent properly! That my one Lenten discipline was beyond my capabilities! I would be a public failure!!
[Note: the fear of being a public failure is not limited to my spiritual disciplines. It reaches into all parts of my life, including my wardrobe, as seen in my other post today, at St. Luke’s Episcopal, Durham. See also this parody of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” that I began writing when despairing over my clothes closet this past November.]
Without reference to my blog, my gaze was on Jesus. But once I started posting the photos here, a new layer was added – what had been an intimate time of prayer through creation became a group portrait. The pressure to produce an image turned a spiritual exercise into an occasion for anxiety.
I grew up United Methodist before we went all Revised Common Lectionary and started doing “high liturgical stuff” like paying attention to Lent. 😉 If anything, I was raised to look askance at Lenten disciplines: firstly, they were showing off (fast and pray in private, says the Bible), and secondly, they could lead to spiritual laziness (what? are you spiritually disciplined just a couple of months a year?) But during my time in seminary, I was converted to observing the Christian calendar as a discipline in the sense of revealing to me (and giving me language for) the seasonal nature of my relationship with God, as well as my place within the Christian community.
Now I am starting to find a place for the wisdom of my old Lent skepticism, however. I am asking myself two questions: Am I observing Lent for God, or for my public image within my community? And am I being unrealistic – is this Lent a time when I am somehow more able to take up this discipline than at any other time of the year?
Which has led me to a conclusion: I am going to keep taking and sharing my photos on past Lent. But not every day. Instead, I will post as I am able, and as it gives life to me and my community.
In the Rite of Infant Baptism found in the old Methodist hymnal – the rite I grew up with – the congregation makes this vow: “With God’s help we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.”
Just as the figures in my daughter’s nativity surround Jesus, I have a community of sisters and brothers whose gaze is fixed on Love Incarnate. I met some of them at seminary, others in high school or in college, or on Twitter or Facebook, or at church or through work or another friend, and countless other ways. As they order their lives after the teaching and example of Christ, I am confirmed and strengthened. I am surrounded by their steadfast love.
May the steadfast love of my sisters and brothers in Christ serve as my North Star – always recalling to me the way in which I am to go. Amen.