Lenten pilgrimage

Lent is a traditional time for introspection and personal reflection. However, as a pastor, the season of Lent has been a time of thinking about communal activities and events. In 2011, going through a season of grief myself, having lost a brother and then my mother and finally my father-in-law dying on Ash Wednesday, Lent was an usual salon of facing my personal grief. Holy week that year was a dark week for me personally, as I led worship but felt inadequate and ill prepared for the task. My usual technique of “suck it up” and work harder just wasn’t working. So in 2012, we went about reinventing the season in the plans of our church and put a huge emphasis on Holy Week. We planned services for every day of the week and promoted Holy Week as an intentional time of practice for the very real grief that enters every human life. Since that time, I have redoubled my efforts at providing meaningful times of communal prayer and reinforcing the sense that we are all in this together.

Lent this year is turning into a completely different discipline. Perhaps it is time to reinvent once again. The corona virus means that we have cancelled some worship services. Our congregation will not be meeting for Sunday morning worship for at least two weeks. The suspension of gathering may last even longer, depending upon circumstances. We will still have Sunday Morning services and will make them available to our congregation through live-streaming on Facebook and YouTube, but it will be a different experience entirely. The decision was made at the meeting of our Church Board last night and the rest of the week will be a real scramble for me to make sure that the word gets out and that as many people as possible are able to access our worship services. I’ll be learning some new techniques, working with musicians, and reaching out all week.

That leaves Holy Week up in the air for us. We may be able to gather for worship on Palm Sunday morning and we may not. Our community Palm Sunday parade has been cancelled for the year. Our shared Seder service with the Synagogue of the Hills has been postponed. Dr. Steve Benn has suggested that when we do get to celebrate, we may have to add COVID-19 as the 11th plague. We have decided to cancel the choir cantata scheduled for Maundy Thursday. Likewise the community Sunrise Service for Easter morning has been cancelled. Our board also decided to postpone our annual blues concert, hoping to have an expanded jazz and blues session at a later date. Holy Week then will have the reading of the Passion Narrative, which might be with a gathered congregation and might be done remotely. We will have some kind of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday Services. With luck we will be bale to have a real Easter revival with a return to communal worship.

While we are seeking to be responsible, to follow the leadership of health experts, and to respond to the needs of our community, I am deeply aware that one of the deepest needs in this uncertain time is for community. When we cannot gather face-to-face as much as previously, we need to be attentive to the ways in which we remain connected.

The Christian Church has a lot to offer to this circumstance. We believe in a transcendent God. The good news of the Resurrection is that we don’t need a physical presence to know that Jesus is alive. The love of God reaches beyond human limits of time and space. The sacrament of Holy Communion celebrates our connection with Christians in all times and all places. Our unity is not dependent upon being in the same place at the same time.

Still, the discipline of this particular Lent feels very unnatural for me. The church building is empty. After this week’s deep cleaning, the doors in the hall will be shut and we will be only entering some of the rooms. I’m used to working in a building filled with preschool children. The quiet is strange and unnatural for our structure.

Some things remain the same. The hospital is, for now, allowing me to visit. I can make calls those people. I have a telephone and although that is not my greatest strength as a pastor, I am learning to pray with people over the phone. We have videoconferencing capability and we managed to have a meaningful meeting last night with about a third of the participants joining over the Internet. I ran a brief test of FaceBook live last night just to make sure I know how to do it and we’ll be using social media more and more.

throughout the history of the Christian church, from the earliest desert mothers and fathers, individual Christians have undertaken the discipline of solitude. People have gone off by themselves to listen for the voice of God. They have ventured into the wilderness to experience being alone. The season of Lent is based on the Gospel reports of Jesus going into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil for 40 days. If we can embrace this new reality as a Lenten discipline, we may be able to emerge with more clarity about God’s call for our lives.

Christian Pilgrimage, however, is not about taking time away from the community solely for the purpose of personal development. It is always about the community. A pilgrim journeys away from the community for the sake of the community. A pilgrim returns knowing that the pilgrim and the community have been transformed by the absence. The return is a time of teaching and learning about the new insights and transformations that have taken place.

A pilgrimage is a self-imposed discipline. The pilgrimage of this lent is being imposed from the outside. But like every pilgrimage, this one begins with a prayer. We place our congregation in God’s hands and we open ourselves to careful listening to God’s call. May we become a blessing for others even though there is distance between us.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!