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Many hard years ago, the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, encouraging them in a long dark time: ‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.’ (Romans 5:3-5) This is probably the origin of that familiar parental response to kid whining, one that drives kids so crazy: ‘I’m sorry you’re bored and miserable, honey, but this is building your character.’ So here we are, in another character-building time: Lent. A time of self-examination, fasting, and self-denial. What fun!

Forty days and forty nights can feel like an awfully long time. The good news is that we’re already 4 days in, so we have only 36 more to go. For various reasons recently I’ve been remembering Lent of 2020, the Lent that started off strong and two weeks later found us shut out of church and hiding in our homes. The Lentiest Lent we ever lented, we said at the time. It felt like the good news of Easter would never come. Well, now we’ve done that, we know we can get through this, right? If you can make it through Lent 2020, you can make it through Lent anytime.

Now, I haven’t sat down with each one of you and asked about your Lenten observance. I don’t know which of you are stubbornly trying yet again to give up chocolate, or checking out a new prayer app, or signing up for 5 weeks of serving in Saturday Kitchen; and I don’t know which of you are thinking right now, uh, Lenten observance? Me? So if I go off talking all about 40 days of endurance and character-building, I may just be speaking into thin air. I realize that. No judgment here about whether this is the first you’ve thought of any of this. But I do suggest that now you do think about it, and for good reason. We all could use a little character-building.

Forty days and forty nights is not a random number, of course. The character-building of Lent is based on the character-building in the Exodus story, the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. It’s also based on the scripture stories from today: the forty days and forty nights of rain that caused Noah’s flood, the forty days and forty nights of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness. Times of real suffering – 40 years being lost, nearly starving, fearful and afraid before finally finding a home. 40 days of rain when everyone and everything on the earth is swept away and drowned, only the small handful on the ark surviving to start a new world. 40 days in the desert being tempted by demons, with wild beasts as doubtful company, until the new ministry can begin. It makes you wonder, did all that character-building really need to happen?

In the case of Israel and Jesus, the scripture seems to say it does, as it is God who takes them out to the wilderness in the first place. Something needed to happen to take them from the high of that initial experience – Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea and being saved from the Egyptians, Jesus’ profound spiritual experience of baptism – to the hard work of new life and living out God’s call. Wilderness time, though full of suffering, is apparently intentional, and fruitful in the end.

But in the case of Noah – it’s less clear. God puts the rainbow in the sky to promise a flood will never happen again – not just a promise but a reminder, something that when God sees it, he’ll remember that he doesn’t want to do that again. Which feels a little like an oops, doesn’t it – like, God says, gee, maybe I overreacted and this destruction of the world thing didn’t need to happen – let’s not do it again. That’s a story that gets more disturbing the deeper you sift it.

But maybe in some ways the needlessness of suffering in the Noah story is part of the point of it. Because although we try hard to find meaning and purpose in suffering, the fact is that most of the time, the suffering we go through didn’t really need to happen. And that does make it harder to know how to live with it.

How many different stories like this can we tell? Here’s just one: Today is the 82nd anniversary of Executive order 9066 – signed by FDR, which sent 122,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. 70,000 of them were American citizens. Given 48 hours notice, most of those people lost their homes and property – a report in 1983 calculated a total of $1.3 billion of property loss and $2.7 billion of income loss (1983 dollars). Finally in 1988, Congress passed a law that acknowledged the injustice of the incarceration, apologized for it, and provided partial restitution – a $20,000 cash payment to each person who was incarcerated. In other words: Oops, that was a mistake. The internment of Japanese Americans is one of the horrors of our recent history, but it’s just one of the things this country has done to people of Asian ancestry; just one of the things done to people who weren’t white, and didn’t look like those who were in power. Just one example of intense, needless suffering inflicted on a group of people by another. We can ask why it happened, and in response we come up with a handful of human sins – fear, and hatred, and jealousy, and bigotry. We can pass laws and make changes so it never happens again. But none of that really explains the suffering. It didn’t have any purpose – it just happened.

Theology has tried for centuries to explain why suffering happens. It feels like a huge conundrum, how suffering can happen to good people. Why people are struck with disease, born into poverty, killed as collateral damage in a horrific war. So we have stories in scripture and tradition that tell us suffering is somehow God’s doing, part of a plan – stories that never quite ring true in the end. Because God doesn’t make suffering happen. You can’t gloss it away with easy answers.

And yet we dare to believe that God doesn’t just let suffering be, either. Without wiping it all away, still somehow God can take trauma and tragedy and work it into blessing. Think of people who have gone through great suffering and emerged stronger than before, who speak with profound gratitude of the wisdom they gained through their trials, or the empathy, or the grace. Famous people like Nelson Mandela or Harriet Tubman; ordinary people like, well, some of you sitting right here in this congregation. People who have buried loved ones, or battled cancer, or lived through persecution, and yet found joy and hope in the process. They can seem superhuman to those of us just struggling to get through the days. They don’t deny the suffering, they don’t pretend it didn’t happen, but somehow, they are able to make it through and even thrive. Psychologists talk about the need for resilience, the ability to adapt well to suffering and difficulties, and there’s been much written about the need to build that resilience in our children especially. But as the theologian Richard Rohr wrote recently, ‘Resilience is really a secular word for what religion was trying to say with the word faith.’ Christians aren’t guaranteed any easier passage through life than anyone else. But we are given tools to grow through it all – to come through darkness and yet still declare our hope. How can we come through it all and thrive?

This Lent we’re focusing on building up our faith and resilience – our strength for the journey. There’s a lot happening in the world these days, and given our media diet, it will undoubtedly continue to be unsettling and distressing throughout this year. We read about suffering and see it and hear it every single day. And we each go through personal storms in our own lives, shipwrecks that at first can feel like the utter end of everything. So this season of Lent feels like a good time to work on our spiritual muscles, to put down deeper spiritual roots, to build a stronger spiritual foundation – pick your metaphor, whatever works for you – to weather any storm that might come our way. We need to build our character – and we don’t just have to wait for suffering in order to do it.

So we’re going to work on our prayer lives, the foundation to our relationship with God. Not by teaching anything new, but by highlighting the prayer practices all around us in this community. We have candles to light at the back of the church, prayer cards to write to be prayed by the prayer chain, healing prayer to ask for in our chapel each Sunday. We have our common prayer here together, daily in our morning prayer and noonday services, and weekly this season, an evening prayer service on Wednesdays. Prayer is communication with God, and you have to communicate to have a relationship. If you haven’t tried it before, now is a good time to start. If you don’t know how to go about it, your clergy are here to help – and the people next to you in the pews might have an idea too.

And there are other practices along with prayer that can deepen our relationship with God. In our forums we’ll look at them through the lens of our sister faiths, Judaism and Islam. How do we all pray and worship? what about fasting? The practice of pilgrimage, traveling to a holy place. Mysticism, the deeper connection with God beyond all ideas and languages. And what it means to be saved, and how we see that at work in our lives. We’ll have a quiet day for listening to the voice of God, practicing quiet and discernment to recognize how God speaks to us. And our ongoing ministries with our music and our children and with our Saturday Kitchen provide practical places to serve with your voice, your hands and heart, always getting something more in return.

Sometimes advertising Lent feels like making the cover of a popular magazine: Lose weight by eating healthy and exercising! Feel better by getting more sleep! Be less stressed by simplifying your life! Well, duh. There are no actual gimmicks here – it’s just the basics, what we teach and try to practice all throughout the year. But it’s all worth another look.

Lent, in other words, is another chance at a restart. It’s a chance to square our shoulders and try growing up a little bit more in our faith. Whether this is your first Lent or your 60th, it’s a good time to come a little closer in. Take a little daily intention, fast from something, set aside some time. Keep it up and restart it if you falter. This part is on us. It does mean a little work on our part. Hard work if you’re finding yourself in a shipwreck right now – the refiner’s fire may be already at work on you, like it or not. But if everything right now is smooth and easy – well, you may need the strength for what is yet to come. It’s worth building up your practice.

But it isn’t all on us to get this right. In the stories of character-building in scripture, God didn’t just send people off on their own to figure it out for themselves. God was with them, ministering to them and feeding them and guiding them – God was even with Noah in the midst of that terrible flood. And the good news is that God is with us too every step of the way – ready to deepen us, ready to bless us, ready to turn our sorrows into joy. Ready to redeem our suffering, to bring something out of it for us and for others. Ready, in other words, to build our character. So that we can live in hope, and share that hope with this world. So may you have a holy Lent.

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