A Protestant at Lent

Stretching Out in Faith

Lent is the season of the Church calendar before Easter. The word itself comes from the Old English meaning “lengthen,” in reference to the lengthening of the days in Spring. The practice of setting aside a time of spiritual preparation before Easter began very early in Church history as most people were baptized and officially joined the Church on Easter. Together they would spend the weeks prior praying, fasting, learning the tenets of the faith, and getting their habits and affairs in line with their new lives in Christ. As the Church grew and became culturally acceptable its leaders began encouraging members to join the acolytes in this process annually, as a way of shaking off the trappings of a merely cultural Christianity (we’re talking 4th century here; this is not a new phenomenon) and rededicating themselves to following Christ together body, soul, mind, and spirit.

Protestants have a hard time figuring out how to handle Lent, because we actually have to figure it out for ourselves. Orthodox and Catholic Christians have more established parameters informing them when to pray and fast and a more coherent structure of spiritual authorities clarifying these parameters as needed. Historically, Protestants have rejected many of these parameters and structures as adding requirements, conditions, and intermediaries to our walk with God where scripture, faith, and Christ Himself should suffice. As a Protestant I appreciate the inclination to unfetter our freedom in Christ and yet I can see how my Christian heritage has cut me off from Christian traditions that are useful, faithful, and ultimately freeing. Statistically fewer of us have grown up on the spectrum between confusion and mortal fear about doing certain things certain days and not others, but we’ve also lost that sense of collective spiritual rhythm and practice. Recently, many Protestants have been trying to reclaim the benefits of a common Church calendar and traditional spiritual practices without the sense of obligation or tying our works too tightly to our hope of salvation. We have lost some of the comfort of community, but gained the advantage of being able to enter these seasons mindfully, intentionally and without a sense of imposition.

Letting God Choose Your Fast

Spiritual disciplines help us learn to control ourselves, but we’re not to be cruel masters. One indicator of whether we control a habit or it controls us is how moderate the habit is. If you watch a couple shows a week as a way to unwind with roommates or family, giving up TV for Lent won’t make you a “better Christian.” But if you feel your prime time drained daily by the tube or there’s a particular show you know is coloring your outlook and language in decidedly un-Christlike ways, give it up and take up a more prayerful habit during the time it frees.  Maybe you sleep too much, maybe not enough. Eating chocolate or drinking wine to celebrate special occasions doesn’t indicate unhealthy use. If you discern that you are using them on a regular basis to stifle your negative thoughts, use this time to break that pattern and take your worries, moods, memories, and pain to God instead.

Write down 3 things that seem like good ideas to you, then draw a couple of blank lines to designate space in which to receive ideas other than your own and pray over the page. Maybe this year Lent will be about cultivating gratitude for what you have and committing to celebrate it daily instead of denying it to yourself. Maybe it will be about living more simply with less stuff or maintaining or organizing what you have to make it functional or useful again. Maybe it will be more about giving generously than giving up. In scripture 40 days is a long, yet finite time. Things shift over the course of 40 days or years in the biblical stories. 40 days is a credible and creditable amount of time to commit to trying on a new habit or changing an old one without it feeling onerously indefinite. What is God nudging you toward? How can you work it deeper into your life in this season?

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Reading Aimee Bender

Los Angeles-based Aimee Bender’s brand of magical realism recalls the sun-baked darkness of classic noir in tone, but without all those other pesky conventions of the genre. In fact, her stories routinely ditch the pesky conventions and constraints of the rational altogether. She’s a fabulist dealing in truths that can only be told slant, using the surreal to heighten the visibility of the invisible emotional realities which so define our lives and ourselves.

Aimee Bender’s work begins and ends in story, so I recommend beginning and ending your reading with her short story collections to enjoy her storytelling in its purest form.

1.      The Girl in the Flammable Skirt – For Bender, form and story are inextricably linked. Hopping across genres and experimenting with structure allows her to tell a simple story with profound impact. Sometimes she braids together different styles within a single story; in “The Fugue” Bender interweaves the voices, the randomness and life-changing potential of every encounter to mimic the connections and disconnections inherent in human interaction. By dabbling in myth, fable, the fairy and folk tales, she deals with events which are mysterious, but not mystical. Magical objects (or objects rendered magical by the protagonists’ responses to them) arrive unbidden and without explanation, sometimes literally into their laps, forcing them to make what sense of them they can. Something as simple as a bowl comes to represent everything incomprehensible in the protagonist’s life. Bender depicts the visible power of invisible wounds and emotional deformities, like the young “Loser” who develops a superhuman ability to find things because he has lost so much, because he himself is lost. In “The Healer” the ice girl’s numbness and the fire girl’s longing for closeness and haplessness in hurting those she touches become physical conditions. “The Rememberer” chronicles the reverse evolution of a promising relationship which devolves until the lovers literally cannot communicate. The supernatural trope evinces the natural responses of bewilderment at the inexplicable loss of intimacy.

2.      Pick a novel, either novel. If you enjoy An Invisible Sign of My Own, you’ll appreciate The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. If you don’t enjoy the first one, skip dessert and pick up again with step three. In a short story you don’t miss the interior depth that Bender tends to project onto external objects or make physically manifest in her characters’ bodies, but many readers feel that keenly over the course of a novel. On the other hand, the fantastic elements are sufficiently diluted at that length that the novels might make better points of entry for readers who lack the stamina to suspend disbelief as often as a collection of Bender’s stories demands.

3.      Willful Creatures – Here we return to Bender’s forte. This second collection isn’t exactly darker than her first, but the sky is lower. Bender’s writing retains its sparkle, but it’s the reflection of broken mirrors more than the lascivious and mischievous glint in the narrator’s eye. There’s less whimsy and an utter lack of transcendence. Bender’s characters embody their own human frailties with no hint of divine image. The supernatural stands in for what is absent. Even when God appears in “Job’s Jobs”, he serves merely as a foil for the human protagonist, an omnipotent anti-muse. By reading this late in the game, though, we understand why Bender’s characters have no need for spiritual lives; their inward spiritual realities play out physically in their own bodies or in the objects around them.

If you’re hooked at this point Bender has apparently devised a ripped-from-the-fairytale-headlines quest for her true devotees. The Third Elevator has something to do with the nebulous offspring of a swan and a bluebird, looks to be beautifully illustrated and utterly charming, and is currently out-of-print and going for over $2 a page on the Amazon Marketplace. Lit Pub seems to be making a go of getting it back into circulation, but the course of fantastic inter-species avian love never did run smooth….

Epiphanies Part 2: …And Where It Settles

Click here for Part 1.

Epiphanies have to do with seeing, in the deepest sense. A spotlight comes on and shines on something that has been there all along and, as if for the first time, we truly see it. The work of the artist is to train one’s eyes to see and communicate it such a way that others see it as well, to witness and bear witness. Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” We require light to see, which is why light is a primary metaphor for describing epiphanies: realizations come to light, connections are illuminated, and so on. Following Christ in the world depends heavily on having eyes to see and ears to hear. Artists have a particular calling to make what they see visible to others, but we are all called to live as witnesses – to see and hear and make what sense we can of God’s presence, action, and guidance – and to respond accordingly.

A quiet consensus has formed in this show – that the light by which we see enters through the cracks and crevices and that it settles, well, just about everywhere, really – everywhere we have trained our eyes to see and taken the time to look. Poet Mike McGeehon sees the light settling in the enforced pause of disparate souls at a stoplight.

In all of us here

in the 40-second meeting,

settling into our seats

for a moment together

where the intersection is.

– from “Where the Light Settles”

by Mike McGeehon

Photographer Leslie A. Zukor has a theophany by the natural light of the natural world

"The Burning Bush" by Leslie A. Zukor

“The Burning Bush” by Leslie A. Zukor

while Ron Simmons digitally enhances his photographs to reveal the prismatic refractions surrounding saints making visible all the colors hidden in the light itself.

"Apparitions" by Ron Simmons

“Apparitions” by Ron Simmons

Alison Peacock sees a heavenly father in the earthly. The young Seeker in my poem and in the beautiful collage Trisha Gilmore created for her knows God’s presence before she can articulate it in

the cheek-roughness… of this… tree I can’t name… but… I will someday

– from “Seeker” by Jenn Cavanaugh

in Mars Hill Review 22 (2003)

Autumn Kegley paints her revelling revelation of the joy-filled life. Karla Manus encounters such a life and sees her relatively comfortable, joyless self in stark relief. Elizabeth W. Noyes returns again and again to the return of the full moon in which she catches sight of “infinite possibilities for echoing what is poetic, magical, mysterious and whole in the human heart, and mine.”

In curating this show, I’ve recovered a season. Between the times in which we wait for God to come and prepare for God to act, we have been given a time to train our senses to recognizing God’s presence and present work among us. In the years to come, Epiphany will be for me a time to focus on seeing God in the world, recognizing Christ in others, and becoming more receptive to the connections the Spirit makes.

The Epiphanies group show will be open at Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church of Seattle until February 14th. You can call the church office to make an appointment to see it during a weekday, join us for a service: Sunday, 2/10 @ 9:45 am or Ash Wednesday, 2/13 @ 7 pm, or drop by during the Capitol Hill Arts Walk, 5-8 pm, 2/14. See our Facebook page for more information and pictures http://www.facebook.com/CapHillPresArts

I Think God Believes in Cross Pollinating

I Think God Believes in Cross Pollinating.

Christine Sine’s lovely reflection on how God creates diversity in the natural world and in the Church and how we can help cultivate it. When God makes us one as God is one, our unity will have nothing to do with looking alike or moving in lockstep. Just as we see, hear, and feel God reaching out to us “in persons three” who are one in love and intention, so God leads, teaches, and empowers us to fill the earth with every stripe and expression of faith, hope, and love we can make together in response.