“You may be a king or a little street sweeper, but sooner or later you dance with the reaper”- Bill & Ted’s Bogus Adventure
Last year, there was an interesting article in the New York Times written by James Collins called “Let Me Count the Days” Collins had recently turned 50, and was at work searching through his office for the staples. When he finally found a fresh box of staples, he realized that it contained 5,000 of them.
Collins started to think about how many staples he used in a given day. And it began to slowly dawn on him that he had more staples than he had days left to use them. And slowly this led him to begin thinking about his own mortality.
Here’s how he says it:
That’s when I realized that I was going to die: I owned more staples than I could possibly use in my lifetime, or several of my lifetimes….Nothing says mortality like the realization that you will live only long enough to use up 3.2 percent of your office supplies
Introduction To Lent
So tomorrow is the beginning of Lent, a season that Christians have practiced for over a thousand years. For those of you who grew up like me, Lent was something that we didn’t practice because we thought it was something only Catholics did. But Lent is a season that Christians were doing long before the Reformation, and it’s something that most Protestant’s kept observing long after.
Because Christians throughout history have known how much we need it.
Lent is about self-reflection, and considering the question “How do I stand before God” It considers the possibility that maybe the problem with the world isn’t just “out there” in “other people.” It considers the possibility that maybe the brokenness in the world isn’t the Democrats or the Republicans or the Kardashians fault, but maybe I too have shared in making the world the way it is.
Lent starts tomorrow with Ash Wednesday, where Christians will gather together all over the world and wipe ashes on each other’s foreheads and say something like, “From dirt you came and to dirt you will return.”
Ash Wednesday may sound morbid, but it isn’t. I’ve found that it brings me great joy! It helps me remember that this life is a gift and one that I will not have forever.
I find it fascinating that in the secular post-Christian world, people are starting to realize how much they need things like this. For decades Christianity was often dismissed as “a cult focused on Death” But today, it’s slowly dawning on an entire generation that we don’t talk about death, we don’t know how to mourn, and we don’t know how to suffer.
In Tim Keller’s book, “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” he talks about how uncomfortable most Western people are with suffering. At one point in his book he referred to an interview the BBC had with Robert Spitzer several years ago. Spitzer was one of the main psychologists who worked on classifying all the various mental illness and how they should be treated.
25 years later, Spitzer admitted that, in hindsight, he believed they had wrongly labeled many normal human experiences of grief, sorrow, and anxiety as mental disorders. When the interviewer asked: “So you have effectively medicalized much ordinary human sadness?” Spitzer said, “Yes, I think so, to some extent…”
In other words, what used to be just the natural response to the valleys of life has now become a disorder. We used to cry and now there’s a pill for that.*
It seems like our world has two different options for suffering, either to medicate it or to marginalize it.
But Christianity has, since the beginning, seen suffering as a part of life, and filled with potential to be redeemed.
But in order for that to happen, we must suffer in a certain kind of way.
One of the most famous couples in the 20th century was Charles and Anne Lindbergh, they were the Branjelina of the 1930’s. From the outside looking in, it appeared as if their life was one to be envied and stolen. So eventually someone tried. When their youngest son was a year and a half old, kidnappers broke into the Lindbergh mason and stole their baby boy.
And when the fame that had surrounded the family brought too much heat to the kidnappers, they abandoned him in the woods, leaving him to die exposed to the elements.
To make matters worse, the Lindbergh’s were so famous that news photographers actually broke into the morgue to photograph the body…as a father of four I can only imagine how this tragic this season was. But for Anne Lindbergh it was more than just tragic.
“In the abyss of the tragedy I found myself returning to a deeper resource. I began to write again, but write with honesty. I guess you could say I was set free with sorrow…What I am not saying is the old Puritan truism ‘Suffering teaches’ If suffering alone taught the whole world would be wise, for everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding patience, love, openness and the ability to remain vulnerable.”
In the worst moments of her life, Anne Lindbergh found she wasn’t set free from sorrow, in some mysterious way she was set free with sorrow.
Broken, Not Bitter
Everyone suffers, to different degrees and at different levels, but we all suffer, the difference is how we bear it.
Anne Lindbergh discovered that when we suffer we must also mourn. We must be able to name things as they really are, and not pretend that our faith makes us somehow immune to pain, but even harder, we must remain open and vulnerable to even more suffering.
One of the most profound examples of this in contemporary culture happened last year.
Stephen Colbert was about to take over the Late Show, and GQ magazine did an interview with him, trying to
understand what made him tick. At one point in the interview, Colbert brought up the greatest tragedy of his life.
When he was 10, his father and his two brothers were killed in a plane crash. His entire family was, of course, devastated. There was a giant hole in the world where the men he had loved the most had been.
But, Colbert said, “We were broken, but not bitter.” His mom taught him to draw on their deep Christian faith as the way to not be “swallowed by sorrow.”
The next part of the interview was so profound that I want to quote it at length. Not just because of what Colbert said, but because of the impact his approach to suffering had on the GQ reporter.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he [Colbert] said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled [and thinking of his career in improv] “You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that’s why. Maybe, I don’t know. That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened…It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”
Consider that this is coming from a man who millions of people will soon watch on their televisions every night—if only there were a way to measure the virality of this, which he’ll never say on TV, I imagine, but which, as far as I can tell, he practices every waking minute of his life.
The next thing he said I wrote on a slip of paper in his office and have carried it around with me since. It’s our choice, whether to hate something in our lives or to love every moment of them, even the parts that bring us pain. “At every moment, we are volunteers.”
One day your days will run out. One day you will die and leave all your unused staples behind. And the great temptation of humanity is to avoid and ignore that at all costs, To deny your death, and to ignore suffering.
But Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death”
Jesus came to set us free.
And sometimes we find we are set free with sorrow.