I hope you’re not expecting me to talk about the coronavirus. Sure, it’s on our minds. But since we’re already being so diligent, how about we catch our collective breath and get back to considering other things?
Mindful of the season of Lent, the current desktop image for my computer is the portrait by Carl Heinrich Bloch entitled “An Angel Comforting Jesus before His Arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.”
Yes, it’s a rather long title. Even so, it’s a moving image, one that not only gives a glimpse into the Lord’s diligent prayer in the garden before His capture and eventual crucifixion, but it also attempts to portray in the moment His exhaustion and absolute loneliness—the kind of loneliness that can only be soothed by otherworldly comfort. Thus the angel in the image (Luke 22:41-43).
The portrait is deeply moving in its depiction. But it’s equally moving because of what it doesn’t portray. It’s just Jesus and the angel. No one else. And yet the Gospel narratives remind us that Jesus was only a stone’s throw from friends. The Lord had asked for His disciples to keep watch with Him as He prayed. He was preparing to enter into the hours that belonged to the powers of darkness (Luke 22:53), but before taking that first fateful step, He wanted nothing more than to pray to His Father, having the comforting presence of friends at His flanks as He did.
But they slept. In the midst of the Lord’s praying, even as the intensity of the oncoming moments caused His sweat to become drops of blood, his friends slept.
This is a telling moment, and it sheds a little light on something of the human nature.
I’ll give you an example relative to me.
Over the past few years, I’ve experienced a fair share of disconcertion from people who disapprove of me engaging in the affairs of the state. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed an equal portion of encouragement from friends all around the state and nation who are glad for a clergyman’s willingness to carry the concerns of the Church before the princes of this world, and then to share the details of the efforts with others through writing.
But here’s the twist…
A couple of weeks ago after the Republican Primary Candidate Forum here in Livingston County, I did the kind of thing I’ve done a thousand times in the past. I took the liberty of writing a piece about the event, namely the handful of men and women running for the particular seat in Congress. As usual, it was an attempt on my part to think out loud, to observe critically, and to tip my hat to what an opposing party’s candidate might bring to the table of critique. Of course, all readers were free to take from it whatever they wanted.
Interestingly, very soon after I posted the piece, my phone began chirping with private messages from online friends and acquaintances who’d always been so glad in the past for my engagement in the public square, but were now rather unhappy with me. So unhappy, in fact, they were going out of their way to discourage me from involvement in politics altogether, urging me to consider that pastors shouldn’t be so outspoken in the public square. Seriously. They were imploring me to delete the piece and to bow out of the conversation.
I should add to this that my closer friends—the ones who actually know me as a person and know I’d never close the door on a conversation with anyone—they didn’t do this. They reached to me with their opinions, and they did so in courteous ways. I listened to them, considered their points of view, and then I gave a little more of the content behind mine. Those conversations were incredibly enriching, and I can say those friendships are even stronger now than they were before. I’m glad for that.
But what happened with the other folks? Why the 180 degree turn from being so glad for my activities in the public square to working overtime to convince me to tone down my efforts and exit the discussion completely?
Well, apart from the strange criticisms of my writing style, which so many already know so well—my typical words, forms, and device choices (which, out of respect to a few folks, I did end up going back to rearrange here and there)—the deeper thread of concern, the one that was common to all of their pings to my phone, was that my article came to its conclusion with me recommending one particular candidate as the best performer in the forum and ultimately the best bet for beating the opposition.
But the candidate I favored wasn’t the candidate they favored.
Simply put, my trajectory didn’t align with these particular friends’ preferences. This angered them—enough so that it erased their previous sentiments, replacing them with words of admonition, words meant for quieting any influence I might have on a larger community of readers still teetering at the edge of a decision.
The disciples slept. Why did they fall asleep? It’s not that they weren’t Jesus’ friends. Of course they were. It’s also not that they weren’t in favor of Him. They had great favor for the Lord. It’s just that they were more in favor of themselves and what they wanted, and with this, His particular trajectory would remain out of alignment with theirs.
He was suffering, and He wanted the comfort of their watchful companionship. They were tired and went to sleep.
The human nature.
Again, Lent is a time to reinvigorate the combat against the human nature. It’s a time for us to observe and then apply extra pressure to those situations in which we put our wants first, and as a result, discovering ourselves saying and doing things that fracture relationships, things we wish we could take back. It’s a time to examine the motives behind our responses and to see if they really can withstand the beaming light of God’s Word that’s always ready to challenge them.
I, for one, am glad for the season of Lent. As I’ve said before, it’s incredibly recalibrating. Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Life is made up of marble and mud,” which is to say sometimes life is sturdy and steady, and sometimes it’s shifting and messy. Lent—its liturgies, readings, prayers, and the like—they all work together to remind us of something here. They lock arms as one and burrow through our hardened exteriors (which we like to think are impenetrable) and they implant in the core of our human nature. Lent prompts us to recall we’re far more shifting and messy than we’d ever like to admit. Lent shines a light on the fact that as we go about our days making our lists of “bad guys” and “good guys,” it should be no surprise that we have the tendency to shift so many of the people we know from one list to the other and then back again, all the while our own names remain strangely fixed in the list of good guys.
It’s not necessarily that we’re against anyone in any particular moment. It’s just that we’re always more in favor of ourselves. Again, that’s the human nature—the Sin-nature.
Just so you know, Christ went to the cross to drown this nature in the tides of His blood. Lent reminds us that when it comes to the human nature, there really aren’t two lists. There’s only one—the bad guys. But Lent also primes our hearts to know that Jesus went to the cross for every single person on that dreadful list (Matthew 9:12; 1 Timothy 1:15). With this, there’s an urgency to Lent’s plea for contrition. It calls for us to awaken to the fact that if in our own hearts and minds we never seem to find ourselves on the list of bad guys, then we’re heading toward a Good Friday event that will appear to be of little value to us.
Lent calls out, “Repent! Turn around and go the other way! Wake from sleep and watch with Jesus (Romans 13:11)!” Lent sets before us the gory, but ever-so-splendid, message of the Gospel of our Lord’s passion. It encourages us, “Wait and watch with your Lord. You’re not going to want to miss what the Son of God is about to do for you and the rest of the whole world beside you on the ‘bad guys’ list.”