Lent is a time to rest in God’s unrelenting love
I had an unforgettable conversation with my son when he was little. We had gone to church for Ash Wednesday, and he had been in the toddler room while I attended the service.
On the drive home, after being quiet most of the way, my son piped up from the back seat, “Uhmma, am I gonna go to jail?”
I was startled. “No, of course not! What makes you ask that?”
“Well … the teacher said that Jesus had to die because we’re bad. And bad people go to jail!”
I was horrified.
“Oh no, sweetie! No, you’re not bad. God loves you so much! Don’t worry. That’s not what the teacher meant!”
Surely we can do better than that.
I learned about Jesus in similar ways. My teachers stressed that God loved us despite finding us inherently offensive. The church taught me about God’s grace, but it also drove home the message that God couldn’t tolerate my presence and viewed me with a kind of holy disgust. God was all light and we were all filth. God was on one side of a vast chasm and we were stuck on the other, but for the bridging work of the cross.
For some of us, those kinds of images amplified a sense of punishing distance from God that we already felt too keenly. They reinforced fears that we might be irredeemably lost, too appallingly bad to be reached by any kind of bridge. I never had any trouble believing that I was a wretched worm before God. That came easily. What seemed impossible was that God could ever truly love a worm like me.
My faith has always been riddled with doubt. I tend to feel life intensely, all the way down to my bones. My joys are plentiful and bright, but I struggle often with depression, with chutes into despair.
And because of my inconstant faith, I used to be plagued by fears that I simply wasn’t built to meet the basic conditions for God’s acceptance. Despite my experiences of God’s love, a background hum of existential terror accompanied my hopelessness whenever I got depressed. I worried that Christ’s work notwithstanding, I might be stuck galaxies away from God, beyond the reach of mercy.
Sometimes in depression, I feel that I’m sunk in the darkness of a very deep ocean. It used to be that at those depths, all was muffled except the voices that said God couldn’t stand me for how faithless I was. Voices that told me I was a lost cause and an utter disappointment to God.
I don’t believe that Jesus meant for our stories about him to spur such haunting terror or self-rejection.
While all our metaphors are imperfect and can only clumsily gesture toward divine mysteries, the ones that insist on humanity’s wretchedness and distance from God can inflict lasting wounds. They can cloud our belovedness and the reality of “God with us.”
Some of us need new metaphors that don’t diminish the truth of God’s unrelenting love. I’ve personally had to let go of many old images I grew up with. Now I try to see myself not as originally repulsive and separated from God by a vast gulf but as born of love and held close in God’s mother-heart.
We find images of God’s maternal heart and nearness throughout Scripture. We see the mother-heart of God in how Jesus went out of his way to feed and heal people, and how he welcomed little children.
We see God receive all of Job’s cries — chapter after chapter of complaints against God. And what does Job get for his brazen challenges? He isn’t zapped into oblivion. He’s granted a conversation with the Almighty, albeit a humbling one.
I see God’s mothering presence in the story of Elijah, when he feels so defeated that he wants to die. Elijah doesn’t get a rebuke about how he should have more faith or count his blessings. God comes to him gently in a mama-like angel with freshly baked bread and a pitcher of water.
Isaiah renders God’s love for us as even more doting and steadfast than that of a mother for a baby at her breast. The psalmist speaks of God as so inescapably near that there’s nowhere on earth he could go to get away from God if he tried.
That’s the kind of Savior I need. One driven by love to chase me to the ends of the earth and the far side of the sea.
These days when I find myself in the oceanic depths, I’m less alarmed by the darkness and silence there. It’s a bit quieter than it used to be. I’m less hounded by voices proclaiming God’s rejection. I see glimmers of Christ-light here and there in the abyss.
I feel alone but find that I’m not alone. Impossibly, I find myself breathing underwater. I notice that I’m held somehow — breath by breath, as if nestled in the very womb of God.
Lent is a time when we can contemplate the tender closeness of Christ with us in our “helpless estate,” through every kind of suffering, no matter how wavering our faith, and no matter how dark our darkness.
In this season, we reflect on how God saw us in pain and became “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” for our sakes. Jesus on the cross joins us in our despair of feeling abandoned by God.
Christ doesn’t always calm the storm when we’re at sea on a sinking boat, but our Savior would rather sink into the depths with us than ever leave us alone. Even if we find ourselves living at the bottom of that sea — why, there he is, still with us.
That’s the core truth of the gospel. It begins not with our badness but with God’s unshakable love. The hope of this season is that our God, upon seeing us drowning, came close to be with us through it all.
We find images of God’s maternal heart and nearness throughout Scripture. We see the mother-heart of God in how Jesus went out of his way to feed and heal people, and how he welcomed little children.
We live in a culture of #blessed, not of blessing. Social media is riddled with #blessed, pointing to everything from new cars to beach vacations. Blessing, culture seems to explain, is for those who have it all together. The shiny. The most put-together.
Even leaders can fall into a sand trap of #blessed. Often, leaders are told, “You should be succeeding! Every difficulty should be a ladder, with you on your way up! Look at everyone else doing so well.” #Blessed leaves little room for our actual lives, our actual problems, our actual days.
But there is a long, rich Judeo-Christian tradition of blessing from which we can draw instead. Old Testament scholar Stephen Chapman calls blessing a kind of spiritual “placement.” This definition reminds me of a sort of divine interior decorating. “Oh look, this should go over here. Let’s try that against this wall.”
It is a way we can start to shuffle around the furniture of our lives into an order. Blessing is a way of telling the story of God’s work and purposes and our place in it all — not just when we have it all figured out but precisely at the moment when everything feels chaotic.
When we take up the language of blessing, we are being invited into a way of looking again at the often invisible ways God is appearing in the everyday work of community building, vision casting, trying and failing. Even the very average Tuesdays.
This fresh way of looking means having the eyes to see blessing even during those late nights sorting receipts, wondering how this will all add up. Or during those weekend hospital visits. Or during all the thankless work we do behind the scenes to make everything happen. But we can resist a false bright-siding or an inauthentic victoriousness when we say, “God, this is my best and my worst. Bless it all.”
Our hope is that our new book of blessings, “The Lives We Actually Have,” offers a language of acknowledgment for the full range of our days — our good days, our bad days, the sublime and the mundane. Blessings for the lives we actually have, not just the ones we hope for.
So here is a blessing for those who minister (… and might be tired, worn out and needing an infusion of grace for themselves too).
Oh God, we are surrounded by so many to love.
They need you. And we need you to carry them.
And us too, if we’re being honest.
Let love bear up the weight of us all.
Bless all the kids and grandkids.
Children here and those gone.
Bless the people who quicken our hearts,
now and in years past.
Bless our parents and grandparents;
strengthen our roots and our branches.
Bless our pets and your creation,
and the comfort they bring.
Bless our friends and chosen families,
all the bonds that hold us.
Bless our good, good work
that brings us purpose (or at least it used to
— and we long to discover it again).
God, I will openly admit
that my plan was to rescue us all.
Pry this out of my hands.
Absolve my guilt.
Calm my spirit.
Let me allow you to do the impossible
and bear up the weight of the world
I am determined to carry alone.
Give me enough for today.
And then some for tomorrow too.
As I share myself, my loves, my burdens
with you, oh God.
Thank you for this love,
this absurd and wonderful love.
“Whoever brings blessing
will be enriched,
and those who water
will themselves be watered.”
— Proverbs 11:25 (ESV alt.)
Introduction adapted from “The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Days,” by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie (Convergent, 2023). Used with permission.
My daughters were in early elementary school 15 years ago, when the mass shooting at Virginia Tech took place 70 miles down the road from our home. I was midway through reading “Bridge to Terabithia” to a class of second graders when this then-unusual form of violence ripped through their young imaginations.
The school’s guidance counselor and I used Katherine Paterson’s novel about a child dealing with tragedy to help the students — several of whom knew some of the Tech victims personally. We talked about their experiences of grief, loss and fear in the aftermath of that tragedy.
The unusual has now become commonplace: mass violence leaves young and old alike grieving almost weekly in our nation. But it is young people — those now in their 20s and those coming along behind them — whose coming-of-age is marked by the commonplace reality of mass violence.
It’s important to find civic and political cures for these forms of violence and to provide for the emergency mental health needs of young adults today. But I wonder: Could we also look upstream, to prevent problems and maintain the mental health of our young before crises hit?
This first generation to come of age in the spiritual-but-not-religious era is not without spiritual practices; the internet supplies plenty. But young people are often without communities of support, companions on the way to engaging in practices that build resilience.
Companions remind us of the value of spiritual practices. They help us create new ones, and they help us stay engaged in meaningful forms of soul care that are also the deepest forms of self-care.
The brain research of Lisa J. Miller and others shows that spiritual practices mitigate the severity, duration and negative outcomes of depression. The work of spiritual healers, movement chaplains, campus ministers and other seekers who are finding a path forward can provide deep wells of sustenance to those struggling.
Recently, I commented that the bridges to these wells of sustenance are broken. A friend who founded a campus ministry corrected me; they’re not just broken, he said: “It’s as if someone poured oil in the chasm and lit it on fire.” We no longer expect young people to come back to the institutions that once stewarded spiritual practices.
It is my hunch that soulful practices that acknowledge anxiety, restore calm and remind weary travelers that they are not alone might be radically helpful, if not curative, if made more visible and accessible to young people these days.
These wonderings led me to create Our Own Deep Wells: Bringing Soulful Practices to Campus, an initiative set to launch in Virginia early this year. This learning platform will help collegiate life professionals — such as those who train resident assistants and those who assist in first-gen retention — to integrate diverse soulful practices into their group facilitation.
Drawing on the expertise of young leaders, scholars and practitioners across the country, this initiative seeks to build on the success of the mindfulness movement, creating more access to diverse spiritual practices that create mental health-friendly cultures on college campuses.
It grows out of conversations I’ve had over the past year with people working on the front lines of the mental health crisis on college campuses. One talk at a time, I reached out to friends who work with college-age students to ask, “What’s helping?”
Tasha Gillum, the coordinator of the Bonner Leader Program at the University of Lynchburg, shared a practice I told her about with her students the first time they gathered after the shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs.
The practice is called “rainbow basking,” and it involves centering oneself in the dancing light of a rainbow — created by a prism in one’s home or scouted out in the stained glass of a chapel or church sanctuary.
After sharing this practice, Gillum asked her students what practices help them rally when they feel depressed. What helps them maintain their equilibrium, grieve or simply get through the end of another stressful semester?
Their list was long, creative, playful and heartening:
Gifting others; splurging on others; complimenting others; writing notes of gratitude; spending time with others over meals, with or without conversation; going for a drive with all four windows down and music blaring; going for a drive to look at nice houses; shopping; feeding myself; meditating; praying; listening to mood-based playlists; taking a long hot shower with music playing; binging crime documentaries, “Grey’s Anatomy” or videos of veterans coming home; people-watching; napping; petting puppies; hobbies; art and crafts; talking with a trusted friend; time in nature; walks at sunset; having a daily schedule; writing in a planner; journaling feelings; breathwork; silence; cooking; baking cakes; stress cleaning; yoga; lifting weights; running; coloring; crying; crying while watching animal videos; lying on the ground to get grounded; and stargazing.
Making the list is in and of itself a practice of deep self-care. Reminding ourselves and one another of resources — even those that seem trivial or self-indulgent — may create a breadcrumb trail back to hope-mustering practices.
Binge-watching or shopping may not qualify as a soulful practice to you, but one young adult said that curling up in bed to watch Netflix was a way of honoring her introvert self by saying no to multiple competing invitations.
Alone, any one of these acts may or may not fit the classic definition of a spiritual practice. But I am inclined to define “soulful practice” broadly and to invite young adults to imagine: What elevates a simple act of self-care to soul care? Or better yet, what excavates it, allowing it to draw us down, to settle us in body and soul? What emboldens or reminds us to make a soulful practice part of our routine, a daily ritual or a weekly one, alone or shared with a friend or larger community of friends?
In the days after the shooting of four football players and another student at the University of Virginia, I reached out to Karen Wright Marsh, the executive director of Theological Horizons, a Christian campus ministry there. Visiting over a cup of tea, we talked about the vigils there.
Sadly, college-age students are well-versed in what to do in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Candlelight prayer services and roadside memorials are second nature. U.Va.’s iconic Beta Bridge — typically showcasing declarations of love and birthdays — was within hours painted with the jersey numbers of the slain and adorned with photos, flowers and offerings to the departed.
While this generation of young people knows well practices for the immediate aftermath of crises, helping them find resources for the longer haul of healing — and the healing of our culture of violence — requires gentle exploration.
“We are turning to candlelight, quiet togetherness, the reading of the Advent scriptures,” Marsh said. “I don’t ask, ‘How are you’ but reach for deeper questions like, ‘Have you seen something wonderful today?’ or, ‘What got you out of bed this morning?’”
Marsh is a historian of Christian practices. Her first book, “Vintage Saints and Sinners,” winsomely illuminates the lives of 25 historical figures who guided communities through difficult times. Her second book, “Wake Up to Wonder: 22 Invitations to Amazement in the Everyday,” comes out this year and similarly explores voices from the past who hold offerings for today.
It is no surprise that she would look backward to find a way forward. “There is power in turning toward stories of other violent and grievous times, to hear the witness of people who held fast, who asked our questions, from whom we can borrow faith,” Marsh said. “Our tragedies are sadly a part of the human experience; we are not alone. We are part of a bigger story.”
As I continue to talk with friends who work on college campuses across the nation, the list of practices that help us find a place within the bigger story grows long. Rainbow basking emerged freshly and powerfully for me; I offer it below in hopes that it might bring solace or comfort to you or your community. Try it alone, or better yet, invite a friend to do it with you.
I can’t wait to see what practices emerge next from the deep wells of our shared traditions, mixed with the urgency of our times and the creativity of our collective wisdom.
Find a rainbow — in a college chapel, a local church, a sanctuary repurposed as a pub, or create a rainbow of your own with a prism and free sunlight.
Situate yourself within the rainbow.
Let the rainbow dance on one part of your body.
Take seven deep breaths, eyes closed or open, one for each day of creation.
Take one more deep breath, for all the young lives we lose each day.
Feel the power of the rainbow dancing on you.
Give thanks for your body, just as it is or as it is becoming.
Give thanks for your sensuality, how you delight in touch, smell, taste, sound.
Imagine the rainbow affirming and blessing you.
Lift up in your imagination loved ones or friends who struggle to find safety, affirmation or self-acceptance because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Imagine the rainbow affirming and blessing them.
Lift up those who have died because of gender oppression.
Lift up those who struggle from depression or anxiety.
Welcome any feelings that arise, knowing they will ebb and flow.
If you are alone, hug yourself.
If you are not alone, hug yourself, and offer a hug to someone else.
Bask in this rainbow as long as you wish.
When you are ready, go on with your day.
If you are hurting, find a safe person to reach out to.*
* The SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), TTY 1-800-487-4889, is a confidential, free, 24-hour, 365-day-a-year information service in English and Spanish for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations.
While this generation of young people know well practices for the immediate aftermath of crises, helping them find resources for the longer haul of healing — and the healing of our culture of violence — requires gentle exploration.
Ministers often immerse themselves in the lives of their congregants. They share in the successes, the joys, the faith of those they tend to. But they also experience, secondhand, the sadness, anger and doubt. Lives are messy, and faith leaders are called upon again and again to walk with people during their darkest moments. This can be exhausting.
Psychologists refer to this as compassion fatigue — the personal impact of helping others who are experiencing stress or trauma. Research suggests that ministers score higher than most adults on compassion fatigue.
We were in a unique position over the past few years to see how COVID-19 shaped the experience of compassion fatigue in pastors. We are the assessment team — a psychology professor and two graduate students — for the Companions in Ministry (CiM) program at Marquette University, funded by the Thriving in Ministry national initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc.
CiM provides faith leaders an 18-to-24-month program of self-care, reflection and networking aimed at improving their resilience and well-being. By coincidence, our first round of data collection occurred prior to the onset of the pandemic, so we had a lot of information about pastors’ psychosocial well-being both before and after COVID-19 hit the country. Rather than looking at different groups of faith leaders, we were assessing the same ministers before and again during the pandemic.
The interviews conducted during 2021 clearly reveal the struggles of the ministers in the pandemic. When asked about the impact of COVID-19, they spoke of compassion fatigue in a variety of ways and as being caused by several dramatic changes in their work, such as less downtime leading to exhaustion, new technology needs causing anxiety, the potential spread of the infection contributing to fear, and political divisiveness in the congregation about mask use and social distancing causing consternation.
Here’s a select sample of interview excerpts capturing this:
“It just wore out my soul. And I’m still in that place where I’m just tired.”
“Impact, of course, was uncertainty. I was scared lots. I could be unwillingly guilty of spreading infection without acknowledging it.”
“It’s been really taxing. I don’t necessarily feel like I have a ton of either denominational support or congregational support. Lots of people are depending on me, you know, to give them encouragement, where I’m also hyperaware of the ways, you know, I need some encouragement as well.”
Given what we were hearing in these interviews when the congregational leaders were asked about the impact of the pandemic, we expected the scores on our compassion fatigue measure to show an increase, that the pastors would score significantly higher during the pandemic than they did prior to its onset. Yet the scores did not reflect such a rise. Why?
We found one possible explanation for this in both the quantitative analyses and the interviews themselves. The statistical procedures we applied to the surveys the pastors completed revealed that one of the strongest antidotes to compassion fatigue was the presence/power of God they felt in their ministry and in their life outside of their work.
The survey scores on these two phenomena — felt presence/power of God within ministry and outside of ministry — were both strongly associated with compassion fatigue such that the more God’s presence was felt, the less compassion fatigue was experienced.
The resilience and positive energy one’s faith provided was also evident in the interviews:
“The second week of April of 2020, I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown because I was preaching to a TV screen. Then God spoke to me, and that’s when I had to go in a different way. So we’re just walking by faith and learning God in a different way.”
“Every day I do believe I’m open to what the Spirit can say to me. I wouldn’t be experiencing the positive things happening for us and for me if I didn’t have an open spirit to hear.”
“I’m up for the challenge because of my faith in what I believe. I’m going to have to learn a lot of things and do a lot of things differently and help others to help others. But we will come through it.”
Results indicate that savoring the presence of God was one remedy for compassion fatigue. But other possible countermeasures emerged from the interview data. For instance, many ministers spoke of the unanticipated benefits to wellness caused by engaging in more outside exercise than usual.
As indoor activities became unhealthy or unavailable, outdoor pursuits like longer dog walks or taking up bicycling served as energy boosters. A third clear pattern was that compassion fatigue was reduced through maintaining connections to other people. This was spoken about in a variety of ways, but the common factor was human interaction.
What we all began to call “social distancing” should have more properly been referred to as “physical distancing,” for social interconnectedness became vital.
The pastors in the CiM group clearly experienced compassion fatigue and spoke of the several ways that the pandemic made their work exhausting. They also talked of the personal benefits during COVID-19 of physical activity and engagement with others. Both interview and quantitative statistical data demonstrate that compassion fatigue was lower for those who felt the presence/power of God in their ministries and in their everyday lives.