Barbara spent part of her ministry as a coordinator of Christian Education in a local parish. Every so often, she polled her congregation to see what kind of Adult Education programs they wanted. The answer was always the same: they wanted Bible study. Every time she asked, they told her in no uncertain terms that they wanted to study the Bible. There was this odd thing that happened, though. When she actually arranged for professors from a local seminary to come to the church to teach classes on the Bible, attendance was never good. In fact, it was poor. Again she would conduct her surveys, and again they would insist that they wanted Bible study. “Finally,” she says, “I got the message. ‘Bible’ was a code word for ‘God.’ People were not hungry for information about the Bible. They were hungry for an experience of God.” [i]
This story resonates for me this Ash Wednesday. I have my pre-conceived notions of Lent, and what it means, precisely. The call to the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving; journeying into the wilderness with Jesus, who wandered for 40 days, or perhaps with the people of Israel, who wandered for 40 years; the long weeks of walking towards the cross (without benefit of a chocolate fix when things get really tough), and the burst of light and reprieve that is the resurrection. All these things mean Lent to me, and Lent means all these things. But underneath the disciplines and stories and practices there is one truth at the heart of Lent: we want an experience of God. Lent, with all these possibilities laid out like tasty offerings on a buffet, seems to promise an opportunity for just that.
“Therefore,” says the author of the letter to the Hebrews, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”
As we pause at the threshold of Lent, I want to suggest a few simple ideas for us to ponder, and they are all, in turn, suggested by this opening verse of our reading.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” In the letter to the Hebrews, the cloud of witnesses is comprised of biblical giants—everyone from Abel to Noah to Abraham to Moses and beyond. These are people who have had God tap them on the shoulder while they were going about their daily business, interrupting their lives, saying things like, “Hey, Noah, I know you’re 600 years old, but do you think you could build this enormous boat out of gopher wood and pack, oh, hundreds of thousands of species in it? Before it rains?” These are people who were watching their flocks when a nearby bush spontaneously burst into flame and began speaking with the voice of God, who then told them the divine name was an imperfect verb, meaning something like “I will be who I will be.” This cloud of witnesses, these are people who have had an experience of God. These are people whose faith we can look to, people to emulate.
I have my own cloud of witnesses, and I suspect you do too. Mine are Mary Magdalene and Therese of Lisieux, who showed me different visions of what it meant to be enthralled with Jesus; H., the priest who first invited me on a retreat in high school and suggested I might consider opening a bible if I wanted to know more about Jesus; my mother J., who, as a lifelong pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic was a little nervous about the bible thing, but who for her part showed me what it was to pray through pain. And there’s my friend J., who fearlessly looked outside her own faith tradition and found a home and a path as a Jewish convert; and my friends K. and M. and M. and C., all of whom are following Jesus bravely and creatively every day; my professor C., who made me fall in love with John Calvin, of all people, and my other professor D., who wept when he read us fragments of ancient Hebrew poetry. This is my cloud of witnesses (actually, a very small segment of it). I know you have your own. Who are they? Who are the people in your life who have had an experience of God? Who are your mentors in this pursuit? Perhaps, this Lent, our first discipline could be remembering, thinking of them. That’s the first thing.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely…”
It gets tricky here, especially for those of us who have tried to use Lent in the past as a cover for what really were attempts at dieting. So let’s get that out of the way: the author is not speaking of laying aside that kind of weight. The weight here seems to have some connection to sin. First things first, and the Bible could not be clearer on this point. One does not need to be sin-free in order to have an experience of God, and thanks be to God for that. If my dalliance with John Calvin taught me anything, it was that we are all sinners—God’s beautiful and broken creation, every one of us. That doesn’t disqualify us from having a God experience.
So, surrounded by our cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside those things which weigh us down, and the sin that clings to us like a staticky skirt in the winter. We talked in Bible study this week of the rabbit trails our brains can follow—the kind of thinking that can weigh us down, keep us from being truly free, the hateful self-talk. Just think of the ways we can talk to ourselves—how we can be far worse, far more cruel to ourselves than we ever could be to someone else. How many of us have called ourselves stupid? How many of us roll our eyes at our own mistakes and say, “Typical!” How many of us begin sentences to/ about ourselves with “I could never…” or “I can’t even…”?
Could we just put that down? Could we give that up for Lent? That weight of self-hatred, and put-downs, that weight of treating ourselves in a way that would appall God—that does appall God! God who loved us before we were even born. God who loves us now, with the kind of love that would, literally, die for us? God who says, “Come as you are”? Jesus said the second greatest commandment is “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” How can we even get working on loving our neighbor if we are spewing a constant stream of venom at ourselves? Perhaps this could be our second discipline this Lent. Lay it down. Lay that weight down. That’s the second thing.
Surrounded by our witnesses… the people who inspire us with their experience of God…
Lighter now because we’ve laid down that weight of self-hatred…
What else is there to do but run? “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”
Almost thirty years ago a film came out about the summer, not the winter Olympics. “Chariots of Fire” told the true story of the British men’s track team that competed in 1924. One of the members of the team was Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish missionary who ended up in an ethical dilemma when the race he was supposed to compete in was scheduled for a Sunday, the Sabbath. At one point a fellow Christian is trying to talk him out of competing altogether, dismissing it as trivial in the face of Liddell’s faith. But he resists, saying “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
What race is set before you? By which I mean, what is it that God made you to be or do, that fills you with the sense of God’s pleasure in you? What fills your heart with joy? … which is one of the sure marks that it is a place or an activity where you are catching a glimpse of God—an experience of God. Running with perseverance doesn’t have to mean feeling like the sprinter who has suddenly been forced to run the marathon. Where do your joy and God’s joy intersect? Perhaps the pursuit and practice of that could be our third Lenten discipline.
Why not make this Lent a time when we pursue an experience of God with the ardor of a lover? Why not assume that we already have all the tools we need to make this possible? A great cloud of witnesses, in the sacred pages of scripture and in the sacred pages of our own lives… a real sense of lightness from the weight of sin and doubt we can lay down and walk away from… a conviction that the call to the life of faith is also a call to find the joy God has in store for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge and Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993), 47.