On Ash Wednesday, I spoke about being at a workshop recently where I learned the three rules of improvisational theatre: 1) notice things, 2) if someone offers you a gift, take it, and 3) be fit and well. On my mind today is the second rule: if someone gives you a gift, take it. Sometimes this is cast simply as “say yes.”
In improv (I learned with my very brief and probably superficial introduction), “accept the gift” basically means to be ready for anything, and see everything as gift. Incorporate everything God throws at you into who you are and where you are going.
All of our readings today are about gifts. God gave the garden of Eden to the first man and woman he created. Then he gave them the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He sort of gave it to them. They ate of the fruit from this wondrous tree and their eyes were opened.
Some consider this opening of the eyes to be original sin the beginning of all pain and struggle. And yet, I think I would get bored in the Garden. Not at first, mind you, but at some point I’d be wondering about life beyond the river. God spared us that wondering and gave us all creation and all human experience: pain, loss, strife, failure, and temptation.
In the desert, Jesus is offered gifts that are not gifts. At least, we don’t think they are gifts. That is, of course, always our discernment. Is this thing that is happening to me from God or not from God? Jesus chooses to stay the course. But he was tempted. Tempted in every way as we are.
We rarely have such poetic tempters as Eve did, or as Jesus did. The devil on our shoulder is most often simply a voice inside our head, completely indistinguishable from our own. The voice that says be perfect, or worry about that thing you can’t do anything about, or ingest whatever particular substance you might regret later.
Someone asked me this week what I was giving up for Lent.
I love hearing about what others are giving up for Lent or taking on for Lent. A few years ago some friends of mine were casting about for something to give up. They wanted to give up something easy that they would never want to do anyway. They decided to give up bowling, and were suddenly seized with an overwhelming urge to go bowling, which they did. They decided to give up reality TV instead—something that had never been a problem for them—and the same thing happened. It is easy to get somewhat far afield from the Lenten journey.
You can learn things you didn’t know about people by learning what they give up for Lent. Sometimes you learn things you don’t want to know about people by what they’re giving up.On Ash Wednesday, my seventeen-year-old son told me over dinner that he’s giving up lying for Lent. Really! I said. I didn’t know lying was one of your habits. He didn’t say anything.
I confess I am not a big fan of giving things up for Lent. At least not personally. In the past, I have given up things like sugar, meat, or caffeine. When I wasn’t thinking about what was right in front of me, I was either consumed by my own craving for whatever I was giving up to a degree that rendered me fairly useless to the rest of the world, or feeling so superior and pleased with myself for being so pure that I was equally useless.
Some of you heard James’ Ash Wednesday sermon, “Confessions of a Lent extremist,” in which he described making grand and sweeping sacrifices, or taking on impossibly impressive disciplines. My confession is that I am not a Lent extremist. Sometimes I wish I were, but we can’t all be.
I tend to take things on, rather than give them up, for the reasons I just mentioned. There are a few things I am taking on this year, and I share them with you:
I have a wonderful new fitness coach whose motto is “Embrace your weakness.” We all like to do things we’re good at; I want to accept as gift opportunities to do things that I’m not so good at. I want be more disciplined in embracing limitations in every area, rather than masquerading as someone who can do everything. I don’t think Jesus had much patience with followers who held back from making mistakes, or from making fools of themselves for his sake.
The other discipline I’m taking on is to stay as close as I can to the Lenten journey, the journey with Jesus to the cross. We all have our own ways of staying with the journey. For me it’s staying faithful to the daily office readings, and also—especially this time of year—reading ahead in our Sunday readings, the way you might read ahead on list of travel directions, a roadmap to be sure you are going the right way. I want to remember that Jesus has set his face for Jerusalem, for suffering and death.
When I began planning for Saturday’s live storytelling event, I wanted it to have a Lenten theme, even though it’s a fairly secular event. I suggested “Suffering.” My friend with whom I collaborated on the event, said “I don’t know if people will pay $15 to hear about suffering.” We talked about Lent for a while and settled on Tales of Uncertainty as an equally Lenten theme. Even though the journey to the cross has a familiar ending for Jesus, if we take it anew, each year, it is different for us each time, because we are different. For each of us Lent is, indeed, a tale of uncertainty.
We don’t know what the outcome will be. My hope is that it will be, for each of you, a gift, a gift to which you will say yes.