Where I live, the time when the earth tilts a bit closer to the sun corresponds to the season leading up to Easter. This particular time, when bulbs send up shoots and trees flower, happens alongside Lent. In some places, spring isn’t so well-defined and in others it may not come until May, or even December. The reminders of new life that come this time of year here in Nashville, Tennessee, are plentiful and gorgeous, and I am thankful to live right where I do.
I long for my soul to mirror that gorgeous springtime coming-to-life. I ask myself which parts of my heart appear dead or dormant. What might burst forth from those places when the merciful combination of spiritual warmth, light, and water is applied? And will I even be tuned in enough to see where life is coming forth? After all, blossoms on fruit trees appear and disappear within a few weeks time.
Just days before Ash Wednesday one year, I was surprised to hear a friend negatively describe Lent as “forty days of pretending the resurrection of Jesus didn’t happen.” Not having grown up in the church, nor having developed a rigid understanding of what a “proper” observation of the days leading up to Easter Sunday looks like, I wasn’t sure what to make of this description. I knew, in my own heart, that the observation of the season has always felt like the opposite: forty days of getting to swim around in the reality that life can — and does — come out of death.
I’ve learned that fasting, like any spiritual discipline or tradition, can lead to life or to misery. Most years, the things I’ve practiced laying down have been doorways into understanding how mysterious and lavish God’s care of me can be. When I fast from constant activity and choose to be still, I get to see the tiniest beginnings of bright green buds outside of my kitchen window or discover a nest of kittens under the eaves of our house. When I choose to be alone with God without distractions, lessons from the garden affect me in profound ways. I slow down to wait and hope for overwintered seeds to sprout up and grow to nourish my family. And when they do, I marvel.
Rather than spending a season staring at death, feeling like death, and denying simple pleasures, I look for the threads of story and beauty within my life that I often overlook or forget. At times, this means practicing silence or giving up a go-to distraction. But it always means asking for an open heart willing to wait on God, eyes looking and ears longing to take in a deeper understanding of the rejuvenation being performed year after year — the merciful rejuvenation that takes place in the ground and in the hearts of God’s people.
In these last few years, I’ve seen this season through the eyes of my two young boys. I cannot expect their hearts to engage in the same ways mine has become accustomed to. But I do want them to catch the sense that these Lenten days are special.
Our five-year-old came down one morning last week with my brother’s set of The Chronicles of Narnia. He eagerly requested that I pick up reading chapter three of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which was a surprise because he seemed completely unengaged with the first two chapters over six months ago when I first tried reading the story to him. And yet, he remembered the narrative and asked, as I began reading, if I thought Lucy’s brothers and sisters would ever believe her about Narnia. By chapter eight, Aslan is on the move and his heart (and mine) are engaged in a springtime hope. We read:
“‘Oh, yes! Tell us about Aslan!’ said several voices at once; for once again that strange feeling — like the first signs of spring, like good news, had come over them.”
It is this strange feeling that I want to tune in to and that I want to lead my boys towards.
As we do during the Advent season, our custom is to read through The Jesus Storybook Bible in preparation for Easter. This year, our family is enjoying lovingly hand-drawn miniature pictorial ornaments for each day of Lent that correspond with selected stories and songs for that day. When our church’s children’s ministry coordinator stopped by with the folder she’d prepared, I knew this would be a delightful, age-appropriate way to invite our boys to pause. Daily, they ask us to read the next story and daily, our oldest son runs to my desk to find the corresponding picture. He has charged himself with the task of finding the right number and carefully hanging each picture on a small spindly branch we brought home after some exploring nearby. I’ve discovered that my job is to slowly and prayerfully color each ornament. Sitting and coloring while taking in the reminders of God’s great love for me feels like exactly what my soul needs.
When I color, I’m sitting at my grandmother’s desk surrounded by light from our kitchen windows. The shelves above me display a small library: cookbooks that contain recipes and notes of memories when each was prepared, a book titled Happy Living: A Guidebook for Brides placed purposefully under another titled Beauty from Ashes. They hold my favorite and most beautiful hand-made bowls, one of them containing a tissue-paper flower my youngest son gave me last Mother’s Day. I use the colored pencils I bought for the boys and now realize they’re as much a gift to myself as to them. I sit above the peace lily that I’ve enjoyed for over ten years but have only learned in the last two how to coax blooms from it. In it is a carefully placed branch that holds these tiny swaying reminders of the season. Just behind me, all of the sprouts for our garden lean towards the sunlight and serve as yet another reminder of new life. Surrounded by gifts of life, light, growth, beauty, feast, story, and love, I sit down. I pause. I wait and I color these tiny Lenten pictures. When I steal away for a few minutes to color, I feel myself wanting to savor the project, and I work with a purposeful slowness, hoping the exercise will be one that lasts much longer than I know it will.
Last year, my mom lovingly sent a couple of packages with personalized Lenten lessons for our family that run from Ash Wednesday through Pentecost based on a book called Before and After Easter. Each lesson shares a story from church history alongside an activity. One explains the term “fishers of men” and describes how to make a tissue paper fish. When the boxes arrived, I somehow (mercifully) knew not to try to complete each day’s activity with my two squirmy pre-schoolers. Not that first year, at least. And yet, the gift speaks to me profoundly. Not unlike the unfolding mystery of God’s care for His children, I sense how my mom’s thoughtful and loving care for me and her grandsons is one that will last for years to come. We will circle back to these stories as the boys grow; some we will repeat year after year. There will be teachable moments that come up easily, and others I will need to plan for and prepare in advance. In either case, I know that it is God leading my heart and theirs into the mystery of His creative and amazing love for His children.
In some of the pages she sent, I read about making homemade lavender incense and wanted to make some for our home and to share as gifts. I remembered my aunt’s description of the lavender fields she saw in France, and I longed to gather that beauty, that scent, that historical significance, and bring it into our home. I asked around for anyone who had lavender in their home gardens and found a huge dry bush in a nearby community garden. I got permission to harvest some and was eager to try and make the incense sticks. In reading more, I found that it was too dry to work well, and would need to have been harvested before the cold months and mixed with other slower burning elements. Then I came across a lavender plant at a nearby nursery. I bought it with hopes of nurturing it into a thriving plant, to have plenty to harvest for homemade incense the following year. After spring and the first few months of summer, in the intense heat of August, my care of the plant dried up and it died.
I sense a lot of lessons in this experience, but mainly I trust that some day my desire, mixed with God’s leading, may provide an opportunity to make my own lavender incense to enjoy and share. If this had all come together easily the first or second time I tried towards that desire, it would not be as sweet as it will be once it comes to fruition.
I ask God to give me a heart ready to experience the springtime and Lenten rise-and-shine symphony with fresh eyes like those I first saw Him with. I was a young teen, newly on the other side of my parents’ divorce and deeply missing my mother, who by that point, lived two states away. And now, what felt like death then has become my favorite merciful rejuvenation story. My own story of my mother and me. For over a decade, my mom and I did not share our lives with one another. And here, today, we walk through a preparation for hope together. We walk towards a magnificent dawn. We believe it is true because we’ve seen a sunrise in each other.
My heart learns again that moving through my own fear, disappointment, mistakes, and inconsistency can lead to despair, or it can lead to Easter-hope. And, in these forty days when the practice of moving through these stories intensifies, I start to believe that the new hopes I’m getting to swim around in really, truly will not disappoint.
Occasionally, Alice blogs at alicemarysmith.tumblr.com and sends tweets out into the ether at twitter.com/alicesmith. But she mostly just prays in fits and starts, between changing diapers and making meals for little people, that Jesus would come quickly to renew this world.