Lenten Chaos: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
“Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.”
Most of us could use the verse from the Psalms as our prayer for Lent. Yet, so often it seems that the prayer goes unanswered. We pray that there will be a new creation within us, and a renewal of that quickening which we knew when we each began our faith journey. In seeking the creation of something new within our lives, our church and our world, we are also, in some sense, acknowledging the formless void and chaos that seems to be all around us. The ancient Greeks, in their mythology, alternately considered chaos as a place or even a person or a god. Modern thinkers most often consider chaos to be a condition.
Whatever the nuances of meaning, chaos seems to describe much of what we see and experience. Day by day and week by week we view headlines and stories with descriptions of chaos, in politics, in the church and in society. The voices that we hear amplify the message. Will there be a pandemic? Who will be elected or re-elected? What new church scandal will emerge? Financial markets rise and plummet, terrorists do their deadly work, people die on the border, another mass shooting is reported and wars rage just below the headlines in Ukraine and the Middle East. Religious rivalries explode on the Indian subcontinent, even as Christians die for their faith in Africa and Asia. Chaos could be the word for how we understand much of what we see and hear.
It is, however, out of chaos and a formless void that God comes to create… and that gives me hope.
I think that all too often Lent is presented to us as a season in which we are to “put our spiritual house in order”. There is a commonly accepted idea that through fasting, discipline and spiritual exercises of one sort or another, we will be able to bring order out of the chaos. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that we are unable to effect a new creation out of the chaos. We cannot do it in the world. We cannot do it in the church. We cannot do it in society. We cannot do it even in our individual lives. In facing chaos and a formless void, Lent is the time in which we admit that only God can divide the light from darkness. Only God can divide the day from the night. Only God can create a clean heart in us. Only God can renew a right spirit within us.
Just as we cannot bring order to the chaos of the world, we most often lack the ability to address the chaos of our own lives. All too often we carry guilt from past actions and decisions that, try as we might, we are unable to resolve. In our present daily lives we bear burdens and concerns that seem beyond our strength or capacity to carry. Often, we feel like Christ, weak from hunger in his own Lenten wilderness, except if we were offered the opportunity to turn the stones into bread, we would do it in an instant. You see, even if we have to carry the burdens of the past, we at least want the problems of the present solved.
Perhaps, however, the message of Lent is that the stones remain stones. We begin our Lenten journey with a cross of ashes placed on our foreheads with the words, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return…” Lent is not about changing our circumstances, it’s about changing us, and that is something that is beyond our power. It requires an act of creation, an act of renewal. It requires God to divide the light from the darkness and, out of a formless void to create within us a clean heart and a right spirit. And perhaps, with that clean heart and right spirit we can face the chaos that surrounds us and, perhaps, in its midst reflect the creative beauty of God, even in vessels of dust.