Every year, the Archbishop of Canterbury commissions a Lent Book. I have been reading these books as my Lenten study for a number of years now. I have always found them to be thought provoking, engaging as they do in a variety of ways, the implications of a life of faith fully lived. To put it in more down home terms, the books explore what it means to the whole of Creation that I have chosen to practice, as best I can, obedience to God. One year’s book, The Shape of Living by Richard Ford, brought God right into the center of these “stressful, busy lives” we keep reading about, and changed my attitude toward work. Last year’s book, Samuel Wells’ Power and Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection took up the theme of how individuals respond to the pressures of conformity, convention and politics. This year’s book, Life Conquers Death, by John Arnold takes up my favorite theme of all: in its pages he weaves an incredible meditation between God, Gospel and Russian literature. The Forward lays it out so well. Although Arnold learned Russian as part of the Cold War, he discovered in its words “a lifetime of friendship.” He continues, “Writers like Pasternak and Solzehnitsyn show, without any evasion or sentimentality, how the beauty of the human face can show itself in the most inhuman of places.”
I invite you to read this book with me this year. It is well timed in a great many ways. One of those ways is that it invites us to look back: not only to the Soviet era and the brave men and women who, at great risk to themselves, kept the candle of truth burning throughout a very great darkness, but all the way back to the first darkness, when Creation was broken by Fall, to the Christ who entered into the very depths of our suffering and breathed life into the deadest of the dead wood of an earth that men cursed.
Lent is deeply about time and we Americans live very enslaved to time. Our physicists tell us that of all dimensions, time is the most rigid. Although it is theoretically possible to move around in it, the fact is that we cannot experience time as anything but moving forward, a relentless march, raising us up to youth and beauty only to relentlessly strip those things away. “Time is money!” scream the pundits as if there is anything left in this country that has not been reduced to money. The time crunch has been the subject of a number of books and studies, excerpts of which may be read in John deGraaf ed., Take Back Your Time, the anthology of a movement to reduce working hours and increase time with family and time for refreshment, a movement which, as far as I can tell, has gained little traction. When everything needful to survival (if not life) must be purchased with cash, time that is not money is too risky an investment.
Fortunately, God has no such constraint. God exists outside time and outside space. It is entirely possible that the Garden of Eden is not the beginning of things at all, but the center of them and that all this history that we humans see as moving forward is in fact moving in quite a different direction; the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil being not two trees lost, but the signs of things to come. At the very least, Lent becomes an invitation to us to look time right in the eye,
That great writer of the twentieth century, Marcel Proust, wrote a seven volume nove, In Search of Lost Time. Memory, said this novel, is our way around the seeming inflexibility of time. Memory, which includes dreams, is what every totalitarian state tries to destroy. But even more, memory is the fabric from which we weave our truths. Raising a child is memory, for as I watch my child grow, I become myself as a child again. Watching my parents grow old is also a country of memory. In such simple ties as family does one glimpse great truths. What it says is that I can go home again.
It is no accident that this Lent, the Lent of an election year when we as a nation are called into conversation with ourselves, that memory calls us back to the days of Old Russia when a brave group of creative people kept the light of truth in their window as they sought to be one Nation, not under Stalin or under Marx, but under God.