An imagined conversation

Random Person: What are you giving up for Lent?   Me: Nothing!

RP: (brightly) So you’re adding something then? Me: Not that either. (Self-deprecating smile.) Though I do keep trying to improve myself in various ways, more of this and less of that, if you know what I mean.

Patterns in the sand, Long Beach.

Patterns in the sand, Long Beach.

(Thought bubble above Me‘s head: “And whether giving up or adding, I shouldn’t be announcing it, should I? It’s a fast, and the point of fasting is the inward retreat, not looking gaunt and obvious about it, unless of course it’s a community-wide fast as it was during Christendom, which is over now, or a group-or-twosome-covenanted thing for reflection and accountability, in which case the question with its implied individuality is still unnecessary.) Continue reading

Watching bread rise

So I’m reading merrily along in an article about the “foodie” movement by Ian Brown, one of my favourite Globe and Mail writers, when I hit a Mennonite joke I haven’t heard before.

Describing activity in the pastry kitchen of a Canadian chef school, Brown writes,

[other students] were standing in front of the…bread oven, injecting puffs of steam and watching baguettes rise through its glass doors – ‘Mennonite TV,’ they called it.”

I’m not sure if that’s a dig at Mennonite connections to food (of the Mennonite Girls Can Cook or the More with Less variety) or – more likely – at the stereotype of Mennonites as “anti-modernist,” as technology-free. Well, either way, ha ha.

I can now confess that it’s been a long time since a TV program held my interest beyond a single episode. The miracle of yeast in bread, however, hasn’t lost its charm, and that’s going back to my first batch of buns at age 13. Just this morning, in fact, I got my hands into dough and made up this pile of them, because it’s nice to have home-made buns in the freezer.

Seriously though (we may laugh but not too long!), it reminds me of something else that Mennonites (a.k.a. Anabaptists) are alert to, ideally at least, and that’s the kingdom of God as something already begun, participatory, and as mysterious as the Spirit. And it reminds me of a small kitchen parable Jesus told.

What shall I compare the kingdom of God with? It is like the yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour till it was leavened all through. Luke 13:20-21.

I mix and knead and cover the dough, and when I look again, it’s risen to a lovely mound. As if a fluke, I push the dough down, and pinch it into balls on pans, cover them and leave. And when I check, those irrepressible balls of dough have risen again. Stuck in the heat of the oven, they insist on swelling even more, until they turn brown and are deliciously done.

This Lenten season I’m trying to offer attentiveness to what God may be up to in my world. Watching bread rise, as it were. Last week that meant entering deeply into a number of stories of significant pain. But there was something moving and alive in them too, something good, something very vulnerable but real. Kingdom growth, like the yeast miracles of the kitchen.

Parable of the leaven, etching by Jan Luyken

Repeating myself: What I like about Lent

It’s good to be here again, isn’t it, at this time of the year, turning the liturgical calendar to a new season? I wrote this post last year and thought it might do, with my apologies for the repetition, to use it again.

Lent was not part of my experience growing up in a Mennonite church. It was something that “others” did (read: Catholics), and when one is young, what those others do often seems vastly inferior to what one’s own people do. We celebrated Good Friday and Easter and that was enough. Lent had an aura of gloominess and “works righteousness” about it, and we were beyond all that striving and uncertainty and climbing the stairs to heaven on our knees. (I speak as a child.)

But in the meanwhile, many Mennonite churches, including my own, adopted various practices of the liturgical calendar, and I’ve come to appreciate Lent’s invitation to reflection, to deep consideration of Christ and the cross, to give up or to take on. To see oneself as one is: as in the words of Thomas Merton, “I walk from region to region of my soul and I discover that I am a bombed city.” To hear oneself named “Beloved” in the midst of that desolation.

One can do this any time, of course, but Ash Wednesday with its formal beginning, and the six Sundays leading up to Easter with their liturgies and sermons and reminders are helps along the way.

So it’s a good time. But one of the things I like best about Lent is that it’s not a big deal in the wider culture. It’s not commercial. Having ashes imposed (I love that word for this ritual) to mark repentance and awareness of being “dust” seems by now, in fact, the strange activity of a strange minority.

Oh I know Mardi Gras is a big party and that many people participate in some form of Lent. I also know that Lent can take on a kind of trendiness. Just the other day I caught myself asking someone — casually, as if inquiring about the latest flavours at Starbucks — what they were giving up for Lent. As if it was any of my business. (It’s a fast, isn’t it?)

But mostly, Christians observe this odd season quietly, almost underground, like seeds swelling for the resurrection, while the real days get longer and winter turns to spring, while the “news” plays out in the world, while ordinary life continues. There are no cards to send or gifts to buy. No advertisements guilting us into spending, like at Christmas or the Hallmark holidays. No aisles of Lent toys or candies. No Lent carols playing in the malls. And nobody shouting “Happy Lent!”