Saturday, February 3, 2007

Lent is Approaching

Lent is quickly approaching and I've been thinking about what I will do this Lent. Last year, in the parish, we met every Sunday evening for prayer and for study. It was a really powerful time for me and for others and I was really glad we had done it. I think that we will do something similar this Lent although I now have worship two Sunday evenings a month now with our students so we won't be able to do a study every Sunday.

I think for my personal reading I will real Miroslav Volf's Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. It was the the Archbishop of Canterbury's official Lent book last year but I'm at least a year behind in my reading.

I usually try to see some movies for Lent too. There are some that just seem right for a season of repentence, preparation, self-examination, and pilgrimage. People tell me often that Lent isn't about the first of those things, that we've emphasized sin and repentence too much. Instead, they tell me that we should be emphasizing the idea of preparation. No one has told me so far that we should be using blue for the liturgical colour instead of purple.

Maybe it is because of my Roman Catholic days though, when six weeks of self-examination led to going to confession and making it a good one, but I think it is helpful to have a more sombre season of the church year. I really like the custom of stripping the church of flowers and the service of alleluias. And I like 'giving something up' for Lent - another custom which seems to be out of favour with some of my friends and colleagues. Well, maybe I shouldn't say I like it, but I do find it meaningful.

So I like to watch The Apostle in Lent to see how Sonny is forced to give up his 'life' after committing a dreadful act and how he then goes on a journey of redemption. Robert Duvall wrote, directed, produced and starred in the movie and it is really is an act of love. Another film that I always associate with Lent is The Mission about the Jesuits working in Latin America in the 18th century. There is an amazing scene of Robert de Niro carrying the burden of his sinful life up a mountain after he murders his brother. The climax of the film is a metaphor for the Garden of Gethsemane. De Niro's character represents Peter picking up the sword while Jeremy Irons' character is Jesus being faithful unto death. The first time I saw this film it was around the corner from my apartment on Good Friday and it haunted me for weeks.

Here is a review I wrote originally several years ago for the Sower of two movies I think work well for Lent too.

This month we begin our Lenten journey to the cross and an empty grave. We make this journey hoping that it will be a journey in which we walk more closely with Jesus. Christians have understood that the pilgrimage that is our life requires times of particular self-examination when we seek out the ways in which we’ve gotten off track.

In my first year at university our intro English class began with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Overwhelmed by the challenge of reading 14th century English I don’t think it occurred to any of us that what we were being introduced to was the very important Christian theme of pilgrimage. It was only later that I would realize how prevalent that image of journey is in the west. In sources as diverse as the spiritual classic Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan to John Grisham’s novel The Testament we find the idea that the spiritual life is an often difficult and dangerous journey.

Two films come to mind as illustrating the pilgrimage we make in Lent. The first is “A Family Thing” (1996) starring Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones. After the death of his mother, Earl Pilcher, played by Duvall, discovers that his birth mother was really a black servant, Willa Mae. Willa Mae dies in childbirth and because Earl is able to ‘pass’ as white Mrs. Pilcher has raised him as her own. She tells Earl in a letter that she wants him to find his half-brother Ray Murdoch, played by Jones, a police officer in Chicago, and make him family. So begins Earl’s pilgrimage from his home in Arkansas to the city of Chicago.

The second film is “The Straight Story” (1999), based on the true story of Alvin Straight, played by Richard Farnsworth. Straight is in his seventies, suffering from a wide range of medical problems, living in Laurens, Iowa. He receives word that his brother Lyle has suffered a severe stroke. The two brothers have been estranged for ten years and Alvin decides that he must journey to Wisconsin to be reconciled to his brother. No longer allowed to drive a car, he rigs up a trailer to his John Deere riding mower and sets out to make the journey of 370 miles.

Both films share a number of the themes basic to pilgrimage. Both begin on a note of repentance. For Alvin the journey is motivated by his own regret for the falling out he has had with his brother. Earl Pilcher’s journey begins with a request from is mother who has told Earl on her death bed that she doesn’t want him to be like her, facing death with regrets.

Going on pilgrimage means facing difficulties and dangers and Earl and Alvin encounter both of these. For Alvin it involves everything from weeks of exposure to the elements to failing brakes. Earl will face the dangers of urban crime and be beaten up in a car-jacking. Yet the difficulties are part of the experience and not to be avoided. When people offer to drive Alvin the rest of his way he replies that he has to do make this journey his own way. And despite the hostility he faces from his brother and nephew Earl finds reasons to stay in Chicago.

For both men the journey means a turning of their hearts. For Earl it means confronting his own bigotry and the fact that he was fathered in an act of rape. In a moving scene we see Alvin confess to another war vet what he did in the war and how it changed him when he returned home. Alcohol and anger have marked his life and lay at the root of his fight with his brother.

The people they meet on their journey will be changed by their encounter with these men. Alvin will change the direction of a runaway’s life while Earl will speak of hope to his embittered nephew. In their own ways, the pilgrims become guides for others on their journeys.

In the words of one of my favourite hymns in the new hymnal, we are invited to ‘come and journey with a Saviour.’ May Lent be a time for us to make a holy pilgrimage, a time to move in new ways, accepting the difficulties that come with walking a new path, and looking for other pilgrims to share the journey with.

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