Many years ago, before I went to divinity school and was still teaching, a student approached me about becoming the faculty advisor for a new club she was planning on starting.
“It’s called ‘Beginnings,’” she said eagerly.
“Great,” I said. “Beginnings for what?”
“Oh…” she said, “it’s for prayer.” (It was a private school.)
“Good for you,” I said eagerly. I found myself flattered that she had come to me about being the advisor.
“How many people are looking to join so far?” I asked.
“So far just me and my friend, Kat,” she said. “She’ll be Vice President.”
(They were Juniors.)
I agreed to be the club’s advisor. A few days later, posters went up around campus. An announcement was made at Assembly. A shoebox for prayer requests went outside the dining hall.
The next week, we met after school in one of the English classrooms.
My student and her friend, Kat, the Vice President, showed up five minutes early.
“I asked everyone in all my classes and all the girls on my hallway,” said my student.
“I asked everyone on the diving team,” said Kat.
They looked at each other eagerly.
Five minutes went by. Nobody else arrived. The girls said nothing, but they seemed surprised, as if they’d misread their schedule and had ended up going to class at the wrong time.
“Why don’t we get started?” I eventually suggested.
“Maybe we could wait a few more minutes,” said my student. “I mean, if it’s just us, what’s the point?”
“Yeah,” said Kat.
“Maybe we could start by praying for the school in general,” I said.
“Right. Like that they’ll come and be part of ‘Beginnings,’” said my student.
And suddenly I found myself wondering, “What is this actually about?”
That wasn’t going to get much clearer over the months that followed.
I dutifully met with the group every Friday night for a year — it did get a little bigger, I am glad to say.
The shoebox for prayer next to the dining hall was always retrieved, and now and again, it would be opened and there would be one or two requests folded up and folded up and folded up into little paper pills the way kids do, and we prayed those.
That was wonderful.
But so much of the energy of that group seemed squarely directed on growing the group, period.
We prayed a lot just about that.
What would happen if the group grew — what it would then be poised to do, what its work would then become — was never discussed.
More to the point, from what I could see, it was never even dreamed of.
I couldn’t have put it this way then, but looking back at it now, I’d say that they were long on mission but short on vision.
That early moment when the club president had asked, “If it’s just us, what’s the point?” was a question that never ended up getting answered.
Now let me just say, I think that faith has a lot to say about that particular question.
But before we get into that, we need to acknowledge how easy it is for all of us to wander into seasons of life when we, too, are long on mission but short on vision.
And by this, I don’t mean to focus, specifically, on church mission and church vision–though churches enter such seasons, to be sure.
I mean something broader than that. Because, of course, we all enter such seasons.
Personally, professionally, emotionally, this happens to us.
After all, we all have missions — responsibilities we are charged to carry out, things we need to get done. I suspect we’ve all had some sort of vision, too — some hoped for picture of how things might all be…some sense of how it all might come together for us in the end.
We know mission. We know vision. Right?
Knowing them as we do, then, we also know how easily we can get long on vision and short on vision — long in our focus on getting things done, and short on the bigger picture of why we’re doing them in the first place…or why we’re still doing them.
Have you ever found yourself doing something out of sheer habit that made sense whenever you started, but doesn’t make sense, anymore?
You’ve probably heard the story of the woman who made her mother’s recipe for pot roast by dutifully cutting off either end of the roast before putting it in the pan.
And then one day, her new daughter-in-law asked why she did it that way.
“Well,” said the woman, a little defensively, “that’s how my mother always made it, and it was delicious, so….”
So…the daughter-in-law went into the living room. As it happens, Granny was sitting on the couch, watching t.v.
The young woman asked her, “You know, Granny, how did you discover that the secret to pot roast was cutting the ends off before sticking it in the oven.”
“What?” the grandmother said. “No no no. Back when we still lived in the city, we only had a small stove and a small roasting pan, so I always had to cut off the ends to get it in there….”
Sometimes, things turn out to be habit and we didn’t even know it.
We have been going through the motions all along.
And yet, how often do we stop to ask ourselves why we’re doing the things that we’re doing?
How often do we check in with our own vision?
For a lot of us, it’s not all that often.
We’ll save why we don’t for another time.
But it’s for this reason that Lent exists as a season of the church.
Lent exists as a time for us to stop and ask ourselves why we’re doing the things that we’re doing.
It’s about getting off the hamster wheel of our day-to-day lives and reconnecting with the vision of what we truly hope our lives might be like…which is to say, it’s about reconnecting with the vision of who it is God has called us to be.
This morning, we heard Mark’s version of Jesus’ going into the wilderness for 40 days, which is, more or less, the model for Lent.
Mark only gives us two sentences by way of a story. He says:
“…The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (1:12-13).
It’s not like Luke’s version, which tells us in such close detail about the specific temptations Jesus faces.
I love that version, too, and yet one thing about the way Mark tells it is that maybe the specifics don’t really matter.
Mark’s version allows us to imagine that maybe they aren’t even temptations so much as they are distractions.
Because it’s clear when Jesus gets baptized and a voice comes down from Heaven and says, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” — it’s clear that this man is going to have a mission.
But is he going to have a vision?
Not if he doesn’t connect, he won’t. Not unless he finds a way to listen for God — to hear that voice that spoke at his baptism, speaking through all the distractions that were sure to come.
The same is true for us.
And so just as much as Lent is about making time for prayer and Scripture, or for loosening the grip of our petty dependencies and all that famous Lenten stuff, it is most of all about clearing the way for vision.
For a couple with young children, it might begin in recommitting to date night….remembering why the family began, in the first place.
For a busy professional, it might begin in connecting with the person whose life is changed because of something we help make or a service we help provide.
For a senior, it might begin with finding things that still push us, or introduce us to new ideas, new people, new places.
For all of us, acts of kindness and generosity offered without strings and free of charge turn out to replenish us, to surprise us, and to remind us of that greater vision for our lives.
What do you most need to take on or to get rid of in order to connect with the vision that drives you?
This is the question of Lent. And Lent is the season to find out.
All those years ago, those two earnest students could not see beyond the challenge of starting their group.
“If it’s just us, what’s the point?” they asked. There was never an answer big enough to that question.
Lent says that the big answers are out there.
Our challenge is to make space for those answers to unfold.
Like the little paper pills that students gave our group to pray over, we as faithful people need to open the box, and see what we have received.
Lent is when we let God show us what He has, in fact, written not only on someone else’s heart, but on our own.