by Pastor Doug Kings

Margaret Renkl is a writer for The New York Times. She was raised Roman Catholic and Ash Wednesday has been a regular worship experience for her, including hearing the intonation of its solemn declaration, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But as she says in “The Meaning of Lent to This Unchurched Christian”, this year will be different.

The priest will say these words on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, but he will not be saying these words to me.

Since childhood, Renkl says, she has had a “troubled relationship” with the church. Nonetheless her love for its rituals has enabled her to look past its faults and remain faithful for sixty years. But for reasons she herself doesn’t completely understand, she can’t look past them any longer.

Her regular worship stopped when the pandemic shut down her parish. Also, during that time, the last parent of her and her husband died. The loss of this influential churchgoer now left them free to decide for themselves where—or if—they should worship in the future. Renkl realized something for her had changed.

I came to understand that my growing feeling of spiritual alienation wasn’t temporary. I loved my parish, and I loved our brilliant, compassionate pastor, but I was done with the institutional church.

Renkl admits her feelings are conflicted and her behavior paradoxical. Even as she’s had enough of church, she acknowledges its attraction.

I miss the community. I miss the singing. I miss serving in social justice ministries. I even miss the ashes.

“Honestly, I don’t know what I’m looking for,” Renkl admits, but she has an inkling. As she thinks about what to do now with Lent, she remembers her maternal, Protestant grandparents starting each day with prayer and a devotional booklet reading. But that has no appeal.

A devotional isn’t what I’m looking for, and neither is another church’s Lenten program…. My idea of a daily spiritual practice is less a prayer written by someone else than a walk in the woods alone.

Renkl recalls her first faith crisis when in college and the failure of a religion class to resolve her doubts and confusion. But then they were resolved in an unexpected way.

One summer afternoon, months later, I was sitting in my parents’ backyard, listening to a mockingbird sing. Suddenly, inexplicably, a feeling of peace came over me. A feeling of perfect, absolute peace. No voice of reassurance came with it, and no words formed in my own mind to explain it. But if there had been words, they would’ve sounded something like: “It’s OK. Don’t worry. It’s OK.” I didn’t need to understand. I didn’t need to decide.

Eventually she will find a new church, Renkl says, but not now. She is looking for something like that backyard experience decades ago and she thinks a walk in the woods is a more likely place to find it than an hour in church. Renkl’s problem isn’t so much with what the church is as with what it isn’t, at least for her at this time in her life.

For over a millennium, people found spiritual solace and assurance in soaring cathedrals, glowing stained glass, elaborate liturgies, and personal rituals. As one historian said, “The heavens hung low in the Middle Ages.” In the modern world, however, for most people “the heavens” have become further and further away. If “God is in heaven”, where could that be in a universe now vast beyond comprehension?

To answer that question, Thich Nhat Hanh would have said Renkl’s devotional inclination was a good one. In one of our book discussion sessions, I said that typically if someone came to a pastor saying they wanted to learn about God, the response would be to give the person a book or three, invite them to join a class, and, of course, attend church. Nhat Hanh would likely have said, “Let’s go for a walk in the woods.”

Today, a God in heaven is as good as no God. So, it is no surprise that people turn away from churches praying to “our Father in heaven” but experience God in other places and other ways: a mindful walk in the woods or on the beach, listening to a backyard mockingbird, losing themselves in a blazing sunset or in the Milky Way’s stunning glow.

In a meditation this week, Richard Rohr shares the experience of author Paula D’Arcy. She was leading a women’s workshop in a county jail when two singers gave a concert for the inmates. They sang the rapturous Flower Duet from the opera Lakmé.

The music pulled us into the brevity of a lifetime; the mistakes we make; our longings for things to be different, to be better; the despair of being without hope; and the pure and the holy. When I turned around to look, I saw that many inmates were overcome by emotion. Something sublime was moving in that room—a sound that directly entered our hearts….

It was as if the enveloping sound was saying to a hidden place in each of us: “Something great is alive in you, and something more than this surface reality is intended for your life. Beyond your circumstances lies a different destiny.”

Music, art, poetry, and the beauty and wonder of nature can all touch us deeply. And it is not so much that we find God in them as they open our awareness to know, as D’Arcy says, that “something great is alive in you.” They help us experience that, as Jesus said in the traditional language of his time, “the kingdom of God is within you.”

To reclaim Lent, rather than giving things up perhaps we need to make time and space in our lives: for a mindful walk, to listen to the birds and consider the flowers of the field, to watch the clouds, stroll a gallery, or listen to the magic of a human voice. Then perhaps we can be awakened to the God who, Meister Eckhart said, is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Blessings in your life and ministry.