“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”
In some situations, it makes sense to cover up embarrassing parts of your life. The cocktail party conversation that begins with a casual “how are you” is probably not the moment to talk about the trouble you’re having making your mortgage payments. It’s the moment for “oh, fine, thanks.” When the guy comes to fix the water heater, there’s no point in telling him the anguish of dealing with your mother’s addiction to painkillers. Just show him the stairs to the basement and leave it be.
But there are other situations where covering up something painful or embarrassing is absolutely the wrong thing to do. It defeats the purpose, for example, if you go to the doctor and say “oh, fine, thanks” when in fact you’ve been having uncontrollable tremors in your left leg or steadily worsening blind spots in your right eye. Getting out of your doctor’s office having managed to deceive her or yourself about your problems is not the goal. The goal is to reveal your problems so that they can get healed.
Noticing and admitting our sin is like that. The goal is to reveal our problems so they can get healed, not to appear on the surface as if we’re all “fine thanks,” and we don’t need to see the physician. Of course it’s actually impossible to deceive God about your problems because God already knows them. But that sure doesn’t stop us trying.
In today’s first reading, we see these ancient literary characters Adam and Eve choosing to mistrust that God wants the best for them, and as soon as they do they promptly discover shame, discover blame, and discover insincerity. Just a few verses later we will see them trying to hide from God completely. All of these are experiences and tactics that were never part of the Creator’s original plan for us, and that enter the world only after sin itself has entered the world and started spreading outward into everything like an ugly, oily stain. A stain that by now has touched everything with shame, blame, insincerity, coverups, and so much more.
Lent serves, in part, to try to help us stop covering up – to help us admit the shame we feel at our own sinfulness, the way we try to blame others, the insincerity with which we often speak and act, and the way our sin leads us to try to push God away and keep the relationship superficial, rather than letting him come close to heal and restore us. Lent invites us to come clean, to notice where we’re avoiding looking at reality, and by doing that, to discover how profound is the divine love that meets us even in the middle of our entrenched resistance.
Before I came to Emmanuel, when I wasn’t serving a parish, I used to do what’s called spiritual direction, meeting month by month with individuals to help them grow in knowledge and love of God. I had several directees; I wasn’t their pastor, but they would meet with me monthly for help noticing and learning from what God was doing in their lives.
One of the things I saw all the time, and every spiritual director sees all the time, was the phenomenon of resistance – the way that everybody, even people who have identified coming closer to God as a priority for them, everybody resists actually coming closer to God. Directees resist in all kinds of ways. They manage to forget the plan they made to take a half-day out in nature. They lose the title of the book they agreed to read, they misplace the address of the soup kitchen they were keen to start volunteering at, and then they accidentally delete your phone number from their contacts. It’s a running joke among directors that nobody ever simply contacts you for an initial appointment, gets it on the calendar, and then actually shows up for it. It just never happens. Resistance to God is too strong a force in a world laced with the power of sin.
If you have made one serious effort in your life to read the Bible, or pray daily, or be at Mass every Sunday, you know what I’m talking about. Because of the way sin has spread its corruption to everything around and inside us, the presence and activity of God -- the most healing and the most loving thing there is -- has become something we chronically resist. And as I said, Lent arrives as a sort of check-up on that. Where is our resistance keeping us stuck right now? Where are we avoiding God without even being able to recognize what we’re doing as avoiding God?
It’s increasingly important to be intentional about this because most of us have so much stuff in our lives and are so distracted that we live much of the day in a kind of flustered alienation. The evil one doesn’t have to serve up strong and alluring temptations, the way he does with Jesus in today’s Gospel. He just has to make sure that we never experience much silence, that we keep scrolling longer than we meant to, that we surround ourselves with enough people who agree with us to grow contemptuous of people who don’t, that we don’t notice how many nights in a row we’ve had a couple drinks before supper.
These subtle choices and habits, not just big actions, steadily lead us away from the true, free human lives God wants to give us in Jesus. As we embark together on the Lenten journey that’s outlined in our parish guidebook, we will have several opportunities to deliberately put small roadblocks in front of things that lead us away, and see what happens next.
All of our weekly practices are, objectively, quite small. You really can’t manage to feel heroic about them, which is part of why they work. Because if you ever want to grow as a Christian, one of the first steps is learning to persevere in discipleship regardless of your feelings. To steadily make choices for the love of God. Not because you feel they’re rewarding or personally authentic or because you’re emotionally moved when you do them, but for the pure love of God.
You know, it’s just assumed all over American culture right now that you should do what feels the most authentic to you, you should live a customized expression of who you personally are, you should prioritize what feels fulfilling every day. If you live by these values, I can promise you that your life in Jesus will be stunted. Growing in Christ necessarily entails slowly learning to trust and obey Christ, to persevere even when your feelings and your preferences for self-expression try to convince you that right now, something else would fit where you are better.
And so in our parish guidebook we have these tiny interventions, tiny obstacles to prioritizing what you think you prefer, tiny obstacles to the drift away from God. I’m calling them tiny, but I promise you will find them hard. You will find yourself resisting doing them. In some cases you will just not be able to muster enough freedom to choose them. You will start asking yourself, “Why can’t I do this? This ought to be no big deal.” That’s when it’s time to come to Preview and Review, a gathering every Sunday after the 8 and the 10:15, where we share how we noticed our own resistance to God and what we learned from it.
The news of Christianity is ultimately news of God’s proactive and generous offer of infinite grace – undeserved love, unmerited favor, unearned welcome. But God’s offer cannot be accepted at the level of the cocktail party, “oh, fine, how are you?” A relationship with God is impossible to have superficially. No, God operates at a much more basic level of the personality, down inside where our shame and our fear and our resistance are hoping to stay in the shadows, where distraction and habit are leading us into dark places we don’t realize we are going.
Because of what Jesus did in his cross and resurrection, there is infinite grace, undeserved love, unmerited favor, unearned welcome, and it can come and meet all the parts of you that you are the most troubled by and the most afraid of. But it will not ever meet you and me at the “oh, fine, thanks” level. It will meet us where we actually desperately need to be met. This Lent could be when that happens for you. It’s not easy. But it’s possible.