Running on Empty

Lent.  The word creates both anticipation and dread in me every time we flip the calendar to a new year.

I anticipate it because the congregation I serve participates in its ritual gatherings—Ash Wednesday, midweek Lenten worship, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday—with intention and faith.  I choose the themes carefully and enjoy this season with them.  We observe the passion of our Lord together and arrive at Easter morning having taken the time to appreciate what it took to get there.

But all of that is intense and exhausting, hence the dread.  I mentioned to a colleague one year that I have to fight crabbiness as Lent wears on.  She gave me a little plastic crab to put on my desk, so I have added this small tradition in order to take myself less seriously and enjoy the process more.

I prayed for strength this morning, for perspective to see both the needs and the gifts that the day will bring instead of whining internally about all this work.  To be an instrument of grace and healing for those who need it.  To see the many indications of God at work instead of letting my to-do list grind me down.

As I prayed, God’s grace flowed in again with a new perspective.  I often decry the ‘zero sum game’ attitude in others, but I recognized it in myself.  It is not helpful, especially in the demanding work of ministry, to think of each task or person as another swipe at my limited store of energy.  It only makes me more miserly, more jealous of the time I claim as my own to mete out.

Instead, I can see each encounter and each task as an opportunity for God’s limitless love and energy to flow through me.  This energy is not my own to give.  The love that motivates me to give and to heal does not originate in me.  The knowledge, creativity, and resources at my disposal are mine to steward, not to hoard or bestow at my whim.

I often think of grace as a river endlessly flowing, never running out.  I am free to float along, to see the sights along the way, to paddle for more speed at certain times or to simply enjoy the slow pace at others.   To experience God’s grace is to realize that it is endless, and it carries me along.

I once spent three days in a canoe on the Mississippi.  Our group had to paddle for hours to traverse the 55 miles on that wide river.  We took welcome breaks, floating with the slow current.  We spotted dozens of eagles and marveled at the ecosystem and history of that watery thoroughfare.

But here’s the thing about rivers: I don’t create the current.  To act as if I do is to resent the ministries of each day for all that they take from me, because if I have to muster the energy and get things moving on my own, it will destroy me.  I do not have to act as some sort of turbine making the water move instead of harnessing its power.

My task is not to get the river moving along; it is already flowing beautifully.  My part is to set my craft on the current and enjoy the ride along with everyone else.  To offer sustenance to someone who has run out of provisions.  To speak words of comfort to someone who is grieving along the way.  To point out the beautiful sights to another whose gaze is cast down.  To help someone who is trying to paddle against the current, lending him a hand in lifting his paddle so that the current can turn his boat around.  And yes, leaving those behind who need someone else’s help more than my own.

If the Lenten season drains me of all energy, then I have been victimized by my own ego which wants to take credit for everything I do.  How much better to let God’s energetic love flow through me in this time of added responsibility.  I suspect that I will experience grace in new dimensions, in abundant measure.  I have so little energy and love if I depend on myself.  With God there is always more than enough.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Cor 4.7)

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