Forward March

1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
Luke 4:1-2

Growing up, I was a hybrid of several denominations and strict adherent of none–a product of a long-term church search that led our family everywhere from Episcopalianism to a charismatic Assembly of God. We landed in a Methodist congregation, though I’m not sure I could tell you what that meant to me doctrinally. Wait, yes I could: zilch. What I remember learning about Lent could fit inside a doll’s thimble, and I still don’t know if that’s because I wasn’t paying attention or it wasn’t emphasized. I never received ashes on my forehead, and giving up chocolate was the deepest I knew of Lenten sacrifice, which seemed more a trend than a heartfelt observance. It left my feelings about the pre-Easter period of the church calendar pretty heavy on the “Meh”-meter.

Now I’m grown (arguably) and have my own family. We’ve attended an Anglican church for the past year and are in the process of becoming members, which means liturgical traditions and ritual observances are all over my radar. Not only that, but I care about it all, these repetitive utterances and practices that somehow don’t just retain their meaning through the repetition but become more sacred. So I’ve spent a little more time this year thinking about Lent, the 40-day period bridging Epiphany to the Resurrection, winter to spring. And the part that stands out to me most in my current season of life is the journey aspect of it; specifically, a journey that feels like standing still.

Photo courtesy of Alba Campus

Photo courtesy of Alba Campus

Our family of four recently took a trip south to the beach. If you’ve never had the pleasure of escorting a one- and four-year-old on a six-hour car ride, allow me to assure you that it is its own special kind of wilderness experience. The baby is going through a stage I call “The Second You Slow This Car Down I’ll Scream Bloody Murder,” which he proved to us as we meandered through construction zones and past accidents. The preschooler, who recently began speaking, decided to use his current favorite phrase about thirty minutes in: “All done.” Between piercing screams and echoes of “All done? All done,” my husband and I were aching to exit that car. Once we finally did, our older son made it inside my parents’ house just as he barfed up the contents of that day’s school Valentine’s party all over their floor. The next day, we left the kids behind and drove two-and-a-half hours east for a three-night getaway. Though unpopulated by children, and with a more scenic view, that trip eked by as well: it seemed we would never arrive at our quiet hotel with its adult-only pool and turn-down service provided by someone other than me.

There are journeys that feel marked by stasis. So much so that progress seems like a pipe dream: are we even moving at all?

My son’s journey to speech–which is still happening, but now that the major breakthrough has occurred, I can finally confirm that there is a journey happening–could have been described this way for four long years as we waited for words. Little did I know that the experts were right, even as I doubted them: his gestures and sounds and interactions were, in fact, pre-language skills that were paving the way for him to eventually begin speaking. Progress was happening; it was a daily fact of life, though most days it occurred without my recognition. I think about my spiritual life and how I seem stuck in the same ruts–the same sins–over and over. How I struggle repeatedly with past mistakes and current weaknesses. How sometimes it feels like I’m not getting anywhere. I mean, how many times can I lose my temper and expect to be forgiven? How much of a control freak am I allowed to be before grace runs out?

Jesus spent the 40 days after his baptism and before his public ministry in the wilderness, taunted and hungry. That entire time he stayed–for you and me. Yet there was movement. There was a progression, but it was toward death. Toward a cross. Every day he was moving closer to the fulfillment of prophecy that he knew would leave him forsaken by his father, suffering a cosmic disconnection that he did not deserve. Jesus stayed put so that I could know that wherever I am, I am moving, for he does not mean to leave me in one place. And that movement is always toward home, toward him. Through and toward the eternal connection he gave up on the cross so I’d never have to be without it, no matter how I feel at any given moment.

This is what Lent is coming to mean for me: that the moments with my children when I struggle to hold it together for their sakes–and fail–are not my defining moments. That my perpetual inability to be a perfect wife–forget that, even a nice one–will not slay my marriage. That my failures and mistakes are not my bottom line. That I am not entrenched in one sin, one spot, in hopelessness, because there is always movement toward the cross–but for me, that movement means life, and only because it meant death for him. Which makes my Lent this year not so much a “giving up” season as much as it is a “taking on”: taking on the beauty of the cross and the assurance it provides that love never stops pursuing me–and that we’re always headed home together.

Written by Stephanie Phillips

Stephanie Phillips

Stephanie Phillips is a former Southern belle and recovering fundamentalist who was exiled to New York City for five years to think about what she’d done. After a widening of life experience and becoming reacquainted with grace, she now lives in Atlanta with her husband and two young boys, where she practices pediatric dentistry just often enough that it helps pay her Netflix bill and allows time to write her blog (plansinpencil.com) and contribute to her favorite websites (thewheelhousereview.com, mbird.com, bodypoliticblog.org).

About Stephanie Phillips

Stephanie Phillips is a former Southern belle and recovering fundamentalist who was exiled to New York City for five years to think about what she’d done. After a widening of life experience and becoming reacquainted with grace, she now lives in Atlanta with her husband and two young boys, where she practices pediatric dentistry just often enough that it helps pay her Netflix bill and allows time to write her blog (plansinpencil.com) and contribute to her favorite websites (thewheelhousereview.com, mbird.com, bodypoliticblog.org).

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