Lent Sample Page (from 2018)
24 // the Way of the Strong Back, Soft Front
" I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete." John 15.11
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How can we be open to life’s joys, when there’s so much brokenness in the world?
It’s a big question to ask. I mean, dare we spend our time ‘contemplating’ nature in wonder and astonishment, for instance, when we know that the rainforests are being decimated (and thus could be using our time to engage actively in protest, instead)?
How can I take my kids, without guilt, for a special treat at a theme-park when I know someone else’s kids are in misery in Syria..?
Mercifully, it doesn’t have to be either/or. And the ‘wilder’ heart that we can cultivate in the wilderness, according to Brené Brown, learns to hold such tensions creatively, powerfully - which is a spiritual skill to hone.
And this is crucial:
“Love, belonging and joy are essential, irreducible needs for all of us,” she writes. “And we cannot give people what we don’t have. We can’t fight for what’s not in our hearts.”
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So a ‘wild’ heart (and I do like that phrase!) can, and surely must, pulse with joy, and love, even within the world's struggles. It’s not easy or comfortable to hold such a tension, but what makes it possible, she says, is having a “front made of love and a back built of courage.” It's a memorable and helpful image.
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As the anthropologist and activist Joan Halifax puts it, “All too often, our so-called strength comes from fear, not love ...” (You might like to stop right there, and reflect on this statement for the rest of the day!)
However: “If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open.”
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There are practical ways to develop a strong back (which is especially pertinent when we’re worried about what people will think of us). Brown suggests setting good boundaries, not over-committing or over-promising, practicing values when it's not comfortable to do so, and making generous assumptions about people as we go.
We can also work on softening our front. Most of us, from childhood onwards, grow to become emotionally guarded, and the ego arms itself with weapons of defence and attack. But it’s possible to transcend this predictable pattern, to stay ‘open’ instead, in love. Remember, vulnerability is not weakness, but “our most accurate measure of courage,” according to Brown. “A soft front is about ... being brave.”
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I was recently in the woods, and took some time simply to lean back against a tall, strong beech tree. The sense of strength at my back felt truly awesome, and spoke to me powerfully, soulfully of the deeply rooted strength I can draw from God’s presence, which is always with me.
I thought, too, of Jesus, whose back was set against wood at Golgotha. It’s the most salient, and moving, reminder, surely, that the soft/strong tension does not guarantee safety. What it does promise, however, is that we can fight the fight, for others, for Creation, for a breaking world... with a joy, and a love, that will pour, with a passion, from the heart.
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In a few quiet moments: It might be hard to give yourself permission to experience joy. So use the verse above, from John - "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete." Pause. Breathe more slowly, and deeply. Smile. Whisper the words: "May your joy be in me, and made complete." Close your eyes, settle in, and keep whispering.
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Find a tree, and lean with your back against it for several (guilt-free) minutes. Feel its strength. Pray that God's strength can give you similar spine for the situations you face today. Pray, too, for a soft front, which remains courageously open. While you're at the tree, reflect on the nature of God's love, in Jesus, which gave him the irresistible strength to yield his life, at the Crucifixion. Give thanks for such love, and ask that it may flow from your own heart.
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