This past week I was eating lunch at a restaurant, and I found myself in conversation with the owner, who expressed that she’d seen a lot of success over the years, but lately the job just seemed harder than ever.  Staff, customers, economic realities; whatever it was, something about this season in life had just made the whole thing seem hard.  Why?  Well, I hear this kind of thing a lot as a pastor—and not just “these days”—but always.  Professionals and parents and all kinds of people–will go through seasons during which things seem especially difficult; sometimes it feels like life has become harder, or less meaningful, or more complicated than it was in the past.  And we feel a need for some kind of a reset or fresh start or at least a new perspective.  The reality is that life IS hard sometimes; and we need to care for ourselves, and tend to our spirits in order to be ready for the challenges in each day, and especially for the hard seasons.   If we look with courage and honesty at the mess life often appears to be, we can at the same time find beauty and poetry in that mess—and take some joy from it.  I think training us for this might be the purpose of Lent.

I love this painting—I stumbled upon it not long ago at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and though it’s pretty traditional in nature, I found myself startled by it when I took a closer look.  The painting was completed in 1888 by Henry Mosler; it’s about 5’ by 4’ in size, so large enough to really draw you in—and it’s the title that slowed me down enough to really look.  It’s called Morning.

So in this painting, there are two adults and five children starting the day and let’s take just moment to work left-to-right and see what the kids are up to.  This first child is in pretty good shape; dressed, shoes on, ready to go, and now standing on the furniture.  This one up at the top, on the other hand, is literally climbing the walls—and if you know anything about kids you know that that big hat just within reach is about to be removed.  Child #3 is in the middle, perhaps the most idyllic of the bunch, a baby trying to learn to eat from a spoon, and one seat away, the next one one has given up on that stage of development, no spoon, slurping from the bowl.  And this pair is my favorite.  Apparently in “simpler times” it was just as challenging as it is today to get a four year-old to put on clothes.  I always assumed that by breakfast time in 1888, a kid this age had not only dressed herself, but had already milked a cow, read something in Latin and shot dinner; but apparently not.  Don’t miss the pile of coffee grounds on the table, or the cabbage on the floor, or the looks upon the faces of the adults in the painting—which are open to interpretation.  To me, the meanings of this painting are clear.  Morning has always been hard.  And morning has always been beautiful.

You don’t have to have children for morning to be an ambivalent experience.  How many among us have planned the night before to have a great day tomorrow—or at least a productive one—only to wake up with an aching back, a scratchy through, a text message of distress that must be dealt with, a fender bender on the way to work, an unwelcome email in your inbox, a news story that breaks your heart, a coworker who is going to be difficult today…and suddenly, the great day you planned for becomes something else…a disappointment.  Is there anything to be done about this?  When the challenges come, is there a way to redeem them?  A way to find God’s beauty and poetry at work?

Enter the story from the Book of Genesis about Noah, the flood, and the rainbow.  For starters I invite you to consider this:  that life is often frustrating for any of us, and sometimes life is discouraging enough to make you want to give up.  And in this story, God seems to share that frustration, because in this story, which begins a mere 6 chapters after Creation, a great flood destroys it all because its time to start over.  But in today’s reading, at the end of the story, there’s this poetic statement by God, establishing a new covenant with Noah and his descendants, and promising to never again destroy the world by a flood.  In this story, God acknowledges the tragedy of what has taken place in this flood, and perhaps even seems to be carrying some sense of regret; at the very least, God makes a promise that, going forward, things will never again get so bad to make it worth scrapping the whole thing.  God wants us to learn to live—and even find joy—in the midst of the mess.

Anyone who is not completely horrified by the violence of the flood story, and who is willing to keep on reading the Bible, finds that this story fits a theme that comes up again and again in Scripture, it is perhaps the most important storyline of all:  that in the beginning, God creates the world and calls it very good; God places humankind in a beautiful garden to tend and enjoy; and when that experiment fails in Genesis, chapter 3, God’s purpose for the rest of eternity will be to try to help us get back to that Garden and receive the life of goodness and blessing for which we were made.  That is God’s promise, the promise on which God will never give up.  And every time we see a rainbow, we are supposed to remember it.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, a church season during which we will experience together a different kind of flood story, a different story about passing through death on the way to new life, this time centered around God’s own Son, Jesus.  During Lent we follow Jesus on his path to Resurrection, which only comes through death on a Cross, and here we see a renewed telling of the flood story:  that often in life, in order for rebirth to happen, first something has to die.

We are called to go on this journey with Jesus, a journey of personal exploration about what in our own lives is not helping us get back to the Garden and therefore needs to die.  An addiction, an attitude, an unhealthy relationship with greed or lust or some other sin.  This is the story of Lent:  that through the death and resurrection of Jesus we see a pattern we are meant to follow:  to seek out the things in our lives that need to be let go or put to death, so we can experience more of the joyful life in the Garden for which God created us.  Over the next several weeks, you’ll hear sermons around the question:  “What was I made for?” and the common answer for all of us is that God made us to let go of the things in life that are death dealing for us, and to accept God’s invitation to return to that joyful garden.  Lent is a season for thinking and praying about how we can do more of that.

When I look at that painting, I see both of those messages I mentioned before:  that morning—and really all of life—is beautiful, and is also hard.  I think about what it’s like to chase my own children through the house in the morning, cajoling them into getting dressed eating breakfast, taking a shower, and I realize that everyday I make little choices to either experience these challenges either as an unwelcome annoyance that is ruining the start to my day, or as an amazing gift, through which I get to shape a young life and experience joy in my own life while doing it.  And I realize that most of the other experiences in life that are hard also have that opportunity to be redeemed if I choose to see God working through them.  Perhaps the same is true for you.

A favorite author of mine, Craig Barnes, tells a story about this.  One morning he was on a trail run—he was probably in his 50s at the time and was making his way along at what was a good pace for him.  All of a sudden, a team of college cross country runners came from behind, running like gazelles and flew by him like he was standing still.  By the time he got to the end of the trail, where their finish line was, the team was standing around talking and laughing, fully recovered, while Barnes, ready to collapse, bent over and sucked wind, wondering how anyone could think there’s such a thing as a good run.

But just at that moment, the young runners all began to cheer, and Barnes looked up to see in the distance that a Special Olympics team was now approaching the finish line.  And even though they weren’t moving with anything near the speed of the varsity team that went by before, all of them were smiling from ear to ear, loving not only the applause and encouragement but the joy of run itself, even in spite of the effort.  It wasn’t an experience of perfection, but it was one of joy, of life lived “without veneer,” and full of grace.  Barnes writes that he suddenly found himself cheering louder than anyone else for those joy filled runners, and that when he got back to his car, he couldn’t stop crying.  Barnes had stumbled upon his own need to receive the joy of the day.  He goes on to say that “the portal into joy is confessing the truth:  [that] we are not whole.  No has to pretend, and the truth feels so good that we just want to cheer whenever someone else exhibits it.” (Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, 38)

Our lives are so full of things that we wish were somewhat different than they are.  Sometimes we feel that way for very good reasons.  And many of the sources of our struggles are problems we are not going to be able to fix.  When you’re 50, and can no longer run like you could when you were 20, it’s normal to feel some remorse over days gone by.  And there are much greater problems in the world that are truly the cause of misery and suffering; but if we’re going to be able to contribute to the real struggles, we’ve also got to practice dealing with the little challenges of every day. Just like the Morning painting which can be interpreted either as a total mess, or a new dawn full of accidental joy… challenges can either ruin your day, or can be a chance to share joy and love in the world God has given you.

Lent is a season for this kind of self-examination.  To remember what you were made for:  that God created you for good, and that through laying aside (putting to death) the things in our lives that are stealing joy from us, we can find more of the Garden God created us to enjoy.  May this season of Lent take you on that journey, and lead you to life.  Amen.