Text: Psalm 121
Without much fanfare, the season of Lent has returned. As a boy, if someone had asked me, “Gary, how are you going to keep Lent this year?” I would have answered, “Keep what?” Growing up my family did not “keep Lent” and we certainly never heard a word about Lent in our Presbyterian church. Most folks in my neighborhood did not “keep Lent” either. I can only remember one family of odd balls who would show up one Wednesday every year wearing big black smudges. I wondered how they got so dirty just on their foreheads.
Now, as a boy, if someone had asked me a different question, such as, “Gary, have you ever read Madeline L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time?” I would have said, “Of course I have. I have read and reread her book. Haven’t you?” Hers is on my long list of books that I treasure, especially books from my childhood. I loved traveling through time in her incredible tale of the earthshaking battle between darkness and light.
I might have learned to “keep Lent” much sooner than I did as a young adult if someone had introduced me to L’Engle’s poem, “For Lent, 1966.” In her poem, she writes:
It is my Lent to break my Lent, To eat when I would fast, To know when slender strength is spent, Take shelter from the blast When I would run with wind and rain, To sleep when I would watch. It is my Lent to smile at pain But not ignore its touch. It is my Lent to listen well When I would be alone, To talk when I would rather dwell In silence, turn from none Who call on me, to try to see That what is truly meant Is not my choice. If Christ’s I’d be It’s thus I’ll keep my Lent.
Long before any church observed the forty-day journey of Lent, the psalmist wrote Psalm 121, a song for pilgrims to sing on their journey to Jerusalem. In the words of my Hebrew Bible professor, Jim Mays, “Psalm 121 speaks of a trust that can sustain the journeys of life and the journey that is life.”
In Psalm 121, the psalmist uses the word “keep” six times. Unlike what I hear from most people who journey through the season of Lent today, the psalmist does not celebrate what you and I “keep,” but that we are kept in the abundant grace and steadfast love of God. Or, in the poet’s words:
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep
your going out and coming in
from this time forward and forevermore.
With Psalm 121 as our companion, our guide, the comfort of this season, then, is not so much in how you and I “keep Lent.” It is not so much about whether we worship each Sunday, attend Monday morning Zoom prayer, engage in acts of mercy and justice, deny ourselves a treat that we normally crave. No, the comfort of this season is that “The Lord is your keeper . . . The Lord will keep your going out and you're coming in from this time on and forevermore.”
It makes sense then that whenever I pour out the waters of baptism – the ritual beginning of the Christian journey – that I speak these words: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” And, when I stand beside the grave to commit a loved one to God’s eternal care – the ritual that recognizes the beginning of the resurrection journey – that I speak these words, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”
On this past Wednesday while the world did not slow down for one second, some of us did. Whether in this sanctuary or elsewhere across our area or the world we slowed down long enough to have our foreheads marked with ashes and to hear the sobering words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Those starkly honest Ash Wednesday words are spoken every year at the start of the Lenten journey. They remind us of our brokenness, our mortality, our need for forgiveness and compassion and care. In addition to these traditional words spoken to start this season, this year I recommend that we also pack additional words for the Lenten journey. Do not leave home without having these words close at hand and even closer at heart: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”
These are strong words, strong enough for any of life’s journeys, even the journey that leads us to Passion week. These words are strong enough to carry with us into Pilate’s headquarters or into the weeping garden of betrayal or to warm our wounded souls by the fireside of denial or to comfort our breaking hearts at the gruesome killing field of Calvary.
While the psalmist is clear that “God is my Keeper” and Jesus is clear that “God is my Keeper,” I have resisted that idea for most of my life. Earlier in life, when I read this psalm, I thought to myself, “I am the keeper of my life, thank you very much Psalm 121.” For I was raised to be fiercely independent, to be the one who is the helper not the helped. For better, for worse, I am the keeper of my life, not anyone else.
Whenever I think such thoughts, much less speak them, I can almost hear the psalmist smiling and saying, ever so gently, “No, you are not, Gary. There is one ‘Keeper’ in life and that ‘Keeper’ is not you.” And, when I insist that I am the one who making choices around here; I will decide if and how I observe Lent, I hear the final words of L’Engle’s poem:
That what is truly meant
Is not my choice. If Christ’s I’d be It’s thus I’ll keep my Lent.
So, as I grow older and am reminded daily of my need for strong words, words sturdy enough to carry me not just through the journey of Lent, but through the tumultuous journey of life, I am grateful for the traveling words of the psalmist who assures me, assures us: “My/our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
Throughout Lent, throughout life, store those words in a safe place. Do not let mold grow on them. Use them as a reminder that there is no path we travel that we travel alone, there is no depth into which we descend that we find ourselves alone, there is no person we know or will meet who is exempt from God’s gracious care.
With the words of Psalm 121 on my lips, I breathe easier. I sleep better. I love more boldly. I laugh more freely. With the words of the psalmist on my lips, I enter into Lent not with dread but with great relief that God is my keeper, your keeper, the keeper of this beloved world that God refuses to stop loving.
So, however you start this Lenten journey, make sure those words are carefully packed away, but are packed so that they are close at hand and heart. And, never, no never leave those words behind.