Some of you might remember Oliver Sacks. He was a notable professor of neurobiology at the New York University School of Medicine, and a quite popular author for a while. Up until his death in 2015 he often wrote about neurological disorders, both for the academic community and for a wider readership that drew people in by the millions. Shortly before he died he was diagnosed with cancer and when he learned that it was terminal he wrote an open letter which was published quite broadly. He wrote:
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming. This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.
That description of turning inwards, that moment of decision to let go of the problems of the world, not because he no longer cared, but because he realized that he needed to turn it over to another generation to pick up the torch, and he needed to focus on what was truly, essentially, him, has struck me for a long time as one of the most poetic expressions I’ve ever heard of a type of moment that we all go through over and over again at different points in our lives.
For Sacks it was a much larger moment, because it was final, but we all have times when we simply need to let go of the world around us and to turn inwards, to tend to our inner lives, that can get so easily neglected or pushed aside when we fill our time with distractions and entertainment, and activities. We all need moments where we let go of the world around us and its cares, and we look inside to see how we’re really doing, to see what our relationship with God looks like in the moment.
It can be scary to do that work because sometimes we don’t know what we’re going to find there, and sometimes we get so caught up with the external distractions that turning inwards almost feels like letting go of reality. But often it’s precisely in those moments when we remember who we are; and it’s in those places of silence and darkness that we learn who God is calling us to be.
ABRAM AND SARAI
Abram and Sarai were in that space, at that point in their lives, when God spoke to them. So the story goes, Abram was 99 years old, and Sarai was 90. This was a time in their lives, after they’d journeyed across a broad desert, after they’d built a small empire with their nephew Lot, this was a time for them to slow down in life and begin to look inward. It certainly wasn’t a time they were expecting to start a family. And yet that was when God showed up—the same God who had journeyed with Abram throughout his life, but who was now announcing something new.
God surprised them with a message of hope. God told them that they were going to be the ancestors of a multitude of nations, a horizon far more expansive than anything they’d ever imagined before. At a point in their lives when the majority of their days lay behind them, they were reborn into a new life, with new promises and a new hope. It’s one of the oldest stories that we have in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but how typical is it of God’s promise, that it shows up in that moment when they’ve turned away from the world around them, when they’ve begun to look inwards?
Something similar, I think, is happening in the gospel reading today, when Jesus talks about what the Son of Man has to go through, the suffering and the rejection, and ultimately even death. Jesus, still travelling with his disciples, is already starting to look towards the end of his life, and starting to ask important questions about who he is and about what his role is. That’s why Peter’s rebuke comes so harshly and brings out such a strong response from Jesus “get behind me Satan”, because Jesus already has his mind set on another shore.
The structure of the experiences of Abram and Sarai, and Jesus here are quite similar. The details might be different, the implications might be different, but all of them in this moment are uncovering what it means to make a covenant with God. A covenant is a like a contract but it’s grounded in the relationship between the two parties. Nevertheless, a covenant has responsibilities and it’s a two way street. When God gives new names to Sarai and Abram, making them Sarah and Abraham, they’re forced to leave their old identities behind. God ushers them into a new story, into a rebirth of their lives, but that means being transformed into brand new people. God ushers Jesus into a new story as well, one where both he and all of creation with him are redeemed and reclaimed by God, but the path to get there leads directly through the valley of the shadow of death, and once again, it requires new birth, new life.
Lent is that time of the year when we prepare ourselves for a new covenant with God. Historically Lent was the time of preparation for the catechumens, those who were going to be baptised at the Easter Vigil, which was at one point, the only time in the year when people were baptised. Another old tradition surrounding baptism was the act of naming or re-naming the baptised, of being claimed by a new name for God and by God.
Each year though, even if we’ve already been baptised, we enter into that same preparation. We take this time to turn inwards, to make that journey into our inner lives, to let go of the distractions for a while and to rediscover God at the centre of who we are. And it’s precisely out of that experience, out of that knowledge of who we are before God that a new covenant is struck in our lives. It’s there that we hear God speaking through the noise that surrounds us and leading into something new.
Lent invites us to step back from that outward gaze. We start by considering our mortality: “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” and then we let go of even that and we go deeper, setting our mind on divine things and realizing that we are so much more than our bodies, or our careers, or our hobbies, or even our communities. We are called by God and we are gifted by the Holy Spirit with grace and mercy.
And so while the joy of resurrection and the thrill of Easter are promised to us, and we know they’re coming, before we can truly appreciate them we need to let go of the external things that cling to us and keep us from meeting God at the centre of our being.
So this week, as we continue to journey through Lent, I urge you to take a step back from something, even just one thing that distracts you from meeting God. Enter inwards, go into that place where you find yourself at rest, listen to what God is saying to you, and remember who you are.