Not My Usual Lent

Mar 29, 2021

My Lents are well-planned. I create a calendar template or two, choose a book of devotions or set of scripture readings, and set out on my daily, pious prayer-walk through the forty days of Lent. Lent is under my control, orderly. I am in charge. But NOT this year. About day five into the forty, it all fell apart. We received a call from the storage unit in Memphis where we had stashed almost everything we own after we sold our house at the beginning of 2020. We had planned a yearlong stay in Jerusalem from April 2020-21. COVID-19 changed those plans. And burst ceiling-pipes in the storage unit changed my well-organized Lent into a grueling, salvage mission. Water poured down on our belongings from above and then created a four-inch deep lake on the floor. Soaked boxes on the top caved in and smushed the things below.

We drove to Memphis from Florida, where we have lived for the past year, to survey the damage and do triage. We threw out 500+ books. Books, mind you, are one of the things I hoard. Surrounded by their papery and leathery bindings and bulk, their stories, knowledge, and inspiration make me feel safe and fill my mind with possibility. But 500 of them were soaked and foxy (covered with those rusty orange spots). Into the trash pile, they went. My box of doodles and prayers from about 2003 when I started to pray in color were sitting in four inches of water, colors and shapes floating away and smearing into each other. They joined the books in the trash, along with twenty-five sopping journals. And all of our wool clothing, my husband Andy’s liturgical vestments, and seven wool rugs were completely dripping-drenched. A recovery company took away three duffle bags of garments and the rugs to see what they could do.  One-third of our things were damaged or ruined. The cleanup was the pits. Even boxes and bins with no damage had to be thrown out, the items repacked in new boxes and paper to fend off mold. It was a filthy, ten-day job.

Twelve-Step programs talk about the difference between an Incident and a Crisis.*  The distinction helps me to correct my reactive thinking when I’m predicting the end of the world or catastrophizing an anthill into a volcano. For me, an incident is something that annoys me or irritates me or interrupts my well-laid plans for a short time. Spending an hour on hold with a utility company, a person giving me the universal anger symbol on the road, even a flat tire are examples of incidents. A crisis involves blood, a 911 call, evacuation of home, or unexpected death. (My granddaughter at age four loved those two sophisticated words. They gave her power of determination in the midst of a tantrum.)

This Memphis storage unit mess felt like more than an incident, but it certainly did not have the magnitude of a crisis. I’m not sure incident and crisis are words at the far ends of a linear continuum. Maybe there is a cluster of words and adjectives in between those two for the unanticipated events in our lives. Disruption keeps popping up to describe the ten days of cleaning, jettisoning, and re-evaluating in the storage unit. For two weeks, our lives were disrupted and dismantled. I grieved the loss of my doodles, books, dolls, clothing, artwork, and memorabilia of a long life. I had to say goodbye to things I expected to have for much longer.

But in the midst of the grief and the grime, there was the surprising Disruption of Grace. Friends and strangers showed up with trucks and hands and kindness. We had a quiet place to retreat to at the end of the long days. Friends housed us, shared meals with us, and let us spread damp photos and journals all over their living room. Other friends came and helped us clean and repack. The experience would have been miserable without their help and company. People called and texted to check up on us, to offer dinner, wine, coffee, and walks. From all around the country, people’s prayers rained down on us. The astonishing love and care of friends and strangers disrupted my self-pity and gloom.

My experience with God is kind of like that. Disruptions everywhere, often. Some are little, others more intense and dirty. I don’t think God causes these disruptions, but God is there to disrupt my narrow way of clinging to them and reflecting on them. I can stay angry and pitiful, hoping for a return to “normal” or I can accept a new way of seeing, a new way to view my life—one that God offers. My life feels freer now without so much stuff. Without this disruption of water, I would not have seen all of those “g” words on the same playground, circling and dancing like they knew and honored each other–grief, grime, gifts, grace, gloom, generosity, gratitude…. After we dealt with the initial, necessary disposal of the one-third of our things, we started our own purge. We gave away another third of the things we owned—dishes, kitchen items, furniture, a TV, a sewing machine…. More freedom.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says that Lent literally means springtime. And during the springtime, during  Lent, he says “We sweep and clean the room of our minds and hearts, so that the new life really may have room to come in and take over and transform us at Easter.” We did “sweep and clean.” After my husband and I came back to Florida and after we had crashed for the next two weeks, I finally noticed my almost empty Lenten calendar. I didn’t pick up with the devotional book I had used at first. I filled the calendar instead, all at once, with words from the time of disruption–what we had lost, the experience of dirty water, the gifts, the generosity of friends. The calendar is messy and crowded, just like the storage unit.

So much grime and so much grace during this Lent. I enter this Holy Week with both gratitude and trepidation.

  • One Day at a Time in Al-Anon, p. 293.

11 Comments

  1. Your disruption reminded me of the Jonah study by Priscilla Shirer I’m doing right now. It’s called Jonah Navigating a Life Interrupted. Interruptions are not what we had planned but if we look at them as divine interventions they become a privilege! It gives us an opportunity to say, “okay God, what plans do you have for me now that you’ve interrupted my life and gotten my attention.”
    Thank you for sharing how God used his Lenten Intervention to bless you and others!!!

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    • Thanks, Mary. The title of the Jonah study reminded me of an article a friend wrote probably 35 years ago when our kids were little. It was called My Interruptions Are My Work. Helped us to realize that the little and inconvenient things we were doing were important, our work and our calling in that moment. Peace to you. Sybil

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  2. I am so sorry that you’ve had to deal with all of this!! Satan hasn’t won, dear Sybil!! Your work lives on in our Bibles, notebooks, libraries, and I eagerly away your new chapter. The rest is in your memory bank!
    Blessings on each of your new days!!

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    • What a lovely thing to say about my work, Candice. Thank you. I like the idea that my drawings et al are in my memory bank.

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  3. I truly am sorry to hear this, Sybil. I was sick to my stomach reading this. It hit home. We were in hurricane Katrina. She was a mean one and did a whole heck of a lot of damage to us physically and mentally. We weren’t there when the storm or flooding occurred. Thanks be to God. Out of all of it, the immediate most devastating objects loss were all my hand written recipes/cookbooks from loved ones and my study bible. It was my first bible notes/bible journaling bible before I even knew the phrase. It took me years to recover from that loss.
    It was a devastation that has taken years to get past.
    Again, so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your message. God uses these situations to bless us 10 fold.

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  4. I want to comment on your story but I can’t even find the words. Today I was reflecting that Lent this year has never even gotten started for me, but that is nothing next to what has happened to you. Yet, as always, God has taken our messes redeemed them. Your words spell it out , but your coloring also calls out the mesmerizing beauty of chaos. May Easter joy abound for you and Andy.

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    • How nice to hear from you, Janis. I love the “mesmerizing beauty of chaos.” Thanks for that.

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  5. This turn of phrase is not original to me but that looks like the Lentiest Lent anyone’s ever Lented. Still and all, 500 books. Ouch.

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    • Hi jill, Pretty Lenty, yes. I think I’m still pretending that the books are somewhere in the storage unit. But, i haven’t missed them in year, so….

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  6. Your sadness and unfathomable loss of treasured belongings provided the opportunity and honor for your many friends to repay you both to some small for all you have added to our lives. Through your heartbreaking and really, really soggy loss , we rejoiced in the opportunity to see you both again when we thought we never would! May God’s peace surround you now and in your future journeys! I look forward to your next chapter…

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    • Thank you for this, Linda. Having your and Tommie’s help was wonderful in so many ways—it lightened our load and made it almost fun. Knowing some of our stuff is with you is lovely. Thank you many times over. Love, Sybil

      Reply

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