“Raise your hand if you’ve ever told a lie”, I instructed the students at Holy Cross Chapel recently. All the hands went up, including those of the teachers, and of course mine too. “Now look around and notice that every one of us has told a lie.” I then recounted an incident years ago where Mike Jarrell caught one of our young children throwing a coke bottle at another child outside in the church yard. He brought the young man to me along with the coke bottle. It wasn’t the first time this young fellow had caused some trouble so I asked his mother and him to meet with me in my office. Having had a little experience with lying and being lied to, I wasn’t all that surprised when the child we had caught red-handed said right in front of his mother and me: “I didn’t do it. I promise I didn’t throw that coke bottle.” I responded that we weren’t asking him if he threw the bottle since we saw him and knew he had thrown it; we were just asking that he agree not to get into any more trouble. What did surprise me was the comment his mother made: “My son is no angel but I just can’t believe that he would tell a lie.” I laughed a little and told his mother that her son was just like me and everybody else in the world: when we are backed into a corner we will lie. Later on the child admitted to me that he had lied. I told him he was forgiven and that things were alright between us.
We lie because we get scared and we’re trying desperately to protect ourselves. When we get to that point where we can’t see how anything could work out positively by telling the truth, we try to cover it all up and deny it ever happened. And we will do that until we just can’t get out of it. Eventually the lie collapses around us and we have to admit the truth and then, at least when we’re children, things usually work out alright. Some of the lies we tell as adults produce bigger problems than a meeting in the Rector’s office. But admitting things generally turns out better than we imagine possible.
Simon Peter promised and promised and promised Jesus he would always stick by him and do whatever it took to support Jesus. Jesus told Peter he was making promises he simply wouldn’t be able to keep. Sure enough, as Jesus was being held and accused, people gathered around ask Peter three different times if he was a follower of Jesus. Three times he lied and said he wasn’t. Peter had to live with those lies for a long time but after the resurrection, Jesus makes a special point of asking to see Peter and three times tells Peter he is loved and forgiven.
During Lent we often make promises. Sometimes we are able to keep those promises but most often, and particularly when we have made a promise that stretches us, we are not able to keep the promise. We have to then learn to live with our failure to measure up to what we want to do and be. Lies pop up in our lives when we cannot admit such a failure. We try to pretend the failure is not there, even though deep inside we know it is.
What would it have been like if Peter had not lied? Maybe he would have spent the rest of his life thinking he was morally superior. The point of the story, however, is not that he could have behaved better. The point is that he lied, he failed, he messed it all up. The bigger point of the story is that, in being caught, he ultimately experienced forgiveness and developed his mission as an apostle. As he was forgiven, he was empowered to feed the children of God, to spread the forgiveness he himself had received.
So Lent has now begun. The point of Lent is not to prove we are morally superior by doing something or abstaining from something. The point of Lent is to realize we’re all liars and cheats. We’re all selfish so-and-sos who put our own needs first, who get backed into a corner and try desperately to pretend we’re something other than who we are. In Lent we can discover that who we are is enough. It’s not enough because we can do everything perfectly. It is enough because as we seek to be faithful, we all fall short, and there we experience the grace of God filling in all the gaps. In Lent we spend time with our limitations. As we become more and more honest with those limitations, we begin to see the unlimited forgiveness of God in Christ.
If you’ve begun your Lenten journey thinking that at least you’re better than the schmucks in the world, I would pray for you to come to a dark night of despair where you see you’re a schmuck too. When you get there, which we all do sooner or later, you’ll find the love of Christ powerfully embracing you, forgiving you, and sending you forth into the world to be a beacon of that forgiveness.
We’re not here to prove our moral superiority. We’re here to discover our limitations and to see God’s grace making possible all that we desire.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.