Last week I went home to Minnesota to give the homily at the memorial service of one of my closest friends. She was relatively young, vibrant, living in the midst of one of the most productive times of her life, the center of a web of family and friends and students and colleagues who were better and more productive in the sense of giving back to community and country because of their knowing her. She challenged people, she stretched people, she loved people into being the best that they could be. Then the diagnosis came and in its wake a cancer that even my friend’s legendary determination couldn’t tame.
She began the process of releasing and letting go. Some things were grabbed from her right away—her image of herself as a healthy person—one fit for the long haul; other things she herself released—the work she so loved, long bike rides, runs around the lake, dinners with friends, the lure of a good book; still other things she held tight—keeping track of the weather(almost a requirement if you live in Minnesota), following politics(her life blood), afternoons with her grandchildren, the feel of her husband’s hand in hers, time with children and family and friends. My friend was living in a time of sorting—the essential from the peripheral, things to be kept and things to be discarded. You could say she was on a journey from the transient to the eternal. And so were all of us who loved her.
Isn’t that the Lenten journey—a journey of letting go and holding fast, a journey through the desert to the cross, the empty tomb and finally the upper room where Jesus joins his followers gathered around a table. Years ago, my friend and I taught a course called Frontier History. Part of the course focused on people moving west—the routes they followed, the challenges they met, the choices they made. Often theirs was a journey of letting go. First they let go of the familiar. They were entering a strange new world—a world without family, friends or even the landmarks they had come to count on. As the pioneers made their way west, they started sorting the essential from the peripheral leaving a landscape littered with the detritus of their lives. In the end, they kept only what they needed to survive the journey—an empty pot, a sack of flour, a fiddle, the family Bible. Each person made different choices at different moments in the journey.
Not long ago I read an article entitled “The Art of Adding by Taking Away.” The author, Matthew May, tells of a time when he was stumped. He was getting nowhere. One day a post-it note appeared on his desk. It said, “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” That’s what the pioneers did on their journey west. That’s what my friend did in the last few months of her life—she subtracted. What was left—bonds of love and tenderness that I’m sure transcend time and space, life and death.
Yet it’s not all subtraction. There’s addition too. And multiplication and division as well. My friend added a new tenderness to her life and an expressiveness those of us who knew her well had not seen before. All that had a way of multiplying and dividing. The sweet tenderness that marked my friend’s last few months seems to be dividing and multiplying within her wide circle of family and friends and students and colleagues. Those who fell within her orb finding themselves saying far more often and far more widely, “I love you.”
So often keeping a holy Lent is framed in strict dichotomies—either you give something up or you adopt a new practice; either you live into or you opt out of. This Lent I plan to focus on the math of life and Lent—both subtracting and adding in the hope that my sums morph into products and remainders.