By Dan Clendenin
Never stop starting over. In many ways, that’s the message of Lent.
Last week I watched the movie Heroin(e), about the opioid epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia (population 48,000). Huntington has been called the overdose capital of America, and for good reason. Their overdose rate is ten times the national average — roughly seven people every day. The film maker Elaine Sheldon, who won a Peabody Award for her previous work, and who is herself a native of West Virginia, won an Oscar nomination for this short film (thirty-nine minutes) about the crisis.
The story revolves around three heroines who are making a difference and who refuse to despair. At the center of it all is Jan Rader, a nurse by training, and the first female Fire Chief in the history of West Virginia. “I was built to help people,” she says. Rader is unapologetic about providing addicts with the controversial opioid reversal medication called Naloxone.
At a town meeting, a man asks Rader a common question about administering Naloxone. Isn’t it rewarding bad behavior? Doesn’t it make people abuse drugs with a greater sense of impunity because they know you will bail them out?
I liked Rader’s response. She said she would give a person Naloxone as many times as they needed it, even fifty times, she said, because “you never know what will be the time that saves a life for good.” She would never stop helping people to start over.
During the recent winter Olympics, I read an article about the former figure skater Scott Hamilton, who after about twenty-five years as NBC’s primary analyst was demoted from the main broadcasting crew and replaced by the much younger Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir. Wasn’t he angry? Sad? How was he handling this crisis?
“There was a sadness for about 10 minutes,” Hamilton said. “I lamented it being over. I thought, ‘Oh, man, that was such a beautiful part of my life and now it’s over.’ But change happens to everyone — even me.”
In the last two decades, Hamilton has faced Stage 4 testicular cancer, and after that three brain tumors — one every six years since 2004. He has a brain tumor right now.
Despite his understandable disappointment, he would do what he’s always done. He would get up and start over. He would bounce back. He would begin again and keep going. “I calculated once how many times I fell during my skating career — 41,600 times,” he said. “But here’s the funny thing: I got up 41,600 times. That’s the muscle you have to build in your psyche — the one that reminds you to just get up.”
Rader and Hamilton remind me of the crazy calculus of the kingdom of God. We forgive seven times seventy. We leave the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost sheep. We sell everything to buy one thing. We spend a year’s wages to sit with Jesus for a short while. No matter how great my sin and brokenness, says Paul, the grace of God abounds all the more.
And so no matter how often we fall, we get up off the ice. We never stop starting over. We persevere.
In his novel The Diary of a Country Priest(1936), Georges Bernanos tells the story of a young parish priest in rural France who feels like he’s a total failure. From a merely human perspective, he’s not mistaken. As is fitting, we never learn his name. The entire novel is a diary in which the priest confides his doubts and loneliness, his sense of futility, struggles with a sense of vocation, powerlessness in the face of suffering, clashes with clergy colleagues, the history of his own family dysfunction, and even disgust with his own body due to chronic stomach pains and an impoverished diet.
He knows he’s physically clumsy and socially awkward. He describes his parishioners as bored, boring, and petty. They gossip about him as a “secret drinker” and a womanizer, both of which are ludicrous. The priest loves his flock; he visits every home every year, and he prays for them. He has a keen sense of history and his own obscure role to play. He’s an astute observer of the weakness, frailty, and fallenness of human nature, especially his own.
But the young priest also receives a wise piece of advice: “Keep marching to the end, and try to end up quietly at the roadside without shedding your equipment.” By the time he dies of stomach cancer at a young age, Bernanos has painted a portrait of what we realize is a genuine saint. On his deathbed at the end of the book the priest confesses, “Does it matter? Grace is everywhere.”
Keep marching to the end. Don’t shed your equipment. Never stop. Keep starting over.
This is one of my favorite pieces of wisdom from the early desert mothers and fathers. According to the fifth-century Egyptian desert father Arsenios: “Abba Poeman said regarding Abba Prin that every day he made a new beginning.” “My God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good before Thee, but grant me, in Thy compassion, the power to make a start.”
Lent reminds us that our conversion never ends; it’s a life-long process. It requires a life of many new beginnings, of dogged persistence, and so we never stop starting over.
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