Not a Lent goes by that I do not think of this Native American legend. It goes like this:
A mighty wind shook the mountain upon which the nest was perched, causing the single eagle egg resting there to tumble through the air until – poof – it landed on the canyon floor below, miraculously intact. Shortly after, a pack of prairie chickens wandered through the canyon, doing what prairie chickens are wont to do: pecking at the dirt, clacking all-a-frenzy, flying only a couple of feet off the ground. Not the brightest of birds, one of the prairie hens confused it as her own and nudged it onto her nest where it eventually hatched.
The eaglet was the ugliest thing that chicken pack had ever seen. It couldn’t spread its wings; it couldn’t get all the food it needed for its large body; it was gangly trying to fly just 18-inches off the ground. The eaglet was perfectly miserable.
One day, a fantastic shadow spread over the canyon floor, startling the eaglet. “What is that?!” it cried.
“Oh, that’s an eagle,” responded one of the prairie chickens.
“Wow, how I’d love to be one of those!” said the eaglet.
“Well, you’re a prairie chicken,” scoffed a prairie chick, “and you scrounge for food down here on the ground. That is the king of birds, and you ain’t the king!”
Sometimes, though, the eaglet felt compelled to throw itself off a rocky ledge to see if it could spread its wings and fly. But it was just too afraid to ever try. Other times, it dreamed of swooping through the air, catching rabbits and squirrels, soaring down and soaring back up, only to awake in a cold sweat. Then one day it looked into a pond and thought, honest to God, it saw an eagle. But it was just too frightened to say anything. And so it went: the young eaglet lived and died believing it was nothing other than a prairie chicken.
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This Native American legend serves as both an inspiration and a warning: Do not forget who you are! It’s a theme echoed throughout the course of this Lenten season.
Lent begins with Jesus being driven into the desert where he goes toe-to-toe with Satan. We all know the temptations he faces: you’re hungry, fill yourself; the people have waited for a messiah, throw yourself off this temple and give them a show; the world is yours, claim it! As real as these temptations to pleasure, fame, and power are, they are but expressions of a more fundamental and deceptively obvious one: the temptation to forget who and whose you are.
It’s not a coincidence that the desert ordeal immediately follows Jesus’ baptism where he imbibes God’s words: You are my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Satan is aware of this and enlists every opportunity to get Jesus to forget who he is. 1 It is no different for us. The temptation to forget is perhaps the most insidious of all and we fall prey to it all the time.
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Several years ago, I accompanied a family at wits end trying to deal with their recently retired and ill father who was in the hospital. He’s irritable, depressed, and constantly telling us what to do with our lives, they exclaimed. The man later confessed acute anger and guilt for no longer being able to provide for his family. His “unsolicited” advice was all he was good for, he believed. Who was he, if not “provider”?
I recall listening to a middle-aged woman in spiritual direction – a doctor and mother of four – who, through tears and gasps, stated she no longer knew who she was in the midst of the chaos and busyness of her life. Who was she, if not “respected and useful”? 2
Then there was the young athlete who was involved in a car accident: Who am I, he declared, if I can’t play?
More recently, I’ve sat with survivors of sexual assault who express intense shame saying they “just want to be whole again”, or frightened refugees who see themselves as unwelcome refuse, or prisoners who judge themselves nothing but “disgusting, unforgivable monsters.”
Each of these stories, from the extreme to the less extreme, show that we are multitude of identities. We are parent, partner, provider, religious, athlete, student, survivor, and sinner. Some of these identities are good, some bad, some painful, some joyful. Yet the eaglet legend and Jesus’ desert witness encourages us to repent of getting caught up in any one of these at the expense of noticing, accepting, and living out who we are at the core. If we let it, the Lenten desert can free us from those identities we often cling to ferociously, sometimes unwittingly, and remind us that we are always more than what we do or what is done to us. To forget this is to spiral and fragment.
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Abraham was instructed to look up at the stars. That’s what you are, God told him (Gen. 15:5). Paul proclaimed to those first communities that they were citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). Jesus invites us to share in his life as God’s beloved forever. At the end of the day, isn’t that what all these Lenten practices and prayer are about? Aren’t they God’s way helping us drill down to the heart, clear the haze that obscures the baptismal truth, and restore us to authentic relationship and missioning?
In the end, it’s not that we celebrate who we are because of something inherently great about us. Ash Wednesday throws cold water on this idea. Rather, any claim to greatness relies solely upon our intimate relationship with the One in whom our given identity is eternally safe and secure, in whose hands we are both grounded and set free to soar.
- Henri Nouwen preached about this idea beautifully on Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power in 1992. It’s one I consider my “desert island” texts (pun intended). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8U4V4aaNWk&t=3s ↩
- To protect privacy, this is not a “person”, but a composite sketch of different people I’ve met with. ↩