Lent: a season for compass adjustment

I wonder: without checking your smartphone, can you point toward the north right now?  I’ll confess, I couldn’t do it without using my phone or the compass built into my car. 

And did you know there is a difference between “true north” and “magnetic north,” so using a compass requires you to make an adjustment for that difference?  This year in Portland, the compass needle (which points to magnetic north) must be adjusted 14 degrees west before it is pointing to true north. It has something to do with poles and an axis and the iron ore that’s sloshing around in the earth’s core.  I don’t quite understand all those details, but the adjustment, called a “declination,” is different depending on where you are located geographically, and when you are standing there. Next year it will be different. The declination adjustment is specific to time and place, so to navigate correctly, you need to know when and where you are standing when you start. 

The season of Lent is a time for adjusting your spiritual compass so that you can find “true north” and orient yourself toward it in the year ahead.  Like declinations, adjustments to your spiritual compass will be different each year, depending on where you are when Lent begins.  One year, the spiritual practice of daily prayer may be the adjustment you need. Another year, it might be fasting, or study, or service that helps you adjust your compass for a Lenten search for true north. The Lenten discipline of simplifying our busy lives for 40 days is another tried and true adjustment. The Church, stripped of its alleluias and incorporating liturgies that require us to make a fearless moral inventory, also spends Lent reorienting itself to the true north of God’s love and justice.

And it is a compass God gives us, not a map.  Because God doesn’t operate like AAA. 

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember those “Triptiks” AAA used to put together for use on road trips.  They were a customized series of vertical pages, held together by a plastic coil, that showed map segments for your journey, from beginning to end.  Your route was plotted out step by step, and the maps were interspersed with pages highlighting features and attractions, restaurants and motels, along the way.

There is no Triptik from God.  (Be wary of anyone who tries to tell you that’s what the bible is—it’s dangerous and wrongheaded theology.) Instead, we only get a compass, and nudges from the Holy Spirit pushing us to “go that way.”  We aren’t told anything more than the next step. After that, as Rev. Alison Patton, the newly installed Senior Pastor of First Congregational Church in South Portland, writes, “We have to trust the Spirit to lead us into a future we have not yet imagined.”

So it’s important to fine-tune our compass each Lent—since so much will depend upon our ability to navigate as we move one step at a time toward true north, with God’s Spirit beside us every step of the way.

How fitting, then, that the word “compass” comes from two Latin words meaning “together” and “a step.” Com-pass. Together, a step.  Together, with each other and with God, one step at a time.  It may take years (it took the Israelites forty!), but our well-adjusted compass will keep our eye fixed on the true north of God’s love and justice, as we move together, one step at a time.