Articles

Lent as Holy Secret Telling

02/26/20

Josh Bales

Blest are the pure in heart,
for they shall see our God;
the secret of the Lord is theirs,
their soul is Christ’s abode. – John Keble

In 2004 author Frank Warren invited total strangers around Washington D.C. to send him their secrets anonymously, on self-addressed postcards. On the post card Frank wrote these instructions:

You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything — as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before.

The response was overwhelming. Frank couldn’t keep up with all the post cards that came back to him. In the months that followed, Frank began receiving post cards with secrets from people all over the world.

I’ve followed Frank’s work, Post Secret, ever since. I still remember one secret in particular. It read, “My church youth group is the only thing that keeps me from killing myself…and I’m the youth pastor.”

Author Frederick Buechner has suggested that the secrets we keep actually define who we are. I think Frank Warren’s project is evidence of this. I also think Frank’s project is evidence for why the Church needs Lent.


Lent is an entire 40-day season of what we might call holy secret telling. All that fasting and praying you associate with Lent? That’s what helps us get in touch with our secrets and confess them. More than this, Lent is the time we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem where, on the cross, our secrets are forgiven.


Lent is an entire 40-day season of what we might call holy secret telling. All that fasting and praying you associate with Lent? That’s what helps us get in touch with our secrets and confess them. More than this, Lent is the time we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem where, on the cross, our secrets are forgiven.

When I think of God’s invitation to a Lent of Holy Secret Telling, I can’t help but remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter. It is a story about the power of secrets.

In the novel Arthur Dimmesdale, a village priest, commits the sin of adultery with a woman from the village. It’s a secret he manages to keep but, over the course of the novel, it drains the very life from his bones. By the end of the book, Hawthorne tells us, the once confident and righteous priest has become an “emaciated” man.

The woman in the scandal is Hester Prynne and hers is a different story. Her secret is told to everyone in the village by the child she carries in her growing womb. Hester is made to wear a large, red, letter “A” on her dress so that everywhere she goes people will know her secret.

The impact of this consequence for Hester is surprising to say the least: she flourishes. In fact, Hester is so willing to face her secret that she decorates her scarlet letter with gold and thereby undoes the power of its shame.


Thus, we begin the season of Lent marked as holy secret tellers- people who have dared to unburden our secrets onto the shoulders of the only one who can really do anything about them.


Fittingly, Lent begins on a day when Christians also mark themselves because of their secrets; not with a red letter, but with ashes in the shape of a cross. It’s a day when we read Scripture passages like Joel 2 and Psalm 103 that sound a lot like Frank Warren’s invitation on that first self-addressed postcard he gave the strangers:

“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits. He forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities…” “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Thus, we begin the season of Lent marked as holy secret tellers- people who have dared to unburden our secrets onto the shoulders of the only one who can really do anything about them. In return for our secrets, to use John Keble’s phrase, God tells us “the secret of the Lord” – that we are known, loved, and forgiven.

Lent is here but Easter is coming.

Listen to Josh Bales’ recording of John Keble’s hymn, Blest Are the Pure in Heart.

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