Lent and the Journey of Grief to Joy

Lent and the Journey of Grief to Joy

I don’t like grief. I don’t. I really don’t.

A month after my third birthday, my father died after an extended illness (he had ALS). He died at home, in his sleep beside my mother. I remember that morning. The neighbor who was a nurse. The paramedics taking his body. My Sunday School teacher from church who came and read to me, holding me on her lap in the rocking chair in my room while my mother took care of things. I wasn’t interested in what she was reading, or in sitting on her lap for that matter, but I felt the grief rolling off of her and her need to be doing these things, so I let her.

Two weeks later, my step-grandfather worried his way into a heart attack at my grandmother’s kitchen table and died. The house filled with the family, stunned to see a mother and daughter each widowed within two weeks. And then, maybe a month later, my great-grandfather died as well.

As I learned the news and the house began to fill with mourning family once again, I ask my mother to let me go stay with my Sunday School teacher, where I knew I could avoid the fog of grief in the air with her family. She called my teacher, and off I went.

At three, I’d already learned I needed to take care of myself in these times, and others as well, as their grief on my behalf flooded over me.

I learned that life is loss, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And much as I hate grieving, I eventually learned that there’s no room for joy or love without it.

Grief is not an enemy to joy. Grief gives place to the reality of pain and loss and disappointment and heartbreak so that there can be room for joy again.

I try to remember that when grief comes, because I still hate it. As much as I know that sidestepping it won’t actually somehow take me around it, I still have to fight myself to go there.

I find myself bracing for grief, because I want to recognize it without actually feeling it.

But that won’t work either. And on my better days I know it. On my better days I can cry. I can find my way into feeling all the pain of letting go of what’s gone. On my better days I know that it won’t feel like this forever, and the possibility of joy is on the other side.

But on other days, there’s too much of who I am in the loss. Too much of myself I don’t want to lose with it. And I don’t know how to just grieve without losing myself in it.

I don’t care what other people think of my grieving any more, whether it’s in sync with their expectations or not. We are terrible at grief in our society. We don’t know what to do with it and it makes us uncomfortable. So we tend to ignore it and just hope people keep it to themselves.

But grief calls out to be acknowledged. When everything has changed for us, it’s a callous world that just goes on about its business and expects the same of us.

Lent helped teach me the needfulness of public grief. In my first year of seminary, a remarkable woman named Marva Dawn came to preach to us for several days. It was during the weeks before Easter, during Lent, and at one point she mentioned that she wore Lenten colors – purples, grays, black – during the forty days of Lent to remind herself of what season she was in.

The idea intrigued me, and I decided to try it. It didn’t take many personal losses for me to begin to recognize how powerful public mourning must have been, the tradition that those grieving would wear black then gray and purple for a season.

It was such a relief to quite literally wear my heart on my sleeve. Even if no one recognized it, my grief was present in the world with me. It could be part of everything I did quite naturally.

I still don’t like grief. I still fight my bracing something fierce. But Lent began to teach me how to make room for it. I’ve begun to learn how to respect it, and sometimes even to embrace it.

And I try to hope there’s joy somewhere on the other side.

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Lent and a Fresh Start

Lent and a Fresh Start

Noah’s Ark is a difficult story. Because it has lots of animals, a boat, and a rainbow, we put it on nursery walls and tell it to children. But the real story isn’t cute or happy at all. The real story is hard and confusing.

God looks down at everything he has made, but unlike the goodness he saw at creation, now all he sees is corruption and violence. It’s a mess and God regrets the whole thing. So he decides to scrap it all and start over with just eight people and a handful of animals. He gives Noah instructions for building a giant boat, and once Noah’s family and the collection of animals are on board, God destroys the world with a giant flood. Every animal, every innocent child, every violent man or woman. Everyone dies.

And when Noah and his family and all of the animals finally crawl out of the ark for a fresh start, God promises them all – the animals and the people – that he will never do it again. He puts a rainbow in the sky to remind himself of his promise – never again will the rain mean everything dies. That’s not going to be God’s way to make things right.

Have you ever wanted a fresh start? Everything is a mess, it’s not working out, and you need to start over from scratch. Just burn it all down, as a friend of mine says.

God knows what that’s like. He understands that feeling, and he’s made a better way than destroying it all.

Because what we see in Noah’s story is that destroying it all didn’t work. Noah and his family brought themselves with them into their fresh start, and they start messing up almost immediately. Noah gets drunk, one of his sons does something obscene, and the whole project spirals from there.

The problem wasn’t in everything around them, it wasn’t all just in the violence and evil in other people’s hearts. They had their own regrets and resentments and fears and defenses. The flood didn’t destroy those, and the fresh start they needed was in themselves – in their own hearts and minds.

So God made a different kind of fresh start. God gave us baptism. Like those flood waters, the waters of baptism provide us with a fresh start, but unlike those flood waters, baptism doesn’t destroy to do it. Instead, baptism calls us to move forward in the world as it is and change the world by changing our own lives – changing how we think and what we do. Baptism is about changing the direction we’re going and what we are moving towards.

As the baptismal vows in the Book of Common Prayer say, we turn away from evil, and towards God.

Away from the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy, and towards the Creator who nurtures and heals.

We turn away from the desires that keep us from loving and being loved, and turn to live in the grace and love Jesus freely offers to us and to all.

Every time we celebrate a baptism, the whole congregation renews those vows, and the water that has been blessed for baptism is flung out over us with the words, “Remember your baptism!” It’s one of my favorite moments of the liturgy, and it always makes me smile, because it reminds me that I have a fresh start to live those vows. But we don’t have to wait for those moments to remember our baptism! A shower in the morning as we get ready for a new day can remind us of our baptism. The water running over our hands as we wash them through the day can remind us. An unexpected spring rain we get caught in can remind us – especially if it comes with a rainbow.

In the gospel of John, Jesus explains it to Nicodemus as “being born again.” Parts of the church have turned being “born again” into not much more than an abstract idea, sort of a magic wand that changes where we go when we die, but Jesus is using it to describe a fresh start, a new way of living that starts now.

I think sometimes it’s hard for us to accept that we can really change and things really can be different – that we can actually have a fresh start. It can be hard to believe for myself, and it can be hard to believe for others. But that is the heart of our faith, and it’s what we are inviting others into when we offer them baptism. If the reality that change really is possible in ourselves and in the world isn’t what the gospel is about, I don’t know what is.

That change doesn’t come all at once, but like all new life, it starts in a moment we may not even recognize, and then grows one breath at a time, one step at a time. It’s a spiritual reality that happens here and now, in ways we can see and hear and feel. In the middle of life that is messy and confusing and full of things beyond our control.

The reality is that fresh starts are often not something we’ve gone looking for. Things fall apart or quit working or just come to an end, and we have to pick up the pieces and start over. There’s a flood. We lose a job. The partner we thought we’d spend the rest of our life with is gone. Children leave home. We just realize we’re not living the life we want, aren’t the person we want to be.

That’s why confession is part of traditional liturgies every week. It’s not just words we say. It’s an opportunity to stop and recognize what’s gone wrong – the things we did that make us wince, the things we didn’t do that make us defensive. Instead of burying them or shrugging them off, we bring them up, look at them squarely, and recognize something in us needs to change. And then we lift our souls up to the Lord, as the Psalmist says, and turn to the love of Jesus to receive his grace and love so that we can offer it to others with our lives. It’s a habit, a discipline, and if we enter into it each week fully and thoughtfully, we will find our lives become oriented to that direction we were pointed to in our baptism. The love of God becomes the true north in the compass of our hearts, always pointing us towards his love, both to receive and to give.

Sometime a fresh start is something we know we need, but we’re not sure what it looks like or how to find it. That’s one of the reasons we fast during Lent – to make space in our hearts and in our daily lives for God to do something new.

The first time I tried fasting for Lent, I had no idea what I was doing. I was still a Baptist, and I was living in North Carolina where even at the Bible college where I worked, few people even knew what Lent was. But I was searching to connect with God in new ways, and thought I’d see what Lent might be like. So I gave up sweets for Lent – desserts, the Krispy Kreme doughnuts my office neighbor brought every Tuesday, the bowl of chocolates in our office. All of them. I put a Post-it note on my computer to remind me, and it wasn’t long at all before I started to realize how quickly I reached for those chocolates when I started to get stressed. I’d never noticed how much I used sweets to cope with life, and now that I wasn’t I had to face that stress, sit with it, and work through it. Over the weeks, I started using a guided prayer website in those moments, and gradually that became my instinct when I felt stressed.

There was space for another bit of God’s love to take root and blossom into something new, something God’s love does again and again and again. As we hear at the Ash Wednesday service, we are dust, and we have a Creator who delights in making good things out of dust.

Like Noah, we bring ourselves into the fresh start God gives us at baptism and every day after, and it is the love of God that can make us into something new, that can give us a new way to live, again and again and again. Baptism is not just a beginning, it’s a way forward. A life of continual conversion and transformation of our hearts and lives into the way of Jesus, the path of the love of God.

That is the fresh start we receive at baptism and every time we come to God in prayer, confession, and the table. It’s the fresh start God has for us every moment of every day.

Here, Part 3 – A Conversation Cont.

Here, Part 3 – A Conversation Cont.

“You’re here.”

      -“I am.”

“In the middle of the night, with the snow falling so softly and steadily.”

     -“Yes.”

“I still haven’t figured that out.”

     -“Don’t worry, you won’t.”

“Really. Do you like playing hard to get?”

     -“It’s actually not about me.”

“It’s not?”

     -“It’s not.”

“But…isn’t everything supposed to be about you?”

     -“Why would you think that?”

“‘All things have been created through him and for him’?”

     -“Who is ‘him’?”

“You, I thought?”

     -“Okay, if that’s the case, who am I?”

“Huh? How am I supposed to be able to answer that???”

      -“I’m not trying to play existential games with you. You know me. So who do you know me to be?”

<pause>

<pause.>

“Love.”

     -“So, ‘All things have been created through Love and for Love.'”

“I like that, but I’m lost.”

     -“Stick with me. I’ll get you there. And what’s love ‘all about’? What does love care about?”

“The one loved.”

     -“Exactly! And I’m Love. It’s all about everything but me.”

“What about your ‘glory’?”

     -“What’s the glory of Love?”

“Ha! I know that one…’You’ve got to give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little. That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love!'”

     -“I love your jokes, but close enough. Does Love play hard to get?”

“No. That’s not what love is about.”

     -“So who is ‘playing hard to get’ in this?”

“Oh!…Oh.”

     -“Your words, not mine.”

“Why is it so hard for me?”

     -“Because you make the wrong things all about you. You have a hard time just being loved.”

“I do?”

    -“Yes. And when you stop making the wrong things all about you, you know you have a hard time just being loved.”

“What do you mean?”

     -“You don’t want responsibility for the things that are about you, like loving. And you want to take credit for the things that aren’t about you, like being loved.”

“Ouch.”

     -“I know. Being loved makes you vulnerable.”

“I’ve always thought it’s loving that makes you vulnerable.”

     -“It does, but not as much.”

“Really?”

     -“Loving leaves you in control.” 

“Huh???”

     -“Yes, your love can be rejected or betrayed, but you can still choose to love or not. You can even make yourself a martyr to love. But being loved? There’s nothing you can control about that. Accepting it makes you deeply vulnerable.”

“And that’s why I have such a hard time figuring you out?”

     -“Yes. It’s hard for you to really accept love. It’s hard for you to trust love.”

“Wow. It is, isn’t it.”

     -“And I am Love.”

<awkwardly long pause>

“I’m in pretty bad shape then.”

     -“No. Remember, I am Love. It’s not all about you either.”

“Will I ever get this figured out?”

     -“You’re further along than you think.”

“I am?…How?”

     -“You love.”

“I do. But I’m pretty bad at it a lot of the time.”

     -“You do your best. That’s love. It’s not all about you.”

“Oh! Right. Okay.”

     -“Don’t worry. Stick with me – I’ll get you there.”

“The snow is still coming down.”

     -“It is. Isn’t it beautiful? I love it!”

 

(The Conversations, part 1 and part 2.)

Race, Language, and Intent

Race, Language, and Intent

I once had a friend yell at me and call me a liar because I told him that a meeting he led had made others who were there “feel attacked” (something they had expressed to me). He’d asked me about reactions to the meeting, but he couldn’t accept the answer. He heard it as an attack on him – on his intentions and character – rather than as a report of impact and results.

While that particularly instance was extreme, I don’t think the confusion is unusual. It bothers us when what happens isn’t what we meant to happen, when someone hears something that isn’t what we meant to say. We want to be judged by our good intentions rather than by whatever somehow went awry between those intentions and the outcomes.

If we can take a step back, wisdom tells us that, while our intentions are important, they are far from the only contributor to what actually happened, especially when communication is involved. Context matters, and history is a part of that. Shared meaning and/or purpose is part of it – or not, as the case may be. But all too often, we want to believe that we can control more than we do, and that our intentions are the most important thing.

I see it happen most often when we’re talking about race. When something someone says or does is called “racist,” white Americans want to talk about what their intentions were, what was “in their heart.” And when told they are participants in “systemic racism,” white Americans tend to recoil. We hate the idea that we could be part of something we didn’t choose, something that flies in the face of our good intentions and the way we think about ourselves. Something we don’t want to be true, much less responsible for.

But what if it is true? What if, in spite of our good intentions, we are actually doing harm? Perpetuating harm we don’t intend?

It’s a terrible thought. And the only thing worse than thinking it is not thinking it.

The ways we tend to use language about race are all wrapped up in avoiding the thought. Stereotype. Prejudice. Bias. Bigotry. Discrimination. Racism. White supremacy.

We all recognize these words as negative. White Americans tend to see them as moral defects in personal character – bad intentions and ugly, false beliefs. Black Americans tend to see them as negative as well, but in more nuanced ways.

A stereotype is an idea, an over-generalization. “Black people are good at sports.” “White people like yoga.”  We can know a stereotype and not believe it.

Prejudice is a feeling. “Southerners make me nervous.” Bias is a tendency, an inclination for or against something. “I just like to date taller men.” We can be unaware of our prejudices and biases – they often function subconsciously and influence our choices and decisions in ways that may even undercut our conscious intentions.

Bigotry is believing a stereotype and being prejudiced against it. But people who are bigoted rarely see it that way; they believe the stereotype is really true and dangerous in some way, so they usually see their actions as simply protecting themselves. “Black people don’t keep up their homes, and if one moves onto our block, the value of my house will go down.” Well-intentioned people who are bigoted allow for exceptions: “That black family that moved into the neighborhood, they’ve actually got the nicest yard on the street!” For various reasons (social stigma, financial incentives, etc.) bigoted people may not actually act on their bigotry.

Discrimination is acting either in favor of or with bias against a person or group because of their perceived race. Discrimination can be indirect, particularly when we want to believe in our good intentions. “I’ve got nothing against black people, I’m just more comfortable dating men with a similar background to mine.” We can act on a racial stereotype even if we don’t think we believe it.

White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to those of other races. White supremacy is also any system (social, religious, economic, housing, judicial, penal, educational, etc.) that reflects the assumption that white people are superior and gives them preference (even indirectly). That assumption may have been a part of the system from its inception – designed to implement the supremacy of white people; or assumptions of white supremacy may have been added to it along the way. Either way, those who continue to use the system are participants in white supremacy, whether they know it or not and regardless of their personal beliefs.  It is not the intentions of those participating in a system that create white supremacy; it’s the effects of the system. White supremacy is a system that results in the preferential treatment of white people.

Racism is a pattern of harms done to a group of people because of their race.  It is a persistent perpetuation of racial stereotypes, bias, prejudice, and discrimination. The key here is the pattern of harms. Racism is in the effects rather than the intent.

When I was a child, a black family lived across the street from us. I loved them the way a child loves neighbors – though the youngest children were several years older than me and too old to be playmates, they were always friendly to me, and the mother fussed over me and gave me my first popcorn balls (a magical Halloween treat from the days before homemade treats became verboten). When I was five or six, we invited the youngest two children to come to Vacation Bible School. As my mother drove us home that night, the three of us entertained ourselves with a game of I Spy. Trying too hard to be clever, I spied “something green,” and after they finally gave up, laughed as I told them the “something green” was the color of their skin in the glow of the dashboard lights. Appalled, my mother made me apologize and after we got home gave me a stern talking to that I didn’t fully understand. I just thought their different skin color was interesting – it didn’t mean anything to me yet.

But it meant something to them. However naïve my comment was (I won’t say innocent because, while I wasn’t trying to embarrass them for being black, I was trying to best them with my cleverness), it happened in a social and historical context that made it more than I knew. It fed into a pattern of harms. It was racist. I didn’t have to plant the seed of racism – that was done generations before me – but I blithely watered that seed, however unknowingly.

We want life to be more neutral than that. We want to believe we all start on an essentially equal playing field and we all have roughly the same ability to work hard and make something of ourselves. We don’t want to believe we are watering seeds we wish had never been planted.

The world we live in is made from much more than our intentions. Black and white American live with a history every day, a history of racism and white supremacy. If we are willing to step back and look, whatever we believe about our intentions, the pattern of results is clear. Like specks of color in a tweed woven with checks, exceptions are everywhere but the pattern is clear. Changing patterns requires changing the machinery that creates them. And we’ll never change what we aren’t willing to see.