Lent and Living Saturday

Lent and Living Saturday

Lent isn’t pretty. It challenges us to look at the life we face each day, to look and really see. It calls us to be uncomfortable—to face sin, all that is wrong in us and our world, without looking away, acknowledge the hold it has us entangled in, and repent.

Lent is about death. Or at least it should be. Not just the physical death that awaits us all, or even that one death on a Roman cross two thousand years ago (though we’ll get to that), but the death that invades our lives every day. The death that sin—messing up and hurting each other—brings, both our own sin and the sin of others.

In our own lives, in the lives of people we pass, people we work with, people we sit beside in class, we are surrounded by invisible deaths every day. Dreams have died, relationships have died, hopes have died. Death is in our own failures and in the failures of those around us, the failures we have to live with whether they are ours or not.

But we are not made for death, and we can’t just sit and bear it without hope.

Most often, I try to find that hope myself. I try to find the problem I can fix or the reason that will let me understand how it will all turn out to be okay. I want the death to actually be an illusion: it only looks like death. And the more I turn from death, the more each death become invisible. Death is a denial of meaning, and I will insist on meaning. In my demand for answers, I want the hope first, even though it’s last in the list: suffering, endurance, character, and then, at the end, hope (Romans 5:3-4).

I don’t like that verse. Everything in me resists living in Holy Saturday.

Friday. The most horrific wrong. The most unjust death of all. On Friday it’s devastatingly clear: this is not the way it’s supposed to be. And on Saturday we have to live with that, with all the dissonance of what we don’t—can’t—understand. Sunday does come, not so much with answers as with life and hope. Sunday holds victory out before us, calls us to persevere. There is more, and that more is certain and sure.

But today is Saturday. We have to wait for Sunday, for that life that is surely ours but not yet.

I put a lot of effort into getting out of Friday and into Sunday. Lent tells me, stop. It’s Saturday. Face the dissonance. Weep. Get desperate. Live with the wrongness of injustice and death and this dying world.

Only then can I really hear the hope for all it’s worth.

Lent also tells me there’s an end to death. This is not how it’s supposed to be, and this is not how it finally will be. We live in Saturday, yes, but we’ve been shown the fullness of Sunday, and it is coming! Grace witnesses to that hope every day. Even as we begin to let ourselves see the invisible deaths, there is the grace of ordinary resurrections.

Ordinary resurrections: seeds of hope that come in this world. Death surrounds us, but so does life. And so I wait—trying to listen to Lent, to see both death and life—in Saturday.

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Lent and Creating Kindness

Lent and Creating Kindness

Over the past couple of years or so I’ve been wondering about kindness a lot. I started being accused of it pretty consistently (which is my way of wrestling with hearing that people see it in me). It caught me off guard at first, and then as it became a pattern, got me to wondering.

If you’d ask me to describe myself, no matter how flattering I was tempted to be, it would’ve never occurred to me to use the word “kind.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me to use the word “unkind” either, but kindness had never stood out to me as something I was notably good at. So I wondered, what is it they’re seeing?

It seems connected to caring, and empathy. And I’ve thought that maybe kindness is one of the ways we understand love when it shows up in action. Love is abstract, and kindness is concrete.

So, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7)

It’s what love looks like on the ground.

And if people experience kindness from me? Or any of those other things? I’m deeply glad, because I know how very much I fall short of them every day. But I’m still puzzled, because while my background would understand these traits as a kind of automatic “fruit” of God’s presence in my life, I’ve come to doubt it’s ever that straightforward.

If there is kindness in me, how did it get there?

I’m beginning to suspect it gets into us through grief. More particularly, through grieving.

One thing about Lent that we tend not to notice so much anymore is how deeply it is tied to grieving. Sackcloth and ashes, fasting, the colors of black and gray and purple – all the stuff of grieving. And in the days when families practiced a period of mourning after a death, and widows wore their black “full mourning” and then their gray and purple “half mourning,” the practices of Lent would have readily evoked that mourning of a loss.

In a culture today that does so much to wall grief away and avoid it (rather than literally wearing it on our sleeves), Lent would pull us into grief. All of us. Together. Entering into grief with each other.

It’s not just about moving deeper into ourselves in our own personal grief, but remembering our grief and letting it move us towards each other, allowing another’s grief and loss to enter us, to connect to our own, and to connect us to each other.

That has the power to change us, and to plant kindness in us.

There’s a poem by Naomi Shihad Nye called Kindness. Part of it reads:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Whatever kindness there is in me, I can’t tell you how it grew to be there. But I’m pretty sure it was planted by loss and watered with tears. That it grows in the grieving Lent has taught me over the past fifteen years since I started exploring it.

Some years, Lent gives me the space to explore and express griefs I was already struggling with. Other years, it redirects my attention, away from whatever has my life buzzing along, towards grief and loss. I don’t usually like that – I’ve never come easily to sorrow. But over time I’ve learned that until I‘m willing to sit with it, grief will eat away at my life and turn into something that has very little of love or empathy or kindness in it.

There are particular moments when someone showed kindness to me that I remember as far back as my childhood. They are not the sorts of things that those who offered them would ever remember – a few words, a gesture of with-ness in an awkward moment. And those people had no idea of the griefs I was living with at the time. But their kindness was a gift of healing to me, and I remember.

I don’t think I will ever accept grief gracefully, but I hope I can let it grow a space of kindness in me.

Lent and Loving Outsiders

Lent and Loving Outsiders

Poverty looks like a lot of different things.

Don’t get me wrong, none of those things should overshadow the most obvious meaning: not having stuff. Basic stuff. Ability-to-live stuff. A roof over your head, food to eat, clothes to wear, water to drink that won’t make you sick stuff.

Never forget that is poverty, and far too many around the world and in our “rich” country live it every day.

Traditionally, Lent has been a time to focus on giving “alms” the poor. The first time I went to an Ash Wednesday service at the Catholic Church in my neighborhood, I received the ashes on my forehead and was promptly handed a small, flattened cardboard box that I was intended to pop open and fill with my Lenten contributions for the poor.

I love how hand-in-hand that was. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I was told. And then I was handed something that also told me, remember we are all dust and need to help each other along the way.

Lent is about self-denial to most of us, but self-denial is not the goal of Lent. “Fasting without praying,” a friend of mine once said, “is like plowing without planting.” Self-denial is pointless unless that space we create with it is filled and planted with something that will take root, and grow to bear the kind of fruit that changes us and changes the world.

The church mothers and fathers knew that seeing the poor is one of those things. And not just seeing in an observational way – though it is all too easy for the poor to become invisible to us. But seeing to identify with, to develop compassion for and empathy with.

That’s challenging. Poverty isn’t pretty. It’s exhausting. And it often hides.

It hides behind jobs that don’t pay a living wage. It hides behind rising housing costs that eat up grocery budgets. It set up camp in the underbrush of that lovely, tree filled nature grove in the park. It hides in cars where someone discreetly sleeps. It hides in open-hearted generosity. It hides in the family judgement and rejection that obliterate a safety net. It hides in discriminatory lending policies that prevent families from investing in homes and businesses to build that safety net. It hides in that job you could lose the moment they find out who you are and who you love. It hides behind court fees that keep people in jail or deprived of their license because they can’t pay them.

Poverty pushes people to the edges and makes them outsiders – people who live along the borders of expectation and what is legal and what life is “supposed” to look like.

Lent asks us to do a lot more than toss money or food at them over there at the edges of our lives (though that’s better than ignoring them altogether).

Lent asks us to go to the edges with them, to turn things upside down and inside out.

It doesn’t just ask us to keep bandaging up the wounds of those the system chews up and spits out (though for God’s sake, we should certainly be doing that!).

It asks us to take on that system. Bring the outsiders in, not by changing them to fit “inside,” but by changing “inside” (us) to include them – become uncomfortable to make a space they can breathe and rest and live in.

Love doesn’t just give to the poor. Love doesn’t even just go out to be with the poor. In a multitude of ways, Love makes a home with the poor.

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” With those people.

Lent and Taking Time

Lent and Taking Time

Throughout my high school and college years, one of our pastors – a kind, cheerful man who I loved dearly – would preach a particular sermon once every year that was awful. It was about time. We all had the same twenty-four hours in each day, he told us, and every minute of every one of those hours needed to be accounted for. They needed to be spent for God – in church, praying, studying the Bible, sharing the gospel with others, supporting others in those things. Staying busy for God.

It was a message designed to motivate with guilt, and it always rang wrong to me. Yes, the things we do with the time we have matter, but much more matters than the doing.

That sermon seemed to buy into a very American, capitalist view of time as a commodity. It also sold us another very American idea – that we are all equal when it comes to time. We all have the same amount every day and the same control over what we have.

But we don’t.

When I was a child, an hour was forever and a summer felt nearly endless. So much more fit into my days then – so many more thoughts and ideas and stories and dreams and adventures. I don’t think that’s an illusion of memory. Our metabolisms are at their fastest when we are young, and the way we experience time reflects that. Even now, when I am fit and exercising regularly and my metabolism is less sluggish, days feel longer and I can do more with each hour.

Life makes time different for each of us.

Circumstances beyond our control determine how our time must be spent. Poverty can make the basics of life much more time-consuming for some. Health issues may slow us down. Some of us require more sleep than others to function. And young children consume their parents’ time voraciously. People often think singles without children have loads of time, but when there is no one to share the tasks of life with, they take more time. And for a single extrovert, a great deal of time can go into building and maintaining interactions and relationships that others go home to at the end of the day.

One of the things I both love and hate about Lent is that it asks us to stop and think about time, and our time in particular. The reality that life is short – even for those with the longest lifetimes. Everything won’t fit. For forty day, Lent ask us to take time. Time to grieve, Time to make space for our vulnerabilities, our longings. Time to know our limitations.

“From dust you came, and to dust you shall return,” Lent tells us. Pay attention! Notice it. Everything in between is gift.

Most of the time, I see time as something I’m losing – or have already lost. It can be hard for me to turn that way of being in the world inside out.

Last year during Lent I really noticed for the first time that I am fourteen years older than my father, who died at just 31 from ALS. It made me see this time, these days I’m living, differently. It’s time he did not get, and it began to feel like “bonus years” – a gift.

I still struggle with the feeling I’ve lost time. So much time is gone for me – the time for who I might have been had I lived in a context that viewed women differently, the time for having children, the time for everything I could’ve done has I come to know myself more fully sooner.

But I’m learning to let those things be and turn to accept the gift of time I’m being given each day. Enough for this day.

A friend of mine, a pastor, recently retold the story of the “Manna in the Wilderness” in a powerful way (inspired by Dorothy C. Bass). The original story in the book of Exodus recounts the people of Israel’s fear when, after they have been freed from their slavery in Egypt, they do not know how they are going to feed themselves in the wilderness. It’s a story about provision, as is this adaptation…

Each evening, time arrived and covered the ground, and in the morning the desert was wet with it. When the people saw it they wondered asked each other, “What is it?”

Moses told them, “It is the time God has given you. God has said for everyone to gather as much time as is needed for each home—the right amount for each person.”

So the people gathered time—some getting more and some less before the sun of the day melted it away, and there was just enough for everyone. Those who gathered more had nothing left at the end of the day – they exhausted all they took. And those who gathered little had no lack – they found they had enough for what they needed. Each had just enough.

Moses warned them, “Don’t try to make it last overnight.” But of course some of them wouldn’t listen, and tried to stretch it deep into the night; and they were grumpy and irritable in the morning.

So they gathered time morning by morning, each according to their need.

Time to take for each day, as we need it. A gift waiting for us with the sun each morning.