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.