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 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.