My Lenten discipline this year has been two-fold as I endeavor to take full advantage of this first Lent in a long while when I have no responsibility for how anyone else experiences the season. I’ve been reading a book of reflections titled “Are We There Yet: Pilgrimage in the Season of Lent,” and I’ve also been working my way through Layla F. Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy Workbook,” and I’ve been thinking about the work of that second resource especially as I’ve read all of the reactions and response to the massacre in New Zealand.
Yes, we need leaders who will condemn white supremacy in the strongest possible terms. We need leaders who won’t fan those flames to build a base. We need to weep for the fallen and for those who mourn, and to pray for them and ourselves, for a better world.
But the idea that white supremacy is a problem that exists “out there” is one of the great mistakes that those of us who so long for that better world are prone to make. In this country, white supremacy isn’t just about Confederate flags and Ku Klux Klan hoods. It doesn’t just Infect madmen. It’s an internal and external system that benefits those of us who think we are white (reference Ta-Nehisi Coates) in ways we are used to and even expect, even as we’re conditioned to be blind most of the time as to how it actually works. And there’s no real hope for deconstructing the system until we overcome that blindness, until we see how it has diminished our own humanity and how insidiously its poison is working even in those of us who truly want to be better than that.
One of the realities of retirement from parish ministry is the sudden realization that although there are many places where you would be welcome on a Sunday morning, there isn’t one place where you totally belong. And so for now I’ve become a sort of church pilgrim, sharing myself around. This morning, it was pancakes and silence at Solebury Friends Meeting, nourishment for body and soul. Their annual pancake breakfast is timed around the production of maple syrup from the trees on the meeting property. They’re tapped early in the year and the sap is collected and boiled down to syrup—and yes, although it does take an awful lot of sap to make syrup, it really is as simple as that. I love the idea of gathering a community to enjoy and celebrate the sweetness of its own place.
Sometimes I do things backwards. For example, I took myself off to retreat at Holy Cross Monastery and then came back home and read a wonderful book by Ruth Haley Barton titled “Invitation to Retreat: The Gifts and Necessity of Time Away with God.”
There were a number of things that were not exactly as I had hoped or planned during my time away. Just for one example: On my first night at the monastery, the alarm clock in my room–which I had not touched–went off rather loudly a few minutes after midnight, waking me from a deep sleep. I think I must have jumped a few feet off the bed in fright and the accompanying adrenaline rush certainly limited my ability to fall right back to sleep. (And I’m sure this did nothing to endear me to the retreatant in the room next door.)
Many of the intrusions on my sense of peace on retreat were things I had no control over, but I think if I’d had this book with me, I’d have been in a better place to roll with them. I highly recommend it.
I’m grateful to Barton for the prayer in the picture; it’s one I’ll spend some time with at home this Lent. She describes time away with God as a kind of “strategic withdrawal,” and of course she means really getting away, but a lot of what she talks about in the book would apply equally well to a holy Lent.
“We need to pull back from our busyness,” she says, “from life in our culture, from other people’s expectations and our own compulsions, from whatever is not working in our lives.”
The grandchild has learned to say *I love you* without being prompted. There is nothing more endearing this side of paradise.
I found myself wondering what goes on in her mind when she says this, what she’s feeling and what she means by it. Words are still so new, she struggles to pronounce her own full name. What does a two-year-old know about love?
But then again, what does any of us really know? Can you explain it? We spend a lifetime practicing love, succeeding when we’re at our very best, and failing often despite our best intentions.
If you’ve lived a normal adult life and on top of that been to seminary, you will have read thousands of learned words on the subject of love, and yet you’d still feel challenged if you were asked to write a short sermon about it.
And then a two-year-old comes along and says *I love you,* and you get it, and you know she gets it, inarticulate as her understanding may be, because—forget thumbs and big brains—this is the very heart of what it means to be human.
What if we thought of Lent as a time for healing, not just a time of self-denial?
I have a confession to make. I had a massage yesterday. On Ash Wednesday, a day not traditionally observed with acts of personal indulgence. I scheduled it without really thinking about the date, and then I woke up to find my social media feeds full of photos of smiling freezing vested clerics giving out ashes at train stations, and felt a little embarrassed at what I’d come to after only 10 days of retirement.
The thing is, I wasn’t thinking about luxury when I made the date. I was thinking about the pain in my lower back. It’s caused mostly by muscle tension; I know this because the woman I see for massage is always able to tame it for a while, and I really needed her wonderful healing touch. That’s what the massage was about for me: healing.
So what if we embraced all of Lent as a season of healing, not just enduring it as six late-winter weeks of self-denial? A time to seek wholeness, rather than a time for self-inflicted punishment for past failure?
“You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink”
A cry of desolation from a place where pain is constant and pervasive. But the words “bread and tears” also evoke the phrase “bread and wine,” that meal where suffering has been turned into something life-giving rather than life-sucking. What would it mean to share this meal of bread and tears as if it were a sacrament?
~ My contribution to the current online exhibition presented by the Episcopal Church & Visual Arts. Titled “Suffering,” it’s a collection of works that “display the universal longing and anguish which is part of our incarnational experience.” So appropriate for Lent. http://www.ecva.org/exhibition/Suffering/index.html
To be satisfied by … what, exactly? Is there anyone out there who isn’t waiting to know the answer to that very question?
Jenny Holzer’s digital scroll titled “For Philadelphia 2018, at the new Comcast Technology Center in Philadelphia, includes the words of Philadelphia writers, poets, and school children and is said to run for 17 hours before it repeats.
Little by little over these past weeks, I’ve been carrying away everything I brought into my office during the past five years. This morning there are just a few personal things left: My prayerbook. My laptop. My plastic Jesus that a vendor at our yard sale gave me for free a few years back. When I asked how much they wanted for him, she said it didn’t seem right to sell Jesus to a priest at a church. Fair enough.
And I still have the sign on the wall that says, This is the life.
I’ve left it up to the end on purpose, because even though it might seem sort of lighthearted, that phrase is the reason for everything that I’ve been and done here over the past five years.
I found it while I was on vacation in the Land O’Lakes region in Ontario. My great aunt used to spend her summers there, in a house on an island in a beautiful lake. She and my dad were close, and he visited her there many times.
Back in the 1930s, she was the leader of a community that founded a little Anglican church on the shore of that lake, Bob’s Lake. It’s a simple church that still stands, as beloved to its people as Good Shepherd Church is to us. It’s called the Church of St. Andrew the Fisherman.
“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are those who are excluded and reviled and defamed.”
They don’t sound much like blessings to me. If anything, I might be tempted to call them curses, or even maybe woes. But Jesus has his own list of woes: Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are well-fed. Woe to you who are happy and laughing and are spoken well of.
That’s backwards, right? It isn’t the first time that expectations for how things ought to be will be turned upside-down in Luke’s Gospel, starting with that prayer of praise that Mary spoke in Elizabeth’s presence,[i]that prayer about how the hungry will be filled, and the rich will be not so rich. This isn’t the prosperity gospel, for sure. Everything is sort of backwards in Luke.
And that wasn’t the common thinking at the time of Jesus. The common thinking was that material success in life was a sign of God’s favor. And we still have prosperity preachers, those preachers who will tell you that good health and wealth will be yours if only you have faith and live right—and maybe send them a contribution. But that certainly isn’t what Jesus is saying.
But if that isn’t what he’s saying, if that isn’t it, then what exactly does it mean to be blessed?