So far this Lent, I have already encountered the parts of me I don’t like.
As I try to stay dedicated to my Lenten practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, I seem to keep catching a glance of myself in the mirror: I see that I am a sinner, I am weak, I am broken. Over and over again I face the truth: I must be totally dependent on God and God’s mercy.
I’ve been talking to God through prayer about this familiar cycle that I go through every Lent (and during ordinary time too.)
It shouldn’t be a surprise, really, that my struggles repeat because I’m consistently dealing with the same person: me.
And then I thought about some Lenten Messy Jesus Business posts from the past that remain meaningful to me. I’d like to share them with you!
Here are 5 of my favorite Messy Jesus Business posts about Lent:
1.) “This is HARD” by Jerica Arents, April 8, 2011, is a reflection on how the inconvenient fasts from plastic, sugar and electricity ultimately brought her closer to her community.
2.) “The weirdness of witnessing,”February 28, 2012. The season of Lent freed me to be real about how I don’t always like to be “out there” and share my faith for many reasons, but one is because when I sin then it can reflect badly on all Christians. Bonus: “What if I stumble?” (a song by DC Talk) is mixed in!
3.) “Lent: Divorcing our bad habits,” March 3, 2013. A British indie pop band Autoheart has a really catchy song called “Lent” and it inspired me to think about which bad habits I might need to “divorce” in order to gain true freedom in Christ.
4.) “Becoming a new fruit and fertilizer“ by Amy Nee, March 21, 2013. Amy writes how compost became her Lenten mantra as she worked to get back to the basics of her faith. Some wisdom from the 13th century mystic and poet, Rumi, is incorporated beautifully.
5.) “Ashy Remembering,” March 7, 2014, is a poem about distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday and remembering my own mortality and need to repent as I touch other human faces.
What Lenten reflections and prayers speak to you during your time fasting in the desert this year?
“An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.”
— Abraham Joshua Heschel
Wednesday night I woke from a deeply disturbing nightmare. My mom was shot and killed. She was right outside our house, the house I grew up in, checking to see what a stranger wanted. It was late at night and I’d wanted to stop her, to tell her to let my dog run out first with her snarling bark that usually annoys me but every once in a while helps me feel safe. But Mom is too hospitable for such things. Somehow, instead, I was still upstairs, looking out the bathroom window onto the scene as it happened.
When I woke, my feet were icy and tingling, the way they get when a bad dream has chilled me to the bone. My mind returned to what had initially kept me from falling asleep in the first place. Just before bed, my husband and I had read about the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Fourteen people were killed and 21 injured at a center for people with mental disabilities who were in the midst of a holiday party.
I am so heartbroken and bewildered. Why did this happen? How must the surviving loved ones be feeling? How terrifying and devastating for all those present. I’m struggling with this tragedy, not only for its own sake, but also because of the tragedies it recalls. I have read that this is the largest mass shooting in the U.S. since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary three years ago. More troubling still, this is the 355th documented mass shooting in the U.S. for this year alone. And surrounding all of this is the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorist outbursts in Iraq, Kenya, Paris and elsewhere; the innumerable wars and pseudo wars wreaking havoc on the lives of men, women and children.
Dwelling on all this I am filled with despair, outrage and, reluctant as I am to admit it, fear. However, what I am afraid of is not a terrorist attack. Nor do I dwell on being caught up in the violent outburst of a mentally deranged person. And certainly not dread of foreign invasion. I’m afraid of a tendency I’ve noticed to consider purveyors of violence “outsiders.” I am afraid of a general lack of willingness to look in the mirror and recognize that the violence erupting in schools and churches, in city streets and now even in a residential home, are not about the “other,” they are about us; you and me, as individuals and as part of a community and country. Each of these acts are awful opportunities to examine our culture and ask how and why it compels and enables such violence. Yet, again and again, that opportunity is passed over and we are left with only sorrow, rage and despair at the devastating destruction of precious lives.
Most of my heart, however, is consumed by the fullness of my womb, filtering everything through the lens of an expectant mother. When I was at this place of unborn fullness with my son Eli, who will soon be two, a friend asked if I was not afraid to bring a child into this world. At the time I said no, I was not afraid. What I didn’t realize then is that being a parent would in fact cause me to be more concerned for safety, more aware of danger, more sensitive to the precarity of life.
There were many nights when I would contemplate horrifying scenarios that would end with either one or all of us dead. I would consider how absurd it is that I should expect and feel entitled to safety in my home when so many others live without it, when so many whose lives are taken had no part in inviting such violence. However, I continue to see participating in creating and nurturing life (whether through pregnancy and parenting, art, activism or other means) as the greatest act of hope, of love, of resistance to violence and despair that we can offer this world. And so I pray that fear never be what stops me from sharing in such acts.
And this brings me back to the dream. I was troubled by the dream not only because of Mom’s death, but because of where I stood as it happened. I remained removed, hiding within the walls of our house, hiding behind my dog’s ability to intimidate. It is my mom, in this dream, who is the one stepping out in an act of love. I don’t consider myself to be in the wrong for having been afraid, but I am disturbed by my choice to follow fear and remove myself or drive away whatever or whoever triggered that fear.
Fear and anger have a place. They are important signals that tell us something is very wrong. But staring at the wrong does not lead us to what is right. I am grateful for the times that I have a visceral response to tragedy, for the times that I am still surprised by violence. I’m grateful because it means in that moment I am living outside of apathy and inside communion with living beings. However, if I become overwhelmed with anger or fear, judgment or disgust, I try to redirect those feelings toward grief. Turning to mourning allows sadness to soften and open my heart, creating a pathway for the grace and wisdom of the Spirit to enter in and do it’s healing, guiding work.
There is a piece to this dream I failed to recount initially. As I am standing at the window, I am aware also of the presence of a few of my friends from Witness Against Torture who (in reality and in the dream) had just returned from Cuba. In the dream I am vaguely aware that they too have tried to get Mom’s attention, tried to ask her to wait. They, however, are not asking her to wait so they can send out the dog, but so that they can go with her.
An American Dream was originally published by Amy Nee in her blog, Amy the Show.
Note to the reader: throughout this piece there are links that have been attached to statements and ideas that I thought might require further explanation or that I would have liked to share more about but others have already collected the information more efficiently or articulately. If you are interested in or object to anything that was said, please feel free to follow the links for further exploration.
Additional note to readers from Sister Julia:
I recommend watching this video to learn a bit more about the recent fast and protest by Witness Against Torture activists in Cuba:
“Eternal God…You know that these men have testified falsely against me. Would you let me die, though I am not guilty of all their malicious charges?”
This week the daily mass readings begin with the cry of Susannah, unjustly accused by corrupt officials, sentenced to death in the presence of the people. We read that God hears her. But Susannah is not saved by a bolt of lightning striking down her foes, or by being mysteriously transported to safety. God arouses the Holy Spirit stirring a “young lad,” Daniel, a witness in a crowd of impassive witnesses, and this small person shouts, “I will have no part in the death of this woman!”
People in the crowd are startled. Many had been grieved by the proceedings, but this was out of their hands, the elders, the leaders had decided. Yet here is this stirring, “What did you say?” they ask.
And Daniel says to the people, “Have you become fools, you Israelites, to condemn a daughter of Israel without due process and in the absence of clear evidence?”
In this story, the people respond, turning the tables by turning the accusers over for questioning. It is now they who must prove their case, which they fail to do. So Susannah is delivered, back to her family, and the accusers take her place in receiving the full penalty of the law.
I am struck by how clearly this story illustrates that God moves by moving people. Would this providential delivery have been possible had Daniel not responded to the spirit stirring him to speak? What if the people had not listened? What does all of this mean for us in our time?
Hearing this story for the first time, my thoughts immediately went to an outcry that is currently falling on deaf ears. There are 166 men being held at Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. They are held there without due process, accused in the absence of clear evidence. Their detention is indefinite, a torturous reality. Adding insult to injury, the sacred texts of these men of faith are being tampered with and desecrated, letters from their wives and children are censored or withheld. At Guantanamo, more men have died (9) than have been convicted of a crime (6). The men are experiencing a living death, confined to their tomb until the day that their corpse can be released to their family without fear that it will speak of what it has suffered.
Yet the men there are finding ways to cry out, to God, to their captors, to this crowd of people in the United States, to us. They are using the only tool they have left, their own body, hunger striking. They are not demanding release, only humane treatment, just procedures.
As a woman of faith, I sense the Holy Spirit seeking to arouse a voice in the crowd. We are given the example of Daniel for a reason. God desires compassion and justice and these divine gifts come through people who respond. But what can we do, when the prisoners are not standing directly before us, when the crowd is not crushing about us?
We can still adopt and adapt Daniel’s words, “I will have no part in the death of these men,” “Have we become fools, to condemn men without due process and in the absence of clear evidence?” And we can find the crowds to speak it to, and draw a crowd to speak it with us.
Witness Against Torture (WAT), a group of men and women from across the United States, has been seeking an end to indefinite detention, due process and resettlement for those detained, and the closure of Guantanamo Bay detention center since 2005. Together we are responding to the hunger strikes with tangible actions. Beginning March 24th (Holy Week, for those in the Catholic tradition) we will hold a seven day solidarity fast. Throughout that week we encourage people to call the White House; send letters to the prisoners acknowledging that they have been heard by the public, even if officials have yet to respond; join us for vigils (see witnesstorture.org to find out if there are any happening in your city, or start your own); participate in the fast for a day or more; spread the news in any way you can.
Adnan Latif, a Muslim man who, after eleven years of detention, died at Guantanamo wrote a poignant poem in which he asks, “Who will save the hunger striker?” He died, without ever having been proved guilty of “all their malicious charges.” How many deaths before the cry is heard?
I caught that train and took it to Cermak-Chinatown. The Congress on Urban Ministry had converged on the Hyatt at McCormick Place (a hotel and convention center the size of a neighborhood) and was hosting free “Words and Worship” services in the evenings. That night Shane Claiborne was scheduled to speak. He is an author and activist and part of “The Simple Way,” a community that calls for a way that is both simple and profound. The residents recognize people around them as neighbors—whether those people are gang members, prostitutes, school children, investment bankers or Iraqi citizens on the other side of the world. Shane is a representative of people who take seriously Jesus’ advocacy of neighbor-love, and enemy-love. He talked that night about grace as the backdrop for peace. Grace, he said, is seeing the same things, the same people, with new eyes; it is seeing beyond surface and assumptions.
Closing his talk, Shane shared a video clip filmed during his time in India working with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity. The camera holds closely the image of a child shaking with terror from an accident he has just survived. Malnourished, the boy’s skin is stretched tightly over his bones. His head appears too large for his birdlike body which convulses in the arms of a Catholic sister who is leaning over his railed bed. She firmly but gently rubs his fragile frame, over and over. Her hands transfer compassion and healing and gradually his tremors still. The boy’s body becomes loose and limp, his angular head tips toward the sister. His eyes, deep, dark pools, meet hers. The hospital is crowded with children no doubt in equal need, but she holds him. Infinity in their gaze. A look of recognition.
My heart stirs, a desire rising. I want to go to India, to be her, to hold him. But there is something beyond this want. I desire that type of engagement—with the afflicted, with my Mom, with the woman behind the cash register, with the man asking me for change and the prisoner I can’t see—awareness, presence, compassion. I want to recognize people and to give people the opportunity to recognize each other. If not to see Christ in the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, the loved and the unlovely; to see ourselves.
How can we “satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” when we move through life like casually skipped stones, skimming the surface, making occasional, brief contact—splish, what they seem to want—splash, what we think they need—plunk, deep, drinking desire. We are awestruck out of our element there. It is a scary thing to sink into the unknown. I can say that I am called to this as a Christian, and I am. But I want to clarify that I think Jesus’ mission was not to make a Church but to teach us to be whole humans, to restore the earth and its residents to life. Thus, whatever my religion, I am called to this as a living being. Waking life requires it.