The Privilege of Lent
I drive 25 minutes to my parents house, my children in the backseat. We take the back-route, winding through our burnt-out suburb and heading into the hills and farms and subdivisions. Every once in awhile the trees clear out and I see them, scattered up and down the gorgeous green hills: large houses, in various shades of brown, pristine and similar. Every once in awhile the thought creeps into my brain: there are enough people in this area to afford to live in these houses? Houses that cost upwards of half a million, 4 and 5 bedrooms, backyards and play structures, two car garages? How can there be so many people with money, I wonder, truly in awe. But it's obvious to me that this is true, although it does not speak to my reality. As soon as the questions appear in my heart I shrink back into myself. The layers of disbelief, judgement, sadness, isolation come and go in waves. I am starting to make peace with the idea that I might always be in culture shock, all the rest of my days.
In a book I am reading, the author discusses two stories which are placed side by side in the Scriptures, but which are often told separately. First, Jesus stands on top of a great green hillside, and he feeds the 5,000 people. And right after that, his disciples go out on the water and get caught up in a terrible, chaotic storm, where Jesus eventually meets them. The book said, we look at those two stories side by side, and we accept them as true. For every person sitting on a hill with Jesus, their every need met, there is another in the midst of a terrifying pitch-black storm. Both are real. And the sooner we accept the truth of where we are, the sooner we can accept the truth of where others live.
This leaves me weepy with gratitude. It feels beyond my power to change my personality anymore. I am a stormy person. I am more Hamilton than Burr (I can't talk less or smile more). I am also drawn to other such persons—the hollow-eyed, the doubters, the single-minded activists, the outsider voices. And this is ok. This is my reality, and I accept it (even as I wish it weren’t so, as I wish it were all easier, more tidy, that I was more content). And already, by voicing this, I can see it starting in my heart: my indifference towards others is getting smaller. I can see us all coming from different places, I can see the beauty in a kingdom that thrives on vast and varied lives and perspectives.
At least, that is what I am hoping for. Hello to being honest about where we are, whether in the storm or on that great, green hillside.
The way I celebrate Lent is very non-denominational. It’s all over the map. It is for the messy and tired and for people who can’t parse out all the theological reasons for it. Some years I skip it altogether, and it’s great. But this year, I feel the prickling to actually do a few things. Like: I will not be mindlessly scrolling on my favorite social media spaces (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). I’m not going to check out any hot new book titles from the library. I will decrease the clutter of words and focus on a slow reading of my own bookshelves, choosing those books that nourish me. I hope to create some emotional margin in my life so I can start an ESL class/tutoring time in my apartment complex. I will be praying along with Common Prayer every morning (feel free to join me!). I want to start dreaming up ways for me to get outside the boxes I still continually build up for myself.
But there is something else, something more amorphous, that I am feeling drawn towards this year. Pope Francis says we should give up our indifference for Lent this year, and I agree. And we all flounder in this area, no matter where we live—at least, I certainly do. Lately I have found myself surrounded by books and tv shows and churches where there seemed to be no sense of the struggle. The struggle against inequality, the struggle against complement consumerism, the struggle against a system that isn’t just broken but rather insidiously designed to elevate some at the expense of so many others. Any time someone mentioned a good gift from God I wanted to scream and cry in rage, my mind flooded with the thoughts of all of those who don’t receive that same thing. If you are blessed, does that mean they are cursed? I had lost it, all of my perspective—whatever that means. I had a bad week and my depression made me feel alone, drifting further and further into my own mind.
But then I opened up this book in a coffee shop and I was sobbing before I knew it, especially when the author started talking about testimonies:
“Jesus fed me when I was hungry, we hear, and those who are hungry feel bereft. Jesus healed me when I was sick, say the healthy, and the burdened feel more burdened. Meditation cured me of depression, say some, and others make plans to hide the Prozac. Upon whom is the burden of words? I don’t know. I don’t think there is an answer. I cannot dampen gladness because it will burden the unglued. But I cannot proclaim gladness as a promise that will only shackle the already bound. Faith shadows some and it shelters others . . . Hello to what we do not know.”
And there it was, what I needed to say: hello to recognizing where we are.
Hello to the hard work of not becoming indifferent to all of those not in the exact same spot as ourselves.
Today is Ash Wednesday and I will not have time nor be able to attend a service. I will not be marked by an ashy gray cross on my head, but this is OK for me. I grew up never celebrating this particular holiday, I would feel like an outsider amidst the language and the ritual, but perhaps in the future I will risk baring my ignorance and attend one all the same. I think about what I know of Ash Wednesday, how it begins: a bright green palm leaf, so exotic, so full of promise, waved around a sanctuary by joyous and un-scarred children. And then, that same leaf, a year later: dried out, burned, ground into ash, smeared onto the foreheads of murky, complicated souls on their way to the next trial to be overcome.
I have been thinking how marked I have been by my life, by my friends, by all the very hard stories I heard last week, or last month, or last year. What a sorrow, what a privilege, to be scarred like this. To carry a reminder, everywhere you go. Always, always, hidden in your heart: the ashes of those lives around you which are hanging on by a thread.
Lord, hear our prayers.