Embracing the Burden

Two weeks into Lent, and things are starting to feel a little heavy. I’m guessing it’s not just me.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love this season. I read a post yesterday called Summer and Winter Christians, which basically makes the point that there are different types of Christians; some of us are more prone to see the “dark” side of things than others, and it doesn’t make us any less faithful. In Scripture, like in the old Spirituals, lament and praise often go right alongside each other, Psalm 22 being a good example. For the believer in Christ, sadness at the way the world is and hope in its future renewal are often two sides of the same coin. Just as there are differences in how different individuals experience their faith, there are different seasons of the Church year, feast following fast like spring follows winter. There’s a certain balance to it that appeals to me. We need times in our life to unreservedly celebrate the good as well as times to take a long, sobering look at the not so good.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to see past the darkness to the dawn. The mirror into which we look just seems so dark, the shapes so shadowy and unclear. I pray the same prayers, day after day, for change, and no change seems to come. This loved one still struggles daily with physical pain, that one is still encaged in addiction, another measures her soul’s worth by the number on a scale, and I myself am no more free, repeating the same mistakes day after day, as though I didn’t know better.

There is a certain joy even in being honest about all this. Growing up in a family that carried on a generational cycle of mental illness and substance abuse, my sister and I knew things were not infrequently Very Very Wrong, but felt powerless to change them or even to acknowledge our feelings to adults who wanted us to say everything was fine. So even in my tears over things that so badly need healing in my heart, in my relationships, and in the world, there is a certain joy that I am not blind to the wrongness, that I can honestly express my sorrow, and that there’s still time for change.

Still, the lifetime work of following Jesus is made up of a lot of days, days that are often dark and frustrating in their lack of change. With so many voices in the Hebrew Scriptures we cry, “How long?” How many more days will we stay in darkness before the light? How many minutes must we watch our loved ones in pain before their healing comes? How many days of struggling yet again to break free from judgementalism and apathy?

I hear an answer to this question in my heart. God says gently, “You said you wanted to learn to embrace suffering. You said you wanted to live with your eyes open to the pain of the world. You said you wanted to become new. Well, it’s not a pain-free process, but I am with you every frustratingly long day. Every step of the way I am sharing your burden. When your soul feels weary and heavy laden, I will give you rest. If you don’t give up, I will give you the gift of patience, even though like all fruit, it takes time to grow.”

I thought this Lent would be about saying the big fat sacred No to things, but it’s turning out to be more about the big fat sacred Yes. Yes, I will hope, even when my heart feels heavy. Yes, I am strong enough to look into the dark glass and see the glimpse of light.

What is heavy on your heart right now? Is there anything you feel you need to say yes to?

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Is That What You Call a Fast?

English: Place setting with red charger.

Just so you know, I am terrible at fasting, even the Catholic version, which from what I hear is so much wussier than the version in Judaism or Islam. Catholics are allowed one full meal on a fast day and two snacks that don’t add up to a second meal. Now, of course, children, pregnant women, and those with medical conditions are completely exempt from fasting. But I’m pretty sure feeling tired and cranky without ingesting something every two hours doesn’t count as a medical condition. Several hours into the fast I always realize just what a hostage I am to my body, how clueless it is about the fact that this is not an actual survival situation, just a drill.

“Hey,” whispers my totally intact lizard brain. “You know what you do if you don’t eat? You die. So get on that.”

“Look,” I try to tell it, “Remember how we live a ridiculously privileged life in a nation that is at this moment one of the wealthiest in the world? We can eat as much as we want again tomorrow.”

“There is no tomorrow,” it hisses. “There is only right now. Put something in your mouth this instant or we’ll see what happens to these fancy philosophical thought processes of yours.”

After several hours of this, I often get worn down. My entire being is concentrated on when I’ll get to eat that one meal of the day and whether I can reschedule it to the next five minutes. But I don’t want to be needlessly mean to my body. It’s a perfectly good body, and the excellent survival instincts encoded into it are no doubt a large part of why my ancestors survived and I’m here today. My mind can play tricks on me too when I’m fasting, and actually they’re a lot sneakier. They tend to hit if I’ve successfully ignored my body’s nagging for a few hours.

“Good for you,” says my mind silkily. “Look at you, fasting and not even complaining at all, even though it’s so hard for you! This is a lost art, you know! Don’t worry about how you snapped at that person earlier. It’s totally understandable – you’re hungry! Look what a sacrifice you’re making.”

Any other matters get labeled a nuisance, messing up my lovely holy experiment. Surely I would be getting so much more out of this whole fasting thing if I didn’t have to do the dishes or answer call after call at work.

This is why I love reading the Bible (well, one reason, anyway). People think the Bible is supposed to be full of great role models for us all, and then they’re all shocked at how absolutely packed the Bible is with everything bad from whining to murder (except, of course, for Jesus, whose most violent action is probably kicking a fig tree). Conversely, I love the Bible because it gives me great comfort to know I’m not the only one who’s completely messed up. Any mistake I’ve made has already been done, possibly thousands of years ago.

Case in point:

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Isaiah 58:4-12 (NIV)

As with most things, if I can’t fast with the right attitude I might as well not do it at all. If I just want to feel like I’m so good at mind over matter, or if my main motivation is to kick my sugar cravings, or if I smugly imagine I’m securing myself a place in the Spiritual Olympics, forget it. If my stomach is on empty and I let my patience follow, if I use being hungry as an excuse to be lazy, if I feel like I’ve “done enough” for the day, forget it. Empty fasting, like empty feasting, just causes me to focus on myself, rather than deepening my commitment to share my food, shelter, clothing, love.

But hunger pangs can be an invitation to hasten the coming of God’s kingdom. Pouring myself out in true love, I can participate in the work of breaking chains and building houses, giving up my own desires in a true fast. And when I break through to this kingdom, even for a moment, the light can touch me too, heal me, break my chains, and fill me like never before.

Up and Out

Hello readers! As always, thanks for being here! Over the last few months of writing for A Glimpse in the Glass, I’ve kept the posts coming once a week. This was an intentionally slow pace because I knew I had some big projects I needed to take care of before I could devote more time to writing. I’m happy to say those projects are now behind me, so (God willing) I’m ready to commit to posting more often.

I’ve considered for awhile what I would post about when I had the time. The broad focus of this blog is my journey of faith. As much as anything else, this blog is an excuse for me to take an honest look at my life, see where I need to grow, and get truths I too often forget down in black and white. In a sense, it’s a way of keeping myself accountable, making sure I’m paying attention to the Teacher (aka Rabbi Jesus).

So to make sure I’m keeping focused and balanced, I’ve decided to base the categories of my posts on what my Teacher said were the greatest commandments, the Top Two as it were: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If my faith doesn’t do both of these things, it’s pretty much pointless. I like to keep in mind the importance of this with the mnemonic “Up and Out.” I need to look up to God, look out to my neighbor, and try not to spend too much time looking in the mirror.

My new posting schedule will be Tuesday and Friday. Tuesday’s posts will be primarily about looking up, taking my blinders off and raising my eyes to the wild heavens. Friday’s posts will be about looking out, trying to focus on justice and reconciliation and other things God cares about in my very own daily life, trying to live with hands and heart open. I’m a person who needs to carefully balance philosophy and practicality, and I hope this will be a good way to do that (and get some wisdom from you, dear readers, to help me do it better!). I also want to add at least one more feature to my posting schedule eventually, but one step at a time.

Thanks for sticking with me so far. I am blessed by your readership. Stay tuned for more!

I Think I Need a New Heart

I’ve realized I use the word “heart” a lot on this blog, at least once an entry. At first, I was thinking this was just more proof that I am made of cheese and schmaltz – not that I consider that a bad thing. In fact, I take a strange pride in the many things that can make me cry, from the Les Miserables movie finale (I sobbed out loud, probably embarrassing my friends) to the Bright Eyes song “First Day of My Life” (I once heard two different people sing it back to back in a talent show and I cried both times). But then I realized, you know who else uses “heart” a lot? The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures, whom no one could accuse of being made of cheese and schmaltz.

To be fair, the Hebrew word we translate as “heart” had a somewhat different range of meaning than our English word. It wouldn’t fit neatly into “hearts and flowers” or “tenderhearted”; it’d be more at home in “the heart of the matter”: the pith, the crux, the unvarnished truth. In most Bible contexts, a person’s heart is his or her default state, the basic disposition from which thoughts and actions flow.

Psalm 51 says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” This is basically Bible-speak for “I want a do-over, God.” And that’s how my first week of Lent has left me feeling. I’ve invited God into my life anew, and God has apparently taken this opportunity to shine a light on all the rank, dark, festering little corners I try to keep hidden. It’s like when that certain relative stays over, the one that always deep cleans your house while you’re gone, just trying to help, and all you can think all day at work is, “They’re probably opening that drawer right now. Please, please, don’t let them look in the closet. I hope all the dust bunnies under the bed spontaneously dissolved.”

Maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, in the last week, I have discovered that I have anything but a clean heart. It’s gunky and funky and tangled in all kinds of bad habits and distractions. My default state is to show up late for everything: work, church, sometimes even dates. My default state is not to read the news because it’s too much trouble and time. My default reaction to injustice is “How sad. I guess someone should do something about that sometime… or whatever.” My default reaction to someone else talking is to let my mind wander and occasionally say, “Mmm-hmm.” My default reaction to any kind of pain is to fill the hole with chocolate, Facebook likes, and words of human praise. My heart, despite my copious crying, seems to have slowly and sneakily petrified.

Now, upon realizing all this, my strong temptation is to go to the other extreme and jump into some ridiculous self-flagellation, like those monks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who walk around hitting themselves in the forehead with boards: Kyrie eleison… *smack* Christe eleison… *smack* However, in my better moments I know this is just another way to avoid pain, like if I punish myself, the Universe will let me off the hook and I won’t have to suffer any other consequences. It’s just another way of growling defensively, “I don’t need to change. My heart is fine.”

How much harder to take a deep breath, look at the mess I keep making of things, and just say, “Help. Create in me a clean heart, O God.”

But I have concluded there really is no other way. I’m not inherently bad: I was created good, but I’m like an old out-of-tune piano or a broken-down car; I need a tune-up and some love. And the good news is that such love is out there if I’ll just humble myself and hold my dusty, busted heart up to be transformed and filled.

Please, God. Shake that Etch-a-Sketch. This time I mean it. Make me new.

Fat and Ashes

Tonight I’ll bite down on a big fat donut, a riot of color and sugar, and it will taste like celebration.

Pompeii029

Pompeii (Photo credit: Royal Olive)

And by morning, like so much I’ve eaten, it will turn to ashes in my mouth.

Not that physical pleasure is evil, but it is ephemeral. Almost everything is, really. We think we know people, but in most cases we see a snapshot, a mere second, of the narrative of their lives. I am a baby, and so are you, and a lot of what we do still comes from that baby-place of open mouths and grasping limbs, unthinkingly wanting our needs satisfied. And from another angle, we are piles of ashes, perhaps dirt.

I don’t love thinking about this, but there’s a certain relief in it, in stopping running from the truth long enough to catch my breath. As the Buddhist saying goes, “Since death is certain, and the moment of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” Not another donut, not some other fleeting delight. Not checking Facebook until my eyes glaze over. Not whatever argument I’ve tangled myself in, not keeping score of the wrongs done to me. Not rolling over and going back to sleep, rejecting the terrors of the world in favor of a cozy bubble. Not regrets, not fears. Just this glorious moment and the beautiful and burdensome gift of choice within it. Just the fact that I’ve been let loose into this world with a chance to choose love, to follow the scent back to the Source and share food with my fellow travelers.

So, with my stomach still full of fat, it’s into the desert with Jesus. Time to stare my hunger for food, power, safety in the face. Time to realize that sooner or later, I’ll have to climb that hill to Jerusalem, and look, there’s a cross with my name on it. I can either run from that knowledge, choose to live as long as possible ignorant of the pain of others, make my goal to die as wrinkle-free and scar-free as possible, or I can shoulder the rough wood, take up part of the burden of the world we all carry together. I can choose to say with Jesus, “I hear your cries, I love you. Let me drink from your cup of sorrow. I’m here with you. There’s hope.”

Yes, I’m a pile of ashes, soft and fluffy, dirty and bitter, harmless and helpless. But Ash Wednesday also holds a promise: that these are ashes to rise from. These are the ashes of nature’s great forest fire, the food of new life, potential energy for evolution. And when we burn away what imprisons us, the smoke and light reach all the way to Heaven.

What I’m Getting for Lent This Year

Judean hills

So Lent is coming up, starting the day before Valentine’s Day, and I cannot wait. For Lent, that is. I know this makes me weird, but what else is new?

A lot of people seem bemused by Lent. Unlike many religious celebrations, it never caught on outside of the Church, I guess because it’s hard to think of Lenten greeting cards. Also, on most holidays, you get stuff; who wants a holiday where you give something up? What’s so wrong with chocolate, anyway? And why give something up for forty days, then get right back on the wagon? Is it all just some kind of spiritualized crash diet? Is it a way of getting Heaven Points, more Catholic masochism, a grand show of self-control?

It’s all too easy to see it that way in our achievement-driven society, like something that would be on the front page of some magazine: 40 Days to Closeness with God! (The secret saintly technique they never taught you in Catechism class!) I remember the first Lent I celebrated as a child, four and a half feet of perfectionism and neurotic tendencies, constantly about to hyperventilate. I gave up sweets, and then I forgot and ate a brownie they gave me at Girl Scouts, and when I realized what had happened I burst into tears. In my mind, I had Failed at the forty-day deprivation test. In my mind, it was all about me.

Now, as an adult, what I really love about Lent is the reminder that I was (once again) dead wrong as a child. It’s not all about me. In fact, practically nothing is about me. There is a huge, glorious, blessed, terrifying, cruel, wonderful, raw world out there outside me, and there is an untamed, indescribable, unfathomable God calling my name.

Lent is about learning again to see that world, to hear that call. The giving stuff up part is just getting distractions out of the way.

The forty days of Lent represent the forty days Jesus spent in a barren desert just prior to his public ministry, fasting and praying and battling temptation from within and without. His vision quest, if you will. He knew the rest of his life would be crowded and messy, full of people scrambling to touch him and shouting for his attention. He knew that, once he started healing people, tender moments with his Abba would be snatched at sunrise and interrupted by well-meaning disciples saying, “We’ve been looking for you!” Lent is when we, like Jesus, make our lives empty like desert, carve out some time and space to struggle with our longings, to ask the big questions, to cultivate an inner silence we can take with us into the tumult.

That’s the first great gift Lent gives me: the call to fasting. Sweeping all the clutter out of the tiny house of my soul so I can see out the window again, so I can find the three things I’ll grab when it catches fire.

Lent is great for people like me, people whose vocabulary does not include “no.” Lent gives me permission to say the big fat sacred No to all the things that clutter up my time and suck away my precious seconds. Lent says, “It’s okay to sit here with your eyes closed and your ears open. It’s okay to just breathe. Let all that other stuff go. You may think this is not important, but actually it’s the most important thing: learning just to Be.”

That’s the second great gift Lent gives me: the call to prayer. The beautiful interplay of sacred words and sacred silence.

Lent is great for people like me, people who can be just a tad self-absorbed. Sometimes I pray, “Oh Jesus, I want to know you deeply, I want to be united to you in your suffering,” and Jesus looks at me with great tenderness and a bit of wry amusement and goes, “Well, how about we start you off slow, like with a mild illness?” and about a day into my tiny little cold I’m whining, “Make it stop!” Meanwhile, back in the rest of the world, people try to feed their families with wages I might spend in a vending machine. Meanwhile, the money I spend on luxuries could help save a child’s life from preventable disease. While I sometimes feel downcast and wonder about the meaning of my life, a dollar, a meal, a kind word from me could bring so much meaning to another person’s day.

That’s the third great gift Lent gives me: the call to giving. The chance to remember how much I’ve been given and openheartedly pass it on.

Of course, after forty days I will, like Jesus, be hungry. Longing for what I’ve given up will consume my attention. But I’ll take that longing and I’ll try to turn it toward the Source of all things, where it belongs. In our culture of endless plenty, I’ll try to learn again how to hunger and thirst for righteousness.

And then, when the sun rises on Easter, I’ll be good and ready to party.