Are you sensitive and obedient to leadings of the Holy Spirit? (New England Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, Queries)The season of Lent is fast approaching. While Quakers do not traditionally observe this liturgical practice, many of us have spent time reflecting on and considering Lent I grew up in Maryland, a historically Catholic state, where many of my classmates were/are Catholic. On Ash Wednesday each year, these students would come to class with ashes on their forehead in the shape of crude crosses. Some years I was able to catch my curiosity before asking someone why they had dirt on their face, other years I blundered.
Along with the ashes, came the conversations about who was going to give up what for the 40 days and 40 nights that represents the season of Lent. This season, marked by deprivation and fasting was conveyed to me as the ultimate way to display faithfulness. It was conveniently for many, a time to justify dieting or a time to justify attempting to break addictions like sugar, caffeine, nicotine, etc. "I am a good person, if I give up X;" "I am faithful, if I deprive myself of Y." These were the narratives that surrounded Lent for much of my life.
A few years back, I was working in Seattle at Seattle University, a Catholic Jesuit institution. I shared an office with a wonderful women, my co-worker Lisa. Lisa, a practicing Catholic, was/is the program manager for Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry's Faith and Family Homelessness Project, a program that engages faith communities around Seattle in the initiative to end family homelessness. Lisa and I spent a season of Lent together in that office, and at its beginning, around the time of Ash Wednesday, I asked her about her family's practice.
Lisa shared with me her frustrations with the popular American way of giving up sugar or caffeine to satisfy Lenten requirements. As a mother of a pre-teen girl, Lisa was concerned how these often superficial disciplines affected her daughter's body image and view of what faithfulness looked like. Lisa shared with me her family's practice of taking on something for lent rather than giving something up. While taking on something, in their case a service project or volunteer opportunity, often did displace other things (like attending a college basketball game or going out for ice-cream with friends), this practice refocused the intent of Lent from depravity to service.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
While Lisa and I had that conversation back in 2012, the last two years her words and framing of Lent have returned to me in my reflection of the season. Lisa and I worked with Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith communities while I was in Seattle and through each person we met and got to know, we learned a sense of faithfulness that was new to us. Lent for me has become a Christian practice of returning to a faithful path. It is a return, not unlike returning to a home or a place of fond memory, that reminds me who I am and what gives me life.
I was sitting in worship on Sunday with this passage from Isaiah on my mind. What emerged for me in that silent, waiting worship, was a sense that the passage from Isaiah spoke truth to me, and in that truth was a leading, a nudge..
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Hear I am If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
My first winter in New England has been difficult. The cold and the dark have weighed heavy on my heart and mind. It's taken time and will take more time for me to learn the city and understand the systems all around me. I often see those who are without homes, exposed to the cold, and suffering from poverty and I don't quite know what to do. There are moments when I remember walking around Seattle with Lisa, talking with folks who were addressing the issues of homelessness and poverty and talking with the folks experiencing these issues. I admit that in my time here in Boston, I have adopted a "keep my head down and keep moving" attitude about commuting to work and when I see people asking for money I find myself thinking bitter and uncompassionate thoughts. I often have moments when I feel that God is nudging me to talk with someone, stop, smile, and sometime even give money to folks around me. Ironically, while I work remotely on issues of oppression and violence, I wonder how much am I actually contributing to these systems by closing my eyes and trying to ignore them day to day.
The excuse that I repeat to myself is that I've been quite stressed and ill these past months... and I've felt a bit lost and lonely trying to establish myself in this new city. I am encouraged by the words in the book of Isaiah that link the experience of faithfulness with the healing and renewal of the self. In my Lectio Divino style of reading this passage from Isaiah, the lines "then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly... then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday" have stood out to me like Easter does, a beacon of hope, mystery, unknown, awe, unexplainable miracle at the end of the season of Lent. I have some ideas for the year, I have some nudges to attend to and I have some joy to engage with along the way. For this is my call; this service to those around me; this is the fast I choose.