Sunday, February 20, 2011

True Fasting

This is a bit of an early Lenten post, but since it’s about time to start preparing for Lent, I thought I’d share some thoughts.

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
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.

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the LORD’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
then you will find your joy in the LORD,
and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

* * *

A few weeks ago I was up late working on a paper when my doorbell rang. As a woman living alone in a rough neighborhood, red flags immediately went up, and I froze for a minute or two, hoping whoever it was would leave. When the doorbell resounded I decided to go downstairs and see who was there, though I did not open the door.

“It’s Johnny!” I heard from the other side.

“What is it, Johnny?” I asked in a friendly tone that disguised my sinking heart and cringing face, knowing very well that this homeless man was looking for money.

“I noticed the snowplows left a pile in your driveway, Ma’am,” he said. “I wanted to clear it off for you.”

“Oh, that’s okay Johnny,” I reasoned helplessly. “I’m not driving anywhere tomorrow.”

“Well, it’s just that, I can get it out of there for you for five dollars.”

“Johnny,” I insisted with an exaggerated cheerfulness, self-conscious of the fact that I had no intension of opening my door, “I can take care of it tomorrow. It’s a little late for shoveling.”

“But, Ma’am,” he struggled painfully, “I don’t have anywhere to stay tonight. For a couple dollars, I can stay with a man down the road.”

It was a familiar enough story I remembered from my college days with my homeless friends by campus. But I was no longer a college student in a well-lit, well-patrolled campus; I was a single woman living alone in a high-crime neighborhood. And thankfully for me, I had no cash on me.

“I’m sorry Johnny,” I yelled with that exaggerated pleasantness that felt quite hypocritically thin that night, “but I don’t have any cash on me here.”

There was a pause. “Well, do you have just a little change?”

I realized I did have some outside in my car, but I wasn’t about to announce the fact. “No,” I lied, “I don’t have any. I’m sorry, Johnny.”

The incident disturbed me for the next 24 hours or so. I do not know a single person who would suggest to me that I should have done otherwise that night, and I didn’t necessarily think I had made the wrong decision to keep my door locked as “the least of these” stood outside in the cold (don’t worry, Mom!). Perhaps all I could have done that night was to turn Christ away in the form of a homeless man, but there was no way I could have felt good about it.

And now, as we prepare for Lent, I am remembering some words my rector’s wife shared with the women of my church last year. A healthy season of repentance is not only characterized by a time of fasting, she explained to us: the Church has historically understood the discipline of repentance in terms of fasting, prayer, and alms-giving.

As I prepare for Lent and think about ways to include fasting, prayer, and alms-giving into my lifestyle, I am remembering that night with Johnny. We do indeed live in a time that generosity is plagued with the concern of enabling addictions and unhealthy lifestyles (not to mention personal danger). Indeed we do. So did the people to whom Christ initially spoke the radical words from the Sermon on the Mount.

Remembering that night with Johnny outside my locked door, I plan at least over the course of Lent to have cash on me, and to be prepared to “give to the one who begs from you,” as Christ commands us. I rather hope Johnny comes back (during the day!); I hope to be ready for Christ when he does.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

History's Single Purpose

I've been trying to put my finger on something that frustrates me about a lot of modern scholarship and politics (and that of former times as well, but times of yore feel tamer since I'm not in the middle of them), and I finally remembered this strip. Calvin parodies it better than I could explain anyway.

Throughout history, the narrative goes, people have been wicked fools (I haven’t figured that one out—it seems that our enemies could be evil or they could be idiots, but if they are both at once they would hardly be daunting). Nevertheless, we have slowly learned, through a long process of wars and travesties and protests and movements, to recognize that evil and stupidity. Finally, at the climax of human history, we have entered the stage. Wisdom has been made flesh and has become... us.

I don’t have a firm grasp on the alternative narrative I would propose instead, but it certainly involves lynch mobs and concentration camps being operated by people like me, that acknowledges that the twistedness and the beauty of human history is within me as much as it is within the people whom I study in history classes.

May I never lose the humility to see myself as a part of this horrific and magnificent humanity I hope to learn from in both a negative and a positive sense.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Frozen Ash

On Wednesday evening a dear friend from my M.A. university lost her mother after an abrupt chain of health issues that began with the flu. She was 58.

Thursday morning a plane went down at the Cork airport that has grown familiar to me after the past three summers. My dear friends whom I lived with knew two passengers among the victims and survivors. There were six survivors and six deaths.

Thursday afternoon a gunman (or gunkid, more accurately) entered a bank in a town down South where I have three dear friends in the police department. After the hours-long siege, the teenager tried to leave with a gun to the head of a hostage, and was killed by police snipers. He was nineteen.

This weekend has been tainted with the awareness that these beloved places of my life have been invaded by death, leaving us vulnerable and violated. For indeed Christ, who is the only one who has ever subsumed the death that subsumes us, did not annihilate death; he walked through it.

Perhaps then, if he stands above time looking on at the whole thing as one unit, then in a way he is still in all of it at once, and therefore still in the dying part. That is, at any rate, the only sense I can make of rejoicing at a time like this: if Christ right now is weeping at the tomb of Lazarus or suffering on the cross, then I suppose we can right now rejoice that the Resurrection is beginning, even as we are tasting death.

The New Creation has begun. It has begun in the resurrected flesh of Christ, who still offers his bleeding flesh to us who are still bleeding.
Spring sleeps in winter under reams of ice:
The cold can’t claw the germ of life away,
Nor life reduce the cold of this our slice
Of Illinois all bundled up in grey.

But now the daffodils, long decomposed,
Sleep silently, embalmed in frozen ash,
A crystalline memorial to those
Elusive germs among the burglar’s stash.

For you who stand above our one-way train
Of time have entered in this ice to give
Its April repercussions; our pain
Still kills you as your life yet makes us live.

And in the Valley of our frozen bone
The harvester will reap the flesh he’s sown.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Blows of Boreas

Last week I enjoyed my first blizzard (honestly, I enjoyed it). Though it tore up other areas of the region more than mine (I’ve seen some rather shocking pictures), there was certainly plenty of excitement in my corner of the Midwest as well, and the university canceled classes for the first time in ten years.

Even before the university had announced the cancellation (which they didn’t until fifteen minutes before I normally walk out the door in the morning), the atmosphere around town reminded me of snow days in the South. There was an almost festive sense of expectation, a feeling of camaraderie among perfect strangers since we were all in it together for better or worse, and a startling sense of helplessness. The latter I found most interesting.

There was a blizzard coming, and it was anyone’s guess how bad it would be. My concerned mother emailed me from down South asking if I had back-up plans to keep warm if the power went out, and when the snow began falling in all directions at once (including up), there was a buzz of excitement in the library. The blizzard had arrived, and for the next twelve hours we could only wait to see what became of it.

We were all reminded, if only for a day, that we are still connected to the planet Earth, no matter how highly developed our insulation and snow-plows and salt and snow-blowers are. We cannot control the weather, nor can we always brush it away like a bug. That day, even in the Snow Belt where we feel proud of ourselves for our hardiness to endure the blows of Boreas, we could not continue life as we knew it. The weather had halted us.

Life as we know it has returned (though I was grateful for the snow-day since it took me almost three hours to clear the heavy blizzard snow from my driveway and sidewalk), but the reminder lingers as the city plods on through one of the worst winters on record. We do not sit above the planet looking down upon it as God does; we are subject to forces we cannot control. We would do well to remember it more often.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Busting the Myth of Originality

I remember one spring day, as a college sophomore who spent most of her time pondering ideals and trying to understand the way the world worked, when I stumbled haplessly into a history class. My professor lectured about Plato, explaining his analogy of the cave: we were all in a cave which we could not see out of, but into which a light from above was shining and reflecting on one of the walls. From the shadows it made, we could get a glimmer of the true reality, but the reality we saw was only a shadow of the actual world that was outside, shadows that gave us an idea of the true reality which was always mediated.

I remember listening to him, a nineteen-year-old who had never been exposed to Plato before, and being enormously frustrated. It wasn’t his idea itself that frustrated me, but the realization that I hadn’t come up with it. I had been developing a similar notion myself in all my philosophical ponderings, and had felt rather original about it. But alas, it turned out that I wasn’t original after all:

Plato had beat me to it by well over two thousand years. Drat.

As I recall that feeling of disappointment, I realize that it stemmed from two misconceptions, one of which was corrected in that class, and the other of which I would only learn to correct slowly in the next decade:

One, I was under the misconception that my ideas were my own. True indeed, I had not studied Plato before, and thus I couldn’t say I had been influenced directly by his writings. But I had certainly read C. S. Lewis, who had read and absorbed plenty of Plato’s ideas. Even aside from Lewis, I had been influenced by a church that had been influenced by a church that had been influenced by a church that had been influenced been Plato somewhere down the line. Despite what my 20th-century American culture had told me, I was not an original in that sense. My ideas were not my own.

Two, I was under the misconception that originality was an ideal, that it would have been better for me to have come up with a notion myself than to have learned it from the generations that had come before. We shoot ourselves in the foot and bite the hand that feeds us (to mix metaphors) in an effort to come up with new ideas, when we have a copious abundance of wisdom handed to us like a wrapped gift for us to unwrap and use.

Thank God for all the people who have passed their wisdom down to us, whether we have directly acknowledged them or not. And thank God we do not have to invent the faith on our own. It was always too heavy a responsibility for a nineteen-year-old to manage on her own, even if she thought she had to.