Hope and Mortality

Lent, fasting, uncertainty, and hope
Lent, fasting, uncertainty, and hope

Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Ash Wednesday is always a sobering occasion, to walk around with a reminder of one’s mortality inscribed–albeit temporarily–on one’s forehead. Ashes suspended in oil cling to my skin and I resist the urge to wipe them away as though I could avoid thinking about reminders of death so easily.

There’s been much social media chatter and headlines this past week around the novel coronavirus that has jumped borders and leaves the entire globe poised for a potential outbreak. The anxiety I sense from some friends and acquaintances is very high, especially as I think many can agree, our government is unprepared in this political moment to organize a response if it becomes needed.

And here we are, as branches of the church that observe Lent, walking around with black smudges on our heads declaring the reality of death for ourselves and any who might see us today.

Where’s the hope in that?

An invitation to a Holy Lent is, as one of the priests at my church, Lissa Smith, preached this afternoon, “a recalibration that leads not only to a Holy Lent but a holy life.” Another pastor friend, Megan Westra, recounted in her Lenten newsletter a near brush with death a family member had recently experienced and what that does to be living in the daily reality of possible impending death.

And yet our lives still need to be lived. Death is the counterpoint, the inevitable period that all of us face and the reality is we have no idea when that period will come. For most of us it will be in old age, but that isn’t guaranteed to any of us. We brush it aside and we ignore it until we can’t.

Or until we go to church in the middle of a dreary gray Wednesday and receive the reminder of our deaths on our forehead so we can walk around like individual sign-acts for the rest of the day announcing that each day is a gift, for tomorrow is promised to none of us.

Gee, Anna, I thought you said you had some hope in the middle of all of this.

And yet I think there is hope in the middle of this. Hope isn’t needed where certainty exists. Where we are certain of things to come, we don’t hope, we know. Hope is needed when the future is uncertain. And hope is here in the imposition of the ashes where they are a sign of both our mortality and a remembrance that we have been given life eternal through Jesus. It is, as Lissa said, “…the reminder that God made me, and God will take me back. It is a reminder that we live, we will die, and we will be resurrected.”

She also pointed out a principle of mindfulness: “That which we practice grows stronger.”
So in the face of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, I think the call to all of us this Lent is to practice hope. And practice as that great spiritual advisor, Pabbi Troll, said in Frozen 2, when it looks like there is no future, all you can do is the next right thing.

Reading any of our history as humans reveals both the beauty that humans are capable of and the brutality. Life on this green and blue globe has never been peaceful nor has it been free of tragedy. All we can do is the next right thing and make our Lenten fast one that is the fast the Lord has chosen: “to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke… …to share our 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” (Is. 58:6-7).

There is freedom in embracing the inevitability of our own mortality and determining to do our best during the one thing we do have some say over–how we live.

What does it mean to choose love?

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My timeline this morning is full of quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And it should be. I’m encouraged by this as this year has far more participation–at least online–in my circles than previously. Many of my local friends are braving the cold today to march in one of the several marches in local cities. (I’m under the weather and bummed to not be able to join in).

I would like to encourage us all to pause today and choose to go deeper. As one friend reminded us, Black Lives Matter has a higher approval rating right now, than Dr. King did when he died. A dead Dr. King is a safe person for the white moderate–that King himself spoke reprovingly of–to lionize. So many of us are sharing his quote about choosing love because hate is too great a burden to bear.

And choosing love is a powerful thing to do, but it is not a fluffy, feel-good sentiment. What does it mean to choose love from the standpoint of the oppressed? Too many of us sharing that today as our token of tribute to Dr. King will never know what it feels like to stand where he stood, or to stand where our siblings who are black, brown, indiginous, people of color are standing still.

Dr. King choosing love over hate was powerful and sacrificial. If our love is not likewise, then it does us no good to share that quote. We cannot use this day to try to pacify feelings of guilt by throwing up a token that we are comfortable with. Love is not comfortable. Love is not easy. Love always seeks the betterment of the person or people being loved.

And we as Americans of white, European descent cannot say we love our siblings of other descents and origins if we are not seeking their total well-being in all spheres of life. To love is to put the needs of the loved one above our own needs, but all too often we don’t even seek to bring the needs of those who don’t look like us up to the same level of importance as our own.

How long will we ask our siblings to wait for equality? How long will we be content to benefit from the systems of white supremacy that have been in place from the foundations of the nation without questioning them?

I’m not asking us to feel some sort of ancestral guilt for people’s actions that we did not know or see. I’m asking us to take responsibility for the systems of oppression that are currently in action. I’m asking us to realize that white people are the system and that all it takes is the inaction of the many to promote the active supremacy goals of the few. We must tear these systems down in order to promote the mutual thriving of every resident of this nation. None of us are free until all of us are free. None of us have true justice until all of us have true justice. And a love that is comfortable and isn’t calling us deeper isn’t really love.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Intentions, Repentance, and Free Speech: Ruby Woo Day 1

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Let me tell you, folks, getting here feels like a major accomplishment. I don’t know what it all was, but this week has been a major struggle. I had anxiety and panic-type flares for lack of a better term. And I’m super tired from getting everything ready to leave, and then plane, uber, hotel, straight into a meeting with no buffer because I was the last to arrive tonight, so I’m sort of wide open with the help of an IPA from the hotel bar. But now I’m tucked in and in yoga pants and I’m decompressing.

The trip leaders/facilitators lead us through a community-building exercise that started with a community safety agreement, which was fabulous. We were asked to imagine a person that we felt comfortable confessing to when we had messed up/sinned. And then in a word or phrase we shared aspects of what we thought of when we thought of that person. This sparked conversation about what we wanted to see in community throughout the trip and got us to go deeper faster I guess for lack of a better term in the sense that we have a lot of intense ground to cover in a short time and we needed a framework to help us get there.

We talked about intention vs. impact and which do we hold or can we hold them both or do we center impact. This is important in a multi-racial space because white folks often like to center intention when they do something that causes harm as though saying, “well, I didn’t mean too…” is some kind of get out of jail free card. This dovetails with a discussion I was having earlier this week regarding people treating repentance as a get out of jail free card, much like some do with the concept of free speech as though that means there should be no consequences for anything people say, when in reality free speech means you don’t get jailed for what you say, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get fired from your job or experience other personal consequences.

In Christian tradition, true repentance should be about facing and even welcoming the consequences of one’s actions as a path to make things right again. Repentance was never meant to be a “get-out-of-jail-free” card.

In the same way, some people–especially white folks in the context of talking about race–seem to think that as long as their intentions aren’t specifically harmful we should be granted a free pass on the harm that they caused. I’ve also personally experienced this with men thinking that if they didn’t intend harm, they should get a pass on the impact that they caused to women, and it doesn’t work like that either.

Intentions do matter. It’s ever so much worse if the intent is to actually cause harm and there’s not room for repentance or reconciliation in that case.

My main takeaway tonight was that if our intent is truly good, then we should welcome our neighbors telling us about the impact of our actions and be able to learn from that experience and change our actions, instead of centering our intentions in the conversation. By nature of someone telling you how they impacted them, they assumed good intentions, or they wouldn’t have bothered.