Tag Archiv: Lent
Photo by Denna, compliments of morguefile.com. Poem excerpts in text from “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus (a poem engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty).
I almost can’t wait until Lent. That colossal invitation to grace. That crazy idea that grace isn’t reserved for the deserving. It’s on special for anybody who walks in the door. There’s even a table on the sidewalk if you’re just passing by. If grace is dispensed by a vending machine, on Ash Wednesday someone jams open the slot. Instead of coming out one piece at a time, the candies shoot out piling up all over the floor.
I’m not saying it’s easy. Moving with intention in places that threaten and challenge us is scary. Attempting mad prison escapes, brick by brick with only a sharpened spoon for a tool, can seem lengthy. But Lent says we don’t have to stay stuck. We’re not condemned to remain as we are. Whether it feels like it or not, change, transformation and growth are possible.
Not effortless, but possible. Some disciplines don’t last past Thursday without requiring a reboot. Some get forgotten three or four times a week. Or day. But the candy machine slot stays jammed open. Lent isn’t for the faint of heart. But it is for the failures. Because Lent says that fresh beginnings and redemption are available in the midst of all the places we fail, and thus shall it ever be. So there.
We don’t believe it most of the time. Why should we? To believe that would be to embrace the terrifying reality of grace. And who knows what that could lead to. Who knows what would happen if we all grabbed on to this thing we didn’t earn and let it hold us undeserving in its arms. Take all our mess of failed intentions falling short, forever falling short. Listen to the voice of love sing softly until we stop screaming that it isn’t working and really listen.
This week, Ash Wednesday will stand there like the Statue of Liberty pleading:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,*
And this is our invitation. Not to get it right. Just to come. Ash Wednesday, the big, beautiful statue with open arms (from France no less). No lines. No cost of admission.
So there’s a long flight of stairs. So we don’t always make it 354 stairs to the top. Even at twenty or thirty, it’s worth the climb. Half way is better than having stayed at the bottom watching and wondering what the view might have been.
Lent is not for good people or people who want to do good things. Lent is for tired, grumpy, hopeless, frustrated people with good intentions they can’t stick to. And for people who aren’t sure they see the point. Ash Wednesday, our invisible statue of liberty, who comes every year. Who beckons us to a different land of the free and home of the brave.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door*
Ash Wednesday says we don’t know what is possible. But grace is raining and it’s promising to be torrential. We can take off our shoes. Take off our jackets. It’s okay to get wet. We can stand feeling awkward until we remember what children know. That we’re meant to dance in the rain. That everybody belongs there. And the rules are there are no rules about grace. You just show up with as much of you as you can and stay until you’re laughing out loud. Because grace is ridiculous and it’s for us.
A Young Scholar, painted by Jean-Honore Fragonard. 1778.
I like to remember brave deeds. Grade six friends who forgot their bus notes could count on me to pen their permissions and sign their parent’s names. When the burly book keepers from a Jello Wrestling fundraiser tried to fudge the numbers, my 17 year old self was more than happy to take them to task while our math intimidated adult supervisor fretted. I am comfortable questioning immigration officials, security personnel, and government employees.
I don’t remember many instances where people described me as fearful. I remember more the feeling of being jostled forward with, “send Michelle, she’s not afraid,” in my ears. The day I grabbed my brother and kept him firmly between me and the growling dog, no one was there to see. But No-Criticism-Lent (Reduced-Criticism Lent might be more accurate) isn’t lying. I am afraid.
I went into Lent thinking I needed it because I walked around with inappropriate levels of grumpiness about other people’s foibles. Considering fear in the equation is like realizing I’ve been navigating the kitchen with a paper bag on my head. My eyes are adjusting to the super bright. I’m still taking in the increased definition in shapes and the nuances of color.
It is amazing to me how the patterns we develop as children shape our adult responses. Sometimes when I think I am keeping my own children safe, I am really assuring the child I once was that she is safe. The insight doesn’t give me a pass on criticizing, it gives me the chance to do something about the fear that’s behind it.
Which is scary.
“Naked revelation,” I wrote yesterday, “I criticize because I am afraid. . . If no one messes up, everything will be ok, nothing will fall apart, and no one will get hurt.” The statement implies that my criticism does not actually save me from what I am afraid of. In other words, I realized that fear drives me, and then I realized my go-to coping mechanism is useless. My footing would be more sure on the melting ice floating around on our pond right now. I guess the best thing about having grey hair, is that you can feel all that slipping and wait it out. Wet boots, cold feet, soggy pants maybe, but you make it to something solid and go on in to get warm.
I’m afraid of things falling apart. I don’t have the power to make myself and everybody else do it right (so that bad things never happen). But it’s ok. The fear of the child who was me can be gently diffused. The future is uncertain and uncontrollable. Instead of tearing down the metaphorical neighbors who walk on my yard, I can lean into loving them. It will be a work in progress, but if the world starts crumbling on account of it, maybe we can face it together.
It is still Lent. For two more weeks I am attending to the business of not criticizing, forgetting to attend to it, refusing to attend to it, and again attending to it. I expected my attempts would make a nice Lent for others. (I have longed to point out the rudeness of not thanking me for the blessings of my sacrifice, but I withheld the criticism.) At times, I have taken myself down off the ledge by thoughts of a list. Perhaps, I have told myself, if I had a tiny notebook, I could quickly note unspoken irritations. I imagine Easter morning, arising notebook in hand, to toddle down and mark at long last on a poster.
Coffee container lid left off: 12
Coffee grinds on counter: 29
Cupboard doors open: 231
Outdoor voice in church: 2
Laughing at myself has so far prevented the move to record keeping. When the notebook idea fails me, I imagine exercises to commit the crimes to memory. It would be, I tell myself, rather like memorizing Bible verses, but slightly different. A liturgy of infractions one could sing softly at intervals.
If I’m not mistaken, Lent is a little longer than usual this year. I’ve had time to analyze. Misdeeds are occurring at the usual rates; my silence has not impacted them for better or worse. The usual pattern of things has held. There are days virtually free of transgression, and there are days on which felonies are committed so closely together as to appear continuous.
But some things are different. No-criticism Lent is making itself known, despite imperfect execution. The house is more peaceful. I am more peaceful. At the moment I hold my tongue, chewing banana peels would be preferable, but later, even minutes later, the world has not ended and I can smile again.
My speech diet is helping my eyes. I notice unfinished projects, but keeping my mouth shut is buying me enough time to see the good intentions waylaid by interruption. I feel more grateful, more patient, less irritated.
On the bad days most of this is thrown in the garbage while I go back and live like I’m used to. This is the mystery I have wondered about the most. If withholding criticism and practicing generosity of spirit yields such positive results – which for me it does – why do anything else ever again? Why even want to?
Maybe everyone has known the answers to those questions since they were five. I realized the answer while I was driving last week. It was the kind of thing that made me want to stop the car and sit with my thoughts, but the stopping part wasn’t possible. I used my kilometers to think.
Naked revelation: I criticize because I am afraid. If we don’t get it right, we get it wrong. When you get it wrong, bad things happen. If no one messes up, everything will be ok, nothing will fall apart, no one will get hurt.
More on this tomorrow.
I guess I’m writing about mercy because I don’t have very much of it. I admire it in others and I’ve got most of Portia’s mercy speech from the Merchant of Venice committed to memory. Does that count for something?
Ten days ago I had a thought. The whole Lent giving up criticism thing has been a challenge. Not the least of which has been how to sensibly apply it to say, I don’t know, the bold, over energetic, extremely forgetful, thirteen year old I live with. While it might not be my job to criticize him exactly, it is clearly my job to point him in the right direction, which sometimes sounds the same. My hands are tied. In all directions I confirm, it is hopeless. But then, as I said, I had a thought.
What would happen, I wondered, if for one week, I pretended that he was doing the best he could. Not that this is true, (obviously no one could be so systematically challenging and actually be trying) yet for the sake of discussion, could I, for a limited time only, pretend it was true and act accordingly. Direction pointing still required, even criticism. Consequences, regular life, the only difference would be inside of me, approaching each interaction as if I believed that he was currently doing the best he could.
I tried it because I don’t do fad diets and humans need to try things. Also because you can do almost anything for a week. For ten days, I was still trying it. I liked what was happening. Before my eyes, Boy one was kinder, gentler, with evidence of trying that I could see without pretending. He reminded me of some of my favourite off the walls, silly, and good hearted students, and not nearly as much like a growing proof of my failure to raise civil persons.
Oh, and I liked me better too.
Everything was going great until it was not. Then I could tell that he was trying alright – trying to be entitled, ungrateful, condescending, and surly. Boy two used up all my transition/changing schedules sympathy. The girls used up all my everybody just needs spring to come soon empathy. For Boy one, I was just mad. He got ten days of pretending didn’t he?
Mercy? said quiet voice.
Mercy? I spat. He doesn’t deserve it.
Yeah, said quiet voice. That’s um, kind of the point of the word.
Sunday, last, I knew that deserving wasn’t a requirement for receiving. That Sunday I was so happy with mercy, I dared to hope it meant me too. By Wednesday it was too late. For everybody.
Quiet from quiet voice.
Well? I demand.
You were more right on Sunday.
So mercy? That’s it?
It’s for everybody.
I made a few more meagre stabs at opposition but quiet voice was into humming by then. Amazing Grace, or something like that.
I feel relieved when Ash Wednesday roles around each year. I don’t get Lent jokes, I like Lent. I get that giving up things, and taking on things, and trying harder is, well, hard. But not having Lent would be worse.
Lent says that maybe something different is possible. Maybe where we are isn’t where we have to stay. Maybe our present is not our irrevocable destiny. Lent is a friend come to say that we won’t get it right, do it right, or be it right as much as we might like, but it’s worth trying anyway. Change is possible.
I believe in creative Lents. It’s not that I’ve never given up chocolate, but I have no outstanding memories of those years. The year I gave up sarcasm, it almost struck me dumb. For forty days, I had almost nothing to say. It shook my insides like I could hardly get my footing inside of me. But it wasn’t a bad shaking. I felt like I was becoming more of me. I saw a crutch that needed to be set down, (or at least converted to a walking stick).
This year I am attempting criticism, giving it up, that is. Wary from the speech deprived sarcasm experience, I am selecting a few candidates for full reprieve, and the rest of the world for mere reductions. I feel a bit of panic setting in with the day actually upon us. I worry that my candidates will feel lost without my guidance (or worse yet, they won’t even notice.) The sun has yet to rise, but already I miss my advice. It feels like I’ll be calling in sick and they’ll all be floundering around trying to make do, only I won’t be up faint and fevered on my bed, I’ll be right there watching things going every which way wrong and no one will be doing anything about it.
I wonder about tacking up lists (a few common sources of perpetual error on the doorposts between the rooms) but this may prove awkward in the spirit of things. I wouldn’t be saying . . . you put your coffee cup in the wrong sink, I would instead be dashing to doorposts, trying to bang my head just so on item four until somebody noticed. Which with all the banging that boy one is doing these days, would probably be never.
So we sally forth. Little ships setting out, imagining storms and high seas, while we navigate the tiny space of forty days. We’ll untangle rigging, and steer it all wrong, but God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll at least get her out of the harbour.