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Approaching Lent

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APPROACHING LENT

Lent starts this week, which I know is very exciting news to you. OK, maybe not.

I’m probably one of the few people who actually likes Lent. After all, it’s still so dark this time of year, and Christians insist on saying things like, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Really? We *know* that, thank you very much, and we expend plenty of effort trying to forget it. And then to add insult to injury, they smear ashes on your face!

Those Jesus people also talk about Lenten “repentance and sacrifice” and — ACK! — SIN. That whispered word and the shame with which it’s been imbued by some church traditions is probably the reason a lot of people reject religion altogether. I know it was the reason my mother did.

“No man who doesn’t even know me is going to stand up there and tell me I’m a sinner. I’m a perfectly nice person,” she would say. And so she was.

But the word “sin” — despite being used as a weapon to manipulate people and strike fear into their hearts — really only means “to miss the mark.” That’s not so bad, right? It means we’re not all we could be, and even my Mom could have owned that truth.

For me, Lent is a time of great hope and expectation, because we get to press the re-set button. It’s a time to intentionally step back and take stock of our lives and decide how we want to change. It can be humbling to admit how much we “miss the mark,” yet it’s empowering to know that we have the power to change, if we have the will.

So I look forward to Lent, beginning with Lenten “eve” on Shrove Tuesday, when I’ll gather with a group of friends for an overly large pancake dinner and bid farewell to my usual state of denial as I begin to “return to the Lord to examine and probe my ways.” (Lamentations 3:40)

Who am I, that you are mindful of me?

Who am I, that you are mindful of me?

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Values Collide

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I went to the Quaker meeting in Putney, Vermont this morning. As much as I treasure my church family at home in Maryland, there is something about a Quaker meeting that reaches deep down inside me and makes me . . . me.

I’m stripped, gently, to my essence. All pretense and self-centeredness, agendas and plans, self-importance and neediness melt away during forty-five minutes of silent worship which is sometimes enhanced by a statement from someone who feels moved to share. I’ve never encountered anything else like it.

An older fellow named Parker, all wooly and flannelly in forest green and brown, started off the meeting with a brief reading. A “query,” as the Quakers call them — food for thought to be used in worship meetings and personal reflection. I can’t find it online, but the query Parker read had to do with vocation and valuing work, whether paid or unpaid, in the home or out of it.

It’s a timely question for me, as I gear up to get back into the world of paid work. It was good to be reminded that I already work my butt off most days, and I should value and honor my work and do it as well as I can. I always feel small and not good enough when I “admit” to someone that my pastoral and writing work is unpaid. Do I really value money that much? Is that where I get my worth? I hope not.

During the silence, my mind wandered from vocation to the general question of exactly what do I value?

Then I noticed that many people around me had slipped off their shoes when they sat down to worship, as Moses did when he encountered the burning bush and God told him, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” I found their act deeply profound, expressing humility, gentleness, and openness. Shoes are noisy, they announce our coming, they leave our marks in the world, and they protect us from fully experiencing the world.

As I contemplated why I was so moved by this simple, reverent gesture, I realized that these are some of my core values. Humility, gentleness, and an openness marked by honesty and authenticity.

humility star

“. . . clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” — Colossians 3:12

I also realized, at long last, why I am so deeply troubled by Donald J. Trump — I mean aside from the obvious devastation he would wreak on our country and the world. His very existence causes turmoil in my gut, deep upset at a visceral, personal level. He’s in my dreams. And now I understand why. His arrogance, viciousness, and lying are the very antithesis of everything I treasure; the qualities I hope to see and represent in the world, he sucks up and spits out. And he’s got millions of people thinking his behavior is something to emulate.

Thank God for Quaker meetings, is all I can say. They may keep me sane until November 8th.

Breathe. Just breathe.

So anyway — what do you value?

Day five in my efforts to blog daily.

Admiring Humility

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“Whom do you admire?” It saddens me that an answer doesn’t come easily to me. When I was young, I admired all manner of people – rock stars, teachers, politicians, TV actors, scientists, activists, writers, you name it.

Nowadays not so much.

I admire certain aspects of many people, but finding an admirable whole is harder, especially a person in the public arena. I do admire the heck out of Barack Obama. He’s one of a kind, a class act, and I’m so, so grateful he pulled us out the mess we were in after the Bush years. I’d vote for a third term in a flash.

Barack-Obama-portrait-PD

Four More Years!

Other than Barack? Hmmm…

The virtue I most admire is humility, and it’s very hard to find. I am quick to identify a person’s need for approval, recognition, honor, esteem, or affection, and it turns me off big-time. The pathological version of this represented by Donald Trump utterly repulses me. Why? Because those needs are so very strong in me, and I can’t stand them! I want God to remove them immediately. But I fear the reason I long for humility in myself is at least partly so that other people will admire my humility. Which is probably why God lets me stew in my neediness.

Sigh.

Famous people aside, there are a number of humble people in my church that I admire, some suffering with disease or depression or physical pain, some teaching in troubled, low-income school districts, some caring for elderly parents, some carrying unimaginable grief, some sacrificing their time and freedom to adopt or foster or mentor needy kids. I am glad for these role models.

Thanks to WordPress for the word prompt: Admire, and I’ll leave you with Mother Theresa’s advice on cultivating humility:

To speak as little as possible of one’s self.

To mind one’s own business.

Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.

To avoid curiosity.

To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.

To pass over the mistakes of others.

To accept insults and injuries.

To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.

To be kind and gentle even under provocation.

Never to stand on one’s dignity.

To choose always the hardest.”

A Quiet Response to Global Militarization

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You won’t see a press release on this. Sheila won’t be on the evening news or even tucked between commercials on late night cable. What’s the big deal? All she’s doing at age seventy-something is walking from Connecticut to Georgia in the cause of peace.

“That’s amazing,” I say, “I’d love to hear more. And I’m a writer — do you think I might interview you, or do a profile?”

“Well, maybe,” she says, looking at the floor and toying with her long grey braids. “I don’t know. I’m not really doing anything like that, you know, to . . .” She fades off, as if even talking about public attention is too much.

She just wants to have conversations about peace and thinks she will meet a lot of people to talk to along her route. She’ll be walking on secondary roads and staying in small towns where she can find people to put her up.

“I’ve done some long distance walking in the past,” she says, “but not like this. I know this is a lot.”

Yes, Sheila, one thousand miles is a lot.

Destination?

Sheila’s destination is Fort Benning, Georgia. If all goes well, she’ll be there by late November to partipate in the annual vigil and non-violent protest at the gates of the School of the Americas.

Remember them? Probably not – like Sheila, they prefer to keep a low profile, and they’ve changed their name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation so you’ll be sure to forget them. Whatever they call themselves, they are the U.S. military outfit that uses your tax dollars to train Latin American soldiers in “counterinsurgency” techniques, and their graduates are responsible for the death, rape, torture, and “disappearance” of thousands of Latin American citizens.

Sheila thinks they should disappear.

(For more information, visit SOA Watch here.)

fort benning

Motivation?

The thing that intrigues me about Sheila isn’t so much her 1,000-mile walk, it’s her humility. After decades of experience with non-profits and advocacy groups, I’m used to folks who would trample their own elderly mothers to get to a microphone. As my boss at the Sierra Club used to say before a press event, “Well, time to set our hair on fire and see if anybody notices.”

It seems that all anybody wants these days is attention. Attention for their product, their start-up, their blog, their meme, their new profile picture, or their latest fad diet. Everybody wants to go viral. Or they connect themselves to a political candidate (I’m going with a winner!) or a celebrity (my man!) or an interest group (I’m making a difference!) and get their ego strokes vicariously through these affinities.

But not Sheila. It’s quite possible that nobody will even notice Sheila’s walk. She’s mostly going alone, though one or two folks might join her now and then. So really, if she’s not trying to get press attention, why walk? Why not fly to the protest in Georgia like the other 20,000 attendees? What’s the story?

Sheila is a Quaker, that’s the story, and Quakers are like that. From their silent worship, they sense divine leadings and they act on them, simply and without fanfare. Sheila thinks she is meant to walk, and so she’s walking. Simplicity and peacemaking are community values for them. 

The Quaker Spirit

I started going to Quaker meetings last year when I was at my place here in New England, and I liked them so much that I sometimes go to a mid-week meeting back home in Maryland, too. Their mostly silent worship fits well with my contemplative bent and Christian meditation practices.

The Quaker call to social justice is deeply ingrained in their traditions. I think they are more biblically based than most of the Bible-thumping congregations, even though Quakers aren’t necessarily Christians. You can truly see the fruits of their spiritual practices in the way they live their lives. I’ve never met another community like this “Society of Friends.”

I’ve drafted a couple of blog posts about Quakerism in the past year, but didn’t publish them — none of them said what I wanted to say. Which isn’t surprising, because how do you use words to write about people who worship in silence?

Maybe Sheila’s quiet story will give you a glimpse into what I wish I could say.

Imagine Apologizing

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I have this fantasy about my old boyfriend – the guy I dated just before I got sucked into the cocaine-infused, alcohol-drenched political whirlwind of Washington, D.C. We are in the dairy aisle at the grocery store, surrounded by toxic-tinted green and orange Jell-o and stacks of bright yellow butter boxes.

Don’t worry. It’s not one of those butter and Jell-o fantasies. I wouldn’t share it, if it were.

No. We’re just standing there, leaning our elbows on our shopping carts.

I say, “Do you have a minute?”

He says somewhat dubiously, “Yes.”

Then I apologize for being such a bitch back in the day. I’ve had this fantasy for twenty-five years. A quarter of a century.

This meeting happens in reality every year or so – not the apology part, just the part where we run into each other at the community grocery coop – we live in the same town. We’ve met amidst the Jell-0, but more often by the cat food. We exchange pleasantries, and he tells me about his kids.

I always feel like there’s this huge chasm of unspokenness between us, but I never place any meaningful words into it. He asks how many cats I have now. I say “two.”

Every time I see him I think say it, just say it, but I never do.

The Question

This fellow and I were an item for two or three years back in college. I was very fond of him – nicest guy you would ever want to meet. I was a bit older and more experienced than he was and spent considerable time trying to untie his mother’s apron strings.

After a while the challenge wore off, and I was bored. No drama, no tears, no excitement. Just a quiet, stable relationship. We read a lot, played Scrabble.

I graduated and made my way into the big world while he continued his studies to become a librarian archivist (a perfect job for him). I went to work on Capitol Hill and met congressmen and senators and hung out with heavy-drinking lobbyists and attended oh-so-important press conferences and oh-so-sophisticated political fundraisers.

Then he became even more boring.

About this time, he asked me to marry him. I panicked and pretended he was joking. I laughed uproariously, and then he laughed. And then I had a decision to make because the question still hung in our mirthless laughter.

Hanging

The Decision

“Think I should marry him, Mom?”

“He’s a very nice boy, Melanie, always sacrificing himself for other people. He is the kind of person who would bring his aging parents to live with him. I’m not sure you would be happy with that,” Mom said.

She knew her daughter, and she knew what she was talking about. Mom had sacrificed much of her freedom when my grandmother moved in with her.

I asked my roommate, an old high school friend. He put it more bluntly. “You would be bored, Mel.”

They were right. I dumped my boyfriend unceremoniously. The guy was just too “good” for me, in the truest sense of the word. I had a lot of partying to do and a lot of ego to feed, and he did not fit into my plans.

Regrets

I don’t have many big regrets in my life. But the way I treated him is at the top of my list.

By regret, I don’t mean I feel I should have married him.

God, no; I would have made him miserable. I had so much screwing up to do before I opted for sanity.

God has been gracious in the intervening years, allowing me all the rope I needed to hang myself. Dangling there at the end of my rope, I learned something about humility. All the screwing up, every bad choice, has helped me to grow up and see myself more clearly.

Problem is, when you begin to see more clearly, you can’t help but notice the wreckage you’ve left in your wake. That college relationship — which had I been kind, might have been a pleasant memory — is a mangled mass of shame, guilt, and regret.

Freedom in the Ho-Hos

Still, I could never bring myself to say those simple words.

Until last night.

We met in the Obesity Aisle next to the Hostess products, and the cloying smell of yellow plastic icing with hard white swirls was almost overpowering. We smiled as we rattled our carts towards each other.

I didn’t think about it. My heart wasn’t racing, and there weren’t words crashing into each other in my head. I just said:

“Do you have a minute?”

He nodded, looking curious but also as if he wanted to bolt.

“I treated you like shit many moons ago, and I just wanted you to know I’m sorry. It’s one of the biggest regrets of my life, the way I treated you in all my dysfunction. I was a mess, and I’m sorry.”

“Well,” he stammered, “I don’t even remember it like that. But we were all a mess.”

“Yes, and I wanted you to be more of a mess than you were. Thank you for being kind to me.”

Then he started talking about his kids, and how one of them was “having issues.”

And it was over. I had done it.

In my fantasies, I never even considered the “after” part.

I don’t know how he felt. But I felt immediately – immediately – lighter, as if I had dumped several shopping carts full of shame back by the Ho-Hos and cupcakes.

I can’t believe it took me so long.

So there you have it. A simple story; no big deal.

But if you’re carrying any of that shame crap around, you know that it is a big deal. I hope you’ll learn from my experience and make amends.

Read more about shame crap here

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