West Virginia Morning: Lifting the Small Voice

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In the mornings, my injured foot screams against movement, complaining with every bit of weight it carries. Yesterday, I returned to work and donned real shoes for the first time since the sprain. I did well walking the hard floors of the hospital all day, or so I thought, until this morning. So it’s more ice for me, foot up, and sulking. I am a poor patient.

We are tumbling back into the chronos time, jumping into the calendar days, and with each sinking of the sun the light-soaked sea seems a distant memory. Some things do not wait for us to catch up.

Last week when my family was slowing by the sea, a very disturbed young man entered a church in South Carolina and, after sitting with a group in Bible study for over an hour, shot and killed nine people. This terrible news came to us late by today’s standards—we were partially unplugged as we opened our hearts to leisure and to each other. But the next morning, my mother-in-law texted us a picture of Bonnie, who stayed with her grandparents while we were away. She wanted to show us how our girl was keeping their cats in check. In the picture, Bonnie stands guard before a cat-occupied chair. Behind this silly scene, the television. And on the screen are pictures of the nine individuals killed in that senseless attack.

I couldn’t breath when I took it in.

The rest of our holiday was tainted, the dark whisper of death shadowing each moment. How dare we frolic in the sun, laugh as ocean waves lap over us, toil through shells and sand—when individuals and our nation were hurting so? It all felt so frivolous, yet … I held each moment all the more tenderly for my breaking heart.

And so we have realized that all our knowledge, all our perceived progress, all that we think we know about race relationships in this world can turn to dust in our mouths in an instant. We have been naïve in the desire to believe love has conquered and all is well. We are left bruised and bewildered.

Where do we go from here? How can anything I say even matter?

Before we left on holiday, I finished up some editorial work for The High Calling on an upcoming theme called “The Power of Empathy.” I read so many resources about empathy when preparing my editorial summary. One of the best was Brene Brown’s TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability.” In it, she gives four qualities of empathy:

  1. The ability to take the perspective of another person.
  2. Staying out of judgment.
  3. Recognizing emotion in other people and,
  4. Communicating this recognition.

Brown says, “Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something inside myself that knows that feeling.”

My voice is but a small one. One white woman who knows so little of how to love through a mess like this. Yet, it’s important for me to speak, it’s important for me to communicate that I recognize how broken this world is, how sorry I am, how helpless I feel. It’s important for me to speak against this terrible violence, to wonder with the many what can be done. I am trying to look at the world through a different perspective. I will keep trying. It matters.

Christian Wiman speaks of “life as landscape” or “resume.” We all long to look back on our existence as a whole and name our impact on the world. But, he says, this isn’t the best way. Life is incremental, he says, and we can never “really see this one thing that all our increments (and decrements, I suppose) add up to.” He goes on to say, “We are meant to be a lens for truths that we ourselves cannot see.”

I want my life, my words, to be a lens for truth.

If you are struggling with what to say and do, you may want to read this post from my friend Deidra. We must join hands and speak. As writers and storytellers we have a unique position of influence. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, “Stories set the inner life into motion.” The stories I share here are meant to bring unity, to shine light on beauty, and awaken in each reader the awareness that we all share certain qualities. But also to celebrate our differences without judgment. Natalie Goldberg says, “We walk through so many myths of each other and ourselves, we are so thankful when someone sees us for who we are and accepts us.”

This is a good place to begin. Again. And again. One increment at a time. Being a lens for truth. Letting our stories move people to action, even small ones.

We move forward in this hard place. Together.

Ash Wednesday: The Most Honest of Days

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Snow drifts down like white ash and covers a world bent with sorrow this morning. Today, we step into the season of Lent; Ash Wednesday is the day we acknowledge our humanity—that I was made from dust and to dust I will return. It is a time of repentance, a time to acknowledge our frailty—both in sin and mortality—and turn. The ashes crossed on our foreheads serve to remind of the broken debris of this life and that to live for Christ, we must die with him.

Our little valley has been buried under snow these past days, a gift from winter storm Octavia. School has been closed all week and special services at church have been cancelled. We are sheltering in. That means no Ash Wednesday service tonight, no imposition of ashes, no prayer of repentance to whisper together this evening.

A while back my pastor asked me if I would like to help plan and participate in our Ash Wednesday service. Together, we laid out the bulletin. Last week, we smoked up the church parlor as we burned last year’s Palm Sunday palms into ashes. I’ve been reading Sara Miles’s book City of God: Faith in the Streets to open my heart to the beauty of the tradition of the ashes. It’s the story of her experiences carrying ashes out of the church and into the streets, sharing this sacred ritual with her neighbors and the broken people in the diverse neighborhood where she lives. I haven’t finished the book yet, but her candor and her tender heart for God’s people convicts me.

This morning, I finish up chapter nine, which has Miles and a group of volunteers—laypersons and ordained clergy alike—gathering to prepare for their outdoor “Ashes to Go” service. One volunteer is Vera, who Miles learns had an older sister who killed herself on Ash Wednesday a few years ago.

“That year,” said Vera, “there was a really early Easter. It was such an offense. I couldn’t bear it: how could Lent be just like the blink of an eye, when Lent is the world we live in?”

Lent is the world we live in.

“Ash Wednesday is like a homecoming for me,” Vera continued. “It’s the most honest of days. It’s a mystery, a sitting-with. A sitting with the dark. It is bearing witness to the dark.”

Today, on this most honest of days, I weep for the brokenness of our world. We live in the world of the ashes, a world where innocents are murdered in the name of religion, a world where brother lifts hand against brother and snuffs out the most sacred of all gifts, life. I have not watched the video. I cannot bear to look at the stills of those orange-clad figures kneeling by the sea. The images have burned a hole in my memory, imprinting all the pain and sorrow and injustice that this world offers.

Yes, Lent is the world we live in. In the early days Lent was a time of preparation for babtism. And isn’t this a baptism of sorts? This full immersion in the broken, the sorrow, the anguish that is this hurting world? There is no escaping the injustice and the ugliness that claims us.

We are lost without Easter. We are lost without the grace of God.

Miles says, “And the only way out of it, on Ash Wednesday as on any day, is repentance. Not feeling bad, but changing. Not pouring ashes on your head in a fit of self-loathing, but allowing Jesus to gently spit into a handkerchief and scrub off your face.”

Change. Transformation. This is what belonging to Jesus means. That our hearts of stone will be made into soft clay. The Book of Common Prayer begins the Ash Wednesday liturgy with a prayer, and it seems a fitting way to end here. For no words of mine could ever capture the great weight we carry as citizens of heaven.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have
made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and
make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily
lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission
and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.