On Ash Wednesday 2019, I was invited to share my reflections at church (based on Joel 2: 12-18, 2 Corinthians 5: 20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18). These were the words I spoke:
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do not be like the hypocrites,” seeking external affirmation. In the first reading, we are told to “return to God with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, with mourning.”
I want to play with those words. Return to God with all your heart. Return all of your heart to God. Turn all of your heart in to God. Surrender.
With these words in mind, I offer an image: imagine a heart, perhaps your own. It is both broken and open. Broken open. Around that broken-open heart is another heart. And around that one, another. And another. All open, many broken in one way or another. The first heart, your heart, is nested in protection. Broken open, yet held with gentle care. The outermost heart is the heart of God, the heart of All, God’s heart that can hold the hurt that breaks us, God’s heart that can heal us, if we surrender our hearts to God.
Turn all of your heart in to God “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” There is much to lament in our world. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia, poverty, ecological devastation, sexual abuse, addictions, the school-to-prison pipeline. So many people lack access to clean water, clean air, adequate medical care, adequate educational opportunities, adequate housing. No doubt there are other things to add to the list. There is much to mourn and yet instead of mourning, we may allow our emotions to go only as far as anger, with our resulting actions rooted in something other than love; we blame whoever we perceive to be the problems. We mistake people for problems, even as we accuse “them” of doing the same. We may not allow ourselves to weep and mourn, because we’re fearful that we will be consumed by grief if we turn our hearts in to God. Instead of allowing our hearts to be fully nested in God’s, we may shrink our hearts, close them a little tighter every time we judge people as “wrong,” “stupid,” “heartless,” every time we call them names and mock them as we direct our righteous anger at them. As we determine who is right and who is wrong, we may seek the approval of other righteous folks, and refuse to engage in connection with those who we believe clearly don’t get it.
Maybe we engage a little, volleying accusations back and forth online or on the streets or in “dialogues” that are actually just talking at or yelling over. But these engagements aren’t connecting. They create distance between us, and keep us hanging in the painful, but sometimes also powerful, feeling of anger.
A nonviolent communication activity that I love to lead takes people through ways of responding to difficult messages. When we receive a message of shame and blame, we have four options: we can shame and blame back; we can direct the shame and blame toward ourselves; we can offer empathy and understanding to ourselves and/or we can offer understanding and empathy to the other person.
The movement from shame to empathy is profound. Sometimes as people go through the exercise, they wonder aloud if it’s ok to express empathy and understanding for a person with a perspective they find deeply problematic. Because we live in a shame and blame culture, we may think that if we don’t immediately express our righteous indignation, we are abandoning our values. And yet, if we are clear on our values, and those values include compassion, hope, love, kindness, humility, it is vitally important to practice them precisely in those places where we are sorely tempted not to.
Going to Palestine gives me many opportunities to try. On my first stint with Christian Peacemaker Teams, I started doing something that, when I remember to practice it, helps me turn my heart into God. In times of relative calm, when I am around Israeli soldiers, I repeat these words in my mind: “I do not hate you. I wish you peace. I wish you love. I wish you joy. I know you are more than what I see you doing.” This practice is not easy. It is exhausting. Sometimes my stomach churns and my head aches as I do so. As I let these words play in my mind, I also try to meet the eyes of those to whom I offer these wishes. Sometimes our eyes meet for a few moments of connection where I am not a CPTer and they are not soldiers, we are just human beings. What I know about those moments is that my heart experiences both breaking and healing simultaneously. I experience our interconnection and deep sorrow because the connection I feel is not the norm in that context. It is a fleeting moment of stepping out of hypocrisy and into integrity. Turning my heart into God.
When I am willing and able to sink fully into God’s presence within me, the response from the soldiers is often also more humane and human. Perhaps they are sinking into their divinity, too. When I stand fully armored in anger and righteousness, the response is one of equal or greater defensiveness: posturing and flaunting power, just as I, too, am trying to do. And yet, my truest power comes when I take my armor off, when I stand in a humble posture of trust in God.
I want to end with an example of someone who knows a far harsher reality than I. In the midst of the civil war in South Sudan, Bishop Paride Taban turned his heart into God and transformed his weeping and mourning into connection and joy. Instead of choosing righteous anger in response to the war, he chose to create the Holy Trinity Peace Village, “where individuals and communities can interact without threat or fear… People from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds learn peaceful coexistence there” (from Choosing Peace, edited by Marie Dennis) To stay grounded in the spirit of reconciliation and peace, Bishop Taban offers 28 words to say every day. Today, I offer his words to you. I invite you to say these words daily, to explore them, and to practice them:
Love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, sympathy, kindness, truthfulness, gentleness, self-control, humility, poverty, forgiveness, mercy, friendship, trust, unity, purity, faith, hope, I love you, I miss you, Thank you, I forgive, We forget, Together, I am wrong, I am sorry.
During this Lenten season, I invite you to let these words sink deep into your heart. Tears of weeping and mourning may wash over you. I invite you to let these words reach the place of deepest connection within you, where your heart is reconciled to God and all of God’s creations, and let that connection guide your action with and for yourself and others. During this Lenten season, I invite you to surrender your heart to God.