With fresh memories in mind of our community Ash Wednesday service, I’m considering what it means to take on a spiritual discipline. For many people, the word “discipline” means committing oneself to an act for the sake of penance: practices such as increased prayer, periods of fasting, or refraining from a pleasurable activity. Clearly, those practices have deep spiritual meaning and value for many people. Over time, I’ve come to think of engaging a discipline as paying intentional and concerted attention, a practice as applicable to spiritual maturation as to any other art. As dancers practice for hours each day, paying attention to the work of building strength, agility, endurance, and refinement of movement, while scientists repeat painstaking experiments many times to clarify and certify results, and new readers cultivate skills of eye/brain coordination, letter recognition, phonetics, and deductive reasoning, so Christians pay intentional and concerted attention to something. This Lent, I intend to direct my attention to the wisdom of others, especially insights that have remained with me, but which deserve deeper reflection.
An NPR story brought my friend, Curt, to mind. The reporter interviewed a woman who was using theatre as a vehicle for self-awareness and healing with people who are incarcerated. Growing out of his love and knowledge of Shakespeare and his desire to do justice, Curt had pioneered a similar program some years before, called Shakespeare Behind Bars. Curt found that as prisoners immersed themselves in the characters of Shakespeare’s plays, the experience was no less than transforming. They gained insight into their own histories and subsequent actions, as well as the capacity to see themselves as more than prisoners: as people with strength of character, compassion and hope for their lives, even if in prison.
I told Curt about the feature, and expressed regret that he had not been interviewed, since he had pioneered the work. He smiled serenely and said, “She hasn’t taken anything from me. I just give it all away.” That very brief conversation happened several years ago, and I’m still thinking about his response. I remember the look of serenity in his eyes. His open-handedness seemed to have set him free. His generosity made a difference in me.
Since independence was a necessary trait in my early life, I had to learn, quite intentionally, to allow myself to admit need. Of course, life, loss, and brokenness also have a way of cracking the American illusion of the rugged individual. As I’ve matured, I’ve become quite able to ask for help, and far better at discerning of whom it is safe to ask help. Now, admitting need, whether material, functional, or emotional, is rarely difficult, although sometimes I still have a hard time figuring out what I need. Now, recognizing that all of us have legitimate needs, I wonder what it means to “give it all away”? For a disciple of Christ’s, what is the balance between having a healthy selfrespect, acknowledging that we all have legitimate needs for material sustenance, creativity, work, love…… and simply being grasping: having too strong a need for things, recognition, ownership, love, control, or security?
I don’t know the answers to my own questions. However, I have observed some things that will inform my mulling over what it means to “give it all away”. Over the course of 36 years of pastoral ministry, keeping vigil at the deaths of many of God’s children, I know that what counts in life is the quality of human relationships, even if brief, late in coming, and sometimes, very unlikely. I note that relationships anchored in genuine love are most difficult for those who have hidden themselves, perhaps out of fear, old wounds, shame, or “rugged individualism.” I note the life-giving freedom my friend’s generosity seemed to give him and conferred on me. I experience that people who are honest about their humanity, and all that entails, including how hard it is to give it all away, free the honestly human in others. There’s a freedom, a grace and lack of judgment about them that is liberating. I invite you to join me, intentionally paying attention to something that has been asking for your attention for some time now, welcoming God’s wisdom, and not just in Lent.
May Christ’s peace be yours,
Mary Van Andel, Associate Pastor