Tonight Princess Imagination and I attended our church’s Ash Wednesday service. It was a quiet but powerful hour, and a wonderful chance to share a moment with my girl away from her little brother’s sweet but demanding presence. It was even more thrilling to hear her soft but eager whisper in my ear, asking to go up for her first ever anointing with ashes. Best of all to hear her clear, confident explanation of what it was all about on the car ride home.
This was an experience I never had at her young age. I grew up in the tradition-wary culture of California’s non-denominational churches, and therefore the Lenten journey has been a more recent addition to my spiritual walk. Despite the complete centrality of faith in my childhood, I had very little sense of the church calendar and the intentional focus it brings to a yearly progression through defined phases of the life of faith. Other than the carols and pageantry of Christmas, the compelling drama of Good Friday, and the jubilant celebration of Resurrection Sunday (a.k.a. Easter), the rest of the year was pretty much open. The Holy Spirit, or the Pastor’s whim (or more likely some combination of the two) was responsible for directing the particular focus of attention on any given Sunday.
It wasn’t until my adult life brought me to the East Coast and membership in mainline churches that I learned how much more structured much of the Protestant Church is in regards to congregational worship. Both the weekly liturgy of structured services, and the yearly calendar that followed set “seasons” was unfamiliar. At first I pined for the freedom and spontaneity of my familiar faith surroundings and felt stifled by the stiff order of services and the rote, repetitive formulas. How can you pray from the heart when you are just reading words written by someone else? Church felt like reading from a script, rather than worship.
But then I started to notice the way that this structure incorporated disciplines that had been very inconsistent in my church background.
It’s not that the need to confess my sin had been ignored in my Christian upbringing. I was very aware that my entire salvation involved confession as a crucial element, so that I could repent, turn away from the things that separated me from God, and receive forgiveness to empower a new life. I had experienced this miracle, and understood what true confession meant. What I had missed, however, was the corporate sharing of this awareness as an integral part of worship. Confession was personal – something done in private prayer, or perhaps at an altar call. Confession was not something done by the entire community as a whole.
And that difference makes all the difference when it comes to confession of social sins.
Many readers who know me will probably be expecting me to now launch into a discussion (lecture?) about one of the many social justice issues about which I am passionate. I could certainly do that, and such a topic would probably be germane to my point. My recent repatriation process, however, has been drawing my attention to a persistent itch just under the skin of my native culture that the Lenten call to confession is begging me to scratch.
It’s the itch of unforgiveness, especially the self-righteous disdain for small offenses that we love to rehash.
This might not seem like the kind of hefty spiritual stain that the season of Lent calls us to lay down, but for that very reason, that very insidious, seemingly petty quality, it has grabbed my attention as something that desperately needs an act of corporate confession.
Perhaps I should offer a brief explanation of what I am talking about. A little more than a month ago a random stranger in the grocery store made a snide comment about my son. We were standing behind the woman in the check-out line and my normally happy Gigglemonster was throwing an impressive tantrum over my refusal to buy him a toy car that he had seen and suddenly needed to have. She looked back at his screaming, flailing little ball of frustration and then commented to her companion (loudly enough for both my son and I to hear her), “Well he sure is spoiled!”
The judgment made me more than a little angry, but I had enough on my hands trying to calmly deal with the tantrum and I was just self-controlled enough to not want to set a bad example for my kiddos, so I didn’t snap back with any of the many derisive and/or defensive replies that sprang into my brain. I dealt with my son, made our purchases, and got us safely home.
And then I vented on Facebook… in detail… letting the affirming community of the internet know just how great my put-downs could have been by displaying them in all their snarky glory for the optional cost of a “like.”
I got a lot of likes, and it was very gratifying. Friends affirmed my rejection of the stranger’s critique, and praised my parenting skills, and shared similar stories of public meltdowns, and sympathized about the unholy judgment of ignorant strangers. My wonderful cousin even linked to a very funny blog post by a parent-blogger who rehashed an encounter in a supermarket with a similar judging stranger. I appreciated the link because it reinforced my satisfying sense of self-righteous offense toward the inconsiderate stranger. It felt so very good to join together and verbally lambast the people who insult hard-working parents. We’re doing our best, and it’s the hardest job in the world, and if you feel you have the right to demean me or my child for trying to figure out a problem that just isn’t solvable, then you should be prepared for the vitriolic consequences.
And then a sweet and gracious friend made a simple comment that gently brought me face to face with the poison of my relished anger: “You have to imagine it’s really just her own insecurities rising to the surface. You never know what she’s going through.”
And there it is. We never do know what the other is going through, do we? I’d felt quite comfortable, up on my high horse, scorning this stranger’s inconsideration for what I and my son were going through. But I had never considered her position. I’d never wanted to. I much preferred to brew my anger at her words into a tempting tea to offer to my friends. What is more, the act of sharing the cup with them had increased rather than slacked my thirst for unforgiving sniping. Shared anger is so much more fulfilling. Or, at least, it fills the mind and leaves very little room for grace.
And while my example highlights my own culpability in this trend, I am very aware of how much my own reactions reflect the culture around me. American culture is not unique in this regard, certainly, but as a recent re-entrant to these United States, it has struck me how very imbedded this reflex is in our national psyche. So much of our daily conversation, and talk radio, and reality TV is consumed by the compelling magnet of stories about what has been done to us, with precious little talk about forgiveness.
And this is why my Lenten reflections have me thinking about the need for a societal confession: a confession of how we like to relish wrongs in the public sphere. It is an understandable instinct, and one I clearly share. But wouldn’t it be miraculous if we could give this up for lent? If we could glory instead in stories of forgiveness? If our social dialogue could be about extending grace to the other, and maybe even finding out what they are going through, instead of jumping straight to condemnation of its result?
The sermon at tonight’s service highlighted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. As an example of forgiveness and its power, it is hard to think of a more compelling story. The wrongs addressed by the Commission are heinous (murders, tortures, bombings, to name a few), and the kind of forgiveness offered is truly breathtaking, including not just amnesty for wrongs but a goal of reconciliation between victims and perpetrators. It makes my little reflections about not harboring a record of wrongs all seem small and insignificant.
But if that’s true, if relished grievances are nothing in comparison by what has been done by a society that truly understood the need for forgiveness, then maybe it’s not too much to ask of our society, or at least our church, during lent.
So there is my Lenten challenge: give up anger over petty wrongs; practice communal efforts at forgiveness. Let’s see how much grace can abound in 40 days.
Who’s with me?