Nagging Ache

During the Lenten season, I’m going to try to post a series on Mondays reflecting on different aspects of the season. Hold me to it!

A couple weeks ago I wrote about my friend Gina who was having brain surgery in San Fransisco. (She’s doing well, btw.) The day of the surgery, I couldn’t go more than about 5 minutes without thinking about her and Justin. I prayed with them on the phone just as she was being wheeled into the operating room, and I called Justin throughout the day, checking in. I just couldn’t stop myself from worrying/praying/thinking about these people whom I love and what they were going through.

It’s kind of like that, when you have crisis going on. No matter what you’re doing, your crisis is always in the background. No matter how light and breezy you try to keep things, no amount of television, food, alcohol, prayer, laughter, music, stupid iPhone games (insert your own distraction of choice) can really take it away. You may have a few moments of respite here are there, but something will always jerk you back down to reality and you’ll remember the thing that’s weighing you down. And it will sit in your gut like a ton of bricks.

Jennifer and I were talking last night about people we know who have serious stuff going on and how you can’t compare crises. You can’t say, “this person’s marital difficulties is more of a crisis than this person health issues.” These things just can’t be compared. Crisis is crisis. Period. And yet, we find ourselves sometimes minimizing our stuff because “hey, I’ve got a friend with a tumor in her brain,” so my stuff isn’t really that important. Except that it is, to us at least. And so we carry it all the time.

But this isn’t about us, it’s really about how many of us are carrying something that’s heavy to us. Many of us it seems are trying to keep it light and breezy but inside we feel like last hiker on the trail with a backpack full of stuff and we can barely carry it anymore, and everyone ahead seems to be so strong and having such a good time. And so, no matter what we’re doing, there’s always this thing.

Saturday night, I was skimming my Twitter feed and came across another excellent poem from Micah Murray that captured this really well. Here’s an excerpt:

there’s a lot to make a heart sad

we have all these songs and prayers and candles and poems about
hope and healing and all shall be well but

it’s february and i can’t tell where advent ends and lent begins
i can’t tell much of anything anymore

do you have any idea how impossibly impractical
hope is?

dear god i have a love / hate relationship with
(well, everything these days)

but specifically the gospel because
“all shall be well” feels less like

a fragment of light on the horizon and more like
a fragment of shrapnel in my gut

(excerpt from, “A Psalm for Lent”)

So, here’s what this has to do with Lent. Jennifer said to me last night, “once we get through this season of our life, I never want to forget how it feels. I never want to forget that in a room full of people, somebody is full of ache.”

I think Lent is a season where we artificially create ache. We create a void through fasting from something important to us that causes us to reflect, to help us remember what it’s like to carry heavy burdens. Lent is a season that is supposed to drive us back towards prayer, towards desperation, towards identification with those who ache.

So, in this Lenten season, may your fast – whatever it may be – cause you to ache. May it cause you to remember the times where you’ve cried out to God in desperation because you just didn’t know what else to do.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Putting on the Hijab for Lent

Jessey is a long-time friend (briefly one of my youth group “kids” back in the day) and serves our church as the part-time children’s director. She showed up in my office this morning wearing a hijab (the veil worn by many Muslim women) and told me it was part of her observance of Lent. I asked her to write a blog post. You really ought to read this. I love the thought behind it, of willingly choosing to identify with “the other.” She also has a blog called Pandemonium that she updates once-in-awhile.

About 7 years ago my husband Jeff and I moved to Amman, Jordan and stayed there for about a year and a half. We started off going over to volunteer in various ways including teaching English as a second language and volunteering a couple of times at an Iraqi refugee clinic. We lived in a fairly poor area of the city called Ashrafiyah, where there was a good mix of Arab Christians and Muslims. In case you didn’t know, the country of Jordan’s population is about 97% Muslim, women who are not Muslim do not have to cover their heads, and not all Muslim women cover either.

Moving to Jordan was an entirely new experience for both Jeff and me. We really knew nothing of Islam or Arab culture, and did not speak the language. I cried myself to sleep the first night we arrived saying, “What have we done?!?!”. Within the first week we started volunteering and met our language tutor, Suhaila, a Christian Palestinian woman, who was one of the kindest people I had ever met. She helped us immensely in learning the language and culture that we had immersed ourselves in.

To say that I didn’t quite fit in in my new surroundings would be a major understatement. I was an outsider. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Being blond haired and blue eyed in Jordan was like standing up and screaming in a library…I was opposite of everyone. I had specific guidelines I needed to follow so that I would be respecting the culture that I was now a part of–wearing loose fitting clothes, covering my tattoos, and not going outside with wet hair. That last one may seem a bit peculiar to you, but seriously, I had to be very conscious of that, and here is the reason…white American women in Hollywood movies always showered after having sex…and that’s what people would think. No joke. These are just a few of the things I always had to keep in the front of my mind out of respect. But no matter what I did it was a daily occurrence that I would get cat-called by more than one Arab man. Talk about awkward.

We eventually got jobs at an Islamic school that was run by HRH Princess Areej Ghazi  called The School of Life-Jordan. It was an interesting experience that I won’t get into here, but I made many Muslim friends, both men and women, who I came to know and love dearly. This changed my perspective on life completely.

When we eventually moved back to Peoria, IL we realized that there was a very large Muslim population here. I filled in as a 1st grade teacher for 3 months at our local Islamic school. I was welcomed into the fold quickly and have made many more friendships through my time there as well.

This brings me to the decision I have made for this Lenten season: I have chosen to wear hijab (traditional Muslim women’s head covering) for the 40 days of Lent, whenever I leave my house. Before I fully explain my reasoning, let me tell you how I came to the decision. I told my husband my idea and he encouraged me to do it, but I decided that I needed to ask a local Muslim friend her thoughts on it. She wears hijab for many reasons, I’m sure, but one is identification with her Muslim community.  I wanted to make sure that I would not be disrespecting or offending the Muslim community, so I asked her opinion. Her response was this,

You are a very thoughtful person full of great ideas…I don’t see a reason why people get offended by a very thoughtful, nice, and peaceful act. Our role is teach and educate all people and I’m 100% in support of this idea…My hijab drawer is yours come and pick what u like. If u don’t have time I can bring them to u, just let me know what colors.” 

How great is that? I met her at the Islamic school this morning to pick up the scarves and she helped me put on my first hijab for the Lenten season.

So, now I’m committed to the idea.  In the States, I am part of the majority as a white, middle class woman. I want to remind myself what it feels like to be an outsider – “the other”. Wearing hijab in the States is like being a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman in the Middle East.  So, I’m practicing hospitality this Lent by getting into the shoes (or hijab) of my Muslim friends and neighbors. I feel this is especially important now as there is increasing animosity once again from (white) Americans towards Muslims in our communities, which honestly makes me nervous about the idea. Regardless, here’s to learning to love and welcome all–friends, neighbors, strangers, and even enemies.

See the Monkey on the Pole?

There’s this story that gets circulated around leadership conferences about this experiment involving monkeys. As I understand it, some researchers put a bunch of monkeys in a cage with a pole in the middle and a bunch of bananas at the top. Every time a monkey started to ascend the pole, they would spray the monkey with water making it impossible to climb the pole. In time, the monkeys would help each other out. When a monkey forgot and started to ascend the pole, the others would quickly grab him and keep him from ascending so he wouldn’t get sprayed. Eventually, one by one, the monkeys in the cage were replaced until finally none of the original monkeys were left. And yet still, every time a monkey tried to ascend the pole, the other monkeys would grab him and pull him back down into the cage. 

Today, over on Facebook, lots of people will make the choice to walk away from Facebook as part of the Lenten discipline. (I’m making the same choice.) And later today, some smart ass on Facebook will write some status update making a joke, mocking the people fasting from Facebook.

Today, people will take ashes on their heads, and as a spiritual act, they will choose to give up coffee, chocolate, meat, alcohol, etc. And they will tell their friends, and their friends will laugh, tease them, say things like “well, then I’ll have another on your behalf.”

Today, there will be a conversation in a workplace over lunch, and someone will be wearing the ashes and some wiseacre will loudly say, as if he’s the first person ever to think of this line, “I’m choosing to give up Lent for Lent.” or “I’m choosing to give up (insert something that they don’t actually do) for Lent,” and will be the only one laughing at his own joke.

We’re all a bunch of monkeys who can’t stand when someone else aspires to climb out of the cage.

Here’s what I know, from sitting in my office talking to people, from sitting over beers/coffee/lunch and hearing peoples’ stories. I know that people who choose to willingly give up stuff, who are vulnerable and honest enough to admit that they don’t have their shit together – these are the brave ones. The ones who choose the road less traveled, who choose to swim upstream, who choose to really think about their lives, who choose to chart their own path and not just get caught up in the flow – these are the people who are worth knowing. These are the people who change their worlds because they are first changing themselves.

So here’s to you Facebook-giver-uppers, alcohol-fasters, and coffee-deniers. Today is the first day of your Lenten journey. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. For some, today is a day of freedom, for some, today is white-knuckling-get-through-it-one-hour-at-a-time. Whatever your state of mind, here’s to you. Here’s to the journey you are on, where you discover your truest self as you discover God. My best to you on your Lenten journey, on whatever pathways you may walk – even if they rest of us don’t understand.

Let the monkeys squawk. Let the lemmings walk off the cliff.