Friday, March 3, 2017
Not so . . . fast
In the spring of 1996, I took a group of students to Costa Rica for a “mission trip”. At the time, I was Episcopal Campus Minister at UNC-Charlotte, and the trip was with other Episcopalian students from around North Carolina. Our judicatory had just established a “companion” relationship with a similar judicatory in that country, and we were going to be one of the first sets of “ambassadors”. As we started recruiting students, there was a LOT of excitement. Not only were the students jazzed about going to Costa Rica, they were also looking forward to “doing something meaningful” (which meant something like painting a school, or building something — i.e., “doing something “tangible”).
As the conversations between North Carolina and Costa Rica continued, however, it became more and more clear that the folks in Costa Rica were (a) very interested in having us come, but (b) were not interested in having us come to "do something". Their rationale was along the lines of “we’ve had enough of gringo coming down here to fix us.” What they proposed instead was more of a “learning trip”. They would host us and show us why/how the Episcopal Church was established in Costa Rica, and what it was doing now. And, along the way, we’d visit some significant sites (a rain forest, the national shrine, etc.). That change in rationale for the trip disappointed some of the students, but I think it was for the best; I think we all learned a lot more -- especiallylabout privilege.
I recalled this experience from more than twenty years ago as I prepared my homily/sermon for Ash Wednesday this week. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of penitence, reflection, and fasting leading up to Easter. The reflection is often focused on one’s mortality, marked in a physical way by a smudge of ashes on the forehead, accompanied by the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. And, coincidentally, this year, Ash Wednesday fell on the same day as the beginning of the Baha’i 19-day fast leading up to their New Year. In other words, “fasting” was on my mind.
Thinking about Ash Wednesday and fasting brought Charles Dickens’ great novel of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. One of the minor players in that drama is simply described as a “mender of roads.” His only child is run down and killed by an aristocrat who thought nothing other than how inconvenient it was that the peasants couldn’t keep their children off the street and out of the way of his horses—”they (i.e., the horses) weren’t hurt were they?” The road-mender eventually took revenge on the aristocrat and killed him—an individual example of many of the events leading to the storming of the Bastille. Subsequent to that event, however, the mender of roads was still going “forth daily to hammer out of the stones on the highway such morsels of bread as might serve for patches to hold his poor ignorant soul and his poor reduced body together.” And, as Dickens wrote, he “worked, solitary, in the dust, not often troubling to reflect that dust he was and to dust he himself must return, being for the most part too much occupied in thinking how little he had for supper and how much more he would eat if he had it.”
In other words, the mender of roads didn’t have the privilege of reflecting on his mortal nature — so much was he involved in providing the bare necessities.
I was struck by the realization: the privilege of humility. From my old office window in Berkeley, or driving down Colfax in Denver, I could look out on those who walked up and down the street looking for a morsel. I sit in my warm home and office, rarely thinking of those outside who are bundled up against the chill. And I have the audacity to think that “humbling” myself by smudging ashes on my forehead might please God. That “giving up” sugar, or television, or wine for 40 days—or even “taking on” some work of charity or devotional reading—is some great spiritual exercise. I—no, we—stand convicted by the words of Isaiah, “Look, you served your own interest on your fast day” (58.3). Even a non-dramatic “in secret” fasting has been suggested by Dickens to be a privilege.
Ashes, self-denial and humbling—even fasting —can only be initial response. Considering how to respond to the fast God chooses, that is, in the words of Isaiah “ to break unjust fetters, to undo the thongs of the yoke. to let the oppressed go free, and to break all yokes. Is it not sharing your food with the hungry, and sheltering the homeless poor; if you see someone lacking clothes, to clothe them?”(58.6-7)—in other words how to provide everyone with the “privilege” of humbling themselves is the real discipline before me. Indeed, it we take the biblical witness seriously, it is the discipline before us all.