Today is Ash Wednesday, the day which marks the beginning of Lent for many in the Christian tradition. Thereafter, for 40-plus days, many will observe a period of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting from things ranging from certain types of food and television to shopping and social media. The fasting portion of Lent is what most people focus on and what people abstain from usually depends on what it is they believe is hindering their relationship with God. Most aren’t afraid to share what they will abstain from for Lent, but Lenten waters are sometimes muddied by that sharing. It is as if Lent is the new black and it is fashionable to rattle off the list of things you are giving up in order to gain the esteem of your colleagues–Christian or not. Some critics of this approach have compared it to a “benchmark for righteousness.” Stories have been published ad nauseum about the so-called “Lent trap” and I’ve noticed that, increasingly, my social media news feed is filling up with people throwing symbolic punches by way of status updates aimed at those who decide to share what it is they are fasting from. Yet no one is free from the Lent trap, not the person who makes a list and shouts it twice or the person who chin checks the person who makes the list. In both cases, the people are being boastful either about what they are giving up or the fact that they have reached a pious peak that is above stooping to the perceived valleys of talking about what they will give up.
All of this conversation must be muted for the sake of upholding the sanctity and penitent nature of this upcoming season. A season where we are all faced with the same reminder, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”(Genesis 3:19). And we are all told, “Repent, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Whether you are one who proudly proclaims what you have given up for Lent or one who proclaims how Lent should be done in light of your revelation about the vanity of proclaiming what you will give up, the Ash Wednesday lectionary text teaches us all a lesson about the performance of piety.
Matthew 6:1-4 says,
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Here Jesus is contrasting the piety of the hypocrites to the piety rewarded by the Father in heaven. This piety is inward and requires the individual to do pious acts in private, which was not something the Pharisees were doing at the time. On the topic of almsgiving, Jesus warned his followers that they weren’t to alert the masses to giving alms by way of trumpet blowing, they were to give their alms in secret and their heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will reward them. In the same way, we are called to such a quietness in service so as not to draw attention to ourselves but to draw attention to God. This scripture also introduces us to two phrases that will repeat two more times throughout Ash Wednesday’s text, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” And “…your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus continues by talking about prayer. Of this he says,
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6, NRSV).
Again Jesus warns of doing pious acts in the public eye and reminds followers that their Father “who is in secret and sees in secret will reward” them. In the case of prayer, followers are not to stand in the public places where they can be seen nor should they “heap up empty phrases as Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” Instead he tells them to pray the prayer that we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. In this way there is no room for bloviating, only God-oriented thanksgiving and petition. This concern about prayer turns the act from outward posturing to inward connection.
Matthew 6:16-18, is the linchpin of the Lenten season, in it Jesus says,
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18, NRSV).
At once this scripture appears to contradict the spirit of the Lenten season. It seems to go against remembering mortality, humility, and penitence in exchange for putting on a happy face. But it isn’t a contradiction. Actually, the text focuses on three of the several disciplines of Lent; almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In this particular text, Jesus is encouraging followers to let none be the wiser when they are fasting. By telling his followers not to look dismal or disfigure their faces he is telling them not to draw attention to themselves. They are supposed to keep the same countenance as if they weren’t fasting and let the act be about what is going on inside of them, not what they display on the outside. We too can learn from this teaching during this season, the lesson being that what we choose to fast from or how we choose to observe Lent in general is not something we proclaim to the masses lest we miss the point.
In Psalm 51, David gives us further direction about our posture during this season when he says, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” Again we are faced with the secret nature of our search for God which is connected to our inward being and caring for our inward selves. Our participation in Lent is for our relationship with God “the Father who is in secret and who sees in secret.” What we choose to do is between God and us and need not be shared. Granted, we can find accountability when we share what we are abstaining from with a close circle of friends, but what we choose to do in this season is really no one’s business but our own and God’s.
By keeping our lists secret or keeping our judgement secret from those who announce their lists we open ourselves all the more to what God wants to do in our lives during this season. In doing this we open ourselves to God’s reward and that is the point of it all.
Do you participate in Lent? What does this period of reflection and sacrifice mean to you? Share your thoughts below.
One of the top resolutions on everyone’s list is losing weight and getting in shape. Working out can be no fun at all, but over the last few years people have created dynamic fitness programs that are fun and effective. Below is a list of not only the most fun and effective fitness programs but they are all black-owned businesses.
If you spend enough time on social media you have most likely come across YouTube clips of Keith Thompson’s high-energy cycling classes. Thompson is the lead instructor at Atlanta-based KTX Fitness, an enterprise that specializes in helping people meet their fitness goals in a fun atmosphere. It is not uncommon to see Thompson dancing alongside cyclers as some of today’s top urban and hip-hop songs blast from the speakers. His cycling classes blend calisthenics with cycling to create a high-impact aerobic workout in which individuals burn approximately 1000 calories and ride approximately 15 miles, but cycling isn’t all that KTX Fitness does. They also have step classes, total body workout classes and a bootcamp. The majority of KTX Fitness class are held in Atlanta but Thompson also travels to bring the cycling classes to different cities such as DC, NY, Cincinnati, Toronto most recently and more. For more about KTX Fitness click here.
Mr. Shut Up and Train
Another Atlanta-based fitness expert who you may have seen on social media is Rahman Grayson aka Mr. Shut Up and Train. The Mr. Shut Up and Train moniker might be familiar to you because of your friends who participated in his free fitness challenges. Through his fitness challenges, Grayson crafts a workout plan that forces people out of their comfort zones and into the training zone. Yet he seeks not only to whip people into physical shape but he trains minds to pursue and accomplish goals that seem impossible. The free workout plans are but a small portion of Grayson’s work toward creating fit and healthy people. He also offers personal training services everyday people and athletes and celebrities alike. For more information about Mr. Shut Up and Train click here.
Black Girls Run
Black Girls not only Rock but they Run too and they have been running under the Black Girls Run banner since 2009. Founders Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks created BGR in an effort to tackle the growing obesity epidemic in the African-American community as well as to provide encouragement to novice and veteran runners. Six years later, BGR has expanded to 69 running groups in 30 states across the United States with over 52,860 African-American women running. The organization commits itself as much to its veteran runners as it does to new runners. On any given run they suggest that novice runners find a “running crush” and pace themselves with that person as a way to establish goals. As you can imagine, BGR fosters a sisterhood among women who begin as strangers and transform them into sojourners on the journey to optimum physical fitness. To find out about BGR runs in your city, click here.
Brukwine is not for the faint of heart nor is it for those scared of the four-letter word “sexy” as it pertains to the female body. With that out of the way we can get into the grit of what Brukwine is. Created by dancers Tavia and Tamara, Brukwine is a Reggae/Dancehall-based fitness class that provides women with a total body workout while teaching them the latest moves from popular Caribbean culture. Tavia and Tamara are both trained dancers who, among other dance disciplines, studied dancehall in its birthplace of Jamaica and have toured the world and served as dancers for artists such as Sean Paul, Rihanna, Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, and many others. Brukwine is currently only holding classes in New York. For more information on Brukwine click here.
So who will you workout with this year?
This list is far from comprehensive so if you know of any other black-owned business fitness please leave them in the comments.
When I was 15 years old I found out I was adopted by accident. I was flipping through the pages of my family’s gigantic keepsake Bible and I happened upon the family milestones section. In those pages documenting weddings and births was my own entrance into the family and it read as follows,
“Nicole was born to adopted by _________ and ________ born on December 26, 1980.”
I almost dropped the five-pound Bible when I read those words. “Adopted?” I ran into the kitchen and interrupted my mom who was in the midst of cooking breakfast. With tears in my eyes, I said, “Why didn’t you tell me I was adopted? How could you just let me read it in a book without telling me yourself?” With tears in her eyes, she said, “I was going to tell you, but I wanted to wait for the right time.” That moment became the time—right or not. She told me my biological mother, a teenager about the age of 16, gave me up for adoption on the day of my birth. I would go from this young woman’s arms to the foster care system for about six months until I was adopted at eight months old.
Finding out about my adoption brought many questions. “Why didn’t my biological mother want me? How could she give a child up and never come back for it? Should I look for her?” It wreaked havoc on my self-confidence, my friendships, and on any relationships that were in formation because I was always afraid of people letting me go and never turning back. It was both the gift and the curse. The gift being that it gave me the wonderful parents I have who have loved me, and the curse being that I existed in a tension of that love and wondering about my other mother.
In my late 20s, during a Christmas vacation at home, my mother presented me with all of the paperwork from my adoption and she told me that if I wanted to I could look for my birth mother. At that point I never really thought about looking for her but I was thankful for my mother’s clearance all the same. Periodically I look at that paperwork, read about my biological mother, and then I put it all back in the age-worn manila envelope it was given to me in. Every few years I do a Google search using my mother’s name but I either don’t come up with anything or come up with too much. I also have my moments when I’m sitting in a room and I look at a woman whom I think looks like me and I wonder, “That could be my birth mother.” As quickly as the thought arrives is as quickly as it leaves and I come back to reality. That is the extent of search-like behavior and I have no plans to launch a full-on search for her. I’m not going to plan a stakeout in front of her home or meet her in a coffee shop—both scenarios I’ve seen on TV and in the movies. I may never meet my biological mother, and that’s fine, but there is always the chance that someone will remind me of what I may be missing.
This is what a close friend asked me when we were talking about my being adopted. His question gave me pause not because I never thought I didn’t know who I was without my birth mother, but because it showed me some of the misguided perceptions about adopted persons. There are some misconceptions about the lives of people who are adopted: that we don’t have a true sense of identity or that being adopted is a painful story for us. I’ve learned that more of that is imposed on us by a culture that has a skewed understanding of adopted people. As an adopted person I can say that I do have a sense of identity, one that was cultivated by my parents, and I’ve become increasingly thankful that adoption is part of my history. Sure it makes me wonder sometimes, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m happy with my life and my parents as they are. What is integral to this understanding is that at no time did I feel like a child who wasn’t my parents’ own because they raised me with the same love as their own flesh and blood. This helped ground me in something larger than an adoption narrative. I never felt like an “other” in my immediate or extended family’s presence, but I know that a sense of “otherness” pervades the spaces of an adopted person’s life. Recently an article captured this issue and that of other people’s perceptions of adopted persons.
In “Teach Your Children About Adoption Before Releasing Them on the Playground” Rachel Quinn Egan, a white woman who adopted a black child, shared her daughter’s adoption story and the issues that arose when other children realized that she was adopted. This amplified the displacement, pain, and confusion the child already felt and, Egan points out, identified that a key problem is parents not speaking to their children about adoption as another way of creating a family. Adoption is sometimes relegated to the periphery of our understanding of family creation which has resulted in many treating adopted children as if they are abnormal. But adopted children are just like any other child who was birthed from their mother’s womb–they just happen to have a mother who can’t take care of them for one reason or another. Parents should teach their children about the many ways families come into being and people must remember that persons who were adopted do a great deal of processing on their own and in therapy–11% of all adolescents in referred to therapy have been adopted. Our arrival in this world had a different structure but we seek the same type of love and acceptance as anyone else.
The Well-Being of All Children & Adoption’s Spiritual Precedent
Being adopted and being able to adopt a child is a gift. I will forever be indebted to my parents–both sets–for giving me a life that almost never was. I’m also thankful for the spiritual precedent on adoption that God established and it is with that precedent that I conclude this piece:
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Friday night young adult Bible study and I was sitting on the right side of the chapel being attentive to the minister’s teaching about spiritual adoption. In the midst of his lesson he told us to turn to Ephesians 1:3-6 and he read the scripture aloud,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
As he read this, tears welled up in my eyes at the thought that not only had God planned my earthly adoption, He adopted me into the family of Christ and secured my place with Him for eternity before I was even knitted in my biological mother’s womb. It was preordained for me to be adopted so that I could eventually understand the significance of my spiritual adoption and the fact that I was always kept. I came to see my physical adoption as a small part of a bigger portrait that God was painting of me.
And so I hope and pray that many adopted people would come to see their adoption as a small part in a bigger portrait that God is painting of their lives, that people will learn how to embrace adopted persons as they would their own, and that more children will be placed in loving homes and be afforded the opportunity for new life.
Sunday marks the beginning of Advent, the liturgical season observed by many Christians as a period of waiting and preparation for the Nativity of Jesus. This season begins four Sundays before Christmas and concludes on Christmas. The hanging of greens, adorning sanctuaries and wearing vestments of purple, and lighting the Advent wreath candles in order to move from darkness to light are key components in Advent observation. All of this is in anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus, a birth that people anxiously awaited then and a symbolic birth we should anxiously await now. But some may ask, “Why must we wait for something that has already happened? Why exist in symbolic darkness for a time in order to celebrate that which was revealed some 2000 years ago? Why is this relevant to our time?” I suggest that we must wait in order to reclaim the wonder of the light that was brought into this world.
Earlier this year, during an Ash Wednesday service at a large Baptist church, I looked forward to ushering in the season of penitence with somber worship and a penitent message. Ash Wednesday is supposed to remind us of our finitude and it plunges us into a season of penitence, and the journey into the wilderness with Christ. But as I sat in that Ash Wednesday service, I was jolted from somber reflection with songs of joy and a sermon celebrating victory. Not a moment in the service–besides the impartation of ashes which concluded the service–was spent ushering people into the dry season ahead of them because the church couldn’t not praise. On one hand I understood the church’s inability to squelch their praise. It’s a church that has seen many trials and tribulation and its membership are a part of the resilient race in this country who can’t not praise because of how far they’ve come by faith. Why would they want to launch themselves into a period solemnity? But on the other hand, I desired for this congregation to withhold their praise and shouts of victory in order to rightfully claim it at the end of the Lenten season. In doing this, they would truly walk with their redeemer and taste the sweetness of victory because they had made the journey by way of symbolically situating themselves on Ash Wednesday as sojourners with Jesus. This too is our call during the season of Advent except that we are not sojourners with Jesus this time around but sojourners with a generation of people who were awaiting his arrival. People who heard a particular prophecy about the coming of Jesus and who were waiting and preparing for his arrival. People who didn’t have Christmas gift shopping, parties to attend, and a plethora of “holiday” distractions, but who were watching and waiting for him. I imagine that their wait was one of wonder mixed with skepticism fueled by the rumors of Mary, a virgin, who was impregnated by the Holy Spirit with the son of God. How unbelievable that had to be then and how unbelievable we should consider it now in order to rekindle the wonder of it all. Awesome wonder is what this season is about.
Yesterday in church I was reminded of how in danger we are of losing that wonder because we are so familiar with the stories that tell of the coming of Jesus. Some of us know it like the back of our hands and it has become so commonplace that the narrative of a young virgin impregnated by the Holy Spirit and giving birth to the son of God seems just as plausible as a man getting pregnant and giving birth. Some of us are no longer moved by the story because we’ve spent years with it in our churches, in our seminaries and Bible colleges, and in our homes, but we force ourselves to be moved just a few days before Christmas because that’s what we’ve been trained most to do. Many wind down and reflect as they start to wrap up their Christmas shopping, place the last few gifts under the tree, and bake the last batch of cookies. A reflection on the true significance of this moment on the Christian liturgical calendar is sometimes left as an afterthought to what is given top billing on the calendar of capitalism. But we must wait, and wait longer than a few days, to acclimate ourselves to the coming of Jesus. When we take hold of the season of waiting that Advent is, we give ourselves the opportunity to experience the wonder of every occasion that lead up to the birth of Jesus.
When we read the Gospel narratives that foretell of Jesus’ birth, of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, of the Magnificat, we must stop ourselves from breezing through it quickly because we’ve heard it all before. Instead we should be held captive by every word as if we were hearing it for the first time and as if we may never hear it again. When we repeat the refrain, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear,” we are implicating ourselves as those in captivity in need of a release from our self-imposed exile. Given the capitalism and consumerism that has marked this season—and the violence it has wrought—we are now, more than ever, in the need of the discipline of waiting. We must wait in order to restore the wonder of this blessed season we are in, a season that shines light into dark places and gives many hope. We must wait, not only for ourselves but for every person who has yet to experience the great hope that many of us know so well. We must wait so that we refresh ourselves in the wondrous love to come over receiving it as an entitlement that we might take for granted. We must wait, because in waiting we are forced to slow down, and in slowing down we gain perspective on the significance of this season which brings us back to wonder. The awesome wonder of the coming of Jesus is what this season is about, just wait for it.
For a while the most popular literature and television programming about black people captured no sense of African consciousness. We’ve been far removed from The Cosby Show which introduced many of my generation to Miriam Makeba or A Different World which introduced us to divesting from businesses that supported apartheid in South Africa. Those shows and others of the late 80s to early 90s taught my generation that we don’t only have a history in Africa but our actions affect our present and future connection with the continent. But since then we have slipped out of the realm of cultivating such an understanding of our connection to the continent. For the last decade or so, television programming about black people has been driven by self-interestedness over communal values. There has been nothing to remind us of our descendants and ancestors. On the literary front, we were also hard-pressed to get beyond the Zanes and the Steve Harveys of the world. But recently there has been an uprising of African narratives from African-born writers and creators that is breathing a breath of fresh air on literature and on-air/online programming.
We see its presence in the work of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie author of the novel “Americanah” which tells the story Ifemelu, a young woman who journeys from Nigeria to America and back again. It is primarily a love story but it also acknowledges the cultural differences between American black people and non-American black people. Ifemelu captures and critiques these differences on her blog and Adichie uses Ifemelu’s blog posts to break up the narrative arc of the book. Though these blog posts are the work of a fictional character they resonate as fact among African and African American alike. Adichie also has Ifemelu return to Nigeria where she comes to grips with the ways that America has changed her and also the ways in which Nigeria in particular and Africa in general will always be a home to her despite the ways in which she has fallen out of love with it. African-American readers of “Americanah” are forced to take a look at the ways in which American culture influences their perceptions of African people and question the relational disconnect between American and non-American blacks. “Americanah” is at the top of many books lists and is rumored to be optioned for a screenplay starring Luptia Nyong’o as Ifemelu. Adichie’s earlier novel “Half of a Yellow Sun,” which tells the story of the effects of the Nigerian-Biafran War through the eyes of five different characters, is now a full-length feature film and is currently being screened in major cities. The film features an all-star cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, and Anika Noni Rose.
Teju Cole is also a part of Africa’s uprising in American literature. Nigerian-American Cole was born in the US, raised in Nigeria until the age of 17 and came back to the states. A Distinguised Writer in Residence at Bard College and a regular writer for publications such as the New York Times and the New Yorker, he recently released his novel “Every Day is for the Thief” in the US–it was published in Nigeria in 2007. The novel tells the story of a young man revisiting Nigeria and facing some of the less beautiful aspects of life in Africa, such as watching the audacious Nigerian scammers in action—you know, the ones who e-mail many of us claiming we will inherit millions if we respond to their message. Cole’s is a less glamorous account of revisiting the continent, but he also holds that in tension with the fact the he believes Nigeria is “excessively exciting” to the point of being overwhelming. In an interview with NPR’s Audie Cornish Cole said, “But for me, personally, I have not actually really considered seriously living in Nigeria full time. This is my home here [New York and the United States], and this is the place that allows me to do the work that I do…I’m fortunate to be able to travel to many places, and to go to Nigeria often. And so I feel close enough to the things happening there without needing to live there.” This quote captures the beauty of Cole’s work which banks on both his lived experience in Nigeria and life as an Nigerian-American writer trying to maintain some semblance of a connection. His next book will be a non-fiction narrative on Lagos.
Finally the most recent example of Africa’s uprising in American literature and entertainment is the new web series “An African City.” Created by Ghanaian-American Nicole Amarteifio, the series follows five young African women who move to Ghana after educational and professional stints in America and Europe. The show is billed as Ghana’s answer to “Sex and the City” but it is actually smarter than SATC. The characters don’t just navigate the sexual politics that SATC was famous for, they launch into the deep of socio-economic politics on the continent. The show touches on the plight of the underdeveloped countries, the people who hold the power in such countries—mostly men, and the premium placed on the authentic African woman over the African woman who has been corrupted by Western ways. It branches out from self-interest to communal concern. The series also provides viewers with a look at the landscape of Accra, a region that is reaching toward urban metropolis status in the midst of strong rural roots. Shots of dirt roads lined with shacks where vendors sells their wares and old Toyotas putter down the streets offset the young women’s appetite for cosmopolitan fare and fashion. The show balances inherited American sensibilities with ingrained African pride with style and grace within each 11-15 minute webisode.
And lest I be remiss there is Kenyan Lupito Nyong’o. Born in Mexico City and raised primarily in Kenya, she stole our hearts in her first major acting role as Patsy in “12 Years a Slave.” She also steals our hearts every time she appears on a red carpet, gave an awards acceptance speech, or appeared on the cover of or in the pages of a magazine. Her beauty is being celebrated by many–and it isn’t limited to the fashion and beauty industries. Nyong’o is blazing the trails that supermodel Alek Wek set for African women and expanding dominant views of what is beautiful. But it is not just Nyong’o’s beauty that is captivating, it is her humble spirit and intelligence that is reminding the world that Africa is a force to be reckoned with.
Lupita Nyong’o, Nicole Amarteifio, Teju Cole, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and many more African-born actresses and actors, producers, writers and other creative types are broadening American understanding about Africa and its people. They are also expanding the African-American consciousness on Africa. We can only hope that this is truly the start of a beautiful relationship that goes from this generation beyond.