People browse the eVitabu app on a tablet provided by African Pastors Fellowship. Video screenshot via African Pastors Fellowship
KAMPALA, Uganda (RNS) — On a recent Sunday morning, dozens of South Sudanese refugees gathered inside a tent at Imvepi Refugee Camp to thank God for enabling them to found a new church.
The new Pentecostal church was partly made possible by a new app that links preachers to Bible translations and theological resources from which they can prepare sermons and teach congregants about their faith.
“It’s a new dawn for refugees,” said Pastor Chol Mayak, 48, a father of four who recently attended a training on the app. “We are going to train other refugees so that they can open more churches and spread the gospel across the camps.”
Dr. Yamanda Edwards meets with patient Gail Carter at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital outpatient clinic in March 2018. (Photos by Heidi de Marco)
Dr. Yamanda Edwards, the daughter of a truck driver and a stay-at-home mom, grew up just a few miles from Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center, at the time an iconic yet troubled hospital in South Los Angeles.
As a child in the 1990s, she knew little of its history — how it rose from the ashes of the Watts riots. And she knew no one in the medical profession.
Still, she wanted to become a doctor. “I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I wanted to get there,” she said. “I was determined.”
In her lifetime, the community where she grew up has changed dramatically. The population is mostly Latino now, no longer predominantly African-American. King/Drew closed in 2007 amid allegations of malpractice and malfeasance. The new hospital, a private, nonprofit that opened in 2015, is smaller but vibrant, with brand-new facilities, staff and an outpatient medical clinic. It’s part of a broader campus that includes outpatient and public health centers run by Los Angeles County.
What hasn’t changed in the area is the need for doctors like Edwards.
Edwards’ patients have conditions ranging from anxiety and depression to psychosis. Many have never seen a psychiatrist — or any mental health professional, for that matter. Yet the pressures in their lives contribute to poor physical and mental health.
“There are a lot of stressors coming from living in an environment with health care disparities, a lot of access to drugs, poverty, immigration issues,” Edwards said.
The neighborhood surrounding the hospital has higher rates of psychological distress and a greater need for mental health care than the statewide average, according to 2014 data from UCLA. Residents also are more likely to be poor and out of work, though average levels of educational achievement and income have risen somewhat in recent decades.
Edwards teaches her patients about their conditions — what it means to have clinical depression, how it feels to have a panic attack. Many show appreciation for having someone they can turn to. “They’ve tried to do it on their own, but now it’s time to see someone,” Edwards said.
Gail Carter, 62, of Compton, Calif., suffers from chronic pain and depression but said she has been sleeping and feeling better since starting sessions with Edwards. “I didn’t know how to figure it out by myself,” she said. “Dr. Edwards helped me. She gets me to think. And she reminds me to breathe.”
Dreaming Of Being A Doctor
Edwards said she feels some nostalgia for her neighborhood, along with sadness. She escaped some of the worst aspects — violence, drugs and gangs — protected by her family and its high aspirations for her and her siblings. “Higher education was just sort of expected of us,” she said. “I do believe I was somewhat insulated.”
Her curiosity about medicine started in middle school. She attended the King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, which allowed her to shadow doctors at the old King/Drew hospital and help with cancer research. “It was almost like we were medical interns, but we were in high school,” she recalled.
Despite the support, she faced setbacks. When she was 15, her father died of colon cancer, four days after he was diagnosed. For some time after that, she didn’t want to set foot in a hospital. “I thought, ‘How am I going to become a doctor when I hate hospitals?’”
Then she reflected on how her dad had encouraged her to pursue medicine, knowing it was her dream, and “that motivated me.”
Edwards remembers wondering, when the old King/Drew hospital closed, where patients in the neighborhood would go for care — and if the high school students would still find hospital internships.
After graduating from UCLA, Edwards attended medical school at Charles Drew/UCLA — next to her old high school — through a program designed for students who wanted to practice in underserved areas. During a student rotation at Kedren Acute Psychiatric Hospital in Los Angeles, Edwards saw bipolar disorder, psychosis and major depression up close, and she was struck by the need for care among minorities, especially African-Americans and Latinos. “This is something that doesn’t really get talked about in either of those communities,” she said.
That propelled her toward a career in psychiatry. She completed her residency in psychiatry at UCLA in June 2017 and started her job at MLK two months later. “It just felt right,” she said.
In addition to working at the hospital, Edwards also belongs to a new outpatient medical group the hospital started last year to expand specialty care for its patients. Hospital CEO Elaine Batchlor said Edwards is exactly the kind of doctor they wanted to attract. “She understands the people who live in our community,” she said. “And she has a deep commitment to them.”
Separating The Old From The New
Patients come in at all hours of the day and night needing mental health care, said Ameer Moussa, a physician who practices at the hospital. “A psychiatrist is something we knew we needed from day one,” he said.
Moussa said Edwards’ calm personality and patience enables her to communicate effectively with her patients. “Trust is a really important thing, and she gains their trust and gains it quickly,” he said.
That helps, especially with patients who recall the difficult history of the old King/Drew, which came to be known in some circles as “Killer King.”
Edwards’ childhood memories of the area help her connect with patients. When they are distressed about their challenges in life, she will often tell them, “I understand. I grew up here too.”
Edwards, who now lives in Cypress, Calif., with her husband and 19-month-old son, spends most of her workweek helping to triage mental health patients in the ER and visiting those who are admitted to the hospital.
MLK’s emergency room has seen twice as many patients as it originally expected when it opened, and many suffer from mental illness.
On a recent afternoon, Edwards saw a woman who was 30 weeks pregnant and threatening to harm herself. Combative and possibly psychotic, she was convinced her baby was an alien. “Let me go,” she screamed as staffers tried to restrain her. “Get off of me!”
Edwards ordered medication to help calm her down. She also placed her on a 72-hour psychiatric hold and started searching for an inpatient bed for her.
Edwards knew that wouldn’t be easy, given the severe psych bed shortage and the woman’s condition. “Psychiatric hospitals can sort of pick and choose who they want to take,” Edwards said. “Pregnant patients are a little more risky to take on.”
Edwards spends much of her time at the hospital dashing in and out of patients’ rooms, attempting — often in fleeting conversations — to assess them and their risk of hurting themselves or others. Many of her patients are homeless, alcoholic or addicted to drugs.
Once a week, Edwards heads to an outpatient clinic run by MLK a few miles away. Some of her patients take a while to warm up to her. She spends a lot of time with them before even raising the idea of medication.
“Coming from a community where there is a lot of stigma about mental health … the acceptance of medication is another barrier,” she said.
Edwards said she does everything she can to help her patients — both outside and inside the hospital. But in the end, Martin Luther King, Jr. is an acute care hospital, not a psychiatric one. Edwards isn’t there round-the-clock, and the hospital can keep certain psychiatric patients for only up to three days. One of the hardest parts of her job, she said, is wondering what will happen to patients when they leave.
“You want to know the end result of what happened, if you did the right thing, if they’re safe.”
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain, and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds, and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Their destination? “Chow call” in the prison refectory or “Meds up!” to the cart the nurse brings on the unit for those requiring morning medication. The stretch of the arms relieves some of the tension from the cell’s hard cot, the eyes crusted literally and figuratively by biology and monotony, the floor’s terrain cold on even the warmest day when one’s address is prison. We do not know how many millions go to church on Easter–but we know how many awaken in state and federal prisons: an excruciating 2.1 million men and women arise at Easter’s sunrise to another day when they seem oblivious to anyone on the other side of the prison walls. Another several million arise in county jails, many not physically far from home but incarnations of “out of sight, out of mind” even to those who are descendants of those to whom Jesus spoke just before his arrest and incarceration “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
Yes, millions have arisen with a purpose: count down the days, occupy the mind, anticipate a visit, and perhaps even attend chapel — purpose is a precious commodity for them. They are inmates, prisoners, convicts peopling America’s jails and prisons in record numbers — over two million in state and federal prison alone — and they arise every morning about the time the Easter Sunrise service crowd shakes the cobwebs from their consciousness to face their annual celebration.
The Easter lens well fits any view of incarceration. After all, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he was an inmate. We celebrate the truth that God raised his only begotten son from the grave — we overlook the fact that the body which breathed its last before burial belonged to a prisoner. He hung between two thieve or malefactors, but “was numbered” with them as well.
Shame and Stigma of Incarceration
Incarceration in America carries more than the punishment of “doing time.” Shame and stigmatization plague an inmate during incarceration and after release. Those twin maladies spread like a virus to relatives left behind, children separated from fathers and mothers, parents grieving for their children, grandparents serving as caretakers for a generation forty, fifty, and sixty years their junior while fathers stretch their arm in the cell and mothers wipe their eyes on the block. Shame and stigma, contagious and infectious as they manifest in symptoms of silence, rendering the affected loved one incapable of sharing the true hurt with anyone at the Sunrise service in celebration of the Risen Inmate!
It is Easter sunrise…. God listens for the praise of God’s people from the cathedrals and storefronts, the megachurch and mass choirs, parish priests and local pastors, pulpit and pew. But God also listens for the prayers of the prisoner, wrestling with past demons, present conditions, and future uncertainty, all with some hope of the transformation promised by the Risen Inmate who makes all things new. Millions arose this Easter morning to attend a sunrise service. Millions more arose to attend to the business of doing time.
An important connection exists between these two populations — this dual set of early risers on Easter morning. Many of them count people in the other crowd as kin — many who run with one crowd used to sit with the other. Many who heard the sound of the choir’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” or “Praise is What I Do,” this morning once heard “Chow Up,” or the slow grind of motors turning to open a series of cell doors. The cymbal was the clanging of cages, the tambourine the rattling of chains. And some who this morning donned uniform orange, blue or tan jumpsuits once sported matching white or black robes on a morning such as this.
Preaching seldom reaches the pain felt by the incarcerated and their families. The separation traumatizes, the anger and disappointment of those left behind papered over by Sunday School memories of lessons on forgiveness. Many incarcerated parents long to see their children; some allow shame to hold their children at bay. Many who do seek the comfort of the Risen Inmate to dry their tears and encourage their hearts find disappointment in the prison chapel service when the local church sends well-meaning but poorly trained volunteers to preach sermons that the church’s pastor would never allow on a Sunday morning, especially an Easter Sunrise service.
Seldom do they hear that the Risen Inmate ministered to another convict before dying by telling him that he would be in paradise with him. They rarely hear that the Risen Inmate suffered brutally at the hands of the corrections officers, and was raised with evidence in his hands of eighth amendment violations of cruel and unusual punishment. They do not hear about the Risen Inmate’s long march up the Via Dolorosa to “endure the cross, despising the shame” as an encouragement for them to receive strength from knowing that “Jesus knows all about our struggles…” They hear an Easter message that rehearses the resurrection as saving act, but seldom as the sustaining act which brings “a living hope.”
Gospel of the Risen Inmate
The late Rev. Lonnie McLeod, who completed his first seminary degree in the New York Theological Seminary Sing Sing program said, “In all my time incarcerated, I really only heard one sermon: you messed up, you got caught, get saved …” But not only does salvation come by preaching, but also “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the “preaching of the Risen Inmate. After his release, McLeod’s preaching both in and out of prisons and jails acknowledged the pain caused by incarceration. At his passing in 2009, he was working on a Christmas sermon that dealt with the pain of incarceration. I asked him how he could make the connection between the manger and the penitentiary, and the good Dr. boldy remarked: “Trulear, this is Christmas. Everybody wants to talk about the first night of Jesus’ life. But no one wants to talk about the last night. And without the events of the last night, the first night loses its meaning! His incarceration, execution, and vindication make his birth worth celebrating!
This does not mean that prison preaching overlooks the responsibility of prisoners to own their sins. Accountability, indeed, signals a recognition of the humanity The Risen Inmate was executed to restore. The “Adam, where art thou” question lives in the Risen Inmate’s heart, for it is precisely for the sinner that he has come. He has come for the one who uses “wrong place, wrong time, wrong crowd” the same way Adam used “wrong crowd” to describe “the woman that You gave me.” He came for the violent defender of a friend’s honor, and will transform and use him even as he did Moses. He came for the popular musician who conspired to put out a hit on another man so he could have his wife, all while singing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I see what I want.” He counted the transgressions of a contracted hit man, accessory to murder as his own- and that same man later wrote that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” The Risen Inmate sees their humanity, and for precisely that reason calls the unrighteous, the violent offender to become a deliverer of his people, the lamp of Israel, and an apostle to the Gentiles.
Not only does the Risen Inmate have a word for those persons arising in America’s jails and prisons on Easter, the Risen Inmate seeks to be seen and heard of the families left behind. Families struggle to hear a word for them in the pain of separation. They sit on the Good Friday side of the sentencing of the Risen Inmate, and don’t always see the potential for a reunion in the garden on Easter Morning. “Touch me not” stares from signs in the visitation room. It wells up in the heads on visitors subjected to searches by the corrections officers before and after time with an inmate. It is not a phrase pointing to ascension, but a descent into deprivation, motivated by security and draped in dehumanization. They want a word that addresses the morning they came to visit with new prison clothes, like the women who cam that first Easter with new grave clothes for the Risen Inmate. But when these families are told “He is not here,” it does not point to the surprise turned joy of a resurrection, but disillusionment turned panic in the discovery of a transfer to another facility, or a confinement to solitary. Does the preacher, in the name of the Risen Inmate, have a word for them?
Reimagining Our Prison Ministry
My colleague Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert once asked me to post a sermon on his website The Preaching Project, with the subject being preaching to families of the incarcerated. The message, titled “Preacher, We Are Dying in Here,” makes the case that preaching to the families of the incarcerated is something we already do! They people our pews, tithe their treasure, sing their songs, pray their prayers every Sunday, but suffer in silence. The church may have a prison ministry, but it often does not touch them, or their incarcerated family member. Prison ministry is institution focused, unlike ministry to the sick. If we replaced ministry to and visitation of the sick with the prison model, we would stop visiting individuals and families connected with the church, and just train three volunteers to give a service and a sermon once a month at the local hospital. The Risen Inmate declared that the church “shall be witnesses unto me, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” For most, the jail of prison is the uttermost part of the earth; for the family of the incarcerated, it is Jerusalem.
Preaching often overlooks the scars of the formerly incarcerated, wounded by warehousing, roughed up in reentry. They looked forward to their release date as a time to step into the Promised Land, only to discover a wilderness of collateral sanctions limiting their ability to work, find housing, access education and exercise their franchise. The wilderness extends to congregations that either openly reject them, or buy into the world’s stigmatization process rendering them silent. Theirs is a tacit fellowship of frustration shepherded by shame, silence, and stigma. And the ones who come home to this stony reality find a wilderness where they had expected grapes in bunches for two men to carry.
The newspapers and other media champion the need for jobs for ex-offenders. Employment woes dot the pages of those outlets that give the formerly incarcerated coverage at all. Poor training and education wed the stigma and shame of incarceration in a double ring ceremony that morphs from ties that bind into chains that restrict. A word from the Risen Inmate can minister Easter hope beyond incarceration, and encourage the jobless soul on the other side of imprisonment. The Resurrection says that there is life beyond the dank jail, the taunts of guards and fellow inmates, the pain of separation from loved ones. “I have scars,” Jesus declares, “but I am useful, triumphant, compassionate and giving!” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Fear not.” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Feed my sheep.” The post-release Risen Inmate declares “All power has been given unto me in heaven and in earth.”
And he promises his presence “even to the end of the earth.” There is a word for the ex-offender! A promise of a transformative permanent presence that knows how to look at a former accomplice who turned scared on him to avoid arrest, and tell him to feed his lambs. The Risen Inmate knows something about change, and trusting the formerly untrustworthy. He anticipated the change when he told Simon Johnson that he was a rock. So too does he call the formerly incarcerated by names that spell hope and promise, like the term “returning citizens.” But most of all he calls them human, beloved, and even “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that, the conspirator who put out a hit on Uriah the Hittite knew right well.
And Remembering the Victims
Is there a word from the Risen Inmate for those who have been victims of crime? What is a bold Easter message for families of victims, by walking toughs of town watch, by drive-by or beef, by violence domestic or street? Does God hear their pain on this Easter sunrise, and what evidence is there in the text expounded to let them know that the Healing God knows. The horrific screams heard on a Florida 911 tape may echo those of the sobs of a mother witnessing the unjust execution of her Son by alleged protectors of the common good. Is there no word for her?
“Woman, behold thy son, Son behold thy mother,” comes from the lips of the Preaching Inmate in a message that speaks hope and application in a moment of deep grief. When the Inmate’s visitors go home, they share space and possessions in a family reconfigured to provide care for her misery. The women received a word — but that word became flesh in the ministry of caregiving John supplied surrounding her, the victim of a horrific crime.
The Risen Inmate demonstrates in three days the woman’s vindication by virtue of the Resurrection. In the background, an Easter choir of formerly enslaved Africans, the old Jim Crow, sings: “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.”
Grabbing Resurrection Hope
Easter brims with the fullness of incarceration and its implications. It celebrates the vindication of the life of a man who did the hardest of time in the shortest of time. It recognizes that the One whose life we celebrate understood the pain of incarceration. Easter brings to judgment our fear of the inmate, our stigmatization of the prisoner, our shunning of those who return for a second chance-or a third chance, or a fourth chance…Simon Johnson elicited a response from the man destined for incarceration of seven times seventy.
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Early on the first Easter morning, one was risen for all of them.
This essay originally appeared at The Living Pulpit. It is reposted here by permission.
Even I ask myself: How can someone who lives with depression like such a depressing time of the church year?
Lent is my favorite liturgical season. I’m not exactly sure why.
I did and did not grow up understanding that many Christian churches follow something called a church calendar. My early years were spent in black Baptist churches that celebrated Easter and Christmas as holy days, but large swaths of spirituals, Sunday school and a row of black-suited deacons in-between.
In Catholic elementary school, I learned about Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Trinity Sunday and All Saint’s Day. I thought these were Catholic-specific things. Like confession and rosaries and the puffy white dress for first communion in second grade. Things I learned about, but couldn’t be a part of. Because I wasn’t Catholic. My parents said that I didn’t have to “give up” anything for Lent, if I didn’t want to.
This is how many people think of Lent. It’s this season before Easter where we focus on the sacrifice that Jesus makes for us on the cross. To honor this sacrifice, we too should experience a measure of sacrifice. Many people deny themselves of something. The proverbial chocolate. A bad habit. Foods filled with butter and sugar – that must be eaten up on Fat Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras). Some people understand these sacrifices as a kind of spiritual practice. These are ways to focus our energy and intent more upon our relationship wit the divine.
Other people decide to “take something on.” By picking up a good habit, being more who they are called to be, giving a good service to the world around them, they develop a spiritual practice that engages them more deeply in the world around them.
Either way, it is a time of spiritual introspection that is traditionally focused on the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Do people who live with depression really need more introspection? I mean, isn’t that part of our challenge? That we are too internal. That our thoughts turn in on themselves – sometimes betraying us, or making us think the worst things about ourselves. If we struggle to make it from one day to the next, need we sacrifice any more of our selves? Can we give any more than we are currently giving? Should we really spend forty days focusing on sacrifice and death?
I think I’m into Lent for Ash Wednesday. I like the ashes. Not because they remind me of my mortality. I’m well aware of that. I like them because of the verse in the 61st chapter of Isaiah. The first verses are repeated by Jesus in the 4th chapter of Luke. Words of a calling to liberate others. The third verse indicates that God also calls Isaiah to comfort those who mourn and “give a crown of beauty for ashes.”
I like this song that comes from these verses:
I understand a life of ashes. I understand grief that lasts long past the time of mourning. I understand how it is to feel as if everything I touch is crumbling. I understand the constant readjustment of expectations and abilities based on a crippling I-can’t-do-this-right-now state of being. I understand ashes.
In my early days in ministry, I discovered beauty in them. The ashes for Ash Wednesday services are traditionally burned from the palms used on Palm Sunday. Members of my church brought in the single palm strip they had saved from nearly a year prior. My pastor, decked in barbecue style apron and oven mitt, placed them in a large foil tray and lit them on fire. He tossed them until they became ash and used them to place a cross on our foreheads. Soon enough, the service was over, the congregation had left, and the ministered cleaned the sanctuary. As we left, my pastor whispered to me. “Come back early in the morning. Trust me.” Using my key, I returned at 6:30 am Thursday morning to a strong sweet pungency that hung invisible over the chairs, altar, hallway and musical instruments. All those ashes, given time, smelled amazing! It was … beautiful.
And I like that there are openings to find beauty in ashes. Lent gives me the chance to look for those opportunities. It gives me a season – every year – to turn over rocks, crouch down and look under the bed, sweep together the remnants of my last year, of my life, of the current day in search of whatever beauty may be there. It’s my chance to look for the life that can be found in the midst, or something after, death.
Last Lent, I led an online reading group through my book Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression. I decided that this would be my Lenten practice. Every year, I hope. By sharing my own frustrations, struggles and small victories, I find flashes of grace. I invite you to join me on this journey.
Find more information at www.NotAloneReadingGroup.com
Note: Monica A. Coleman is hosting an online reading group this Lent through her book, Not Alone. Participation includes the eBook of Not Alone, daily inspirational emails, vegan recipes (for those who may give up meat), a resource list and a weekly conference call with the author. Learn more information here. Readers of this blog are eligible for a raffle for one FREE participation. See the information below to enter. This giveaway runs from midnight to midnight on February 28th. Winner will be chosen randomly and notified with 48 hours of the end of the raffle.
Monica A. Coleman is Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology in southern California. An ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Coleman has earned degrees at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University. She has been featured as an expert in religion and mental health on NPR, blogtalkradio, BeliefNet.com,PsychCentral.com, Huffington Post and HuffPo Live. She blogs on faith and depression at www.BeautifulMindBlog.com. She is the author or editor of five books, including Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression – a 40 Day Devotional.
During Lent, we commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. As if it were New Year’s Eve, most Christians make a Lenten resolution, consecrate it with prayer, and stick it out until Easter. Our concern for particularity in this moment, while laudable, can prevent us from grasping — and being grasped by — a broader sense of mission. The immediacy of figuring out, “What am I going to give up?” can prevent us from asking, “What sort of person is God calling me to be within the church and the world?” The first question pivots around our personal aspirations; the second one opens up a vista of service and mission. Developing the latter theme, we might approach Lent as an opportunity to embrace the care of Christ and emulate his ministry of coming alongside and caring for the least of these.
Embracing the care of Christ can be painful, for it often requires a prior admission that we are wounded. Many recent college graduates work hard to secure employment and repay loans, only to experience job loss, a reduction of responsibility, or another economic shift causing them to move back in with their parents. They are wounded. Some 222,000 veterans have returned from Iraq to a jobless recovery, a gridlocked Congress, and employers who cannot grasp the relevance of leadership skills honed in a military context. They, too, are wounded.
Our individual ailments differ, but we share an Augustinian solidarity. The bishop of Hippo suggests that we are Good Samaritans, called to love across differences of race, class, religion, and other social realities. Yet we are also recipients of God’s boundary-bursting, Samaritan love — Jesus found us by the side of the road, bandaged our wounds, and nursed us into wholeness by the power of his Holy Spirit.
As a community whose health has been and is being restored, Christ calls us to tend to the social ills of his people and all people. Matthew 25:31-46, in particular, underscores the importance of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are in prison, and welcoming the stranger.
By caring with and for society’s most vulnerable members — Jesus calls them “the least of these” — we bear witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in Christ. We embody his love by performing acts that immediately address the maladies of drug addiction, domestic violence, and chronic sickness. Moreover, our engagement in intermediate, systems-transforming work on behalf of the least of these — inmates, immigrants, gay and lesbian military personnel, and so on — testifies to the restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ.
Such care, whether personal or structural, does not itself build or establish God’s kingdom. To claim that it does collapses human initiative into divine work (making devils out of those who may oppose it for well-argued reasons) and, more dangerously, runs the risk of idolizing the stratification of power that enables such change (e.g., relief and development arms of denominations or national governments become sacrosanct instruments beyond critique). Our individual and collective care for “the least of these” represent necessary and yet feeble attempts to follow in the footsteps of our Lord who prioritized the marginalized in his ministry. Our call is not about politics, not about ideology, but about modeling the love and justice of Christ. Cornel West has famously remarked that, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What does our Christian faith look like out on the street?
Lent reminds us that the church’s social service and justice-making efforts fall short of God’s glory, that our best attempts to repair the world are still broken, leading us to depend anew on the care of Christ. We are weak, but the consolations of our Lord are strong; through him we discover the strength to love, the power to carry on.
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.