We are a little more than halfway through Lent, a period of time which calls us each to reflect on our relationship with God, and what things we want to change in our lives to deepen that relationship. Often times, people will give something up for Lent- something they feel detracts or distracts from their relationship with God, in order to make space for these reflections.
I’ve never really understood the concept of “giving up something for Lent.” When I was in school, I saw kids giving up red meat, or chocolate, and I didn’t really understand. I interpreted it to mean that Lent was about sacrifice- giving up something you loved as penance or a means of sacrifice to show your love for God. As I got older, I came to understand “giving something up” as a means of creating space. The time and energy we would have devoted to whatever we were giving up, we instead used to focus on prayer or other things that we felt connected us to God and God’s calling in our lives.
But to be honest, I had a hard time with this interpretation and understanding as well. It still has a feel of impermanence to it- we remove something from our lives for a set, finite period of time to make room for God, but then we bring it back into our lives at the end (usually with some sense of relief or enthusiasm that we can have whatever the thing is again). By doing that, it sort of feels like kicking God out again- very
much a feeling of “I created space and had wonderful reflections, but now I’m going to go back to how my life was before; this was just temporary.” I’m sure that’s not how it feels to those who practice it, but that’s how it has always felt to me.
Anyway, I say all this to say, I don’t really give anything up for Lent because, for me, I haven’t been able to do that in a way that feels congruent with my faith. And yet, here I am, in the middle of this period of Lent, and I find that I am working through many of the same struggles of loss, grieving, and temptation that come from giving something up. Because like all things that we give up, it feels good, initially, to make changes in our lives that are healthy and beneficial…and then we hit a point where it gets hard, and I feel like that’s about the mid-way point of Lent- where we are right now.
So far, this year (2017) has felt like a period of setting down old baggage for me. It has felt like- and continues to feel like- a time to look at my life and recognize those habits, behaviors, and patterns that have not suited me well, and work toward changing them. That’s a tall order, and not as concrete as giving up chocolate, but it feels authentic to my understanding of faith and God in a way that Lent never has.
It’s been important, I think, to do these things- and to continue to do them. I’ve been learning to be more transparent about desire, learning to state (and ask for) what I want from friends and partners, learning to be more vulnerable with people I care about, learning to be more transparent about things as they are happening (rather than jut in retrospect).
I’ve written lately about my life as a poly person, about going on dates with someone new, my issues with sex, and my struggles to be a real, authentic person. These, I think, are some of the culmination of this work I’ve been doing to try to be more honest and intentional about the relationships I have in my life and how I interact with them. I asked someone out on a date (asking for what I wanted) and told them beforehand, “I would be interested in fucking you” (claiming and stating desire). I’ve had a friendship transition into a sexual relationship, and was able to do so in a way that didn’t cause any issues in our polyamorous configurations (being transparent about things happening in the moment). I’ve let friends see me frustrated, sad, weary, but also giddy,
excited, nervous, and looking forward to things- something I am usually not good at doing, because I don’t like other people seeing me disappointed if the thing I’m excited about never comes to pass (learning to be more vulnerable). I’ve written erotica and sent it to lovers. So many of these things are connected to my sexual and embodied self, but they are also connected to how I live in relationships with others, what I offer and what I give, what I allow others to see and how I choose to interact with the world around me.
And damn, I’m tired. I’m weary. My heart seems to be saying, “radical vulnerability is nice, but you’ve left me open and exposed for a long time now and I think it’d be just as well that we stop all this nonsense and go back to being safe and protected and guarded because I’m tired of being so open all the time.” It’s so easy for the old demons and insecurities to come to the surface. I want a finite period of time where I know I can go back to life the way I have always lived it, and I won’t be weary and tired and afraid of vulnerability.
But the truth is, I don’t actually want to go back. I want to move forward to a point where these things aren’t terrifying because I have moved through them. I want to create more permanent space in my life- to actually learn how to be authentic and lay down some of this baggage for good. I want the ways in which I’m shifting to stick around for awhile, even if the journey getting there is difficult. I don’t want to lose this period of reflection and contemplation. I don’t want to give up Lent after Lent.
The “moving through” part is the hard part. Being present in the discomfort of change. Allowing yourself to feel loss- even if the things that you are letting go of are toxic and unhealthy, there is still loss. Before we figure out how to do it better, before we figure out how to fill the space, there is an emptiness, a hole where we have set one thing down but
haven’t picked something else up yet, and we realize exactly how tired we are.
It’s easy to cling to the devil we know. But in this period, we are encouraged to consider and contemplate how we might strengthen our relationships with ourselves and with God. And so, as I continue to put
down some of my old baggage, as I continue to intentionally work to change unhealthy habits, as I struggle to navigate situations in ways that are not damaging or toxic, I think about this period of Lent. The midway point. Because even though these things don’t stop for me when Lent ends, it’s a good reminder to me that change is not always easy, or comfortable.
At some point, things get hard, and that becomes the part where we are actually making space. Do we allow those things which are hard, which push us, which ask us to stretch and grow to move us further away from God? Or do we allow these things to change us in ways that deepen and strengthen our relationship with God? Do we move in ways that are authentic to our callings, or do we move in ways that are more comfortable to our habits? This period of Lent- or whatever period of time you take to intentionally reflect on your relationship with the Holy- asks that we create space in our lives with intention, and find ways to hold that space beyond just the time we have set aside.
Strengthening our relationship with God is not something we can do for finite periods of time. God isn’t something we can schedule in; God shows up when God is ready to. All we can do is work to prepare a place, to cultivate space in our hearts for when we feel that small voice stirring. Because before we can follow our calls, we must first be willing to listen.
In the past week or so I have been having trouble staying focused in my writing. I have felt pulled in several directions; I have more interests than I have time to write about them all, or at least that is how it feels. I had begun to feel overwhelmed, sometimes even despairing, wondering what kind of writer am I? What might be my signature, what subject or genre is most central to me as a writer?
A conversation with Malachi helped me see that this might be an outcome of my Lenten fast this year. I pledged not to partake of those internal messages that say I am not capable of responding to the call on my soul to be the writer God creates me to be.
What if, as a result of not letting old messages shape my life, my vision, I am becoming more open to all my possibilities?
This would surely reflect my long-time view of Lent as a time of growth rather than solely a time of penitence. I am not opposed to penitence or penance, and certainly benefit from deep inner reflection and owning my shortcomings. But too often, in my experience, Lent is seen as a time of punishment—feeling often to me like a time of beating up on ourselves, even beating our bodies, for the guilt of Good Friday to come again, and our continuing participation, or at least complicity, in violence and oppression.
Instead of punishment, however, I have found that Lent provides an opportunity to go deeper into spiritual truth, and to be changed by experiencing that truth. In my case, right now, I feel I am being given an opportunity to make conscious choices about the nature of my work as a writer.
That is an extraordinary gift for someone who has long been engaged in work that, while good and often productive and even satisfying in many respects, did not reflect who I am deep in my soul. As I continue to move more fully into claiming writing as my vocation, my ministry, my calling, it seems I am being given a menu of options so I can, with God’s help, shape my life to reflect more of what is most important to me. This may seem easy, but at the moment I am really having to probe deeply into my soul to learn what matters most. The reality, hard to face, is that I cannot focus on all the topics in which I have an interest, nor can I work in all the genres I might wish to try.
Lent this year, then, has become about discernment. One thing that clear to me is that my interests—theological/spiritual, poetic, creative—center in bodies: Feeling bodies, dead bodies, Black bodies, brown bodies, LatinX bodies, queer bodies, Trans bodies, male-born bodies, female-born bodies, white bodies, naked bodies, sexy bodies, Palestinian and Israeli bodies, Gazan bodies, Sudanese bodies, Asian bodies, Native bodies, aging and aged and wrinkled and sagging bodies, polyamorous bodies, young (younger than me at least) buff and not-so-buff bodies, skinny bodies, fat bodies, smooth bodies, suffering bodies, malnourished and distended bodies, hairy bodies, lesbian bodies, gay bodies, bi-racial and bisexual bodies, and the whole rainbow of precious, godly, human bodies.
And my body, too.
In that regard, I received a jolt. It began about ten days ago as a result of the nudist party about which I wrote last week (Can Prayer Be Erotic?)
The experience I described in that post as well as my reflection on it, touched and enlarged my awareness of how much nudism or naturism means in my life. A journalist visiting that gathering interviewed many of us about our attitudes toward and experience of nudism, and when I told her I am a theologian and retired pastor she probed me about the spirituality of nakedness. During our conversation I told her I had wondered if I might write as The Naked Pastor (or Preacher). She asked if she could quote me, and do so with my full name (some at the gathering wanted her to use other names). I said “yes” to both. I have no idea when or where or even if her piece will be published.
And then, two days ago, as I read a blog post from a man who writes about being naked in a wide variety of situations (The Naked Jade), it came to me that what I might really want is to be The Naked Theologian.
The Naked Theologian? Yikes! Would that mean pictures of me naked, like The Naked Jade, while writing, speaking or teaching (where would that be)? And what would my husband, my family, say, and my church? Would they, the church, even let me in the door, let alone continue as Writer-Theologian in Residence? Would anyone take me seriously?
Such concerns, anxiety—okay, fear—arise from two sources. One is that my body, unlike Jade’s, is far from photogenic. I have wrinkles and sagging skin (I am 70 after all) and am very far from well-endowed. And the second may be even more fundamental: people, especially most religious people, are not open to nudity as an acceptable public presence (heck, a lot of people don’t even feel comfortable with nudity in private).
I do not know where this will end up, but I feel I need to stay in this exploration, this journey, to become the me I am called to be. On that way, I am reminded of a Celtic prayer:
Awaken my senses this day
to the goodness that stems from Eden.
Awaken my senses this day
to the goodness that can still spring forth
in me and all that has life.
The goodness that stems from Eden . . . . hmmm . . . this contradicts what I learned in Sunday school and in the church of my youth. What I heard was that although Eden may have been beautiful, bad things happened there. Stay away from Eden. In fact, much of the Lenten tradition that I identify with punishment seems to flow from that view of Eden.
However, perhaps I am being given a new view. Maybe Lent is really about rooting ourselves in the joy and hope and pleasure of Eden, so we can walk in wholeness and love with Jesus wherever he leads?
Happy Lent, anyone? Or Naked Lent? Or at least Loving Lent, Holy Lent, Joyous Lent?
Whatever. I hope your Lent is as interesting and filled with sacred possibilities as mine.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
How do you experience Lent? Is it a time of openness to new things in your life, or a time to revisit comforting ideas or practices from the past? Does it feel like rules or a holy pilgrimage? What are you “giving up” or moving away from during Lent this year? What are you hearing from God? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us in about two weeks, THURSDAY, March 16th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.