Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Fast I Choose

So my friend Nichola (see comments from yesterday) posted this morning on Facebook:
So, at last night's Occupied Ash Wednesday gathering, the one person present who had no substantial connection to Christianity was blown away by Isaiah 58, and at the end, said something like, "Oh my god, this is so beautiful! If your book says this about 'raising your voice like a trumpet,' and 'shouting out loud about the rebellion of the people,' and 'feeding the hungry,' why isn't this plaza packed with church people?" Those of us who are Christian just looked at each other sheepishly.

Why isn't the public square packed with church people? Is that part of a more basic question: why isn't the church packed with church people? Or is it the other way around?
The list of reasons is long and complicated, to be sure, but it gets down to some basic questions of faithfulness. Do we really believe the prophet's vision:
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

It is beautiful. But do we believe it, and not just in the manner of giving intellectual assent to the proposition that God is with us and thus we shall be the repairers of the breach, the restorers of the streets? Do we believe it such that we are willing to give our lives to it?
The evidence -- in the public square and in the church house -- is not promising.
On the other hand, many of us continue to show up in those places and more, and we continue to lift up words of hope, of love, of justice.
Oh, and here's a hymn inspired by Isaiah's vision for singing in the public square or the church:

This is the Fast

Is this the fast I choose for thee
Of ashes, tears and empty misery?
Or rather this: To share abundant bread
That all my children will be loved and fed

Why do you fast yet still not see
Your sisters suffering in poverty?
Their children cry and still you do not hear;
their fathers bowed and broken by their fear.

This is the fast I choose for thee
Of justice, peace and human liberty
Not forty days, but all your yearning years
My love will wipe away all human tears

Break, bless and eat; then drink this wine
The fast I choose makes ev’ry midnight shine
You shall be called restorers of the street.
Arise, now shine! And make your fast complete.

Tune: Truro (Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates; Christ is Alive!; Live Into Hope!)
Feel free to use it. Copyright, D. Ensign, Lent, 2005

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lent and the Impossible

It has been a very long time since the days when I was doing doctoral work on 20th-century French philosophy. Indeed, it was actually in the 20th century! But for some reason as Lent begins this year I've been pondering the impossible.
The impossible was a recurring theme in Jacques Derrida's writing, and while none of that work is ready-to-hand at the moment (search engines notwithstanding), I'll reduce it violently to one observation: the answer to any question worth posing is (the) impossible.
You can trace the impossible, the impassible, the entirely and unutterably other through much of Derrida's work, and, in particular in his lengthy dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas. Their conversation was central to my ancient dissertation.
What's any of this got to do with Lent?
Levinas was fond of interesting equations. I recall, for example, his observation that "paternity is a relationship with a future that is not my own." I'm pretty sure I remember that after all these years because I was playing with it in a paper I wrote while we were anticipating the birth of our firstborn -- who turns 21 this week.
Other of Levinas' equations were pithier: ethics is liturgy. That one I recall because I teased it out in work that I was doing even as I was beginning my own turn, or re-turn, toward what we too easily reduce to "the religious."
I don't recall if Levinas actually wrote "ethics is the impossible," or if I'm making that up. But, hey, this is a blog post not an academic article -- thanks be to God, or the impossible I Am, or that which, in this very moment, calls me by my name. In any case, his various observations about "ethics" drew me deeply into the long conversation that he and Derrida conducted through various texts over many years. In those writings they regularly addressed, indeed their conversation turned on, "the impossible."
I got to thinking about that in terms of practices one "takes on" or "gives up" for Lent. Most of the time we go for the low-hanging fruit of the the imaginable, the possible. There's nothing wrong with that. Picking up something that one can actually accomplish is always worthwhile, in this or any season. Letting go of something that one needs to let go of, and that one can, in fact, let go of is also always worthwhile.
But what if we aimed deeper or higher toward "the impossible"? What would it look like to practice "the impossible"?
In their own distinctive ways, both Derrida and Levinas focused considerably on encounters with the other. Levinas wrote extensively about face-to-face encounters and confrontations with the face of the other. Derrida wrote a good deal, especially late in his life, about hospitality and the politics of friendship. All of that work was about the impossibility inherent in the claims that others make on us.
I can't recall at this point -- again, blog post not academic paper -- whether either Levinas or Derrida riffed on Paul's eschatological observation that "now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
Such knowledge is at once the impossible and the fundamental demand that others place on us. We all want to be known. The essence of hospitality, the root of ethics, perhaps even the ground of politics and certainly of justice is found in that basic desire to be known fully.
To the extent that any of our Lenten disciplines aim, ultimately, at deepening our relationships -- with God or with others -- they aim at the impossible.
What if we took on "the impossible" for Lent?