Expanding Our Definition of Charity

I came across another great quotation for Lent from Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables:

[Monsieur Madeleine] had entire confidence in this overseer, a very respectable person, firm, just, upright, full of that charity which consists in giving, but not having to the same extent that charity which consists in understanding and pardoning.

Let that one sink in. How often are we willing to give to a cause to help people we see as less fortunate as us, but we are at the same time unwilling to understand the lives of those very people and forgive those behaviors we find distasteful?

Do we give money and gifts in kind to a homeless shelter and yet shake our heads with disgust at the homeless man or woman asking for money at the intersection? Will we write checks to organizations fighting human trafficking and still angrily judge the prostitute?

We are invited to expand our definition of charity beyond merely giving money or material goods (necessary actions, to be sure). Charity can also consist of understanding and pardoning others. True charity requires all these aspects. A charity without understanding and pardon is a patriarchal, drive-by kind of caring. A charity with understanding and pardon is the beginning of solidarity. Expressing this type of charity is when we become more like Christ, who does not keep us at arm’s length, but who knows us and our situations intimately. His real charity in understanding our lives allows him to pardon us and give us what truly helps.

During Lent, may we ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to broaden our definition of charity. May the Holy Spirit give us the courage to express the charity of understanding and pardon.

Facebook Fast Insights (So Far)

I am fasting from Facebook for the third year in a row this Lenten season. Each time I have similar experiences. Like any fast, the first few days are the hardest when I am most keenly aware of how habitual my Facebook use has become. Though I removed the app from my phone, I still found myself reflexively reaching for it as I stood in line at the grocery store or when I felt bored watching the kids.

I also gain new insights every time I do this. As my Covenant family puts it: the same act in a different context is a different act. Here is what I’ve seen from this year’s fast.

Distraction Abounds

The point of a Facebook fast is to pay attention to what God might be saying to me through my physical context—both the space I inhabit and the people around me. This is an uphill battle. Never underestimate my ability to find new ways to distract myself and waste time. As Lent progresses I need to delete more apps that become Facebook replacements. So long, Instagram. Sayonara, Trivia Crack. I even read the news as a means of diversion and I have to limit how many times I hit refresh on my Google News page. Lessening distraction is a necessary first step to becoming more present, but being present is a discipline that requires greater work than simply cutting out those things that take away my focus.

Enjoying a Break from the Heat

Forty days is enough time for seismic activity. In previous Facebook fasts, I missed out on the social media conversation around world-changing events like Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation and Pope Francis’s election. So far this time I haven’t participated in the discussions concerning the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by Antonin Scalia’s death and a slew of presidential primary elections. Some years I have longed for the push and pull with others in response to major events. This year I find myself grateful to be away. Discourse on social media tends to produce more heat than light and I am glad to take a break from reading and participating in the acrimony. My blood pressure may have dropped. I’m not fighting with people in my head as much.

You Are Not Entitled to Listen to My Opinion

I remain as opinionated as ever about during the fast, especially about politics. Just ask my wife. But by intentionally refraining from reacting to the news—particularly the appalling news of a narcissistic demagogue sweeping through the Republican primaries—I see how unnecessary my opinion often is. I believe every person is entitled to her own opinion and I wouldn’t want to take away anyone’s voice, but I gain something by keeping my mouth shut on social media. My views have time to simmer. I’m not tempted to respond just because everyone else is. I have plenty of friends who offer reasoned arguments and I feel the absence of their voices. But so much of the stuff on my Facebook feed is noise. I know I contribute my share of it. Really, I like the sound of my own voice. Being entitled to my own opinion doesn’t mean everyone else needs to read my opinion.

Sisyphus’s Status: Another Morning, Another Time up the Hill.  #ThisStoneAintGoingToRollItself

Being an at-home parent of young kids can be a Sisyphean effort. Preparing meals and changing diapers and driving to and from school and wiping away spit up and washing laundry and reading books and building train tracks and cleaning the floor. Repeat it all again the next day and the next day and the next. As I lay in bed many nights, I see that I did a lot of stuff throughout the day, but I don’t necessarily think I accomplished or produced anything. Seeking a sense of accomplishment in parenting little kids is like chasing the wind. They are their own people with their own wills. We cannot take too much credit for their development or delays. During the fast I see how Facebook has become for me a means of getting an accomplishment fix. A status update that garners a number of likes makes me feel like I am seen, like I made something worthwhile that others appreciate. This is especially true on days in which my kids want to hear nothing from me or refuse the very same food they declared their favorite just the week prior. How meaningless. Status updates might be the most fleeting bits of writing—Facebook cares so little about them they don’t have a decent search function to find one from the past. I want to listen to God about this. Am I determining my worth and identity by what I produce? Or is there an invitation here? In being made in the image of the great creator God, I believe we are made to create. Is God inviting me to live into who I am by making sure I create on a regular basis? Also, how might I find more meaning in parenting?

Fasting is hard inner work, but thankfully we have a gracious and gentle God.

The Gospel Gives Us a Strange and Peculiar Perspective

After decades of loving the musical, Les Miserables, I am finally reading Victor Hugo’s novel. I found this passage describing Bishop Myriel especially inviting. (He is the bishop who later forgives Jean Valjean and sets him on a path of compassion):

He was indulgent towards women, and towards the poor, upon whom the weight of society falls most heavily; and said: “The faults of women, children, and servants, of the feeble, the indigent and the ignorant, are the faults of their husbands, fathers, and masters, of the strong, the rich, and the wise.” At other times, he said, “Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”

As we see, he had a strange and peculiar way of judging things. I suspect that he acquired it from the Gospel.

I want to emphasize Hugo’s summation of Myriel’s outlook. What a wonderful and haunting thought. May our encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ change us in such a way that the world around us would consider our way of judging things, “strange and peculiar.” Gaining respectability and social power are temptations we always face, but we have to admit there are simply some things about the gospel that will never make sense in our world.

For example, the Christian practices of forgiving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and radical generosity and hospitality are all peculiar and nearly unintelligible in our world. Forgiveness seems unwise or even dangerous in our culture that keeps long accounts. Turning the other cheek makes no sense. Retaliation in the form of a punch, social snub, lawsuit, or drone strike, is seen as far more reasonable. Giving of one’s money, time, and abilities for the sake of others on occasion is admired in our culture. But to make a habit of it at the expense of one’s career advancement or lifestyle is foolish.

During Lent, we take an inventory of our lives. We peer into our darkness and seek to repent of sinning against God and others “by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” We seek the grace of God to change how we think and act. These are peculiar acts for they are intentional practices to align ourselves with God’s mission in the world, and not a part of a self-improvement program. The great fast of Lent reveals our disordered desires and willingness to place our trust in that which cannot save us. We are once again invited to a deeper conversion to God’s kingdom. The strange gospel of Jesus Christ takes our focus off ourselves and puts it onto God and our neighbors.

Bishop Myriel says later in the novel:

Have no fear of robbers and murderers. Such dangers are without, and are but petty. We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us. What matters it what threatens our heads and our purses? Let us think only of what threatens our souls.

This is a fantastic exhortation for us during this holy season. In the remaining weeks of Lent, have the courage to confront what threatens your soul. And may God bless you with an encounter with the gospel—that inviting, challenging, comforting, perplexing, strange, and peculiar good news.

Readings, Prayers, and Candles for Lent

March 5 of this year is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent offers us space to reflect on our sin and Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. Through fasting and other acts of penitence we come to terms with our need for God’s grace. During these forty days we repent of our sins so we can recommit to God’s mission in the world.

Observing Lent is a deeply personal experience, but it runs the risk of becoming private. We have to acknowledge our families, communities, and churches need to repent as well.  Recently I learned about a growing practice of communal Lent observation using readings, prayers, and candles. The idea is not that different than the wreaths of candles used during Advent. Whereas Advent begins in the dark and we light another candle each week until Christmas representing the growing presence of Jesus, the Lent candle cross begins fully lit and each week we extinguish another candle as we move toward Good Friday. This growing darkness reminds us we had Jesus physically with us, but we rejected and killed God incarnate. We tried to snuff out the light of the world.

A Lenten candle cross is easy enough to make. It has places for six candles, one for each Sunday in Lent.

A Lenten Cross

The first Sunday begins with all six candles lit, the second Sunday with five lit, and so on. My church is going to include this observation during the season and I have written some readings and prayers  for our services. I have included these readings and prayers in a PDF. Feel free to use them and adapt them however you wish. Just don’t sell them.

Readings and Prayers for Lenten Candle Observances

Lessons from My Facebook Fast

For Lent I gave up Facebook. As the season drew to an end, I began reflecting on my experience. Here are some observations and insights.

  • I noticed the world around me more. Prior to the fast, it was not uncommon for me to check Facebook whenever I stood in line. Smart phones can be a blessing to introverted folks like me, allowing a bubble of personal space that others tend to respect. They can also be a curse, feeding those isolationist tendencies that prevent me from engaging others. During Lent I actually looked around at my neighbors in the grocery store and had a few conversations.
  • I missed hearing about the goings-on in my friends’ lives. At the same time, I learned that I have mistaken the broadcasting of information that happens in status updates for the actual interactions that friendships demand. Something in my mind had convinced me that because I knew where a friend in another town was eating dinner that I was involved in his or her life. During the fast I took the opportunity to have long telephone conversations with friends whose voices I missed and they were extremely rewarding interactions, full of the good stuff that never makes it into a status update. I realized that when I was on Facebook, I did not feel the same need to connect with them because I had settled for trading blurbs instead of seeking real engagement.
  • The fast confirmed some things I already knew about myself. For example, I am a terrible long-distance friend, as many others can attest. I therefore appreciate Facebook as it can help me stay somewhat in the loop and and keep others to a small degree in my loop, even if we don’t live in the same town. I also saw how dependent I am on Facebook for certain types of information, such as the dates of friends’ birthdays. I realized weeks later that I had missed some birthdays of people who are very important to me. (Perhaps this only further confirms my lack of long-distance friendship skills.)
  • Significant news stories happened during the fast—e.g., the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis—and I wished I could read the responses on Facebook of people whose opinions I value greatly. I suppose I could have just e-mailed or called them and asked directly.
  • I have a few friends on Facebook whom I use as my filters for news and commentary and I read just about everything they recommend. I can safely assume that they will link to something thought-provoking, well-written, and reasonably argued. These friends either read in disciplines outside my comfort zone or are connected to networks I am not and I appreciate them pointing me to writing worth considering. I find even those pieces with which I disagree worthwhile as they force me to think about my positions more thoroughly. I missed reading those recommended articles and engaging in those discussions and I look forward to their return in my life.
  • Related to the previous point, I did not miss the noise of so many Facebook posts. Numerous political, religious, and philosophical posts do little but disseminate bad information, vitriol, or sardonicism. The past six weeks were more peaceful since my blood didn’t boil reading nearly libelous and clearly spiteful memes that thought of themselves far more clever than they actually were. I also saw the ugly side of myself that relishes in either arguing against those memes—if I disagree with them—or laughing at the targets being mocked in the memes that are closer to my positions. I saw that I got a fix from arguments and much of my time and mental energy outside of Facebook was spent forming my next retort. Worse, I saw how I drew self-worth from the amount of likes I received for my comments and status updates—comments that I thought were far more clever than they actually were.
  • Facebook sucks creativity from me. The novelist Jonathan Franzen once wrote, “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” I begrudgingly admit the truth of Franzen’s point and would extend its scope beyond just fiction to all types of writing. If the internet as a whole decreases the quality of writing, Facebook is for me a unique adversary. In the season of fasting I was able to finish editing and publish my first eBook as well as start my second, efforts that would have taken much longer had I run to Facebook every time I hit a block in order to distract myself with pictures of food, silly memes, and engaging in debates that added more heat than light to the topic. If I want to be creative, I have to cap my time on Facebook. Raising a kid already limits the time I have to write. Facebook became for me a shortcut to writing some thoughts, but so much was lost in the truncation. What used to be a blog post I now reduced to a couple of sentences on a status update. And let’s face it, blog posts have never been the best means of exploring a topic with any real appreciation of nuance and subtlety. Compared to the brevity of a status update or a tweet, however, a blog post is a virtual chapter of a dissertation. (Granted, we must ask the larger question if people even read blogs anymore, but let’s table that discussion for another time.)
  • Not only do I allow Facebook to drain my creativity, I also allow it to negatively affect my prayer life. The time not spent on Facebook offered me more opportunities to pray for friends, family, and neighbors, some of whom endured serious trials during the weeks of Lent.
  • In terms of working toward solidarity with those who suffer, the Facebook fast did not immediately and obviously foster that goal. Fasting from food or types of food in the past reminded me of those in the world who are hungry. It’s not like people suffer for lack of access to Facebook. I wish I chose a fast that would have more easily reminded me of my hurting neighbors. I also wish I worked harder at praying for the poor and suffering while I fasted. So while fasting from Facebook may become an annual discipline, I think I will incorporate other fasts and practices as well during Lent so that I may better care for my neighbors.