Do Nothing for Lent and Be Grateful
by Amy Ruth Schacht, guest contributor
“Contemplation” (photo: Kasia/Flickr cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Ash Wednesday is today, inaugurating this year’s season of Lent. Cultural customs dictate “giving something up” for Lent. Without any meaningful or theological reflection, it becomes “giving up for the sake of giving up,” as though the mere act is enough. Is there more to it than just giving us something to talk about and a way to feel good about ourselves?
Perhaps a more faithful practice is to connect an act, or the abstinence from an act, with our longing for God. Give up Facebook, and all that may happen is that other chores fill in that time the way the ocean fills our sandcastle moats; the castle eventually falls, and there’s no trace of our intention left. Give up chocolate, and all that may happen is that we fill our mouths with Skittles or our minds with obsessing about chocolate. Neither connects us with the grace of God, present every moment.
If our intention is to remember our efforts and our strivings cannot save us, it would be better for us to do nothing, and do it often, these six weeks. Stare out the window at creation. Hold a warm cup of tea and sit. Waste an hour doing absolutely nothing. God fills the emptiness that comes. In a culture that measures our worth by the length of our daily accomplishments or the volume of our inbox or how scheduled our days, how countercultural would it be?
To commit to doing nothing. It takes practice to build up the tolerance for non-productivity. Who are we if we are not working? What are we here for if we do nothing? Where is God, and what does the Divine expect for us and from us? What about this invitation for Lent: for a set number of minutes every day, do nothing. It’s more of a sacrifice than we realize, for we are sacrificing what defines us and what gives us life. Perhaps then we will discover the power of grace that comes in every breath.
Amy Ruth Schacht is a pastor at Laurel Presbyterian Church in Maryland.
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Desecrated Bodies, Dashed Hopes
by Arezou Rezvani, guest contributor
When a video of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters became international headline news last month, national dialogue around the incident centered mostly on its impact on U.S.-brokered peace talks, the safety of military personnel in the region, and the military culture that some argue contributed to the dehumanizing act. Largely absent from mainstream news media coverage, however, was any meaningful attempt to understand how the global Muslim community viewed the desecration of the corpses.
What took place in January was not unique. In 2010 images of a group of U.S. Army soldiers dubbed the “kill team” posing with mutilated Afghan corpses emerged and were eventually published in Rolling Stone magazine. Now, just over a year later, a similar war crime has been committed by American Marines, sparking a fresh but familiar conversation about how the psychology in and around war is not well understood by the American public.
It is indeed an important conversation to be had, particularly if there is any sincere interest in helping the latest and largest wave of U.S. troops that left Iraq in December transition back to civilian life. What is equally important, however, is a discussion around the recurring theme of desecrating the dead in a Muslim country.
In Islam, desecrating enemy corpses was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad and is regarded today by practicing Muslims as a sin and a crime. The religion also rejects cremation as a proper rite for death as it is believed that the tailbone, which is thought to regenerate the complete human being on the Day of Resurrection, would be destroyed. Another interpretation within Islam condemns any desecration of a corpse on the premise that the resurrected body will appear as it did at the moment of death.
When one considers the funeral rites and regulations in Islam, from the process of washing the body — a step that in itself entails a very particular set of instructions — to the act of shrouding a corpse in white prior to interment, it becomes clear that the rituals associated with the transition between life and death are an integral part of the faith.
The most recent incident of depriving the dead Taliban fighters of that ritual could have been an opportunity to start a dialogue around Muslim religion and culture. Instead, most of the coverage further enabled the American public’s blindness toward the “other.” This disinclination to examine the global consequences of collective ignorance, which in this instance manifested as an indifference toward the desecration of Taliban corpses, only serves to exacerbate tensions between Americans and the broader Muslim world.
American news media have an obligation to offer comprehensive coverage and fine-grained contextualizing of events that the public is not always ready confront. To be sure, debates around whether the incident will prompt another wave of anti-American sentiment in the region, or whether military culture is to blame for the dehumanizing act, makes for good television and two-page spreads in print publications. But ultimately it’s cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue that will help to avert similar future acts of dehumanization and diffuse tensions. Until the news media are willing to create the kind of broad narrative understanding of events that makes such dialogue possible, their tacit enabling of collective ignorance means that they will be complicit in any future acts of dehumanization.
Arezou Rezvani is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Her work appears on NBC Los Angeles and American Public Media’s Marketplace, where she explores themes related to business, religion, and foreign affairs. You can see more of her reporting at Spectrum.
“False Spring” - A Poem
by Becca J.R. Lachman, guest contributor
Photo by Daniel Peckham/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0
February 1. 65 degrees in SE Ohio. Our minds shift to “April” “earth,” “skirts.” We check lawns for daffodils-in-the-making, our laundry remembering how to flap. No one checks the 10-day forecast. We don’t want to know.
On my way to play piano for a ballet class, I spot a sunflower the size of my palm on the sidewalk ahead. Escaped from a bouquet? I think, excited, Or a sign that spring’s settled in? I reach down to be its rescue—find out it’s plastic. The rest of my day feels the same.
A college town openly displays its secrets, especially when snow finally melts. Crushed green glass and leopard bikini briefs, abandoned; an open pizza box with a necklace inside; cigarette butts, the tail-ends of conversations never finished. This time of year, the ground can reflect us.
For seven weeks, I gently build up to two questions, give my poetry students hard homework: What does it mean to be a writer in a time of war?, What would you ask a soldier if you could ask anything? Only half the class shows up to answer. I come home and pull covers up over my head, just another bulb.
The full moon pulls out dreams like silk pajamas from open drawers. For weeks, my sleep’s been filled with characters in plain dress, actors in bonnets or suspenders pretending to be something they’re not. I am the one who calls them out, reveals their false identity. Exact accusations from these dreams: “Who’s your bishop?,” “What have you given up?,” “What’s your favorite cheese?” The question I get most often about my upbringing: “What makes you different from me?” Sometimes, it also feels like accusation.
Last night, I was going to build a house on the edge of my grandpa’s farm—but in the dream, I didn’t recognize the land. I wake up frightened.
The wind stirs up more questions, allergies, afternoons under the quilts. How long can a Mennonite last without community?, Have the squirrels eaten all the daffodil bulbs?, Could my students spend a whole day in silence? Could I?, Who will shake our lives gently, tell us, ‘Shhhh—You’ve just been dreaming’?
Even Thoreau kept secrets hidden by the louder things he said, had his mother do his laundry. The wind blows our socks from the clothesline and into the woods. The president gives a speech. We forget what we’re funding. It’s too warm to care. I may never know what my students have learned from me.
Accepting the shape of one life takes practice. Remember asking for someone to help you trace the outline of your body on a sheet of torn-off paper? Did you recognize yourself as only border? I swear, just now, I smelled what the garden could be.
Becca J.R. Lachman is a poet, college writing instructor, and singer-songwriter living in Athens, Ohio. Her first book of poems, The Apple Speaks, investigates her Swiss Mennonite roots along with being an “AMK” (adult missionary kid), and is slated for release in April 2012.
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Running with the Dalai Lama
by Chris Miller, guest contributor
“Action” (photo: Alessandro Pautasso/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
Most people listen to songs like “Eye of the Tiger” or the theme from Chariots of Fire when running. I am not most people. I prefer a good old-fashion podcast.
A few days ago I was listening to the interfaith forum “Pursuing Happiness” while out on a five-miler. Around mile three, something amazing happened. Maybe it was the noise of the traffic or the use of a translator, but I lost track of who was speaking. Instead of rewinding, I went along with it and, before long, I was amen-ing each answer without knowing who gave it.
There was a time in my past when this type of thing would have been unheard of. I grew up Southern Baptist. My amens were reserved for fellow brethren. If one was not a hymn-singing, Bible-thumping, submerging-baptizer, then one was not worthy of my praise. I was taught truth had to come from the “correct” source. Otherwise, it was heresy. Yet there I was, hearing truth from a Muslim scholar, an Orthodox rabbi, an Episcopalian bishop, and the Dalai Lama himself.
How was that possible? Maybe it was the lack of oxygen or the sweat in my eyes, but I had a realization. Truth is truth. Some thinkers take this even a bit further, saying, “All truth is God’s truth.” I’m beginning to agree.
God is big enough to reveal himself as he chooses. I have heard and seen God in print, in music, and in film — from both Christian and non-Christian sources. I have heard preachers and atheists teach powerful spiritual truths. I have seen God dwelling amongst the dirtiest of slums and the most decorated of sanctuaries. He is heard and seen however and wherever He chooses to make Himself known.
When Moses first encountered God, he demanded a name. But instead of giving him a name, God replied, “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” He refuses to be labeled. When one labels God, when one claims him as their own, they reduce him to an image of their liking. They limit him. They only let him speak through the voices they have approved.
Of course, God cannot be limited. “Pursuing Happiness” was proof of that. He spoke through each individual on the stage, whether they labeled him Yahweh, Allah, or something else. He made himself known.
As I finished my run, I realized it was not only my legs that got a workout. My mind, my heart, and my soul were also pushed. In the course of those five miles, I was exposed to truth — God’s truth — by individuals very different from me. Who would have thought the Dalai Lama could make such a great running partner?
Chris Miller is a seminary student living in Merriam, Kansas. You can read more of his writing at Caffeinated Ramblings.
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