Giving Up, Opening Up | February 25, 2023 by Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake
“The particular fact or experience which we are facing at the moment, or the memory of other particular facts or experiences from other moments, these are our openings, these are the doors through which we enter into wider meanings, into wider contexts.”
- Howard Thurman
Many of you probably noticed this past Wednesday various individuals with crosses on their foreheads made from the ashes of palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. It was Ash Wednesday, a day and ritual that begins the Lenten Season for many Christians. In Western Christians Churches it launches a period of 40 days of penitential preparation for Easter. Ostensibly, it brings to remembrance Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness in which he examined himself – his ego, motives, preparedness, vision, sustenance, and commitment to a groundbreaking ministry that would lead him from comfort to precarity. This was the time of his temptations in the wilderness.
During this season, many fast as a ritual for purifying themselves and even make sacrifices. I appreciate the gesture for those who can fast without medical complications and adverse health consequences. It is symbolic. The hunger that Jesus felt was deep and not satiable with bread although bread is important. More importantly, the gesture frequently fails to connect to the hunger that many feel today, not voluntarily as a symbolic act, but due to food insecurity. That is, they don’t have enough to eat. Food is inaccessible, too expensive, or is sacrificed for another necessity, such as rent.
One should not make light of the sacrifices made during this special time. Giving up something, a special food, smoking, or some other thing to focus on one’s spiritual development has the potential to be a very significant act toward reclaiming the spiritual dimensions of one’s life. Its aim is to become the better self by addressing “sins” of commission or omission. And there are “sins” of omission and commission that prevent us from becoming our best selves, the selves our creator needs us to be and created us to be.
Thinking of these things, my mind shifted to wondering about giving up for Lent the hounds of hell as Dr. Howard Thurman describes them in his book, Jesus And the Disinherited. We would be on our way to realizing our best selves if we decided not to be entrapped by fear, deception, and hate. Would we be closer to becoming our best selves? Would that emptying allow the God of Life to take up residence in us? According to Meister Eckhart, God would have no alternative but to do so. And could cleaning house open the door to nuclear the love that has been closeted within us? Should this not be a time of opening up to our possible grandeur while abstaining from the things that hurt ourselves and others?
During the ritual of placing the ashes on the forehead, the officiant often says: “Remember you are dust and into dust you shall return.” The words remind us of our mortality. That we shall not traverse the beautiful planet, under the threat of annihilation, forever. Our physical occupation of the land will end. Somehow, we must also think of our eternal life beyond our time-bound physical existence.
Dr. Matthew Fox in his Daily Meditation for Ash Wednesday informs us that: “The forehead is the sixth chakra, the chakra signifying our minds and the need to purify our minds, that is, to use them for the purpose for which they were intended. To seek Truth and to share it.”
Interestingly, the place on the forehead where the ashes are placed, is the place of seeking and sharing truth. It is the place where the mind seeks to fulfill its purpose. Dr. Fox continues:
It is a time like Ramadan in Islam or Yom Kippur in Judaism to take stock of one’s life, of one’s values, to ask: How can I do better? How can I live out my values more authentically, more real in my work and relationships and daily life decisions?
Accordingly, it is a time of practicing choosing detachment or letting go in order to deny our ego for a period one or more of its incessant satisfactions in order to purify our choices in a fuller way.
Jesus made the choice for the fuller way that led to his death as his ultimate sacrifice leaving no difference between his will and God’s will, his intent and God’s intent. They became one.
Lent is a harbinger of Easter, perhaps the Holiest day on the Christian calendar. It is therefore noteworthy that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. chose this time for an important event in the Birmingham campaign against apartheid in that city often called Bombingham, Alabama. The bombing of Black homes and churches was a frequent occurrence.
Good Friday morning, 1963, Dr. King and 24 other people sat in Room 30 at the Gaston Hotel in Birmingham. They had come to a Red Sea place. Hundreds of demonstrators were already in jail and King had promised to join them. The night before King had received the heart-rending news that the bail bondsman had been notified by the city that he could no longer provide bail for the demonstrators. Yet, King had promised to submit himself to imprisonment. How could he now do that being the only person with enough contacts to raise sufficient bail? In the midst of 24 pairs of eyes pondering the state of the movement, King decided to keep his promise submitting himself for jailing. He asked Dr. Ralph Abernathy to join him causing Dr. Abernathy to miss being in his pulpit on Easter the most sacred and celebrated Sunday on the Black Church calendar.
That was a sacrifice. That was emptying oneself for the sake of individuals and a community so desperately in need of uplift. That was raising people from their tombs, resurrecting dead lives into living souls that then resurrected others, the oppressed and the oppressor alike. That was fasting from fear, deception, and hatred. The demonstrators themselves had pledged their person and body to the Nonviolent Movement keeping the following Ten Commandments to:
1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus. 2. Remember always that the non-violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory. 3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love. 4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free. 5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free. 6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy. 7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world. 8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart. 9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.
I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.
While sitting in jail on Easter Sunday afternoon, King was informed that his lawyer and friend Clarence Jones, would be coming from New York the next day. When Jones arrived, he announced that Harry Belafonte had raised $50,000 for bail bonds stating that he would raise whatever else the movement needed. Resurrection had come.
Dr. Fox continues: The image of the Cross is invoked to remind Christians of what a drastic letting go and sacrifice Jesus underwent at the hands of the Roman empire whose values he rejected.
The Civil Rights Movement rejected the domination of the American Empire in its Easter movement.
In looking at current ways of fasting and sacrificing in penitential opportunities Fox suggests we give up Fox News for lent.
Running for the Senate seat currently occupied by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Congresswoman Barbara Lee along with Representative Mark Pocan introduced legislation that would cut $100 billion from the military budget. They state that the greatest threats to our security as a nation are not military. The Congresswoman further argues that appropriating these funds elsewhere “could do so much good: it could power every household in the US with solar energy; hire one million elementary school teachers amid a worsening teacher shortage; provide free tuition for 2 out of 3 public college students; or cover medical care for 7 million veterans.” It could also hire 890,000 registered nurses and create $1.3 trillion in savings over the next decade.
Currently, The National Defense Authorization Act appropriated $858 billion for defense spending in fiscal 2023, including $817 billion for the Department of Defense, up from the $813 billion that President Biden requested.
Can we as a nation abstain from war support during Lent and beyond? That would elevate our quality of life and help us to love one another, and each nation as we strive for peace and justice in the world. Could this aid in the resurrection of subjugated peoples rising into their God-given potential?
While registering with the penitent their/our mortality, why not also register how we experience the eternal in the dust when we aspire and dedicate ourselves to really imitating Jesus in our willingness to sacrifice our jobs, friendships, prestige, and even our lives for realizing the kin-dom of God now. For now is the time. It is the time allotted us. It is the time that we must do our best work and most inspired living.
. . . Into this presence we come, not by leaving behind what are usually called earthly things; or by loving them less, but by living more intensely in them, and loving more what is really lovable in them; for it is literally true that this world is everything to us, if only we choose to make it so, if only we ‘live in the present’ because it is eternity.
- Richard Nettleship