Old Habits Die Hard: Lent 2018

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I recently joined a group at my church called Be the Bridge, a gathering of people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds coming together simply to process race within the church. Started by Latasha Morrison, Be the Bridge works to create people who press on “towards fostering and developing vision, skills and heart for racial unity.”

The first week that we met, I cried while introducing my story as a Potawatomi Christian, because I don’t often have safe spaces in which to share my story. It’s one thing to write about it, but it’s another thing to talk openly about the struggle. It was like a group therapy session, people from different backgrounds sharing their racial experiences with one another.

In another small group setting, someone brought up Lent, asking what we’re prepared to give up (or pick up) this Lenten season. I hesitated.

Because so much of my journey as a Potawatomi woman and a Christian feels like a strange wilderness (you can read more about it here), Lent is just an extension of that. I could give up chocolate or sugar, but I feel like there’s something more here, something else that’s asking to be paid attention to.

So, I have a different idea for this Lent.

What if we decided to look our habits in the face this Lent? And I’m not talking about the way we eat or how often we watch television.

It’s more subtle than this.

I’m talking about our institutional habits that have been crafted over the years, systemic habits that have pitted humans against other humans, humans against the earth.

Habits such as racism, ableism, stereotyping, hatred, bigotry, misogyny, patriarchy, white supremacy, or damaging religious rhetoric are the things I’m talking about.

If you grew up in religious settings that told you what to believe and how, no questions asked, you know that day after day, those beliefs become habits, and after a while, it’s terribly difficult to break them.

As the old saying goes, old habits die hard.

And that’s what Lent is about, when we’re faced with a wilderness experience that asks us to look beyond our skin and bones and see what lies there, deep inside.

So this Lent, I’m asking us to look at what’s underneath. I’m asking us to check into the subtleties of damaging habits and mindsets, ones that have been brought to the surface of America’s landscape lately.

I’m asking us to sit in the wilderness with Jesus as we ask how we got here and where we are going.

I’m asking us to have really difficult conversations.

One of these subtleties happened for me recently when I was asked, not for the first time, “So how far back?” How far back does your Indian blood go?

As my husband lovingly and passionately pointed out later, I could have simply said, “Me. I am an enrolled member of my tribe, and so you don’t need to ask that question. It’s me.” But in the moment, I freeze over these kinds of questions. I explain who my ancestors were. I explain that I am on the tribal rolls of my tribe, that I can trace my people back to the Great Lakes Region of the United States before the Trail of Death.

But you see, that’s not the answer people are looking for. Because we are trained to ask for a blood quantum. We’re trained to say, “So, your native blood is running out, right? How native are you, really?”

It’s the subtle things, right?

This Lent, we’re not going to decolonize or deconstruct every part of ourselves for good.

But we can begin to break some of those habits and recognize that the things we’ve been institutionally taught have fostered attitudes of racism, hatred and misogyny in America, and in our schools and churches.

So this Lent, I intend to keep my mind alert.

I intend to face my own racism, whether it’s against my African American brother or the white woman who asks how Indian I am.

I intend to watch the women in the church around me, to speak words of empowerment over them in the face of constant misogyny and patriarchy. 

I intend to watch how I interact with my brothers and sisters with disabilities, how I pay attention to their needs and battle stereotypes that are set up against them.

I intend to have conversations with my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, to learn from them, their histories and stories, their experiences in America.

I intend to pay attention to the mental paths my mind takes when I get defensive, to trace those paths back to institutional habits that have been set in place for years.

Then, I intend to pray into those spaces.

And know this, I am one of those people who believes that prayer is a constant position of the body, mind, spirit. That also means I’m pretty bad at sitting still with the silence.

So I want to sit and face my own habits. I want to face institutional racism, misogyny, hatred, religious bigotry, and I encourage you to do the same.

And as you explore these things too, share what you’ve found with us. Use #oldhabits on social media to begin conversations about where you’ve noticed your mental processes going and how you want to change them. Challenge the systems that put them there, and challenge yourself not only to create new mental and spiritual habits, but to challenge those institutions as well. Challenge them for your children. Challenge them for future generations.

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The only way we begin to kill old habits and pick up new, healthier ones is to do it in community, to do it with others in spaces like Be the Bridge groups, in conversations on Twitter or in private Facebook groups, with people we trust, over cups and cups of coffee where we understand that the conversation, as hard as it may be, is far from over.

So here are a few ideas for this Lent, always, always with the work of shalom and grace in mind:

  1. Grab a cup of coffee or dinner with someone who is of a different race than you are, and take turns telling your story. Don’t interrupt one another, don’t get defensive if something difficult is said. Come to the table with the understanding that you want to pay attention to institutional racism.
  2. Listen to some women in your religious circles. Challenge misogyny. Get a group of men together and ask them to share stories about the women who have shaped their theologies. If you’re creative, make a video of those stories and share it with your church community.
  3. Read new books by people of color (here’s a perfect list to get you started!), and read new books that challenge what we’ve been taught about our history, like A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Honor #BlackHistoryMonth by listening to black voices around you.
  4. Read the Bible with eyes to see that Jesus was an activist, a rebel, and someone who constantly challenged institutions. Ask what that looks like for you in America in 2018.
  5. If you are part of a church, ask why it is or isn’t diverse or inclusive. Explore what it would mean to start a Be the Bridge group or to simply have new conversations, like how the church was complicit in the genocide/assimilation of indigenous peoples in America. Ask who the indigenous people were who once lived on the very land where your church is planted, and put a sign out front honoring them.
  6. Join this Facebook group, where we’ll have serious, respectful and safe discussions about these institutional habits and how they affect us. 
  7. Give yourself and others grace, because we cannot move forward if we are paralyzed by fear or by how hard this is. It is going to be hard, and it’s going to be terrifying at times. You are not alone.

May this Lenten wilderness call us out of ourselves and into the wholeness of a God who sees color and diversity and calls it good.

May this Lenten wilderness make us uncomfortable enough to ask difficult questions, and patient enough to listen for difficult answers.

May this Lenten wilderness bring more of the truth of gospel to our circles, the heart of justice and shalom always guiding us into a more inclusive faith.

May this Lenten wilderness lead us to deeper love for the created world we inhabit and for one another, precisely because of our differences. May we no longer feel the need to say “we are color blind” but that “we love others because we are not the same.”

May this Lenten wilderness remind us that wildernesses are meant to show us ourselves in the face of a world that reflects all the wild love of God. May we lean into that truth today.

Join me.

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“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir

 

JESUS & US: a shared wilderness

Mark 1:4-12

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The Baptism of Jesus

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son;[d] with you I am well pleased.”

The Temptation of Jesus

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

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After Jesus was baptized, he was sent out to spend time in the wilderness. Over the years we’ve examined different ideas for why we think he spent time there, why it was necessary, but what we know is that the wilderness experience was the beginning of a new season in Jesus’s life.

We were sitting in church talking about this passage, and I was growing weary within a few minutes of the conversation, trying to understand what all of this could have meant in an indigenous perspective and not an American or western one. It’s new for me to look through this lens at the stories I heard all through childhood, but it’s a challenge I enjoy if I have the time to make connections in Jesus’s life to my own indigenous identity. And in that space, in a conversation about baptism and wilderness experiences, I did.

In native culture, young men at the time of puberty are sometimes called to go out into the wilderness to receive their life’s calling. Sometimes an elder might accompany them, oftentimes they go alone. They enter the wilderness because they know that on the other side they will come out a new version of themselves.

Kavasch and Baar in their book, American Indian Healing Arts, put it like this:

Endurance training and spending nights camping out alone with little or no food help to prepare each youth for the rigors of his spiritual journey. As the time for the quest approaches, rituals of purification, such as fasting and smudging– the burning of one or more sacred substances and bathing in their smoke– take place, accompanied by special prayers.

Then the boy goes off by himself to seek a vision. He spends four or five days and nights fasting, alone with his thoughts, on a windswept butte or within a shallow pit. He learns to deal with fear and find out about his own personal strengths. Each boy also looks for power and meaning in the natural world. The vision quest frequently brings on life-changing visions and dreams that provide glimpses into mystical and spiritual realms beyond his ordinary experiences.

A vision quest draws a person deeper inside himself and at the same time allows him to look at himself from outside. So much does a person learn in the process that in many tribes it is thought to be essential to the proper evolution of a healthy life path. Pete Catches, a noted Lakota medicine man, once said, ‘I do believe every young Indian, about high school age, should do a hanblecheyapi (vision quest) to get direction in life, to know what life is all about.’

I grew up being taught a very negative side of Jesus in the wilderness, when Satan came to him and tried to destroy him and ruin his life calling before it was about to start.

But now, I see something different. It see a kind of communion with the wilderness that taught Jesus about himself, that prepared him for his coming ministry and journey. We cannot know what kind of conversations happened in that quiet, but I can imagine there were a lot of thoughts coming in and out of Jesus’s existence. And in his struggle with spirits– evil and good, past and present– he found himself, his voice, and his own spiritual journey unfolding.

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CHRIST IN THE WILDERNESS by British Artist Stanley Spencer 

Just as the youth cleanses himself before he enters the wilderness, Jesus cleansed himself– in baptism– and entered into his own wilderness experience. Do you see the sacred connection here?

What if part of Jesus’ experience of the Holy Spirit came in the wilderness, in the place that wasn’t expected?

This is what I see in the wilderness experience of Jesus: a time of calling in the midst of what were often, I’m sure, difficult conditions. Still, he listened. He quieted himself, engaged with the voices and energies around him, asked questions of the world he’d entered into, and received visions and dreams of his future.

Brother, sister, you may be in the wilderness, but that doesn’t mean it’s an empty wilderness.

Glory is still found there. Sacredness, even when it’s uncomfortable, even if you’re alone, even if you’re a little afraid.

A wilderness sometimes still has voices and wind, sun and shade, flowing water.

And many cultures probably have similar practices to this, but growing up in the southern baptist church with little connection to my own native identity, I completely skipped over the wilderness experience of Jesus, because it only had negative connotations. Instead, in some denomination contexts, we are skipping over a beautiful and pivotal time of Jesus’s life: his purification and vision quest– his sending out experience.

So, let’s look at our own wilderness experiences differently. If you are in the middle of your wilderness now, look for what it teaches you. Let the wilderness speak to you, let the lone quiet, perhaps the lonely quiet, breathe something back over you.

And the truth of it is that it is often painful, there are surprises we’re not prepared for, quiet that is too quiet. But instead of running from that pain, lean into it.

Let yourself listen.

Do not hush the wilderness.

Do not rush the learning and the listening, the ending or the beginning, the birth or the re-birth.

Let the wilderness song sink into your bones, let your dreams of the future guide you out and back to a busy and waiting world, ready to welcome you.

And not forget what the wilderness taught you, for it may very well be your namesake.

It may very well be your calling.

Just as Jesus began in his wilderness, so maybe you must begin again in yours.

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