Last week Khouria Destinie of Ascetic Life of Motherhood introduced me to the Triodion, the Orthodox liturgical book containing the hymns and services for the period from now until Holy Saturday. I was surprised to see that this book and the worship rhythm of Orthodox Christianity begins not with Ash Wednesday but with a three week pre-Lent period of preparation. It began yesterday with the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee and moves through progressive Sundays highlighting the story of the Prodigal Son, Last Judgement and forgiveness.
The Orthodox calendar might be different from the one you are used to. Great Lent begins on February 27th whereas for most of us Lent begins on February 22nd with Ash Wednesday. What I love is the dedication of the Orthodox pattern of worship, which includes not only 40 days of fasting during Lent itself, but three serious weeks of preparation before that to prepare our hearts and minds for the season. This is such an important time in the celebration of our faith that I think all of us need to give it our full attention now.
My personal Lenten theme for this year, as well as the theme for Godspacelight is “Breaking Down Walls”, a theme we also used in 2019 as our justice focus for the season. When I suggested this to our writers, Elaine Breckenridge commented:
I am pleased that the theme for Lent will revolve around justice. However I do struggle with the metaphor, “Breaking Down Walls.” I know it is a metaphor. But metaphors evoke pictures. Seeing walls knocked down looks violent to me. When I think of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, I see images of passive resistance on the part of those working for justice. When I think of Desmond Tutu and his great work in South Africa, I see images of people talking with one another and reaching reconciliation. It seems to me justice is an expansive and creative work steeped in peace, not destruction.
She is right, breaking down walls can be a violent act, though it can also be an act of release, of love and of hope, as walls separate us from each other and keep us isolated from the pain of our world. I must confess however, that when I first read her comment I thought “but I would want the bridges to smash the walls” because it is my experience that bridges can only be built when walls have started to fall. I think of some of the walls I have seen fall in my lifetime. The Berlin Wall, which I visited in the 1980s and kept a piece of until recently when I gifted it to a friend, taken from the wall by a German friend, who together with others prayed for years for the breaking down of the wall. The statues of Stalin in Poland, some of which I saw torn down after the country’s release from the Soviet Union. The wall of silence about black deaths at the hands of the police in the U.S., the barrier to people crossing from Mexico to the U.S., our confrontation with the consequences of climate change are examples of wall that are still in the process of being broken down. Unfortunately none of these walls came down without violence, even though the crumbling of the walls themselves were not violent acts. In fact they were acts of freedom and liberation.
Sometimes we need to break down walls so that we can build bridges. If we build bridges when the wall still exists, we still have barriers to peaceful, freedom giving action. What we need to work towards is a society of justice and understanding and compassion in which walls are not thought to be necessary.
In 2019 Fran Pratt wrote a beautiful Litany about breaking down walls
If we can forget the idea of separation,
Perhaps we can stop building walls on its behalf.
Oh God, may we let love have free reign
To build something more imaginative than walls.
When love has free reign there are no walls, so I suggest we work to break down the walls of separation and build bridges where those walls once stood.
Breaking Down Walls Means Listening Carefully and Respectfully.
Walls are so often designed to keep out people or ideas we see as a threat, without really understanding who the people are or what the ideas mean. To listen carefully and respectfully, we must be secure enough in who we are to not be threatened by another person’s opinion. What are the fears that make us feel walls are necessary, not just on the border, but in other parts of our lives too? Listening does not mean we agree with each other, but hopefully it does mean that we can accept and love each other in the midst of our disagreements and work to build bridges rather than walls.
What if we decided to break down these walls for Lent and truly listened to each other? Here are some suggestions on how to do this.
1. Let’s preach a theology of inclusion. So often we create walls between us and those who look or practice faith differently than we do because we focus on difference rather than similarity. We are all created in the image of Christ and Paul reminds us in Galatians 3:28 that, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What does that look like in our world today? How could we use Lent to break down walls that exclude other ethnicities, other denominations and other sexual orientations?
Why not visit a church of a different denomination each week during Lent – an African American church, a Catholic Church an Orthodox Church, a LBGTQ affirming church or a very conservative church. If there is a church with mainly refugees in your area, it would be good to include that as well. You might even like to add a mosque and a Jewish synagogue to the mix. Invite your friends to join you. Have a discussion afterwards asking: What did you learn about God? And what did you learn about faith?
2. Encourage practices that help you get to know your neighbors. Random acts of kindness in the neighborhood are great ways to break down walls that isolate us from those around us. One of the positive impacts of the COVID lockdown was that many of us got to know our neighbours and our neighborhoods. People reached out to help those who lived alone. We walked around the neighborhood and talked to people we had never met before. Our neighbors brought us groceries every week. These are practices we still need. Maybe Lent this year is a time to reach out once more to those who live near us.
3. Be open to change. When we interact with people who are very different from us, we must be willing to learn and be receptive to the change God may demand of us. I am still impacted by the words of African American preacher Leroy Barber who once told me, “white people want us to show up but they don’t want us to change how we do things.” We need to encourage flexibility and a willingness to both see things differently and do things differently.
4. Share in the pain of the excluded. When we listen to the stories of other people’s pain, we have the choice of strengthening the walls that divide us by turning away from or ignoring the suffering that overwhelm us. Alternatively, we can take the pain we hear expressed into ourselves in the same way that Jesus took on the pain and suffering of the world. Then, we must allow God to comfort us in the midst of that pain and share that comfort and compassion with others. Teaching our congregations to listen to the pain of others and respond in compassionate and caring ways could be one of the most powerful things we could teach during Lent. Listen, pray, respond is a great mantra to teach our members to use during Lent.
5. Encourage practices that break down the wall to climate change denial. All of us live in denial to a certain extent because we are overwhelmed by the implications of the disaster of climate change and human culpability in creating it. We need to both educate ourselves and our neighbours to the consequences and help institute solutions. We just signed up to have solar panels installed on our roof and during Lent this year I plan to look at other steps we can take to make our way of living more sustainable.
Lent is meant to be a season that prepares us to live more effectively as followers of Christ. And that is all about breaking down walls that exclude and isolate us. What will you do to prepare to break down the walls within yourself and your congregation during this season?
The twelve meditations in this beautiful full-color book are designed to provide moments of refreshment throughout the day or week. The blending together of prayers, reflections, questions, and photos invites us to pause, reset and refresh ourselves. Rest is such an important part of the rhythm of our lives, not just a weekly rest of Sabbath, but pauses of rest throughout the day to reset our focus and renew our connections to God. Enjoy as a PDF download, or purchase the hard copy here.