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Essay

I’m Giving Up Hell for Lent

By February 11, 2016 4 Comments
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Theresa Latini is taking a short break from her rotation on The Twelve. While she’s away, we welcome Kate Kooyman. Kate is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who serves in the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Witness in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thank you, Kate.

I’m sipping coffee while scrolling through Facebook on this Lenten morning—I’ll eat chocolate later, and maybe have a beer. Some might say I’m slacking on Lent this year, but I’ll confess that coffee’s not my deepest vice. This year for Lent, I’m going to try to give up my deep, deep need to “go it alone.”

Here’s what happened: Some friends of mine opened their home temporarily to a just-arrived refugee family from Burma. They weren’t hard-core refugee advocates or anything—just people paying attention to their Facebook feeds and their faith, and decided to respond tangibly. They called a local resettlement office, and a week later had new roommates.

Hollie and Jonathan invited me to visit a few days after the family’s arrival, and tipped me off that Coke would be a nice welcome gift, so I showed up for a short visit with a two-liter in my hand. That was the end of my kindness that day—from there I was the student, and I was surrounded by teachers who were showing me, in big and small ways, what the body of Christ really looks like.

I saw it in Hollie and Jonathan who had drug their couch out of their living room and into their little dining room so they could make room for a queen-sized mattress on the floor. Who had hung bed sheets over the doorways for privacy: a makeshift sanctuary, and a very clear disruption of Hollie and Jonathan’s regular home life.

I saw it in their three-year old daughter, whose toy baskets had been displaced by suitcases; who climbed onto her new house mate’s lap and introduced her as “my friend,” repeatedly, while the smiling Burmese woman looked at her lovingly, understanding not a word of what the little girl was saying.

I saw it in Hollie, who slowly pointed to objects and announced their English names; who took her hands off the French press to let her guest be the host for our visit. Who laughed at jokes they made together wordlessly—untranslatable—who somehow was sharing life and faith and hope with a person with whom she seemingly had so little in common.

I saw the body of Christ, too, in this dear refugee family. The mother cut baby carrots into matchstick-sized pieces before we arrived, filled our plates with strange-to-her cheese and crackers and presented them to us with two hands and a small bow, an offering. She passed around pictures of her family in Burma—trying to explain who they were to her, who had been left behind. She smiled, laughed, teared up, performed her newly-learned “one, two, three, four…” She sat with us, vulnerable and open, and welcomed strangers into her tragic and hopeful new life.

An employee of their resettlement agency was there, too, and told us a lot about Burmese culture and the difficulty of starting life again in a country like ours. Refugees find our individualism shocking. They cannot make sense of not knowing one’s neighbors, not sharing one’s possessions—of everyone on the block owning their own lawnmower, car, computer. They are saddened by our isolation from one another, and don’t know how to fit into it.

Pope Francis made a Lenten address last week, saying, “…the danger always remains that by a constant refusal to open the doors of their hearts to Christ who knocks on them in the poor, the proud, rich, and powerful will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell.”

So I’m giving up that hell for Lent—that solitude, that American-bred instinct to do it myself. I’m going to cultivate the discipline of neediness. I’m going to start acting like I’m part of the body of Christ, not the whole thing—one part of that body which would make no sense apart from the rest.

I’m going to practice having the courage to tell people when I’m sad or tired or need to be listened to. I’m going to practice noticing when people make my life easier, better, happier. I’m going to invite people to come over, even when there’s jelly smeared on the kitchen table, because I know that I deeply long to be seen and loved for who I really am—and who I am is a person who doesn’t regularly wipe off my table. I’m going to take a stab at the pride within me that causes me to wear a mask of self-sufficiency.

And, if I get really good at this…maybe I’ll also consider my circle—who I’m willing to “need” from. Maybe I’ll push myself to give credence to opinions I don’t agree with, to cultivate relationships with people who love the Presidential candidate I despise. Maybe I’ll look to find the most gracious interpretation of behavior that offends me, repeating the beautiful Brene Brown voice in my head that reminds me to assume people are doing the best they can. Maybe I’ll try to learn what it feels like to “need” the presence and contributions of folks I don’t like that much.

I think that for someone like me, who has been told so often that I’m the giver, the helper, the minister…this looks like un-learning so many of the instincts I have about “helping.” If you asked Hollie, she would tell you that her nine days bunking with this refugee family was a high-point of her faith. A life-defining moment. She would tell you that by welcoming this family, they experienced the presence of Christ in specific, describable ways. She would shush you when you praised her for offering help—she un-learned the hierarchy of helper and helpee. She was part of the body that week, just part. Not the whole. She was in Christ, not in isolation.

She gave up hell, and saw Jesus. For Lent, I want that, too.

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