Joyful Lent – Spritual Spring Cleaning

Right before Lent began this year, I attended a workshop led by Carl McColman billed as Contemplative Prayer and the Joyful Season of Lent. I was curious how he was going to make Lent seem joyful. My previous limited experience with Lent was focused on giving up something as penance and the need to be sorry for being so sinful in my humanness that Jesus had to die for me to be worthy of God’s love. But what Carl shared that day and the following week’s Ash Wednesday sermon have made me think about Lent differently.

The word Lent comes from the Old English word “lencten,” meaning springtime. Even in Dutch and German, the word originally meant spring. Most of us know that many church events have been timed with pre-Christian beliefs, so I wasn’t terribly surprised that Lent was related to the Spring Equinox. Carl discussed Lent as a time of reflecting on the “dance between dark yielding into light” and what that looks like in our inner life.

The burning of last year’s palm branches to use on Ash Wednesday resonates with what I’ve been reading in Thomas Merton’s book, New Seeds of Contemplation. He describes contemplation as “burning to ashes of old worn-out words, cliches, slogans, rationalizations.” He goes on to say that contemplation is like “purification of the sanctuary” or removing everything from our internal alter until nothing is left to “occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply “is.”” [1]

I’m beginning to see the season of Lent as a type of spring cleaning of the soul as we sweep out what keeps us separated from God’s love and mercy and allow the light of Spirit to shine more fully through us. I’m picturing it similar to the spring cleaning my mother did when I was a child. The heavy curtains and blankets were cleaned and put away. Windows were cleaned, and sheer chris cross curtains were hung. Baseboards, cupboards, and closets were cleaned from top to bottom. Every room of the house felt light and airy, fresh.

My Lenten Spring Cleaning

I’ve been reflecting on the Spring cleaning I must do for Lent. So far, I’ve been tweaking my spiritual practices around two issues. I need to clean up my thinking about how God interacts with the world, specifically with humankind, and what is God’s will for us. In addition, I need a new understanding of God’s purpose for sending Jesus, the son part of the Trinity, to be born and live as a human and how that impacts what I believe about my human body.

I’ve been reading and meditating with the writing of Thomas Merton and Diana Butler Bass, which is helping to ground me in the understanding that God is the “spiritual thread between space and time; intra, within space and in time; and infra, that which holds space and time.” [2] Because of this, I can have internal peace and seek to join God’s creative work in the world, even as the circumstances around me constantly change. God’s will becomes less of a puzzle of reading God’s mind before making a decision and more of God inviting me to choose truth, justice, mercy, and love in every situation. [3]

I’m learning to rest in the understanding that God lives in me. God’s Spirit was breathed into my body, connecting me with God’s good creation. Lent is challenging me to thank my body for faithfully housing my mind and spirit. I’m using gentle and restorative yoga to tune my attention to specific parts of the body and using particular sets of muscles to hold a pose. Feeling the body relax and open more deeply in response is intriguing. I’m also considering what my body has to say and how it responds to the world around me. Asking myself where an emotion is felt in my body and trying to sit with that feeling for a moment allows my mind space to explore what action, if any, is required. I’ve been surprised at how many emotions need no response at all. Just recognizing them is sufficient for them to float through.

I’m growing into a new understanding of the connection between God, self, the people around me, and all creation which Hillary McBride describes so beautifully:

“If God is in all of it, that means there is nowhere we can look where God is not. Everything is sacred. Everyone, everywhere, is the dwelling place. You are the temple.” [4].

I am the temple. You are the temple. Lent is offering a time of Spring cleaning in the temple. God is with us, for us, and wants us to come clean. To let God’s light shine into the world more strongly as the sun warms the earth longer and longer each day.

Invitation

Spend some time during this season meditating on Psalm 32 (below), one of the readings from the Ash Wednesday service this year. Consider what type of spring-cleaning God is calling you to do during Lent as we move toward the Easter celebration of God’s love.

Psalm 32 The Message
Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—
    you get a fresh start,
    your slate’s wiped clean.
Count yourself lucky—
    God holds nothing against you
    and you’re holding nothing back from him.
When I kept it all inside,
    my bones turned to powder,
    my words became daylong groans.
The pressure never let up;
    all the juices of my life dried up.
Then I let it all out;
    I said, “I’ll come clean about my failures to God.”
Suddenly the pressure was gone—
    my guilt dissolved,
    my sin disappeared.
These things add up. Every one of us needs to pray;
    when all hell breaks loose and the dam bursts
    we’ll be on high ground, untouched.
God’s my island hideaway,
    keeps danger far from the shore,
    throws garlands of hosannas around my neck.
Let me give you some good advice;
    I’m looking you in the eye
    and giving it to you straight:
“Don’t be ornery like a horse or mule
    that needs bit and bridle
    to stay on track.”
God-defiers are always in trouble;
    God-affirmers find themselves loved
    every time they turn around.
Celebrate God.
    Sing together—everyone!
    All you honest hearts, raise the roof!

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, Kindle (New York: New Directions Books, 1961), 14.
[2] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded Finding God in the World (New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2015), 25.
[3] Merton, 20.
[4] Hillary McBride Ph.D., The Wisdom of Your Body, Kindle (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021),.218.

Photo by Jess Zoerb on Unsplash

This is My Body

I’ve been visiting an Episcopal church recently and was intrigued that they share the Eucharist every Sunday. Most denominations I’ve been a part of only offer Communion once a month at the most. As I dug deeper, I found a connection between Christ offering his body at the Passover supper and how Episcopalians think about human bodies. As the rector begins the Communion portion of the service, she says:

“We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation . . . “

The underlying theme is that our bodies are part of that goodness that is missing in most Protestant teaching. God came into our world in a human body. I began to consider this different way of thinking about bodies for the spiritual practice of study for the upcoming season of Lent. Could thinking about God embodied in Jesus help me heal my relationship with my body? How might this lead to being more alive, in touch with sensations and feelings, in my body? How would I care for my body differently?

I started reading Hillary McBride’s book, The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection. She talks about how most of us go through life as floating heads. [1] That really hit home. My family, the corporations I worked for, and my church for the past 20 or more years emphasized the importance of right thinking. The quality of your intellect, how fast you processed new concepts, or how well you articulated your position was highly valued. McBridge describes my floating head’s relationship to my body quite accurately.

“my consciousness, my sense of myself as a person, was stuffed into my skull, like a balloon pinched at my neck. The fingers of patriarchy, pain, avoidance, sorry, and objectification were firm around my neck, the base of the balloon.” [2]

hillary McBride Ph. D.

As I continued to read, I began to consider how becoming more embodied would affect my relationship with other bodies I come in contact with every day. McBride quotes Philip Shepherd, who believes that being divided from our own body, creates a divide from “the body of the world.” We can’t really get that we are part of a “living continuum” of bodies, those who lived before us, those living now upon whom we depend for so much, and those of the next generations affected by how we live today. [3]

Perhaps this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “This is my body.” He wanted us to remember the literal physical body that he inhabited as connected to our bodies so many years later. Not just the physical body, but the body as a symbol of the entirety, the personhood of who Jesus was.

As we move through Lent to Easter, may we connect with Jesus as a wholly embodied human. May this lead us to connect inward and hear the stories our body has to share with us.

[1] Hillary McBride, Ph.D., The Wisdom of Your Body, Kindle (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 9.
[2] Ibid, 10.
[3] Ibid, 14.

Photo by Külli Kittus on Unsplash

It’s Not Just Up to Me

Intellectually I know how little control I have over the outcome of many of life’s events. Especially when other people are involved. But I had an interaction recently that really brought it home. I had prepared for the conversation in advance in an attempt to maintain equanimity.  My intentions for right action were clear.

I had lots of feelings afterward. Family dynamics, ego, mindsets, and who knows what else contributed to an unhappy aftermath. Unresolved childhood traumas were triggered. Outcomes for health and growth were limited by a lack of self-awareness and physical and emotional capacities.  Our humanity was on full display.

At the end of that long day, I turned to my journal and focused on describing my feelings in an attempt to re-ground myself. I identified helplessness and the desire to do something to make things better. I recognized those from the last years with my parent’s dementia and physical and mental ill-health. I was sad that someone no longer wanted a relationship. I wrote lovingly to my fearful inner child. She desperately tried to make sense of nonsense when I was young. She really dislikes disorder. It scares her. I devoted my meditation of compassion to everyone involved, including myself.

But there was still an agitation in my spirit days later that I couldn’t shake. There was an emotion that was rattling around in my body that I hadn’t identified yet. As I was reading that week, two scriptures came together in a way that made sense of my feelings about my experience and helped me identify those feelings as discouragement and grief.

Discouragement

Discouragement resonated with me from the first reading. In Isaiah 6, God asks for someone to take a message to the people. Isaiah answers the call. Both Richard Rohr and Howard Thurman are quoted describing the significance of being willing to answer God’s call as Isaiah did. (Read the entire reflection here on cac.org.) The next part of the conversation between God and Isaiah is described:

“[Yahweh] said, “Tell the people to listen, but they aren’t going to listen. You will break your heart; you will turn your mind inside out; you will pour upon their indifference the priceless ingredients of your spirit: the only thing that I can offer you,” says Yahweh, “is a deep, profound, ever-circling frustration. That’s all. Tell them that they are going to be destroyed, every town burned up, all the people taken into captivity … ” and on and on and on [God] spells out this doom.”

Wow, God is asking Isaiah to do what is asked of him even though there is a huge potential that no one will listen, nothing will change, and the situation may even get worse! God sounds a little discouraged at that possibility. That sounded like the discouragement I was feeling over this recent conversation. I had tried to tell the truth, even tried to do it lovingly. At the moment, it felt like nothing good could possibly come from it. God has feelings too.

Grief

Later that week, I read the passage in Luke 15 where Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son. I’ve always thought of God as the parent in this story but mostly focused on the sons and the ways I have acted like one or the other of the boys depending on the moment. But the parent’s actions (or actions they didn’t take) were what caught my eye this time.

“There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’

I started to think about what a parent would be thinking as they heard this request from their child. I know what I would be thinking, “This is a terrible idea. They are just going to waste it and boomerang back home and expect me to take them in.” I can hear my friends telling me, “You need to say no and make that child stand on their own two feet. You’ve worked hard for what you’ve got. They should too.”

“So the father divided the property between them.“

The parent refrained from crossing boundaries. With no yelling or shaming. No talking at and over or telling them the consequences they would face. Imagine the grief this parent felt as he divided the property between his children, foreseeing how wrong things would probably go but respecting the right of the son to make that request.

There was the other feeling I had. Grief over the pain for what remains to be worked out in the lives of each of us who said we loved each other. Grief that now the relationships felt broken. The grief of not knowing if it would ever be mended.

Hope

But that isn’t the end of Isaiah’s or the prodigal’s stories.

God doesn’t give up. There’s still hope. At the end of Isaiah 6, God describes the consequences of not responding but still holds out hope for new growth.

“The country will look like pine, and oak forest with every tree cut down—Every tree a stump, a huge field of stumps. But there’s a holy seed in those stumps.”

And, you probably know the outcome of Jesus’ story of the prodigal – a loving welcome with great joy.

What lovely pictures of how God interacts with us. God loves us so much that God lets us make our own choices, knowing how it will probably end. God grieves our pain as we go through the consequences of those choices. God patiently holds the boundary and waits. Not avoiding or hiding because of fear the worst will happen. Not abandoning or recriminating when we chose to walk away. God stands beside us, grieving and loving through it all. Waiting to love and assist (perhaps with some healthy boundaries?) when asked. Knowing reconciliation may never happen but loving anyway.

It’s our turn. To recognize and return God’s faithful love. To follow God’s example and call to love ourselves and our neighbors.

Where do you feel God calling you to identify your feelings and continue to love and hope? May God’s love and example console and sustain us on the journey.   

It’s been a while since I posted anything here. During this past summer and Fall, I created a four-week contemplative course on becoming an anti-racist for women.  If you’re interested in knowing more about this, contact me.  I also enjoyed collaborating with Dr. Marcia Riggs on a workbook for those learning about Religious Ethical Mediation. I should be back on track now, and you can expect a post every couple of weeks sharing some of what God’s been working on within me.

Photo by Long Ma on Unsplash

Is Change A Choice?

Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center. Each one of us can live such a life of amazing power and peace and serenity, of integration and confidence and simplified multiplicity, on one condition – that is, if we really want to.

Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

I was introduced to Thomas Kelly’s writing in a contemplative study group. After a few moments of silence, questions were posed. “Is it enough to want to change? Can we simply choose to live our lives differently?” We repeat sayings that seem to promote the idea that we can simply choose.

. . . My daughter still remembers her fourth-grade teacher telling the class that life was “all about choices.” She was trying to make them think about the consequences of their actions.

. . . When someone would ask, “why would they do that?” my father used to say, “People do what they want to do.” I hated when he said that, but logically there is a consequence for everything we do. We are choosing not to do the opposite. There is an opportunity cost,[1] and we can never return to that moment and choose differently.

. . . “Change is hard.” Not sure where this one comes from, but I agree.

. . . There’s another old saying “Know better, do better.” It implies that if we are aware of a choice that would provide a “better” outcome, we should, or would, choose that option.

All these sayings may contain some truth, but, as with most things in life, it’s much more complicated. They imply that our choices are made consciously and rationally. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t choose over and over to do something harmful to ourselves or others. Don’t circumstances sometimes dictate what we can choose? Aren’t there things that get in the way of making the choice we want?

There is so much advice out there telling us how to change that it can be overwhelming. Each self-help guru states their case so positively and emphatically that we believe theirs must be the way, the magic bullet, the 1, 2, 3 approaches that will not fail.

My experience is that change is a process, a practice, and lots of things get in the way.

Let’s use exercise as an example. Why is it so hard to overcome a lifetime of not exercising if all I must do is really want to exercise? Just make a choice, right? If only. With just a little research, I found three categories of advice on making that change.

Believe the Science

The body of science on the benefits of exercise is quite large and very compelling. A Harvard study shows that exercise, along with healthy body weight and overall physical good health, predicts a higher level of satisfaction with life.[2] A Chapman University research project by Julia Boehm, Ph.D., suggests that if we can increase our activity levels early in life, we can “reduce the burden of poor health in later life.”[3]

Who wouldn’t want to be more satisfied with life and have better health in our old age? If it is a simple choice, we should be able to believe the scientifically proven benefits of 150 minutes of exercise per week and start doing it without all the resistance we actually experience.

Reimagine Your Identity

I’ve been interested in personal and group identity interplay for quite a while. James Hollis describes our personal identity as a “provisional story about who we are and what we’re supposed to do and not do.”[4] I grew up with the identity that I wasn’t very good at sporty activities. I inherited a theology that promoted shame around the female body. My family system emphasized that utilizing the brain was super important. I didn’t learn the skills that would be necessary to build a positive body image or create an athletic identity.

James Hollis would say that an image of “body bad” and “brain good” can keep us from believing in new possibilities.[5] The authors of Responsibility Rebellion tell us that when a behavioral change requires an alteration to our identity, we start to see change as huge and scary.[6] That makes sense because years of “behaviors, routines, beliefs, and habits” have created that identity. Now we want to change it, and that feels risky.[7] That feeling of risk can cause us to unconsciously cling to our old identity and choose ways to avoid the reality of the need to change, escape or put off the hard work of change. That route keeps us from learning and growing into the authentic life we desire.[8]

Utilize External Motivators

You may have been told you just don’t want to change badly enough. That you just aren’t motivated. We’ve all used forms of punishment or reward to change behavior. I’ve tried to reward myself for walking with “don’t break the streak” on my Apple watch. We use sticker charts to get children to do their chores. Physical education teachers give popsicle sticks to incentivise kids to run and give out prizes for the number of sticks earned. It’s called operant conditioning, which uses one behavior to teach someone to acquire another behavior.[9]

But there are concerns about how effective external motivation is for long-term behavior change. Extrinsic motivation may work in the short term. It may result in only doing the action if there is a reward and not because the person becomes passionate about the new activity.[10] Michelle Segar, Director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center, says that for adults over 20, short-term motivation, guilt, shame, stating values, and setting future goals don’t work in getting people to exercise. She said, “If you need the willpower to do something, you don’t really want to do it.” [11]

Look Out for the Unexpected Roadblocks in Life

It’s so easy to assume we know the reasons for people’s choices. We often overlook the practical realities of life that get in the way of implementing change.

In the case of exercise, having to work multiple jobs, a long commute, or working 60 to 80 hours a week may leave no room for anything else. After all that work-related stress, there might be no self-control left for exercise. Some women may feel guilty about the time they take for themselves or feel pressure to spend any available time taking care of others. Other people may also feel their neighborhoods are not safe enough to walk in. Even if they can afford to go to a gym, many people are intimidated by unfamiliar gym equipment or exercising in front of others.[12]

We may try all the popular advice that seems to work for others and find it does not work for us. Making changes is hard enough without dealing with the shame of being judged by others. Dr. Frank Sniehotta, Director of the National Institute for Health Research’s policy research unit in behavioral science, might say that trying and failing or even just taking a break from exercise could lead to giving up on the effort to make the change.[13]

So what can we do to create personal change?

I’m wondering how we ever manage to make alterations in our lives. What practices or processes work for creating change?

James Hollis says the “ability to tolerate ambiguity and change” is essential in creating a moral culture. When trying to implement internal change, is building our tolerance for the anxiety raised by the change process the critical step for successfully implementing the change we desire?[14]

I was able to find some additional resources for successfully implementing regular exercise and quickly started thinking they sounded like the process of implementing spiritual practices for living a centered life. Spiritual practices have been instrumental in grounding me through challenging external changes in my life.

Find Motivation From Within

You may have been told at some point, “know your why.” The idea is to understand the internal motivation or reason to keep you going towards your goal. Knowing your motivation allows us to pinpoint what intrinsic or internal satisfaction we receive from pursuing the changes necessary in the long term.[15] Writing this out and regularly referring to it can keep you connected to how you will benefit when staying with it gets difficult.[16]

I was particularly interested in the suggestion of “cleaning house,” going back through your life experiences to identify where your attitudes and automatic responses originated. Writing stories about life events related to what I’m trying to change is a way of thinking about what might serve me better today.[17] I’ve also found regular journaling about what works or not and how I feel about my experiment is also helpful. My journaling practice keeps me from trying too many things without discerning what is working. It helps me stay focused on “choosing curiosity over comfort”[18] and not getting discouraged or overwhelmed.

Understanding the years of habits and experiences that have created your current identity can take time and effort. But, with a bit of curiosity and openness to discovering new ways of being, it will be easier. Neophilia, or openness, has been shown to increase happiness through approaching life as an exploration of possibilities. Curiosity will help you find ways to try different paths or activities to reach your goal.[19]

Embrace Freedom and Hope

Once we have faced and examined the things that have created our current identity and may be keeping us from making the changes we desire, we can grasp hold of a new sense of freedom for making new choices. We can use the exhilaration of recognizing a new sense of freedom to carry us forward to making the necessary changes.[20] With that freedom comes hope which gives us the courage to act and will support us as we evolve into a new aspect of our identity.[21]

In his book How We Change, Ross Ellerhorn says that “hope is connected to contemplation” which allows us to detach and notice what is working or not and how to make choices to adjust.[22] Awareness, courage, and perseverance will be necessary to keep showing up to execute our exercise practices on the days we just don’t feel like doing it.[23] To make the change stick, we will need to make time for thinking about how the steps taken are leading to the change we desire.

Using The Action Reflection Cycle of Contemplative Practice for Transformation and Change

My musing about whether change is a matter of choice began and ends with the contemplative practice of action and reflection. In my contemplative group when the question was posed, “Is it enough to want to change?” I reflected on the question and went in search of an answer.

This cycle of reflection, action, and reflection is foundational to all types of change. This methodology is utilized in studies of organization and business systems, education, personal growth, and contemplative spiritual traditions. We study what exists to see what is working or not working and why. We talk with the people involved and seek out alternatives to recommend changes. Once the changes are implemented, we wait and observe the outcome. Another round of reflection begins.

On a personal level, contemplative practices of action and reflection are helping me dig deeper into what I’m feeling and thinking. To observe what is going on in my body. To listen to my soul’s deepest desires. To trust that the connection with the divine Center that Thomas Kelly wrote about in the opening quote is within me. It’s a journey, but with attention and practice I’m able to discern a next right step.

You may have figured out that I chose exercise as an example to research because it is a lifestyle change I’m having trouble sticking to in the long term. I’ve had week streaks of adhering to my practice, and then several weeks go by with nothing. Intellectually I knew that exercise is necessary for a long and happy life. So, I needed another approach.

It’s been fascinating digging back into my life to uncover the events that shape my identity around movement and exercise. I’ve spent some time journaling to discover my internal why for making this change. I’m incorporating exercise and how I feel about it in my body, mind, and spirit into what I write about as I reflect on the past week and plan for the coming week. I’m feeling much more hopeful about my chances of showing up and moving regularly. I need to apply what I’ve learned and continue to reflect on my progress.

I can choose to change . . . but, it’s a process!


[1] Kain Ramsay and Cynthia Dubois, Responsibility Rebellion an Unconventional Approach to Personal Empowerment, Kindle (Houndstooth Press, n.d.), 316.
[2] Arthur C. Brooks, Strength to Strength Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, Kindle (New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2022), 1596.
[3] Sheri Ledbetter, “Psychological Well-Being and Physical Activity in Older Adults,” Chapman Newsroom (blog), December 1, 2016, https://news.chapman.edu/2016/12/01/psychological-well-being-and-physical-activity-in-older-adults/.
[4] James Hollis, Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, Kindle (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2018), 1176.
[5] Hollis, 902.
[6] Kain Ramsay and Cynthia Dubois, Responsibility Rebellion An Unconventional Approach to Personal Empowerment, Kindle (Houndstooth Press, n.d.), 412.
[7] Ramsay and Dubois, 382.
[8] Hollis, 1176.
[9] “Extrinsic Motivation: Examples, Pros, and Cons,” Psych Central, September 23, 2021, https://psychcentral.com/health/extrinsic-motivation.
[10] Psych Central.
[11] Emine Saner and Guardian readers, “How to Stay Fit Forever: 25 Tips to Keep Moving When Life Gets in the Way,” The Guardian, September 12, 2018, sec. Life and style, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/12/how-to-stay-fit-for-ever-25-tips-keep-exercising-expert-advice.
[12] “Ten Reasons You’re A Couch Potato,” Forbes, accessed March 25, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/2008/02/27/health-couch-exercise-forbeslife-cx_avd_0227potato.html.
[13] Saner and Guardian readers.
[14] Hollis, Location 125.
[15] Psych Central.
[16] “14 Ways to Actually Enjoy Working Out,” Byrdie, accessed March 25, 2022, https://www.byrdie.com/how-to-actually-enjoy-working-out.
[17] The Atlantic.
[18] Ibid.
[19]Arthur C. Brooks, “Don’t Approach Life Like a Picky Eater,” The Atlantic, May 27, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/05/neophilia-novelty-happiness/618998/.             
[20] Ross Ellenhorn, How We Change and Ten Reasons Why We Don’t, Digital (New York, New York: Harper Wave, 2020), 42.
[21] Ellenhorn, 43.
[22] Ibid, 48.
[23] Hollis, 969.

What’s Keeping You Behind the Fence?

We didn’t have a television in my childhood home and activities centered around our church, so the news didn’t penetrate my little life bubble. Even if it had, the people around me were very conservative and not very open to the changing social dynamic. I wasn’t aware of much of the struggle for equality and dignity black people face.

Display at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia

This past week, we went to The National Center for Civil and Human Rights. It’s located here in Atlanta, but I had never visited. As I walked around the museum, little bits of memories floated up. There was a display about the activities of southern anti-integration politicians trying to enforce segregation. I remembered that George Wallace had run for President and that my father was a supporter.

Down a little further were old TVs playing newsreels of protests and sit-ins where white people, police and civilians, battered people dressed in their Sunday best singing as they marched or sat peacefully at lunch counters. The loathing was palpable in the actions of these white men wielding bats, batons, and lead pipes. How could they hate these men and women, mostly black but some white, they had never met? Why was their rage so out of control? What was beneath the emotion on their faces? These scenes of brutality bring up a heavy sadness.

I sat for a while reading the history of school busing and remembered how on edge all the students were as we tried to navigate the new normal of integrated schools. I had forgotten that the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education was in 1954, and Ruby Bridges integrated a New Orleans school in 1960. However, Florida’s middle and high schools were just integrating in the mid-seventies. I was in quite a large school, and even though going from sixth grade in a small elementary to seventh grade in a large middle school is terrifying at any time, we were all very much on edge. Every bump and jostle in the hallway exploded with harsh words and threats with box cutters and pocket knives. Cops roaming the hallways caused even more dis-ease.

My only personal encounter with the violence was in gym class and seems minor looking back on it. I was twelve years old when I started seventh grade. We had to change clothes to an ugly t-shirt and shorts uniform and shower during “physical education.” The locker rooms were very crowded. Embarrassed and uncomfortable, I tried not to look at the nakedness of other girls, some of them a few years older than I was. I don’t remember whether I accidentally invaded a black girl’s space, or we just happened to cross glances, but anger flashed from her eyes. She challenged me to a fight after school. I didn’t even know her name but was afraid I would run into her for the rest of the day. I ran for my bus as quickly as possible when the closing bell rang.

Remembering that moment in the context of the Civil Rights Museum, I let the memory wash over me. Neither of us had any nonviolent communication training as those who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. had undergone. Teachers and administrators didn’t have assemblies to educate us on respecting other people’s differences and similarities. We were just thrown together and had to figure it out. My parents certainly didn’t even talk about integration with me, and perhaps hers hadn’t either. Or maybe she was more aware than I was and reflected the feelings she had heard expressed. Underneath the anger, was there fear? I’d be willing to bet that neither of us had help processing the events of that day. I didn’t even mention it to my parents.

I moved into a room where a multi-media presentation surrounded me with graphics—first, a chain-link fence.

Display at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia

And then hands raised in the sign for peace.

Display at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia

I sat in the middle of the room for quite a while, thinking about the juxtaposition of the fence and my desire to live out the peace of Christ in the world. Not the stereotypical southern type of peace that is really conflict avoidance. The appearance of peace at any price. I want inner peace, or Shanti, the Buddhist and Hindu threefold inner peace of mind, body, and Spirit —the type of peace that God offers us through the gift of the Spirit. That peace allows me to stop and think, to inquire before I respond.

The fence and peace.

On this day, when we honor Martin Luther King’s life and work, I want to reflect on how I can hold myself to the standard Jesus taught of loving not just friends but enemies. Even the people I just don’t like but wouldn’t call enemies exactly are my friends or neighbors.

What is the fence that keeps me from experiencing God’s peace and truly loving my neighbor? Those I disagree with politically and theologically? The people who exhibit patriarchal, hierarchical, or authoritarian behavior? What do I not see or am avoiding?

Lord, open my eyes to the beauty in all your children.

You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies.

Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.

This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.

If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.  

In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

Matthew 5: 43-48 (The Message)