Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1.16-17)
The Playing Field
Ideally, faith should be the key to equality for all. Belief in God, regardless of what name He/She/It bears in various cultures and constructs, should level the playing field, as they say. It should become the common ground on which we all stand, one no higher or better than the other, all of us equal as His handcrafted creation. It doesn’t, though, because there are no such things as level playing fields. We purposefully design them to slope from the middle to either side. This allows rain to run off so players won’t slog through puddles. In other words, we pretend every player has equal advantage when we really favor some over others under the guise of safety and convenience. Unfortunately, this practice extends beyond ball fields and soccer pitches. It spills into the halls of justice, finance, education, and faith. The first three are manmade institutions and thus imperfect. In the halls of faith, however, everything should be equal. Why isn’t it?
Let’s go back to the playing field. For the safety and convenience of those in the center, faith managers for eons have compromised the equality of those in the margins. Before we shake angry fists at “the Church,” we should bear in mind this isn’t a uniquely Christian problem. Although some belief systems come closer than others, none fully lives up to its professed ideal. The reason is found in faith’s being a human endeavor. It’s riddled with logical fears and natural insecurities, all of which oppose its radically unnatural demands. Yet the near impossibility of faith’s requirements vis-à-vis equality doesn’t relieve us from striving to meet them. While faith managers justify grading the field to benefit many at the expense of a few, as keepers of the faith, it is incumbent on each of us to eradicate inequality. Regardless how slippery and messy it gets, we must do all we can to ensure the field is and remains level. We do this by building up the margins to equal height with the center.
Even with God speaking to Israel through anointed prophets, it still succumbed to a playing-field mentality. It constructed a faith culture that appealed to the prosperous, respectable majority’s desire to live piously without converting its piety into compassion. In short, it talked a good game but went out of its way to see no one got dirty. How did it do this? It became preoccupied with rituals and traditions it touted as the best way to honor God. Imagine the shockwaves rippling through the crowd when Isaiah takes the pulpit to read God’s latest message. “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies,” He roars. (Isaiah 1.13)
As it turns out, contouring the field for the majority has ended with them running headlong into God’s anger with their filthy ways. Their comfort and convenience carry no weight with Him. He wants Israel to clean up its act and restore the field to its level condition per His design. He gives them no leeway for debate or delay. “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (v16-17) In today’s vernacular: “Quit playing around and do as you’re told.”
Casual observers tend to misperceive Lent as an annual tradition buttressed by two rituals, Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Authentic adherents, however, know Lent is the least tradition-bound, ritualized season on the Christian calendar. It’s less about the “holy days” than the “wholly days,” the travel time spent in prayerful introspection, remaining wholly available for everything God asks of us. Its beauty exists not in formalized worship but in improvised responsiveness to the Spirit; other than its designated dates, Lent is virtually faith-manager-free. It’s when the keepers of the faith set out as fellow travelers in a unified pilgrimage to the cross.
Beyond the spiritual quest binding us together, we’re connected by a common vow of self-denial. Our respective fasts serve two purposes. They teach discipline in overcoming temptation, and they create disadvantages we’re unaccustomed to dealing with. Self-denial levels the field by pushing all of us to the margins, where everyone struggles and, hence, everyone is equal. There is no comfortably convenient way to experience Lent if it’s practiced properly and sincerely. Yet the purpose behind this isn’t just to create empathy for the “other half;” it’s so we’ll remember there is no “other half.” Lent puts mirrors in the eyes of the misused and oppressed, orphaned and alone. They’re fellow travelers, too, and being wholly available to God means being wholly available to them.
Alas, Israel hears God’s prophet and still misses His principle. It calls a fast and backslides into pious ritual. In Isaiah 58.6-7, He re-clarifies His demands: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice… to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” We journey through Lent individually yet not alone. We honor God not with the piety of our fast, but with the compassion it stirs. We remain wholly available to Him by staying wholly available to fellow travelers in the margins.
The “level playing field” actually slopes to prevent puddles and disadvantages those along the margins. We correct this by raising the margins to equal level.
(Tomorrow: Step Away)
Postscript: Songs of the Season
We don’t normally associate Lent with music, yet many of us incorporate it into our daily worship and reflection. A recent post on A Seat at the Table—where Claire’s comments triggered numerous comments with song suggestions—inspired me to include a music video with the daily Lenten posts here. Some of them will be personal favorites selected to match the day’s topic. But others will be more random. And in the spirit of community, I’d be thrilled to include your recommendations. If there’s a song (or songs) that speak to you during this journey, please let me know so I can share it with everyone. Since we’re traveling together, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t sing together!
Today's selection: "Available to You" by Rev. Milton Brunson and The Thompson Community Singers. (Note: Rev. Brunson, who appears "caught up" from the previous number, quickly steps aside to give the choir center stage.)
AVAILABLE TO YOU
You gave me my hands to reach out to man
To show him Your love and Your perfect plan
You gave me my ears, I can hear your voice so dear
I can hear the cries of sinners
But can I wipe away their tears?
You gave me my voice to speak Your Word
To sing all Your praises to those who've never heard
But with my eyes I see a need for more availability
I see hearts that have been broken
So many people to be free
Lord, I'm available to You
My will I give to You. I'll do what You say do
Use me, Lord, to show someone the way
Then enable me to say,
"My storage is empty and I am available to You."
Now I'm giving back to You all the tools You gave to me
My hands, my ears, my voice, my eyes
So You can use them as You please
I have emptied out my cup so that You can fill me up
Now I'm free and I just want to be more available to You
Lord, I'm available to You...