On Saturday, March 4, representatives from 43 congregations in the diocese spent a half day learning how to participate in a three month "Listening excursion," which would involve making space to listen to scripture, each other and to the local community. They will be invited back on Saturday, June 3 to reflect on what they learned and to discern next steps in this ongoing journey into a new way of living.
Nearly half of the Listening Excursion takes place during the season of Lent. For many of us, and certainly this has long been the case for me, Lent has been a season of giving something up – of saying no. Abstaining from meat or alcohol, declaring a seven-week moratorium on a bad habit, or giving up some escapist activity. I know of many people who have a Facebook fast for Lent. And, as Jesus says in the Gospel, these practices have their reward (Matthew 6: 2,5, 16). But I have come to learn, mainly through the discipline of listening to scripture, that before Lent was about saying no, it was about making space. Making space for God. Which is a way of saying yes.
God accompanied Jesus into his forty-day sojourn in the wilderness (which the season of Lent commemorates). And every day during that time, and probably for most of everyday, Jesus engaged in an activity that made space for God; a practice that was a yes to God. Praying, fasting and self-denial were – and are, disciplines that create space and reinforce yes. So when the devil showed up near the end of Jesus' six-week ordeal, Jesus had a foundation of yes to say no to the devil's sinister temptations to be powerful, wealthy and/or famous.
As a culture, we are being lured into a prolonged season of no. No to certain people coming into this country, no to certain media coverage, no to facts that don't line up with ideology, no to practices of graciousness and courtesy. These many "No's" do not seem to be built upon a foundation of yes. Instead of opening up space, it tries to shut it down. And the result is a polarization which gives rise to the toxic delusion that God is on my side.
The only side God has ever been on is God's side.
I am finding it hard to resist the temptation of diving headlong into this season of No. I am finding myself more committed to my being "right" and less willing to find space for difference. I want my no to win out over someone else's no. This is not a good place for the soul to reside, because it undermines, if not subverts, our desire to make space for God – and to say yes to God.
One thing I want to do this Lent – and beyond – is to seek out people whose yes to God is very different from my own. I help coordinate a group called Bishops United Against Gun Violence. Since the Newtown, CT school shooting in 2012, we have become a network of 70 bishops committed to reducing gun violence through public witness, advocacy and education. In the last few months, there have been all sorts of legislative initiatives around the country and in New Jersey, which permit open carry of weapons and which allow people with a documented history of mental illness to receive firearm permits.
I don't understand the rationale behind these initiatives. They feel like very dangerous "No's" to me. But there are people, many people, who support these initiatives because they are built on their yes to God. I want to create a space to listen to them. To learn from them. And to listen for and to God in the midst of the conversation, who no doubt is yearning for a life-giving way forward.
It will be a listening excursion. I invite you to design a listening excursion of your own.
Illustration: "Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.