Welcome to “All Shall Be Well,” where we will explore together our spiritual center, create a moment of sacred pause and join together in contemplation and silence. In this episode, I want to focus our thoughts on spirituality and Lent. Today, Ash Wednesday, is the first day of Lent. God speaks to us through the Prophet Joel in chapter 2, saying,
Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
WAR noun, often attributive (1)a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations
(2)a period of such armed conflict
(3)a state of hostility, conflict, or antagonism
(4)a struggle or competition between opposing forces for a particular end
In a time of turmoil across the earth, I am reminded of the many ways we long for peace and the many times we fail to achieve it. As I hear reports and human stories of the warring among peoples of many nations, I am also very aware of the wars that often rage within. War and peace are complex ideologies that spurn people to action — either action to plunder and kill or action that insists upon peace and tranquillity. The British peace advocate John Bright (1811-1889) gave a speech at the Conference of the Peace Society in Edinburgh in the summer of 1853 to oppose the forthcoming war against Russia (the Crimean War 1854-56).
What is war?
What is war? I believe that half the people that talk about war have not the slightest idea of what it is. In a short sentence it may be summed up to be the combination and concentration of all the horrors, atrocities, crimes, and sufferings of which human nature on this globe is capable . . . injustice of any kind, be it bad laws, or be it a bloody, unjust, and unnecessary war, of necessity creates perils to every institution in the country. — John Bright (1811-1889)
Profound truth rests in Bright’s words, and it is a truth every person would do well to contemplate. At some point I recall seeing a provocative image on the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket. It was an image of the soldier’s helmet with a handwritten “born to kill” slogan . . . and a peace symbol, a provocative juxtaposition of reminding us that human beings have the capacity for both killing and peace.
Who can forget the words of the Prophet Isaiah?
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)
So why talk of war after Ash Wednesday and into Lent? Perhaps the subject of war occurred to me as I moved closer to this season of repentance and self-reflection. Perhaps I felt a need to consider the futility of war because of Ash Wednesday’s dictum, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
One who came from dust, and who anticipates returning to dust, must certainly feel a longing for peace, peace in the world as well as peace of the soul and spirit. Neither examples of peace are easily achieved. The machinations of war between nations, and the eternal quest for finding inner peace, are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps it is those persons who have a dearth of inner peace who seriously contemplate making enemies and making war. War flourishes, at times, when the cause seems righteous, while at other times, the cause is greed, lust for power and human depravity. Either way, the losses of war are enormous beyond imagining.
I have been intrigued by the writing of Sebastian Junger in his book War (published in 2010). He echoes the famous words of Winston Churchill:
We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.
Junger also offers interesting insights into war:
The cause doesn’t have to be righteous and battle doesn’t have to be winnable; but over and over again throughout history, men have chosen to die in battle with their friends rather than to flee on their own and survive.
The Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is not negotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.
Three Christian denominations have positions on war.
Roman Catholic The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.
The Southern Baptist Convention (Adopted on June 14, 2000) Peace and War. It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war.
The United Methodist Church (2000 United Methodist Book of Discipline)
We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as a usual instrument of national foreign policy and insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them; that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.
No doubt, this is probably more information on the deplorable subject of war than anyone needs to contemplate. And yet, war is not just “far off” in other countries where we can’t see it. “War” is all around us — in this divided nation, in the hate speech that is so prevalent, in the gun violence that takes lives, in violent acts within families, in racial division and the re-emergence of white nationalism. One can scarcely complete the list of the many ways war affects us, within us and around us.
We must remember that war is not only the catastrophic expectation of a nuclear bomb or chemical warfare, it is also a war that could raise its head in our communities, in our churches, even in our hearts, wreaking havoc on our souls. War is famine, homelessness, poverty, racism, family violence, child abuse, trafficking, homophobia and xenophobia. War is the destruction of humanity and all that we know to be right and just. The example of Jesus must be our guide and inspiration. No, Jesus did not explicitly warn against war, but he said so many things about peace.
The words of Jesus
Matthew 5: 38-48 (selected verses) You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also . . .
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . . For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Mark 12:28-31 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ‘The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
The early Christians took Jesus at his word. They closely identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war and bloodshed; they appropriated to themselves the Old Testament prophecy which foretold the transformation of the weapons of war into the implements of agriculture; they declared that it was their Christian commitment to return good for evil and to conquer evil with good.
Might we all do likewise!
What is critical for us is to fully understand that war among us or within us creates profound loss . . . always. The current political divisions are taking a toll on everyone. We no longer live in a time when political leaders held all the divisiveness. In these days, fractured politics have reached communities, churches and even families. When support for political candidates creates deep separations one from another, we have reached a dangerous and divisive environment. When we live in such a divisive environment, we risk losing relationships with those who “don’t vote like we do.” What a senseless, unfortunate and tragic loss that creates — breaches between friends, alienation among family members, rifts in communities of faith, deep schism in neighborhoods and communities.
Our spiritual intention must be a quest for peace, reconciliation, unity and respect. This is God’s intention for people of faith. This is God’s intention for the world, that nations, tribes, villages, cities — all the peoples of the world — shall not learn war anymore!
I have come to know Ash Wednesday as the time to draw nearer to my “soul’s insistent yearning.” That can be a frightening prospect, so I always approach Ash Wednesday with a bit of reticence, meeting the day with the self-awareness that I am trying to keep my distance from my “soul’s insistent yearning.” Being closer to one’s soul can well be a disconcerting proposition, but a necessary one. Ash Wednesday presents me with entry into the season of Lent.
I cherish Lent’s forty days, actually, always expecting change to happen in my soul and spirit. And yet, the prospect of repentance, renewal, transformation — and ultimately a personal resurrection — always disquiets me.
How will I spend Ash Wednesday?
How will I approach the day that will open the gate of Lent before me?
I have always thought of Lent as a spiritual journey we take alone, a solitary season of introspection and self-reflection during which we contemplate our own spiritual well-being and our relationship with God. For me, Lent has often been alone work.
So I make my Lenten journey into my alone places. I will know that God will abide with me, comforting me in my self-reflection, in my penitence and in my repentance. I will be mindful this Lent of my need to reach into my soul in search of places needing healing, constant and long-time wounds of the soul and spirit. I will search for the traces of my sinfulness, finding in my heart the will to seek sincere penitence, the sad and humble realization of and regret for my misdeeds. I will move beyond penitence to repentance as I resolve to change and to experience transformation.
How will I spend Ash Wednesday?
In whatever way I am able, I will receive ashes on my forehead imposed in a sign of the cross. I will recall the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I will utter as my prayer, the words of Scripture, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
As for the actual ashes, I have often wiped them off while in public. I never knew why, just that I was uncomfortable when others saw the cross of ash on my forehead. Perhaps I needed to keep my spiritual practice to myself, or hide the reality of my search for repentance. Years ago, I came across these words, spoken by Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM:
We can feel a little funny with ashes on our foreheads, but for Catholics, that’s how we mark the start of Lent. Ashes don’t say we’re holy. They say we are sinners. They don’t say we are perfect, only that we’re willing to try. They don’t say we’re models of religiosity, but they do say we belong. In today’s world of loners and isolates, that says a lot.
~ Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM
The essential truth, and gift, of Ash Wednesday is its call to come to terms with ourselves before God. Ash Wednesday says what so much of modern culture denies, namely that we are forever deceiving and justifying ourselves about our sinfulness. So on this day, when we contemplate our sins, when we pay attention to the ash on our foreheads, when we enter into Lent’s forty days, we must make prayer our utmost spiritual intention. So I pray we might embrace our Christian community that we might journey together for these forty days, praying for one another, seeking together the serenity, the reflection and the transformation of Lent, as all the while, we lean into our “soul’s insistent yearning.”
In that spirit of prayer, I hope you will take with you into Lent with this beautiful prayer from Rabbi Naomi Levy:
The rabbi in me would like to offer a prayer for you.
I pray you will learn to see you life as a meaningful story.
I pray you will learn to listen to your soul’s insistent yearning.
I pray you will learn to believe you can transform your life.
I pray you will learn to live and shine inside your imperfect life
and find meaning and joy right where you are.
Most of all I pray you will uncover a great miracle: your extra-ordinary life.
~ From Hope Will Find You by Rabbi Naomi Levy
Most importantly, pray yourself into Lent in the few days we have before Ash Wednesday. Seek God’s heart and seek the depths of your own heart and your “soul’s insistent yearning.” May you know God’s presence as you begin your Lenten journey.