Self-Care as Lenten Discipline

I give up strange things for Lent. During a high-pressure year in college, I gave up my superego. Another year, I stopped going to church, because arguments over theology were making me prideful and distracted. The goal of these counterintuitive resolutions was always to jolt myself out of legalism, to develop a healthy sense of humor about my so-called good behavior and start living in God’s grace.

But this year, I forgot all that. I made big plans. Lent was the equivalent of a corporate productivity retreat. Six weeks! Surely that would be enough time to write a book on gay theology, work on my novel, be a good friend to everyone on Facebook, and (oh, right) do my job.

Now I am cranky, exhausted, yelling at the telephone, and dreaming about being the unpopular contestant on “Stylista”.

It is hard for me to believe that the world, my world anyhow, will not come to an end if I do what I really want to do: dial back my social life and service projects so I can be alone with God and my novel. I can’t pretend that I am closing the door and turning off the phone for the benefit of anyone but myself. “People aren’t supporting me,” I say, when I’m actually the one who isn’t telling them what I need–because I’m afraid that they aren’t strong enough, or that they will stop loving me, or that it’s just plain weird to tell a flesh-and-blood person, “I’m sorry, my novel character outranks you.”

My husband, another stunning overachiever, talked to me recently about the discipline of renunciation. He has been increasing the time he spends in meditation, and working on his impatience to change the world all at once. Suddenly, “renunciation” began to sound like a sweet word, a blissful self-indulgence, like getting a massage.

Just as awareness of sin is only tolerable and productive after awareness of being safely held in God’s forgiving love, healthy renunciation requires a prior commitment to one’s own self-worth as a child of God. Just after Ash Wednesday, the womanist blog The Kitchen Table published a wonderful post about how the Lenten call to sacrifice can be mis-heard by women who have been socialized to suppress their own needs. Blogger Melissa Harris-Lacewell wrote:

I was sitting in the audience at an extraordinary event honoring the intellectual contributions of black womanist theologians Katie Cannon, Delores Williams, and Jacquelyn Grant. These womanist foremothers are the sisters who courageously challenged the deep and often destructive assumptions of academic theology and ethics.: assumptions that either ignore or silence black women….

I had been looking forward to this event for a month. It turned out to be the perfect way to spend Ash Wednesday.

These preeminent scholars themselves were not on the panel. Instead, the panel was composed of second generation womanist scholars who were their students: Rev. Dr. Joy Bostic, Dr.Teresa Delgado, and Rev. Lorena Parrish. Together they articulated an ethical and theological vision for black women in America and in the Diaspora.

Their message was a challenging one on the precipice of Lent because at they offered up a message that black women must refuse being transformed into sacrificial lambs for the good of everyone but ourselves.

These women refused to uncritically embrace the notion of sacrifice. Instead they forced us to ask what would happen if we imagine that God and our communities are deeply, unalterably invested in the existence, survival, and thriving of black women. Would a God, a church, a home, or a community that was committed to our survival, our joy, and our redemption be so willing to use and abuse our bodies, our talents, our hearts, and our gifts while offering so little in return?

These sister scholars laid hands on the discomfort I’d felt earlier in the day and lay it bare before the entire gathering. The created new insights by drawing on the work of white feminist scholars, black male liberation theologians, and even traditional church doctrine to craft new meaning from the Christian imperative for Lenten sacrifice.

Dr. Delgado asked us to reconsider the communion assertion: “This is my body which is broken for you.” What if we read that idea in light of contemporary women’s experiences of forced sexual slavery, intimate violence, and soaring HIV infection? It seems that the bodies of poor and black women are indeed broken by and for others.

Dr. Bostic then offered a stunning counterpoint by invoking Toni Morrison’s powerful, woman preacher from Beloved: Baby Suggs Holy. Morrison, through Baby Suggs Holy, calls black men and women to love their flesh and to resist allowing it to be broken. This woman preacher, standing in space she clears for her prophetic witness, encourages black men and women to love their embodied selves. “Here in this here place, we flesh; Flesh that weeps, laughs; Flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it.” The holy act is cherishing and nurturing the self, not denying it, not limiting it, not covering it in sackcloth and ashes.

Yes, I agree with your assessment that as a nation of privilege we are called to sacrifice our consumption and privilege to end oppression and inequality. But as black women we must be careful to complicate and challenge the idea of sacrifice. We have too often internalized this Christian call for self-sacrifice so fully that it became self-denigration. We nail ourselves to a cross just to serve and please others. And others allow us to do it. They smile on our sacrifice, claim that our suffering is redemptive, and enjoy the ways we relieve them of discomfort. They act out their patriarchy and racism all over our lives and we too often accept it as though it is the cross we are supposed to bear in order to prove ourselves worthy of divine love.

From the audience the Rev. Dr. Joanne Terrell reminded us of her work which constructs a new theology of joy and fun. She admonished us that we act as though loving our lives is a sin. We behave as though pleasure and happiness are ungodly. Dr. Terrell sounded like Baby Suggs Holy to me, telling us to dance our way into the arms of a God who loves our audacious, happy, fabulous, whole selves and does not need us to crawl to divinity half-starved and over burdened.