One of the things that people don’t say much about Lent is how many of our practices are really about connecting us–to our inner selves, to God, and to our community. That turned out to be one of my main takeaways from our Sunday webinar, led by Phoebe Farag Mikhail, content creator, writer, educator, trainer, advocate, and education diplomat. She clearly drew on her experience in church community life, family life, international development, education, human rights, and disaster risk management in the writing of the book she spoke about, Putting Joy Into Practice, which you’ve been seeing us blog about over the last four weeks (thanks, Judith, Jen, Amber, and Tenbit!).
Tasoni Phoebe walked us through the basics: God created us for joy, which we were given as a right at baptism–such an important reminder!
She told us the story of the 21 Coptic martyrs, who, when their bodies were returned after two years of negotiation from Libya, were taken in a two-hour procession to the church in Upper Egypt that had been built to receive them. And the joyous hymn that accompanied them the whole way was one of Christ’s rising from the tomb, because it was still the Paschal season. I remember a theologian friend who greeted everyone at the funeral after her husband’s sudden death with “Christ is Risen!” These events are shocking, devastating, yet there is joy in the resurrection.
She also spoke to us of the Lenten work of reconciliation, rebuilding a broken connection with someone. Like fasting, it is meant to be a daily, ongoing activity. There is a village in Upper Egypt where, at the beginning of Lent, villagers go to their priest and ask, “Am I worthy to fast?” and he answers “No,” if he knows that there’s someone they haven’t reconciled with. Prayer, fasting, reading the Scriptures–and reconciliation. ( I’m a little shocked at myself that it has taken me so long to really register reconciliation as a Lenten necessity.)
Tasoni Phoebe also helped us reorient our expectations around hospitality, a major Christian virtue. If we follow the example of the desert monastics, who took hospitality extremely seriously, we can receive a guest simply (hot water for a drink and something small to eat). Connecting with that guest, giving of ourselves, and receiving what they have to give, is vital. Paraphrasing here: We can say with Abraham as he invited the angels to a meal, “They’re here, so I’m going to serve them.” The idea is to orient ourselves to being welcoming, creating a connection, bringing someone into your life, your community, even for a short while.
Whom to welcome? Look around your community for foreign exchange students, any college student from out of town, newly married couples, and anyone grieving. Most–not all!--of us need to train ourselves to be more open to strangers. The caveat is that you should only do what you are ready for. (Tasoni Phoebe noted that, even in the early church, if a visitor needed to stay more than three days, they should expect to find a job.) If you’re not ready, don’t go out and invite the person begging on your street. Start with your own circle, then reach out to people just outside of that circle, and so on.
There was a lot more in the question and answer session, as in the main part of the webinar that I don’t have space to go into here. But best of all, Tasoni Phoebe’s advice throughout the webinar (as in her book) was warm, considered, practical, and clear-eyed. She acknowledged challenges, offered solutions, and showed us how Lent, and so much other Christian practice, has to do with connecting or reconnecting with one another, our community, and Christ himself.
Patricia Fann Bouteneff is president of Axia Women.