Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is a forty-day period of repentance and reflection leading up to Easter. The length is symbolic of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness just before his temptation. I’ve previously blogged about Lent here and here. Now I want to share a thought-provoking passage about Lent from the book Whistling in the Darkby Frederick Buechner:
During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.
-If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
-When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
-If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
-Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
-Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
-If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?
To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can me a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.
Ippolito Scarzella Scarsellino (1550-1620), The Cleansing of the Temple, Oil on Canvas, Musei Capitolini, Rome
“Be angry and sin not” (Eph. 4:26a). There’s such a thing as righteous anger, though most of the time our anger is of the less-than-righteous variety. When Jesus saw the moneychangers in the Temple, he became angry and started turning over the moneychangers’ tables and driving them out of the Temple (Matt. 21:12, John 2:14).
Sometimes we get angry when we hear about injustice. A child is abused. An elderly person is swindled out of her life savings. Someone cheats to get ahead. Last week my blood boiled and my cheeks flushed when I read an article by Frederick Kunkle in The Washington Post about forced sterilizations in the United States. E. Lewis Reynolds is 85 years old and lives alone in Lynchburg. He has no children or grandchildren. When he was a boy his cousin hit him in the head with a rock, triggering epileptic-like seizures. His condition caused him to be labeled as a “defective person” and he was sterilized as a result. Virginia and 32 other states had laws that allowed forced sterilizations. A 1927 Supreme Court decision (Buck v. Bell) upheld these laws and Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the majority, said that such laws were necessary to keep society from being “swamped by incompetence.”
So what happened to Mr. E. Lewis Reynolds—the man our state considered to be too defective to be allowed to have children? He joined the Marine Corps and served our country in uniform proudly for 30 years. When he and his wife couldn’t have children, he consulted a military doctor. That’s when he first learned what had been done to him when he was a boy. His inability to have children contributed to his divorce and now he sits alone in Lynchburg with no family in his old age. Reynolds was one of an estimated 60,000 people who were legally sterilized against their will in the U.S. during the twenieth century. Virignia’s sterilization law wasn’t repealed until 1979.
Many people associate eugenics—the attempt to create a superior race by selective breeding—with Nazi Germany. But long before Adolf Hitler came to power, Americans were experimenting on other Americans to improve the gene pool. Sometimes we think what happened in Germany could never happen here in the United States. It already did.