The cemeteries where members of my extended families are buried are truly places of repose, surrounded by the fertile fields of Lancaster County, Pa. When I visit their graves, I sense that they are at rest, being at home with God and having returned to the earth that nurtured them.
With my strong sense of connection to those burial places, I felt shaken and heartbroken by news that vandals desecrated a Jewish cemetery less than an hour away from where my ancestors lived and died, as well as in other states.
And looking at those incidents in the wider context of acts of intimidation against so many people, both groups and individuals — even children, Lord, have mercy! — causes anger, grief and anxiety to churn within me.
Like Christians from the early church onward, we have an opportunity for self-examination and repentance in these days when we prepare to remember Jesus’ death and celebrate his resurrection.
Now is the time to look at our hearts and to ask God to help us root out any prejudice against any person or group of people. Christ alone knows our hearts fully, and Christ can help us to see what we wouldn’t be able to see on our own. If that weren’t enough, Jesus will help us to turn ourselves around and continue our discipleship journey, striving each day to be more fully free of hate and fear.
“I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that is not more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds,” the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1942, as he stood against the tides of hate engulfing his own country. “I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to resist as we need.”
Prayer will illuminate the way forward, to seek God’s will in all of our relationships, even when we see the world in starkly different ways. Though we do not know the way ahead fully, if we keep following Jesus we’ll know which way to go. It may lead us to places we have not been before.
Bonhoeffer wrote in 1944 that “one only learns to have faith by living in the full this-worldliness of life. . . . Then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane. . . . How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world?”
When we take a long, hard look at how we have been living, it can be painful to confront the ways we have fallen short. But we can also remember that we’re all striving to follow Jesus’ example. If any of us have gotten caught up in the scapegoating and fearmongering that are so prevalent in our culture and society today, it’s not too late to live in a new way. Grace and transformation are available to all of us.
Are we asking God to reshape and remold us like clay in a potter’s hands? Are we asking God to take both our shortcomings and our supposedly good deeds and to use them for something glorious that is still unfolding?
Those are my prayers in this season of Lent.
Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.