We often speak of Lenten practices or traditions such as Shrove Tuesday, the imposition of ashes, or the popular question “what are you giving up for lent”? As a kid growing up, I was the Lutheran in a neighborhood where my friends down the street all went to Catholic school and without fail every Lent constantly talked about what they were giving up. It always struck me as odd and it still does. Not that it’s a bad practice, it’s just that I’ve never really understood it. I think it must be for the same reason I don’t particularly care for Valentine’s day. The thought being, you shouldn’t need a day to tell someone you love them, it should be a daily affirmation. Similarly, these forty days of Lent are an important and powerful time in the liturgical year but we shouldn’t limit ourselves to forty days but instead embrace all 365. Instead of giving up something, I have found myself thinking “What might I take on for lent”?
I wasn’t really sure what that “taking on” might look like until last night. I had the privilege to join a delegation from Grace, meeting at a church near the state capitol as a part of the larger group ISAIAH, which brings together people of faith to promote equity and justice during the legislative session. There were many inspiring words from faith leaders of many traditions, including our own Pastor Dan. A fitting way to start Lent it seemed, for then it hit me. Amidst the stories of struggle and calls to action, I was reminded of the story of my freshman year roommate Vang. I would like share with you a bit of his story here.
Vang grew up in the son of Hmong refugees in the projects on the East side of St. Paul. Not the projects of New York or Harlem or Chicago but right here in St. Paul, Minnesota. Vang and I were roommates my first year of college and became good friends. I have never met anyone as deeply passionate about the power of education both in his own life but more importantly how that gift can work for good in the lives of others. Vang dedicated his studies to math and education and I watched him put in long hours to help others realize their own potential and work towards success. Through our many conversations, Vang told me that his passion for the power of education came from his childhood. He told me stories of how his parents came to this country, refugees from the secret war, in order that their children might have a better life.
Of how his older brother was involved in a gang and one day some members of another gang pulled up in a car in front of Vang’s house looking for his brother. They asked Vang if he had seen his brother that day and knew where he was. Vang said no. They replied that they would kill him if they saw him or his brother again, flashed a gun and took off. Vang then told me that he loved his older brother but feared that his younger siblings might end up in that lifestyle as well and that is why he worked tirelessly to instill the value of education in them and many others in his community.
Vang is now a successful student teacher in the area, having already given so much to the community he loves and has set himself up to be able to give back even more in the years to come. While his story is one of struggle and perseverance that serves as a shining model, it is also a strong reminder. A reminder that no child should have to grow up among gangs or bullets or threats, living in the projects, having to worry about their safety while trying to get an education. No parent should have to lie awake at night, worrying if their child will make it home from their pickup basketball game with friends down the street.
And so it is Vang and his struggle, and his story that I seek to take on for Lent.
I challenge you in this time of reflection to think about what or whom you might reflect on, or take on if you will, for lent and hopefully turn it into a daily practice. Naturally, the liturgical calendar does not line up nicely with the school calendar and it is a busy time for all of us, but in the spirit of Luther, it’s not about our actions but our faith. Faith that amidst brokenness, stories can be told and love can be found and grown. Love which lays the foundation these forty days, of the house which in the face of sorrow and strife proclaims from floor to rafter
All are welcome
All are welcome
All are welcome in this place
May the peace that passes all understanding be with you and guide you this Lenten season and always.