Ashes (and a Giveaway)

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Last night I fell asleep with an ashen cross on my forehead, careful not to smear on the pillow. I dreamed of flying through white ash falling like snow, of a warm flame that doesn’t burn, and a fire in my chest. When I awakened, there was barely a smudge where the cross once was, but I still felt its mark on me.

We have begun the Lenten season, a time traditionally devoted to self-reflection and repentance. Some people like to make a particular sacrifice—coffee or chocolate or wine—but I’ve been so unmoored lately, feeling the loss of things out of my control. I haven’t been able to find a rhythm since Teddy left us in the fall, since losing a valued occupation, since changing direction in life.

This place of shaky legs is most uncomfortable. In saying this, I am reminded of something my pastor said last night in the Ash Wednesday service. “We thought about playing music as people travel through the reflection stations. It’s a little uncomfortable to move around the sanctuary in silence. Then we thought, maybe it’s good to be uncomfortable once in a while.”

I’ve never been drawn to the nomadic; always keep an eye on the destination. But these days I’m not sure where I’m going and it feels like failure to me. During Lent, I am reminded that Jesus made that long walk to the cross for me. I know I should live every day—every moment—with this truth on my forehead, but I don’t. Perhaps an ashen cross is a good reminder.

I’m trying to live into a knowledge that life is about the journey. It feels a bit like aimless wandering at times. Not very sensible. But then, what does that word mean, sensible? Jonathan Edwards spoke of the “sensible idea” as a way of knowing God.

This is the means by which we are able even to begin the task of knowing God. God can never be fully known as an object of intellection, he argued, but must be loved through a deeply visceral and participatory way of knowing. Edwards insisted that it is the impassioned mind, the loving mind, the mind made open to all of its senses that thinks most clearly.” ~Belden Lane, Ravished by Beauty

By this definition, my wanderings are very sensible indeed. I look for God in all my humanity—scent of snow weighing down air, taste of salted caramel tickling the tongue, feel of skin against my lips, birdsong, glimpse of red flickering through barren trees …

Edwards says this world is a theater for God’s glory. Instead of thinking of my one wild and beautiful life as a destination, I shall think of it as a play. Impromptu. Fair and glorious in all its twists and turns.

This Lenten season I’m giving away some lovely books. This week, I have a copy of Kristen Welch’s Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World. The book comes with a global family kit, a resource to help parents learn more about different cultures. Kristen and I met through our agent, Bill Jensen. Her story is really quite amazing. If you haven’t read her first book Rhinestone Jesus, you’re missing quite an inspiring tale! For a chance to win a copy of Kristen’s new book, just leave a comment on this post. I’ll announce the winner (and another giveaway) on Monday, 2/15.

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday: The Most Honest of Days

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Snow drifts down like white ash and covers a world bent with sorrow this morning. Today, we step into the season of Lent; Ash Wednesday is the day we acknowledge our humanity—that I was made from dust and to dust I will return. It is a time of repentance, a time to acknowledge our frailty—both in sin and mortality—and turn. The ashes crossed on our foreheads serve to remind of the broken debris of this life and that to live for Christ, we must die with him.

Our little valley has been buried under snow these past days, a gift from winter storm Octavia. School has been closed all week and special services at church have been cancelled. We are sheltering in. That means no Ash Wednesday service tonight, no imposition of ashes, no prayer of repentance to whisper together this evening.

A while back my pastor asked me if I would like to help plan and participate in our Ash Wednesday service. Together, we laid out the bulletin. Last week, we smoked up the church parlor as we burned last year’s Palm Sunday palms into ashes. I’ve been reading Sara Miles’s book City of God: Faith in the Streets to open my heart to the beauty of the tradition of the ashes. It’s the story of her experiences carrying ashes out of the church and into the streets, sharing this sacred ritual with her neighbors and the broken people in the diverse neighborhood where she lives. I haven’t finished the book yet, but her candor and her tender heart for God’s people convicts me.

This morning, I finish up chapter nine, which has Miles and a group of volunteers—laypersons and ordained clergy alike—gathering to prepare for their outdoor “Ashes to Go” service. One volunteer is Vera, who Miles learns had an older sister who killed herself on Ash Wednesday a few years ago.

“That year,” said Vera, “there was a really early Easter. It was such an offense. I couldn’t bear it: how could Lent be just like the blink of an eye, when Lent is the world we live in?”

Lent is the world we live in.

“Ash Wednesday is like a homecoming for me,” Vera continued. “It’s the most honest of days. It’s a mystery, a sitting-with. A sitting with the dark. It is bearing witness to the dark.”

Today, on this most honest of days, I weep for the brokenness of our world. We live in the world of the ashes, a world where innocents are murdered in the name of religion, a world where brother lifts hand against brother and snuffs out the most sacred of all gifts, life. I have not watched the video. I cannot bear to look at the stills of those orange-clad figures kneeling by the sea. The images have burned a hole in my memory, imprinting all the pain and sorrow and injustice that this world offers.

Yes, Lent is the world we live in. In the early days Lent was a time of preparation for babtism. And isn’t this a baptism of sorts? This full immersion in the broken, the sorrow, the anguish that is this hurting world? There is no escaping the injustice and the ugliness that claims us.

We are lost without Easter. We are lost without the grace of God.

Miles says, “And the only way out of it, on Ash Wednesday as on any day, is repentance. Not feeling bad, but changing. Not pouring ashes on your head in a fit of self-loathing, but allowing Jesus to gently spit into a handkerchief and scrub off your face.”

Change. Transformation. This is what belonging to Jesus means. That our hearts of stone will be made into soft clay. The Book of Common Prayer begins the Ash Wednesday liturgy with a prayer, and it seems a fitting way to end here. For no words of mine could ever capture the great weight we carry as citizens of heaven.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have
made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and
make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily
lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission
and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

 

My West Virginia Morning: Beautiful Ash

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When I awaken, the sky is gray. The moon sits like a great, fat sickle and mocks its ashen bed. But there is a time when the light arrives with amber hue, falls over all the eye can see and colors it the glow of honey. I sit on the couch and wait, glancing through the window periodically, vigilant. I don’t want to miss the magic moments.

This morning, the thermometer reads nine degrees when the sun touches the tip of the maple in the back yard. I have been reading, doing my Bible study like a good girl when luminance whispers outside. I grab the camera and slip on my clogs—the ones my good friend called my “clown-training shoes.” One insole is missing because Bonnie has taken a shine to dissecting all our shoes. She watches me through the window.

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I walk amidst luster, grass crunching under my feet. The squirrel baffle on my feeder sports a sheen of glitter; it catches the sun and tosses her back to me in splintered light. The sky suddenly gives up her gray, makes room for the deepening blue. And I am smitten by the naked branches silhouetted against such a lovely backdrop.

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My Bible sits open on the couch inside, but isn’t this a study of all things holy too?

Last night, we met at the church and prayed around the fireplace in the parlor. My pastor took last year’s palms from Palm Sunday and we watched as they turned to ash over the fire. Next week we will wear ashes, remind each other and ourselves that we are made of dust. As I look up into the blue, I remember that ash is what is left when the fire is put out—it is the remnant that will not burn.

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I think about the fires we have been through this past year, the choking burn of so much refining. Last night, as we stoked the wood that made the flame that burned the palms, one of the elders noted the difference in color of the ashes. The wood ash was dark and black, but the palms were burning into a soft gray—almost white.

This life is in need of constant refining, transforming through the smoldering fires. But Beauty has her own kind of fire too. And I wonder if we watched her more—would there be less in need of burning away? For nature makes her own chaff and leaves behind the remnants of millions of years of shaping and remaking.

I stand in this light of the ages and let sun-fire make me new this morning. And this is beautiful ash, pure and fine, that floats before me.

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Sunday is Coming

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We are getting ready for Lent at our little church, working on the Ash Wednesday service and planning a small worship gathering outside to burn last year’s Palm Sunday palms to use for ashes. The Lenten season is one of my favorites—I come by contrition and repentance naturally, it seems. Usually the dark winter days lead into a time of slowing that readies my heart for reflection. This season, however, is fraught with busy as the dark days slowly yield to light.

We are still working on applications for Teddy’s college plans, filling out page after page of minutiae, dissecting my boy’s life and letting the value others have assigned to it mess with our heads and turn a process that should be joyful—hopeful, igniting dreams—into a dreaded exercise in competition.

The way our world does things sometimes doesn’t make sense. There is no place for a child whose mind is his best asset. We celebrate the athletes and the charismatic types, we applaud the artists, dancers, singers … but the introverted thinker is often overlooked. I tell him he must know who he is, he will find his place, life will welcome his gifts. But he looks at me and points to his forehead, “What I have is all in here,” he says. “It’s not … I don’t know how …” His voice is constricted, as if he doesn’t have enough breath. And I know his heart is breaking. Haven’t I also longed to be seen?

Remember you are dust …

The liturgy for Ash Wednesday rises up to meet me and I am reminded that I follow Jesus into the wilderness and all the way to the cross. For the stone to be rolled away, I must first embrace death; let go of the dirt and debris of this life and let this daily surrendering create resurrection in my heart.

This mumbo-jumbo makes no sense to an eighteen-year-old who stands on the cusp of life. It made no sense to me when I was his age. These things are too intangible, crumble in my fingers like ash.

How do I take my hands off of this?

I must embody. Let worship pry loose my fingers from all that I want, all that I dream. I remember that, yes, it is Friday. But Sunday is coming. Lord, have mercy. Sunday is coming.

Ashes to Ashes

from the archives, my friends. I cannot say my love any better as I hold ashes in my hands tonight…
I have Jesus’ fingerprints on my head.  
We’ve just returned from Ash Wednesday service, and I have been touched by His hand. We are entering the Lenten season. As with every year, I am giddy with gratitude.
As much as I love Contemporary Worship, the keeping of the traditions of the Church move me in unspeakable ways. The heaviness of hundreds of years of hearts and minds standing in the same place that I am settles deeply within me. Such kinship. And my heart longs for those deep reaching roots.
Tonight I stood in line with my brothers and sisters and waited for my Pastor to make a cross of ashes on my head. My two children stood in front of me, and when I heard her speak the words over Jeffrey, a lump formed in my throat
Jeffrey, you are dust and to dust you will return.”
It made me shudder to hear these words spoken to my baby. And in that moment I was keenly aware of the sacrifice that has been made on my behalf.
As I took my place to receive the ashes, my pastor ceased to be my friend. Instead, she became the hands of Jesus. She called me by name, because He loves me.
Laura, you are dust and to dust you will return.”
The intimacy of the moment took my breath away, and I felt His breath on my cheek. The ashes fell onto the front of my shirt as I walked back to the pew. A cascade of sorrow, of guilt and shame. And I wondered if His blood fell in such a pattern. When it struck the earth, did the soil moan with sorrow? Or did it rejoice at the prophecy fulfilled? Somehow, I have such difficulty finding joy in that moment. Only shame. Because I am unworthy. Oh, my God, I am unworthy.
Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornamented robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.”— (2 Samuel 13:19)
This is the sorrow I feel as I enter into Lent. The sorrow of shame. But mingled with this…something else. I ask God over and over: Why did you have to do it this way? Wasn’t there a better way? And then I am flooded with gratitude and I understand.
Lent is a time of contemplation and self-denial. It is a time to shelter under His wings and experience His might and His goodness. To me, all of earth seems to pause and breathe more deeply. 
Waiting.
Oh, Dear Ones, we are waiting. Sunday is coming.