Inauguration Day

Yesterday, according to our local weathermen, the sun came out for the first time since December 26. When Jeff got home from work, we went for a walk. I’ve been having some trouble with my back, so I couldn’t make it very far without discomfort.  When I’d had enough, Jeff went on without me and I made my way back home alone.  The sky was a fair companion and the wind shifted daubs of cumulus clouds about, rearranging the geography of heaven as I walked. Patches of azure opened and closed here and there, like pupil-less irises in the cloud sclera of sky.

I passed a row of white pines and absentmindedly plucked some needles from a bough. I lifted them to my nose and breathed in their faint scent. It was diminished by the season—tired, old. I pressed the flimsy greens between my teeth and bit down: earthy, grassy, dry.

I walked on, mouthing the needles, wondering at the day. Further along I came across an evergreen I did not recognize. It looked out of place amidst all those white pines and I was pleased to meet it.

“Hello,” I said, to be polite. “How did you end up here?” I felt a kinship with this lonely traveler on this day of days. She was a testament to my heart, a splash of truth in all the pretense.

I bent and buried my nose in a cluster of her needles. Sweet and citrusy, she offered herself to me. Her needles were long, about four inches, and in clusters—like a pine—sprayed out abundantly from the twiggy branch. The cone was open, about three inches. I plucked a cluster of needles from her upstretched arm. No sooner were they in my grasp when my fingers were sticky with the scent of orange. I bit down on acidic brightness—a fruit basket in two small stalks of green. I chewed on the resiny goodness all the way home.

This morning, in my quiet time, I read part of Luke 4. The reading took me through the temptation of Jesus (1-13), to the beginning of his ministry in Galilee (14-15), to his rejection in his home town of Nazareth (16-30). I’m reading through an old lectionary commentary, and the writer had this to say about these passages:

Today marks the midpoint of the Epiphany season, a season in which we celebrate the revelation, the manifestation (epiphania)—of God. Primarily, we celebrate how Jesus is made known—revealed to us as God’s Messiah. But something else is also revealed in this season. In this text, we, too, are made known. And we, like the congregation in Nazareth, are revealed to be a people who like to draw lines in the sand—a people with a persistent ‘we-they’ mind-set. … We can easily turn all of life into a competition—who is better than whom. …
Sometimes we would like to peg God with a certain nationality, a political party, an income level. Yet in the second half of Luke’s work, we read especially about the impartiality of God. When Peter preached about the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles through Christ, he proclaimed, ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality’ (Acts 10:34). Literally, this reads: ‘God makes no distinction between faces.’ God does not differentiate between peoples.
No, God is not interested in faces; God is interested in hearts. Not beautiful hearts, not pure hearts, nor perfect hearts, but hearts that know their need of God …”

This morning, the sun is still shining. And I’m trying to remember to stand like my new friend—beautiful in her distinctiveness, full of grace. The freshness of such a friend can make one almost forget the pain from a tired old back, and remind to look upon this tired world with eyes of love.

Freedom: Some Thoughts on the Jumping Tandem Retreat

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I notice anew that this is the season the Maples let go of their seeds. When we walk lately, it is in a whirling, twirling ticker-tape of spinning helicopter seeds. Bonnie tries to catch them in her mouth and I cannot shake the feeling of a parade. Somehow the walk becomes a celebration.

I’m still thinking about the Jumping Tandem Retreat. Before I flew to Nebraska, I spent a few days weeding out my flowers, mulching over wild violets and honeysuckle, planting the garden, dreaming of color. The lilac bush was in full bloom, leaving the air heavy with its heady scent. And I was tired.

I landed in Nebraska to open arms, strong and tender shoulders, and grace. Words cannot capture the sound of a room full of women lifting their voices in praise; words cannot capture the way tears cleanse, how a slow-spreading smile lights up a face.

We are made to be in the presence of one another.

We began with the story of brokenness. Our first keynote speaker was a Willow, bending before us, giving herself in offering and making the space we shared an altar. Grace. Her name is Grace. And she is beautiful.

The first workshop I attended was called “The Art of Truth Telling: How Grace Unmakes Bitter Fruit.” Listening to Alia Joy speak of meeting God in suffering was the best place to start. She spoke of how the hard circumstances strip you bare, leave nothing but honesty and an acute awareness of God with us. She said she felt ill-prepared, due to more unforeseen circumstances, but this is a safe place to fail, she said. She didn’t.

My Bible study sisters and I have been reading Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel. This morning I read this:

In Christ Jesus the freedom from fear empowers us to let go of the desire to appear good, so that we can move freely in the mystery of who we are.”

Yes. This is grace. This is what I felt at the retreat: freedom to move freely in the mystery I am.

I listened to Kim Hyland, that Winsome Woman, speak about freedom. About how a quest for perfection can suffocate a life. I listened to her and loved her and felt a love for every woman who is doing the best she can in this broken world.

Dr. Helen Fagan shared her story in the second keynote. This woman’s heart is so brave and beautiful. “We grow the most when we are around people who are different than us,” she said. And her story is one of constantly growing, always seeking truth, endless curiosity.

I listened to the poet John Blase speak about “Bearing the Burden of Nouns,” his good words transcending poetry and encompassing all of life—gently prodding me to tend the nouns in my life better. I would pay John to read me poetry all the daylong.

And then there was Michelle, whose humility and grace and self-deprecating humor moved us all to such a warm place of communion I thought my heart might swell out of my chest.

Words cannot capture, friends.

I returned home under moonlight to find the lilac blooms on the wane and I told my boys all the stories I gathered in my head with words, all the stories gathered in my heart.

“Don’t you love God’s people?” I said to them. “Don’t you just?”

The Maple seeds spin and blow in the breeze and this aging woman feels the freedom of a new sowing; and everything old is new again.

Move freely in the Mystery, Beloved. There is always grace.

 

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.

 

Grace Says I’m Enough

Not too long ago I was at a retreat when I caught myself in anything but a retreat-like mindset.
While the other attendees were eating lunch I was looking forward to going on a run with my roommate. The plan was that when I returned from our run, I would go on a walk/photo shoot with another friend in attendance. Then there was an art journaling session I had signed up for later in the afternoon. When I made this series of plans in the early hours of the day, it all sounded perfect. I would do EVERYTHING. All I needed was the magic lasso and I had this Wonder Woman thing down.
Join me over at Jenny Sulpizio’s place for the rest of the story!

Playdates with God: Lent I



This morning, after all the bustle fades away, after the boys are off to school and Jeff off to work, after I am left alone … I sit at the table with my morning reading and I focus in. We’ve just passed the first Sunday of Lent and I figure it’s time I get serious about this, right? I’ve made some secret commitments for these next forty days and so far my heart hasn’t picked up the banner. I’ve blamed it on the weather, blamed it on daylight savings time, blamed it on some circumstances happening between these walls that are breaking my heart; but, really, there is only one place to lay the blame.

So I do. I try harder.
I read—pen in hand, journal at the ready—prepared. This will make listening easier, I think. If I write down the wise words of another, maybe they will penetrate my heart. But, though the pen moves across the page, my mind keeps returning to that hard conversation I had yesterday, worrying it the way the tongue does a missing tooth.
Yesterday morning I preached at one of our little valley churches on the temptation of Christ. We talked about fasting and I shared some words from a sermon of Martin Luther’s that I had read in my study.
In his sermon entitled The Fast and Temptation of Christ, Luther says this, 

“[W]e have adopted and practiced fasting as a good work: not to bring our flesh into subjection; but, as a meritorious work before God, to atone for our sins and obtain grace. And it is this that has made our fasting a stench and so blasphemous and shameful, so that no drinking and eating, no gluttony and drunkenness, could have been as bad and foul. It would have been better had people been drunk day and night than to fast thus.” (emphasis mine)

A stench and blasphemous and shameful. It would have been better had people been drunk day and night than to fast thus, he says.
My mind returns to these words this morning as my heart refuses to engage. Isn’t that what faith is? An attitude of the heart? Luther used such strong language because of his sense of urgency to communicate to the people that we are saved by grace alone.
And here I am, trying to force my heart into submission; focusing on the works instead of love. A stench. Blasphemous. Shameful.
Suddenly, I am aware of the music outside my window. Birdsong lifts and speaks the promise of spring. And I remember what that acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton said in that interview I heard on the radio program On Being:

“…we have a very discreet bandwidth of supersensitive hearing and that’s between 2.5 and 5 kilohertz in the resident frequencies of the auditory canal,” he told host Krista Tippett. “Is there something in our ancestors’ environment that matches our peak hearing human sensitivity? Because most of what I’m saying right now, except for the “s” sounds and the high-pitched sounds, falls well below that range. And, indeed, there’s a perfect match: birdsong. Birdsong.”
I put the pen down. And in the middle of this season of fasting, my ears are served a feast.

Every Monday I’ll be sharing one of my Playdates with God. I would love to hear about yours. It can be anything: outside, quiet time. Maybe it’s solitary. Maybe it’s loud and crowded. Just find Him. Be with Him. Grab my button at the bottom of the page and join us:


The Playdates button: