A Psalm for Palm Sunday

We’ve been sleeping with the windows open at night. When morning begins to spread her skirt of light, it’s the song of the robins that coaxes open my eyes. Last week I planted my garden greens and yesterday I noticed their sleepy faces poking up from the soil bed. Tomorrow the weatherman calls for snow.

I think the robin song is the most hopeful of all songs.

Since I returned from Refine the Retreat, I have had my own retreat, of sorts. I’ve been quiet—curled into family and the moments as lived. Presence has been nourishing me, the slow-going through the days. I’m slowly getting back up to speed with life.

Yesterday I gave a short homily for a Lenten luncheon series at the church of one of my mentors. I thought I’d share a slightly edited version of that message here. As we prepare to enter Holy Week, may you be blessed, dear one.

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I spent my 48th birthday with a group of about 45 women at Refine the Retreat. We were at a retreat center called Our Lady of the Pines—a beautiful, former girls school turned nunnery turned sanctuary—where our hearts were primed to hear God’s voice. Each morning I led the women in lectio divina. We walked a prayer labyrinth on the property and prayed under birdsong mingled with the voices of tall, limber pines singing in the wind. When the time came to give my message, I was changed. I felt close to these women—safe—and God kept nudging me to give a different message than the one I’d prepared. I felt the urging to share more deeply and allow myself to be vulnerable.

So I did. In the context of scripture, I shared the story of a difficult experience my family had just been through. Something that had caused great pain that still touches us in many ways. And as I was speaking the words out loud, I was taken by surprise. I felt a sob well up in my throat and there was nothing I could do to suppress it. I had never spoken about this story publicly and my emotions took me off guard. But when that sob escaped, something beautiful happened. Every eye turned unblinkingly upon me. The tears had captured their attention. This is something they all understood so well: sorrow; grief; the deep soul disappointment that life hands us sometimes. I looked out over the faces of the women I was speaking to and I saw only love.

After a time of worship, as we clustered in small groups sipping coffee and nibbling sweets, woman after woman approached me. In hushed tones, they shared similar stories of darkness. Times of despair and pain. With few exceptions, these women told me how they kept their pain a secret, held it tightly to their hearts, locked behind cut-flower words and plastered on smiles only gum-deep.

My heart broke as I listened and the realization sunk into me: We do not feel safe to share our pain, our brokenness—our humanity—in our churches.

Eugene Peterson says the Psalms are where we go to learn our language as it develops into maturity, as it answers God. The Psalms are fraught with humanity, giving breath to a plenary human experience. The Psalm on the lectionary for this Palm Sunday is chapter 31:6-19.  It’s a typical lament; a cry for help and complaint that moves through petition and toward a statement of trust and praise. In fact, a large portion of the Psalms could be categorized as lament. The estimates are from one third to one quarter of the Psalms falling in this category. And that word—Psalm—the Hebrew word for Psalm means “praises.” Does it seem odd to you that a book of praises would hold so many laments? Or do we need to change our definition of praise?

 And why is this Psalm a companion to Palm Sunday? It certainly lends very little triumph to the triumphal entry. But what it does do is boldly hold that tension that often so colors the human experience. A lament does the unthinkable—it holds anguish and hope side-by-side; revealing the depth of the nature of human life. The Lenten season is a time when the humanity of Jesus calls out to our own humanity.

When I read the story of the Triumphal entry, I cannot help wondering what was going through Jesus’ mind as he wrapped his legs around the soft underbelly of that donkey, the noise of the crowd ringing in his ears.  He knew what he was going to. He’d already tried to explain to his disciples on two different occasions that he was going to his death. No heavenly army swooping in, no Roman defeat, no redemption of all the years of oppression his people had faced. What was he thinking?

Jesus was fully human. It was Pilot who said it: “Behold the man!”

But do I? Behold the man? Too often I want to impose upon Jesus some kind of superpowers, but Jesus was a man. Fully God, yes, but fully human as well. How could one made of flesh and bone, one whose blood ran as hot and cold as ours, how could he withstand such horrors? How could he plead with God to take away this cup and still end by saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will”? Jesus felt the full range of human emotions. Yet he was as close to the Father as any human could be. Anguish and hope held side-by-side.

Writer Dan Allender reminds us that “the poetry of the psalms were the hymns of the people of God. It was their song book,” he says. “it was what they sang in the temple at their worship services. The psalms are often thought to be the private poetry of people who struggled with God … [but] God intends for lament to be part of worship; and he intends for it to be done in community.”

How many times must our Lord have sung the Psalms, given his voice to lament?

Lament cuts through insincerity, unveils pretense, and leads to trust and wonder. Because true worship involves bringing every aspect of our lives before God—not ignoring the hard stuff of life, but worshipping in the midst of our struggles.

Jesus prayed a portion of Psalm 31 from the cross: Into your hands I commit my spirit … Such a beautiful statement of trust. But don’t you wonder, if he had sung this Psalm before … don’t you imagine that the rest of the Psalm was on his mind as well? And the hard stuff comes after that sweet statement of trust.

Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief …

 Jesus knew the power of lament. He knew the power of sharing sorrow publically.

At the first Refine the Retreat, one of the ladies who is an artist told us about the Japanese art of Kintsugi (or kintsukuroi). It’s a 500-year-old method for repairing broken pottery. You see, she said, in those ancient times, most families only had one good bowl or platter.  If it was broken, repair was necessary. Over time, artisans began repairing the cracks with a special lacquer mixed with gold, so that a bowl highly valued by the family may have many gold-veined lines through it. The golden seams became a sign of value, instead of disrepair. The cracks a vehicle to appreciate beauty in brokenness.

We are a flawed people living in a fallen world. But we have been healed with something far more precious than gold lacquer. We are washed in the blood of Jesus. But we remain in this in-between time—redeemed but waiting. Broken, but beloved. This is our reality: in this life, we will have troubles. If Jesus did not shy away from lament, why should we?

Our times are in your hands, O LORD. Let your face shine on your servants, save us in your unfailing love. Amen.

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.