Lessons from nausea, dirty feet, and latrines

I have this theory about being uncomfortable – I believe that we can’t grow spiritually without periodically experiencing it.  I’ve written about this before, but last week I found myself on a very uncomfortable four-hour boat ride with people vomiting around me, and I thought to myself:  Why do I do these things?!

4 hour boat ride on wooden boat from the mainland of Haiti to the island of La Gonave

Miserable on the right with a hat.  En route to  La Gonave, June 2014.

This is not the first time I’ve been on this boat ride.  This was my third trip to Haiti, and when I go to Haiti I go to the island of La Gonave where we visit the village of Picmy/Picmi/Pikmy.  I’ll let you in on a secret, I do not like all that traveling to Picmy entails.  I love Picmy, I love its people, I love the people I go to Picmy with, and I absolutely love going on mission trips.  I do not  remotely enjoy the 2-3 hour ride from the Port Au Prince airport, navigating with a group of people with tons of luggage through immigration, pushy Hatians who try to take your luggage so you pay them, and a hot, bumpy bus ride to the coast.  Then comes the boat.  The trip as a whole is challenigng on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level.

bus market

Truly, there were more challenges on this trip than I care to share or have the time to — from no AC, running water or plumbing, to cultural and community barriers and discord.  However, half way through the long week, as I was walking back to our house in this dusty, perpetually hot existence, my feet filthy, no matter how much I cleaned them; my body sweaty and tired, thinking of all that I had to do the rest of the day to simply get ready for bed, and all that was left to do in the week, when again I thought to myself:  Why do I do these things?! Why am I here?  Then John 1 popped into my head:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
-John 1:1-5, 14

village

I do this because Jesus- it’s called incarnational ministry – ministry in the flesh. God made God-self uncomfortable in the incarnation.  I do this because in these places I find Jesus more clearly.  Jesus is found where it’s hot and dusty and unpleasant:  in deserts between borders, on islands where missionaries don’t return to, and in conversations with people who believe and live differently than we do.

I do this because it makes me uncomfortable.  When we’re uncomfortable we’re stretched.  We go beyond ourselves, our preconceptions, our preferences, and are able to allow God to blow up or expand our world.  And again, when we’re uncomfortable, it’s more likely that we’re following Jesus on the dirty, incarnational path of discipleship.  The coolest, most rewarding things that have happened to me in my life have all been a result of first being uncomfortable — sometimes for a while.

The awesome that happened–

Lest I make it sound like the week was completely horrible, I should let you know about some of the awesome things that happened (as usual, God working despite me and my inner grumbling).  We successfully held VBS, a medical clinic, and began construction of a permanent clinic (the only one on that side of the island!).  Around 20 people accepted Jesus as their God and Lord – many turning away from voodoo.  Two of these folks were voodoo priests — one of them was baptized during our time there, the other one’s voodoo rag was burned.  A beautiful baby girl was born at our clinic, and on our final night, our worship night, 14 people turned to Jesus and were prayed for individually.

final night - worship night

final night – worship night

Speaking as someone who dislikes being uncomfortable (I’m a recovering germ-a-phobe, for crying out loud), I’m aware that our culture, and unfortunately our church, is prone to thinking about what we want to do or be, and not much about the sacrifices and difficulties that result when truly following Jesus on the way to the cross.

So how can we apply these uncomfortable truths to ourselves as individuals?  Do I only participate in things that I’m comfortable doing?  When was the last time I was uncomfortable in my walk with God?  How can we apply these principals to ourselves as a church/denomination?  How/who do we serve?  How/who do we welcome?  Where do we visit?  How do we spend money (or not spend money)?  How are we intentionally making ourselves uncomfortable so that we may grow?

For the record, I still hate that boat ride.  May God make us uncomfortable where we need to be uncomfortable… and may there be Dramamine.boat ride 2014 from far

Let’s pray:

Truth-telling, wind-blowing, life-giving spirit—
we present ourselves now
for our instruction and guidance;
breathe your truth among us,
breathe your truth of deep Friday loss,
your truth of awesome Sunday joy.

Breathe your story of death and life
that our story may be submitted to your will for life.
We pray in the name of Jesus risen to new life—
and him crucified.

-from Walter Brueggemann’s, Prayers for a Privileged People

 

(Thank you, Katie Dahlem and Allan Griner, for the photos!)

Not a scepter but a hoe

Methodist blogs have become the new tabloids.  I’m sorry for adding my one other one to the Enquirer frenzy.  I promise I will not post pictures of celebrity bishop-babies (whatever those are).  I do however want to address some things that came out of my ‘Why Church?’ post last week.  (Have I mentioned I’m not particularly fond of writing blogs?)  I told you I’ve mourned and cried for and over the church —  Archbishop Oscar Romero said that “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”  I doubt I’m entirely done crying; as long as you and I are part of the Church she will be imperfect, and as long as pride exists there will be division (I don’t think it a coincidence that Jesus prayed for our unity in the final hours of his life).  Yet there are rumors of hope to which I hold onto stubbornly.

Last week’s post received some interesting comments.  Most folks who commented to me resonated with the heaviness in their own hearts, and some shared their fears with me.  Others had not even thought of some of these things.  One comment I read expressed a broken heart over the deception of young, new leaders like me — that one was my favorite.  For the record, I promise you that God (through friends and other) calls me out on things almost on a daily basis, but no, I am not perfect.

A note from a young man who is soon to begin his studies at Duke Divinity School, in response to my blog:

“…I am having a hard time trying to capture how I feel as an up and coming pastor in the UMC.  I get the sense that very soon I’ll have to make a very explicit proclamation (one way or the other) regarding homosexuality, and it be forced to be this “you’re either with us or against us” sort of proposition. That is my fear, I don’t truly know how likely it is.”

I write because I’m inspired by the third way that Jesus exemplifies and that Steve Harper talks about seeking, in his book For the Sake of the Bride.  I struggled (sometimes bitterly) with my approach and understanding of Scripture for a decade, and I still feel like an elementary school student at times.  I sympathize with the seemingly silent, middle majority.  I ache for the private messages that express fear.  I simultaneously respond strongly to issues of injustice, so I seek a different route, but not an easy one.  Thus far in my life, struggling with things has been one of the biggest forms of growth.  Struggling is good! (And not fun!)

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together‘ — a short book I think all Church-people (not the building kind of church, by the way) should read… more than once.  Here’s a quote from the book that I’ve been pondering for a while now:

“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and with ourselves…. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.”

This reminds me that living in community is not supposed to be easy; it’s always been hard.  Jesus’ words of loving our enemies have always been scandalous and challenging.  Relationships are hard stuff.  This is why a third way is difficult and scary — one where we don’t choose sides, one without ‘us’ and ‘them’ language — one that leads to self-sacrifice and a cross.   Admittedly this whole issue of schism seems somewhat overwhelming to us ‘little people,’ but I’m encouraged and encourage all to continue to impact our small circles of influence.

Finally, I love the Bernard de Clairvaux quote:  “Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a scepter but a hoe.”  It has struck me differently this past week, however.  As I hear proclamations from on high that entirely dismiss reason and experience I cringe.  Don’t call yourself a prophet unless you have dirt under your nails, if you haven’t grabbed a hoe lately  and sweat through your shirt.  Don’t proclaim to me if you’re not heartbroken over contention, as you probably don’t deserve to be called a prophet.  If I see that you too struggle, that will be compelling.  That sounds an awful lot to me like Pharisaic tendencies that pray, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  May love and humility reign.

O God, we are one with you.
You have made us one with you.
You have taught us that if we are open to one another, you dwell in us.

Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts.
Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection.

O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely, we accept you, and we thank you, and we adore you, and we love you with our whole being, because our being is your being, our spirit is rooted in your spirit.

Fill us then with love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse ways, united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world, and which makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love.

Love has overcome. Love is victorious.

         –Thomas Merton

Not a scepter but a hoe

Why church?

I’ve mourned the Church for a while – for years.  I’ve literally wept over the many ways it has caused pain and has deeply hurt people.  Not too long ago I sat in my living room shedding tears over the World Vision back and forth stance regarding individuals who are homosexual.  I’ve mourned because of congregations rejecting black pastors because of their skin color; I’ve cried over discussions about the construction of unnecessary and extravagant buildings while children starve around the corner; I’ve cried over church-people demonstrating a ‘me’ mentality and comfort-driven focus when it comes to worship. I’ve mourned people hiding their diagnosis of HIV/AIDS lest they be marginalized or rejected in their faith community. Recently I’ve cried over myself and the realization that though we have come a long way in my denomination in the equality of women (in ministry and beyond), we still have a long way to go.  I weep when I contemplate that anyone would hate their own person because the Church has made them believe they’re unworthy of love.

I cry over the seminary I graduated from — due to the actions of its leaders over the past several years, and its seeming lack of allowing space for grace in its stance on different points of view and understandings of Scripture; which to me speak of a lack of love and humility.

I cry because despite all of these things, I love the Church.  I love the Church because I believe she is created and called to be more than she is, and because I believe Christ loves  her more than I can even fathom.  I cry because I believe that these words from Bill Hybels are true, that:

“There is nothing like the local church when the local church is working right! It transforms lives, heart by heart… soul by soul… life by life. That’s why the most important thing I can do is to lay down my heart for the cause of Christ.”  

I believe this because I’ve seen it – I’ve experienced it!  The power of a loving, grace-filled community — there is nothing like it.

Upon pondering these things over the years, I’ve had the thought and impression that Jesus too weeps for his Church — the whole of the Trinity weeps (as Steve Harper says).  I don’t doubt that when we hurt, Christ hurts, and when we cry, Christ cries.  I then believe that God is heartbroken over many of the actions (and inactions), words, and sentiments in God’s Church.  Over what seems to be in many groups a disposition of judgment, an inability to love in the midst of differing opinions, and a lust for power.

With so much disappointment I’ve wondered at times what then is the point of continuing with this institution.  Why church?  I’ve been asked this question by frustrated individuals in the past and very recently.

I’m a pastor who belongs to the infamous millennial generation; the generation that is said to be absent from the church.  People ask me, how can we attract your generation to the Church?

Well, I distinctly remember the night – halfway through seminary –  I was contemplating on faith as a journey, and I came to the clear conclusion that, very simply, to follow God is to LOVE God and LOVE neighbor as myself (which does require that I love myself as well).  That’s it — it’s that simple, not to say easy.  This was a big deal for me because that is not how I’d always seen things — faith, church, God.  It’s incredible how our perception and understanding of God affects how we then view ourselves and others, and our weaknesses and those of others.

Here’s another woeful realization:  I’m part of the Church, which means I’m complicit in its failings.  Unfortunately for me, I have to fess up too.

If to the right or left I stray,
That moment, Lord, reprove;
And let me weep my life away,
For having grieved thy love:
O may the least omission pain
My well-instructed soul,
And drive me to the blood again
Which makes the wounded whole!
(I Want A Principle Within — Charles Wesley)

“It’s our job to love; God’s job to judge; the Spirit’s job to convict.”

What is compelling and beautiful about the Church is not its ability to be perfect (that’s impossible when we people are involved), but its demonstration of radical love and forgiveness; its humility- it’s Christ-likeness.

If I’m being honest, I’ve been discouraged recently -for many of the reasons I mentioned above and also for the tension in our denomination.  Not that this discussion does not need to happen – but because of the rhetoric.  Again, I don’t expect perfection, after all, I call the Church (which is the group of people, not the building) a motley group of forgiven messes, because we are broken, messy individuals, hopefully growing, through God, in love and character.

Appropriately timed then is Dr. Steve Harper’s most recent book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride‘ which has continued this conversation rumbling around in my head.  In our denomination there are rumors of a split, specifically due to the issue of homosexuality.  I’m not going to lie, when I picked up the book to read it I was somewhat cynical.  I was expecting to be disappointed — it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been disappointed.   Dr. Harper is actually one of the people I most respect in ministry, but whenever this topic comes up, it’s rare that any conversation is satisfactory.  These conversations are often exhausting and discouraging.

Well, I can say that what Dr. Harper has written is beautiful.  I teared up during the introduction (I guess we’ve established that I’m sensitive — something I have to say I’ve observed Dr. Harper being as well!).  It’s not because any of the material is particularly scandalous to me but it’s honest, vulnerable, and from the heart.  It brings us back to what it’s all about — love God, love others — and for someone who’s been feeling discouraged and restless, I’m thankful.  I’m thankful for Dr. Harper putting words to feelings I’ve had for a long time, knowing he’ll receive flak from certain circles.  I’m thankful because in the midst of our errors and prejudices, God works, redeems and pours out grace.

And thus, I’m hopeful — I will embrace my stubborn streak in this instance and employ stubborn hope — because God’s love and grace is overwhelming and overcomes all.  I’m hopeful because of people like Dr. Harper, and other followers of Jesus who I come across on a daily basis who long to serve God and to love others.  People who are not afraid to be uncomfortable.  People willing to sit at the table and dialogue.  People who recognize the sacrifices that come with following Jesus.

I say all of these things not because they haven’t been said before, and haven’t been said more eloquently, but because I realize that I’m not alone.  I’m not alone, and neither are you.  (That’s another beautiful aspect of the Church.)  And in the midst of my frustration, I am hopeful — I’m hopeful more than anything because of God; because of how God works in us, when we allow God to work in us, and how God works even despite us (despite me, for sure!).

Also, I believe that the Spirit is always at work, but it seems there are times when the Spirit blows like a small gust that lifts up a couple of leaves, and  other times in history when the Spirit blows like a category 5 hurricane.  I don’t know to what mileage the Spirit is blowing currently (forgive the analogy) but I do sense an increase.  I encourage you to read books like Dr. Harper’s and Adam Hamilton’s ‘Making Sense of the Bible,’ and see if you don’t feel it too.

 

…But give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens. And possess my whole heart and soul with the simplicity of love. Occupy my whole life with the one thought and the one desire of love, that I may love not for the sake of merit, not for the sake of perfection, not for the sake of virtue, not for the sake of sanctity, but for You alone.  – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Amen.

 

Why church

A Good Friday Prayer

The Terrible Silencing We Cannot Master

“Holy God who hovers daily round us in fidelity and compassion,
this day we are mindful of another, dread-filled hovering,
that of the power of death before which we stand
thin and needful.
All our days, we are mindful of the pieces of our lives
and the part of your world
that are on the loose in destructive ways.
We notice that wildness midst our fear and our anger unresolved.
We mark it in a world of brutality and poverty and hunger
all around us.
We notice all our days.

But on this day of all days,
that great threat looms so large and powerful.
It is not for nothing
that we tremble at these three hours of darkness
and the raging earthquake.
It is not for nothing
that we have a sense of our helplessness
before the dread power of death that has broken loose
and that struts against our interest and even against our will.
Our whole life is not unlike the playground in the village,
lovely and delightful and filled with squeals unafraid,
and then we remember the silencing
of all those squeals in death,
and we remember the legions of Kristy’s
that are swept away in a riddle too deep for knowing.
Our whole life is like that playground
and on this dread-filled Friday we pause before
the terrible silencing we cannot master.

So we come in our helpless candor this day…
remembering, giving thanks, celebrating…
but not for one instant unmindful of dangers too ominous
and powers too sturdy and threats well beyond us.
We turn eventually from our hurt for children lost.
We turn finally from all our unresolved losses
to the cosmic grief at the loss of Jesus.
We recall and relive that wrenching Friday
when the hurt cut to your heart.
We see in that terrible hurt, our losses
and your full embrace of loss and defeat.

We dare pray while the darkness descends
and the earthquake trembles,
we dare pray for eyes to see fully
and mouths to speak fully the power of death all around,
we dare pray for a capacity to notice unflinching
that in our happy playgrounds other children die,
and grow silent,
we pray more for your notice and your promise
and your healing.

Our only urging on Friday is
that you live this as we must
impacted but not destroyed,
dimmed but not quenched.
For your great staying power
and your promise of newness we praise you.
It is in your power
and your promise that we take our stand this day.
We dare trust that Friday is never the last day,
so we watch for the new day of life.
Hear our prayer and be your full self toward us.
Amen.”

Good Friday/1991

Taken from Walter Brueggemann’s
Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth

Good Friday

The Royal Welcome — global art

Passion week has arrived, and one of the things I like to do to help me reflect on this week’s texts is to look at different artistic interpretations of Scripture, particularly from global perspectives.  Here are some Palm Sunday images, preceded by the recounting of Matthew.

—-

Matthew 21

21 1-3 When they neared Jerusalem, having arrived at Bethphage on Mount Olives, Jesus sent two disciples with these instructions: “Go over to the village across from you. You’ll find a donkey tethered there, her colt with her. Untie her and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you’re doing, say, ‘The Master needs them!’ He will send them with you.”

4-5 This is the full story of what was sketched earlier by the prophet:

Tell Zion’s daughter,
“Look, your king’s on his way,
    poised and ready, mounted
On a donkey, on a colt,
    foal of a pack animal.”

6-9 The disciples went and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”

10 As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. Unnerved, people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?”

11 The parade crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”

(Matthew 21:1-11 — MSG)

 

Palm Sunday by William Hemmerling
palm_sunday_lg

 

Jesus Mafa – The Triumphant Entry Into Jerusalem, Bénédite de la Roncière

jesus-mafa-palm-sunday

 

He Qi, Triumphant Entry Into Jerusalem

He-Qui-triumphal-entry

 

John August Swanson,  Entry Into the CityType = ArtScans RGB : Gamma = 2.000

Mural – Domingo de Ramos, José Inoa
domingo de ramos - mural

I ‘Noah’ movie that will make you uncomfortable.

I finally saw Noah today. What follows is not an interesting review (there are plenty of those out there), but the reasons I personally liked this movie. There will be no spoilers – simply a personal reflection.

It was not what I expected, and I don’ t like it in the way that I expected. The movie made me quite uncomfortable at times.  That’s a good thing as I do think people should feel uncomfortable every now and then – when you’re uncomfortable it often means you’re being stretched, which will possibly allow for growth and deeper understanding.

The movie is not an American, Evangelical Christian movie, it’s a heavily Jewish-inspired movie – this is reason number 1 I like it. It has the feel of Ancient lit, with influence from the Midrash and Jewish mysticism. It also is a Hollywood movie, so there definitely are some liberties that were taken – Aronofsky’s vision is very interesting.

I also liked it because I enjoy fiction, action, adventure, fantasy, and drama in movies. There’s also violence in this movie. If you don’t like these types of movies, you may not like this movie. ‘Noah’ made me think of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and similar movies. The story also brought to mind Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘Many Waters.’

‘Noah’ is not a straightforward account of the Old Testament version(s) of the great flood. I’m not sure how one could make a good movie with simply the information provided in Genesis. But remember, all movies that are literature turned into film must be adapted for the screen.

None of the above reasons are what made me uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable because it’s a tense movie which makes you think about the human condition, ethics and religion. Who ever said the story of Noah isn’t uncomfortable, anyway? I happen to think it’s quite controversial, and often think it’s ironic how we think about it as a children’s story. The story of Noah is intense.

Personally I found the movie fascinating and a source for healthy discussion – conversations about ‘good and evil’, religion, and Scripture sound like an exciting outcome of this artistic interpretation.

Now, when I say it made me uncomfortable, I’m not kidding. At one point in the movie I actually said out loud: “Oh, my God, no”. (I won’t tell you why!)

For everyone who is freaking out about it and walking out of theaters, please calm down. This is a movie – it’s art. God is not hurt by this movie. Christianity is not affected by this movie. Rather, this is a good, entertaining opportunity for meaningful (and respectful) conversations about faith and morality, or simply a nice day-off activity.  Like any movie, this movie is not for everyone.

 

noah

Remembering a martyr

Today marks the 34th anniversary of the assassination of the Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, one of the more influential theologians in my life.  Typically on the anniversary of his death I reread parts of his writings and remember why he’s been so influential and affirming to my understanding of God and the mistreated, the marginalized, the ragamuffins, as Brennan Manning would put it.  But also of the call to action-in-love placed on the Church.  I hear the story of his life (click on his name above to read more) and I’m moved and energized, and angered and indignant, convicted and reminded of the Gospel – scandalous as following it is.  In Archbishop Romero I see what a life lived for God, and consequently others, looks like — A life of sacrifice, personal growth, compassion, love, and humility.  As we find ourselves in the Lenten season his story strikes me all the more.  It strikes me as a challenge to grow, to die to self, to sacrifice, to repent of our participation in injustice and to live scandalously for God and God’s people – that we may be able to claim as Archbishop Romero did, that our purpose is to live for the glory of God, and that to live as Christians is to look to Christ.  May love be our guide.  Amen.

 

romero

Patrick on the Water

I love the different prayers of St. Patrick that appear on St. Patrick’s Day.  I share part of one that I like with you today in celebration of this day, followed by a song you should check out.  May we arise each day with the assurance that God goes with us wherever we go.

As I arise today,
may the strength of God pilot me,
the power of God uphold me,
the wisdom of God guide me.
May the eye of God look before me,
the ear of God hear me,
the word of God speak for me.
May the hand of God protect me,
the way of God lie before me,
the shield of God defend me,
the host of God save me.
May Christ shield me today.
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit,
Christ when I stand,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Amen

Below is also a link to a song that I love that was written by Garrison Doles, inspired by St. Patrick.  To me this song speaks profoundly of a life lived desiring to follow God — in good, easy, bad, painful, and content times. Enjoy and meditate.

http://songchapel.com/music-9.html

If God is God at All

If God is God at All

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot this week (and the book chapter it’s found in)… It’s given me perspective; do I believe that God is truly God? If I do, that should bring some peace in the midst of confusing and disorienting circumstances. God is faithful and God is present. Perhaps we don’t receive the responses from God that we think we need (the ‘fixing’ of situations, etc.), but God is God, after all, and our worries and concerns are known and cared for, and that’s a big deal. Thanks be to God!

Ashy Memories

Growing up Hispanic Protestant, all things that even smelled Catholic were to be kept far, far away.  We missed out on precious and valuable traditions, for sure.  For this reason I’m relatively new to Lent.  It wasn’t until part way through seminary that I was introduced to this holy season.

I still remember listening to an Ash Wednesday sermon in chapel which is still one of the most personally impactful sermons I’ve heard to date.  The sermon was given by a professor who would later become a friend, and she eloquently yet in real and raw fashion talked about the significance and symbolism of ashes – the pain, struggle, hope, and grace.  I was also able to participate in the small church I attended in Orlando during seminary.  It was there that I first was part of the carrying out of an Ash Wednesday service.  I’m so thankful for that time that was gifted to me.

On another Ash Wednesday finishing up seminary I was volunteering with Orlando Health’s Spiritual Care department, and that day I met an elderly woman who was living in an assisted living facility with the anticipation of soon having to be in the nursing home wing.  I remember this day specifically because she had a big black/gray smudge on her forehead.  At first I thought she had something wrong with her skin (okay – I was finishing seminary and it was still morning – give me a break), but no, the chaplain had been going around with ashes.  Most everyone in this place had a cross (or smudge) on their foreheads.  I remember this as it seems like such a holy and somewhat ironic encounter that this Ash Wednesday experience would occur in a place where there is a frequent reminder of our humanness and our returning to dust.

Post-seminary while living in North West Florida in a small rural town with inner city demographics, I remember Wednesday was one of our after school days.  I was in the small Presbyterian Church where we held our after school program, this particular Ash Wednesday.  The days there were difficult, often heart-wrenching, but sometimes rewarded with beautiful smiles and hearty hugs. On that particular day one of our volunteers had been to a morning service in Quincy, the neighboring town, and carried a black smudge (cross) on her forehead, which the kids found quite interesting.

The next year has been my favorite so far, as I got to be fully involved in the inspiring and keen Ash Wednesday service at KUMC, Tallahassee.  Marking folks – children and adults – who came and knelt to receive the cross on their foreheads while I said the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” has been one of the holier experiences of my life.

Now I’m officially a Rev. and in my first appointment looking forward to this year’s Ash Wednesday experience.

I say all this because for me Lent means several things – a time of inner-reflection, of checking my ego, of embracing the messy and rawness of mortality, a time of preparing for what it looks like and means to follow Jesus to the cross.

As I look back on all these memories, I can say for certain that I’m not the same now as I was then.  I have changed; I hope to be able to continue to say that throughout all my Lents.  One question I ask myself at the start of Lent is, ‘where are you this Lent?’  I’m not speaking geographically, but in my growing up in Christ — in my discipleship journey.  I invite you to think of your ashy memories if you have any, and to let the ashes bring you forward as well to memories to come.  At the same time I hold in my heart friends who find themselves during this Lent recently finding out about a father’s cancer diagnosis, or holding on to a spouse’s ashes after several months of his death, or remembering the anniversary of the death of a young son — may the hope that are in the ashes sustain them in this time and the times to come.

Join me in prayer (from the UMC Book of Worship):

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the early Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration there should be a forty-day season of spiritual preparation. During this season converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when persons who had committed serious sins and had separated themselves from the community of faith were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to participation in the life of the Church. In this way the whole congregation was reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our faith. We invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word. Today we gather to make a right beginning of repentance, to acknowledge our mortal nature, and to bow together before our Creator and Redeemer. 

Esther

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