Don’t Be Dazzled

When it comes to the Transfiguration, Beloved, don’t be distracted by the dazzling clothes.

God who holds the law (Moses) in a hand that will be scarred will rule with justice tempered by mercy, not the other way around.

God who holds prophecy (Elijah) in a hand to be scarred will proclaim truth from behind the picket line, within the ranks of the needy and poor, from the place of poverty, not power.

Don’t be distracted by the dazzling clothes…that’s not where the miracle is.

The miracle is in the fact that God holds mercy over retribution and stands with the poor, not the powerful.

That’s dazzling.

Imbolc

In America this may be Groundhog’s Day, but in Celtic spirituality these days are known as Imbolc, or “in the belly,” because you’re at the halfway point between the equinox and the solstice, and you’re emerging into spring.

Christians celebrate Candlemas today, where new candles are blessed, as the ones lit at the Solstice are now spent. And in services many will hear about the Presentation of Christ, where the ancient prophets Simeon and Anna lift him up and bless him as the light of the world.

The symmetry is stunning and intentional.

These hinge days between seasons are worth paying attention to, as our mothers and fathers did.

So bless your new candles, because you’ve spent the old ones in these winter days, and start opening the shades.

It’s time to wake from our hibernation, blink, and live again.

Everything is Possible

Yesterday the church celebrated one of our moveable feast days: The Baptism of Our Lord.

This is one of the few events in the life of Jesus that every Gospel mentions, and in each of the Gospels it is noted as kind of the beginning of his dedicated work in the world.

Most every major religion has some sort of bathing/purity rite, and for Christians baptism is meant to mark a rebirth of sorts. In your first birth you came into a world that wants you to seek out fame and fortune. The birth from the font, however, dedicates you to a different life of justice, love, and service.

Surely, it doesn’t always take for all people, but the amniotic fluid of the baptismal font, the water, is intended to renew the life of the person and give them a new lens through which to see their work in the world.

In addition to all of the above, baptism is meant to mark the Divine’s deep love for the individual…and that “takes” for everyone, regardless of how well they live into the vows.

Baptism is an interesting rite, too, because it is both a one-time event (for many Christians) and also a life-long process. Every bath is a renewal of life when seen in this way, a chance to be birthed differently and start fresh. There is a penitential element to it, of course, as every bath is intended to make someone clean. But there is also a primal element to it, one that connects all humanity, Christian or not. After all, we don’t baptize using Pepsi, gin, or coffee.

We use water, the stuff of life (though, coffee is also the “stuff of life” in my book, but I digress…).

Genesis, the first book of the scriptures begins with the Divine brooding over the swirling chaotic waters, and the Book of Revelation, the last book, ends at those same waters, but now they’re known as The River of Life. Scripture is bookended by water.

Similarly, in many traditions, a child is brought to the font for rebirth and, at every funeral I’ve ever done in a church, we start saying good bye to the deceased at the font, recalling where it all began. In this way life, too, is book ended by water.

The Baptism of Our Lord is a feast day that reminds me, and should remind the whole church, of a few things:

First: water is life. And because it is life, clean water should be a right for every human, from Flint, Michigan to Finland to far flung Namibia. We must work hard to make it so.

Secondly: rebirth is always possible in so many ways. Every drop of water should remind us that a new way of being is possible, by God.

Finally: that change in the church will require Christians to take a hard look at the baptismal vows and rethink how we apply and live into them. Baptism should never happen “to make grandma happy.” Baptism is a public statement about a person’s intent to live and be and move in the world differently than the world calls them to live, be, and move.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-icon written by Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–)

God’s Option for the Poor

On December 12th many Christians honor Our Lady Guadalupe.

I am not Roman Catholic, nor Latinx, but I do not and cannot underestimate the powerful connection to the Divine that Our Lady of Guadalupe provides for Christians who check both of those boxes. Arturo Perez says it best:

“Guadalupe’s significance is both word and symbol. She provides the answers to the prayers of the faithful people: ‘God is with you!’ Her very appearance, as one of the poor, aligns her with them. Guadalupe’s proclamation can be seen as God’s option for the poor.”

These two depictions, by artist Yolanda Lopez, flow not only from her heritage, but also from her work as a Mujerista Theologian. I find them both engaging and inspiring and, though they’re not traditional icons for this important Feast Day, they moved me.

For the Rest of Us

Today the church commemorates All Soul’s Day, or “The Day of the Faithfully Departed.”

This festival day is a product of the evolution of the church and its understanding of the departed and how they play into the eschatological and cosmological understanding of all things.

If saints were those who led extraordinary lives, what about the rest of us?

All Souls Day is an answer to that question. Indeed, many people who aren’t technically “saints” in the narrow definition of the term have led wonderfully beautiful and impactful lives. All Souls attempts to honor that fact. It became common practice, for instance, to lift up particular benefactors of parishes on this day, giving a nod to those who made the physical (and spiritual) structures of the faith possible.

In a more pedestrian sense, All Souls Day is, at least for me, a day where we can all embrace the reality that, saint or not, people deserve to be remembered.

In my first parish we had these magnificent stained glass windows put in decades earlier. In them you could see glimpses of not only the artistry of the day, but you could also feel a sort of timelessness that was pervasive, connecting those who had first stared into and through those windows with me and my own children who looked at them now.

Good art does that: it creates connective tissue between the past and the ever-expanding future.

But All Souls Day is a reminder that good theology does that, too. We stand upon the beliefs of the past, hauling some of them with us, and leaving some on the path behind us as signs and markers of thoughts discarded and avenues that were dead-ends.

All Souls Day lifts up the very practical, very pious, and very pedestrian people on whose shoulders we stand. In this way it is even more meaningful than the pomp and circumstance of All Saints Day.

If All Saints Day is the fine-dining establishment in your city, All Souls Day is the little cafe you frequent where you know the owner, have a favorite booth, and don’t need to glance at the menu because you know it by heart.

In other words, All Souls Day is really where most of us will find ourselves: in the ordinary annals of a life that tried its best, did some great things, fell short quite a bit, but is remembered by a small, but faithful, group of loved ones who know our names.

A Day of Red

Churches around the world are honoring Reformation Sunday this Sabbath, a rare treat in that the Sunday and the actual Festival Day align.

It’s important to note that each liturgical denomination has a day that honors a formative experience in the life of their particular vein of Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox church celebrates “The Triumph of Orthodoxy” to usher in Lent. The Roman Catholic Church has the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (February 22nd), emphasizing the founding of the church on Peter’s shoulders. The Anglican Church honors the day the Book of Common Prayer was published, uniting the communion into one.

For Lutherans, it is Reformation Day, when we sing “A Mighty Fortress” and “Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” and dress in red, the color of both the martyrs and the fire of the Holy Spirit.

At its worst the Reformation is celebrated as a triumph. At its best it is a feast day that is simply a continuation of the perpetual change and shift that must happen in a church that is wedded to a God who is known and revealed inside of time.

Historically it does mark a time in history when a break, for better and for worse, happened in the church. This break deserves an autopsy every year in an effort to remember, reaffirm, and repair as much as a possible the schisms that arose from it.

The date of the Reformation, the 31st of October, comes from the lore that Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, intending for it to be widely read by everyone who attended the All Saints Sunday mass the following day. We’re not sure this is historically accurate, but because it is so much a part of the narrative around the events of autumn in 1517, we give a nod to its church-changing truth, if not its actual veracity.

A better date to honor the Reformation might actually be June 25th, the date that the Augsburg Confession was presented. Like the Anglican Church with the Book of Common Prayer, the Confession is the binding document of all the reformation churches.

Regardless, tradition compels us to keep the date, to wear red, to remember, and to continue to reform.

-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-opinions mine

Running Fast and Making Changes

Blow the trumpet in the holy city
bless a holy fast!
Get everyone together
bless them all
the elderly
the young children
even babies who still breastfeed!
In the middle of their weddings
get brides and grooms to stop everything
.
-Joel 2:15-16-

This reading will be read at most every Ash Wednesday service today, virtual or in-person…however we’re getting our ashes in this pandemic (which feels like a heap of ashes already).

The prophet Joel intends to call people back into right relationship with God. In order to do that people would sometimes be invited to fast. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism…fasting is pervasive in all the major religions. A bit of self-denial heightens our indulgences, right?

Sometimes people fast for poor reasons, though. I know of someone who does regular fasts because they are certain that they can “hear God more clearly” when they fast. I’m not sure that’s a good reason, honestly, because I’m not sure that’s how it all works. Certainly there is a need to get rid of distractions in order to discern the Divine in the world, but not eating that candy bar (or anything?!) for forty days seems like an ineffective way to do it.

God doesn’t need your sacrifice…at least, not that kind. If you eat too much candy, sure, fast from it. But if you think it’s getting you brownie points with the Holy Presence I think you’re kidding yourself.

Sometimes people take on fasts to just “do it,” like not eating meat on Friday or not eating meat at all for Lent. That’s fine, I think, if you consume too much meat (and most Americans do, honestly). But if you’re doing it just to see if you can…I’m not sure that’s a good fast, Beloved.

The prophet Joel blesses a fast in order to bring the people back into right relationship, otherwise known in the scriptures as “righteousness.” Fasts are not used to deny people good things as much as to help them see how their relationships with things (or people, or food, or, well, anything) is off kilter.

I’ll say that again for folks in the back.

Fasts are not about denial for denial’s sake. They are about taking a hard look at how your relationship with certain things is off kilter.

And, yes, in the process you’ll continually be invited to analyze how the relationship with the Divine is off kilter, too.

Now, if this hasn’t been your practice in recent years, no need to feel bad about it. There are all sorts of ways the messaging on Lent and fasts has gone awry…humans are wont to do that (hence why we have the season of Lent at all! We’re kinda messed up in all the right and wrong ways). And fasting is not the only thing to do in Lent. Many people choose to add a practice, work on habit change, or do some spring cleaning both physically and spiritually.

Those are all great.

But I’ve decided to fast. To look at some relationship stuff.

I’m going to embark on a Lenten journey of my own, with some updates/devotionals to add to the mix. Most fasts will begin on a Sunday and last the full week (there are 6 of them), and you’re welcome to join in. I’ll be writing and reflecting each week about the particular fast and what I’m learning, and I’ll be noting my thoughts, ponderings, and realizations.

All of these fasts are intended to help me better analyze my own relationship with each subject, and be honest about how they’re off kilter. I’m not righteous in these areas, Beloved. I know this. I want to dig deeply into that.

Week 1: Fast from delaying bedtime.
This pandemic has been terrible on my sleep. Many of the folks I coach have noted that, too. I’m going to go to bed when I’m tired at night, or at least by 10pm.

Week 2: Fast from iPhone.
I carry it around with me. I scan the apps. I respond to texts in two seconds. It’s out of control.

Week 3: Fast from Media.
This will be a bit tricky, but I’m going to say media in general, not just “social media.” Too much binge TV at night. Too many apps open on my phone. Too much stopping in the middle of work or writing to scroll social sites. I’ll still post on a social site this week, mostly to keep the blog updated, but I’m going to “post and ghost.” No reading the comments…

Week 4: Fast from Buying.
The pandemic has made Amazon a little too convenient. But not just Amazon, I’m constantly looking for excuses to go out and grab a coffee-to-go or skip making dinner and just ordering in. Not this week. That urge needs to me analyzed and, I hope, curbed a bit. I’ll allow for grocery buying (because I’m the cook, so I do that shopping), but other than that, no purchases (and no gift-cards, either! Loopholes are for suckers).

Week 5: Fast from Processed Foods
It’s not that it’s just not good for me, it’s not good to me, either. I know it’s not. This week will be interesting because it means no processed anything, even that Friday beer, those corn chips I allow in a moment of salt-crave. Nope.

Week 6: Fast from Meat
We don’t eat meat with every meal, but I think we eat it too much. On the far side of this fast I intend to make some rules around meat consumption. And, here’s the thing we forget: when you eat an animal, you also eat what they ate! It’s a double-whammy of mindless chomping there.

So, here are the fasts. And you’re welcome to join if you’d like. In fact, I would like that very much, especially if you take a bit of time to reflect on your off-kilter relationship with the topics and send them on to me, either as a comment on a post or in an email. I want to be in a more righteous relationship with these things.

But, maybe your relationship with these things isn’t off kilter at all. Maybe you’re working with other issues that need addressing. Alcohol? Snack foods? Lack of activity? Spiritual practices?

Whatever it is, take a fast. But don’t do it to solely to deny yourself that thing; absence does make the heart grow fonder and, do you really want to go back to the old you when this is all over? The you who had an off-kilter relationship with these things?

Do it to analyze your relationship with it all and, on the far side of the fast, sanctify some changes, Beloved.

After all, repentance, metanoia, means turning around. Changing.

If you think you need that, if something is off kilter, run (a) fast toward change. See if you don’t find a new you rising come April 3rd.

Jesus Died on a Friday, Right?

ET_ecQpXsAEESMcJesus died on a Friday, right?

I don’t think so.

In fact, I’d say, probably not.

Maybe, though…

In yet another file on “the scriptures aren’t internally cohesive and that’s OK because they weren’t written to be,” we take a quick look at the Last Supper-Crucifixion-Resurrection arc in the gospels.

Also: don’t @ me, bro.  I know you may not like what follows, but…well…pastors really should be more intellectually honest about this stuff.

This question is particularly timely for two reasons.  First, it’s Holy Week and these events are on the minds of Christians today.  And secondly, tonight begins the Jewish feast of Passover, so it is especially timely.

There is a third reason, though…but I’ll get to that in a minute.  Just wait.

I should note that Passover and Holy Week don’t always align, though…and Christians are surprised to hear this.  Passover in the Jewish calendar is on a fixed date. But on the Gregorian calendar the date of Passover changes because the lunisolar calendar, on which the Jewish calendar is based, doesn’t align with the Gregorian calendar precisely.

Easter is also based on the lunisolar calendar, but on a fixed sign: the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Confused?  Yeah, there’s a lot of qualification there…

Bottom line: they don’t always line up, and aren’t meant to.

And maybe it’s better that they don’t always line up because, and here’s the big kicker: Jesus was preparing for Passover in Jerusalem when he was arrested, tried, and crucified, but his “Last Supper” was actually not the Passover meal.

Probably.

I know. Your Sunday School teachers and parish pastors oversimplified things a bit, but it is more than likely, in my estimation, that Jesus was not celebrating the Passover at the Last Supper.

In fact, and here’s the other reason that I think this conversation is important today (Wednesday, April 8th 2020) of all days: I’m pretty sure that tonight is the memorial of the Last Supper for Jesus…even though Christians will celebrate Maundy Thursday tomorrow night.  Which means the Last Supper was on a Wednesday, and Jesus may have died on a Thursday.

Why do I think this?

Well, tonight starts Passover on the Jewish calendar.  But they won’t they eat the Passover meal until tomorrow night, right?  That’s the important thing to remember: though Passover starts tonight, they won’t eat the meal until the end of the day (sundown-sundown).

Today is all about preparation.  In the gospels Jesus sends his disciples to go and prepare a place for them to celebrate the Passover meal…which they do, in all the Gospel accounts.  And it says they finish preparations, and then have a meal.  But is it the Passover meal?  It never indicates it is.  It just says they make preparations and then share a meal.

This is a pretty important detail to leave out of the account.

And because it’s never clearly spelled out, and for the reasons below, it actually seems more likely that the meal that Jesus shares with his disciples is actually the meal before the Passover meal, not the Passover itself.

Another indicator that it’s not Passover, but actually just the meal before, is that Jesus is not celebrating with his mother and sisters.  As the head of the household, he wouldn’t miss celebrating Passover with his family.

It’s also worth noting that the word used in all of the Last Supper accounts for the bread, artos, points to a regular yeast-loaf.  Were it the unleavened bread of the Passover, matzos would have been used.

Now, despite all this, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do present the Last Supper in such a way that it would be easy to point to Jesus dying on a Friday and the Last Supper being a Thursday Passover.  In fact, it may be that those Gospel writers did think that, though they also could have had a copyist make revisions, placing it on Thursday-Friday-Saturday path (which is a long story…primarily about a copyist adding the word “again” into a certain line in Luke 22:14 to do all this, but we need not go there today).

John seems pretty convinced that Jesus died on a Thursday, though.  How do we know?

He writes that the Last Supper happened “before the festival of Passover.” (John 13:1)  The writer of John’s gospel also notes that, when they handed Jesus over to the authorities, the accusers wouldn’t enter Pilate’s courtyard because they would be unclean and therefore unable to eat the Passover “that evening.” (John 18:28)

It’s also worth noting that, after the crucifixion, they wanted to remove Jesus’ body from the cross because it was a Sabbath day of “great solemnity.”  Now, to the untrained ear, that would be an “ah-ha!” moment pointing to a Friday death.  Sundown on Friday is the start of the Sabbath, yes?

Except…

There are other marked Sabbaths in the Jewish calendar, including any Passover.  And in this particular year it appears that there are two Sabbaths back-to-back, which does happen (as it does this very year, 2020!): there is the Passover Sabbath break, followed by the weekly Sabbath break.

In addition to the above, the indicators outside of the gospels themselves point not to a Passover, but to a meal before the Passover.

In 1 Corinthians, which provides for us the language of the liturgy, the Apostle Paul, a Jewish leader, does not mention that Jesus was at Passover when he took the bread and blessed it, but rather notes instead, “on the night in which he was betrayed…” (11:23)

Why would he leave that important detail out?  And his writing was the first one we know about on the matter.

Another little tidbit comes from one of the only extra-Biblical sources of the time that mention Jesus at all (a blog for another day), the Talmud notes that, “They hung Joshua the Nazarene on the ‘eve of the Passover.'” (b. Sanhedrin 67a and 43a)

And finally, though not really finally because we could certainly go down the rabbit hole farther, it’s important to note that the tradition that Jesus was in the tomb “for three days and three nights,” which is internally consistent in the gospels, cannot be accurate by the Jewish calendar if Jesus died on a Friday.  If Jesus died on a Friday, assuming he was placed in the tomb just before sundown, he was actually only in there about two days and two nights.  I mean, while this little detail could be chocked up to hyperbole or whatnot, it’s worth noting that for this particular arc of the Jesus story, the days and nights are significant because it tied Jesus back to the salvation story of Jonah, which they wanted to do.

By this point you may be asking yourself: why does any of it matter?

Well, I think it’s significant for a couple of reasons.

The first?  It’s further evidence that any attempt to say that the scriptures are inerrant or infallible is a fool’s errand.  They are internally inconsistent in a number of ways, and the magical “innerancy/infallbile” cults are literally ruining the beauty and complexity of the religion not only for the rest of the faithful, but also for the unfaithful who can’t even begin to look at a faith they find so ridiculous on the face.

The second?  There’s no such thing as a “Christian Seder,” and we really shouldn’t be celebrating them.  It is absolutely fine to attend a Jewish Seder as a guest and enjoy the hospitality of our Jewish sisters and brothers, but to usurp a sacred festival for our own use is something Christians just shouldn’t do.  So many Christians think they can Christianize a Seder based off of the Last Supper account…but we can’t. And shouldn’t. It’s not ours.

A third reason?  The connection between Jesus and the Passover lamb is important for the faith, but only in analogy and not in actuality.  We even sing that Jesus is the “lamb who was slain,” but when we do so we sing it as a point of theological reference, not necessity.

What I mean is: Jesus was not sacrificed for humanity.  Jesus was certainly killed by humanity, but what that means is complex, not simple.  It’s not an exchange of blood for blood. God is not bloodthirsty. And when we make Jesus the Passover lamb, and only that, instead of just use it as an important tool of imagery that would have connected with the ancient people, we make God a bloodthirsty deity who demands sacrifice.

According to the prophet Micah that’s not what God desires, right? (Micah 6:8)  So why do we continue to make Jesus exactly what God does not desire?

A critique on all this comes from theological corners concerned with our sacramental theology.  “Didn’t Jesus change the Passover meal to be about him?” some sacramentalists would ask.

I mean, maybe.

But the sacrament of Holy Communion, while heavy on Passover imagery, remains just as heavy utilizing Sabbath meal imagery.  Jesus may be seen and spoken of as the Paschal lamb, but the bread of life is not sacrificed every Sunday in a Christian church.

Praise is sacrificed.  This is why it’s probably the best practice to not break the bread at the altar during the Words of Institution…it sends the wrong signal.

Note: this last critique is heavy on the insider imagery…I digress…

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it appears that Jesus may have been celebrating the Passover.  In John, where Jesus pretty clearly dies on a Thursday, it appears he was not.

So what day did Jesus die?

I don’t know.  No one knows.

Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Passover?  I don’t know…but I don’t think so.  No one knows.

The Gospels don’t agree on it all.  And those first scholars who put the Gospels together surely saw that it was not internally consistent, and it didn’t really bother them…so it probably shouldn’t bother us either, right?

But if Jesus did die before the Passover meal on a Thursday, then it lines up with this year’s Jewish calendar in such a way that’s it’s pretty poetic, pretty interesting, and, I think, pretty beautiful.

Rituals for Surviving Shelter-in-Place

many-candles1Religion, as a whole, knows something very human about us: we desire ritual.

This is true even if you don’t find yourself religious, and even if you find yourself a-religious.

We thrive off of ways to mark the days and the seasons of the Earth, as well as the particular seasons of our lives.

Rituals are a way of reminding humans not only what time it is, but also this deep truth: nothing lasts forever.  Not the good, and not the bad.

Nothing lasts forever.

Our ancestors used to, in the fallow months, take the wheels from their carts, haul them inside, and adorn them with candles.  Every day they’d light a candle, adding to growing, glowing wax, marking the time until work could begin again.  This pre-Christian practice was eventually seized by the church, and this eventually turned into our Advent wreaths that light the path toward Christmas.

Likewise, in Lent, humans have found ways to mark the time before the abundance of Spring.  These practices usually involved some sort of abstinence as a way of drawing attention to the longing deep within us for new life, for newness, for freshness and freedom.

For those of us now stuck at home during this pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in over a Century, a way to survive it with our souls intact might involve this sort of patient practice…especially as we have a habit of losing our patience, and so must cultivate new habits.

One habit a family might adopt would be to find eight candles.  They can be votives to be replaced in individual holders, or eight candles of more substantial measure, able to last through the weeks without changing.

Name the candles, one for each week.  They can be named for a virtue that you hope to practice in a particular week as we wait for the first wave of this pandemic to pass.  Or they might be named for longing or hope that is embedded in your heart in these days.  A sarcastic practitioner may even name them after a cruse word…which, to be honest, is sometimes cathartic, too!  Perhaps each candle has a couple of names, depending on the mood, and depending on the need.

A possible cadence for a Christian family might be:

Perseverance (March 23-March 29)
Conviction (March 30-April 4)
Remembrance (April 5 [Holy Week]-April 11)
New Life Hope (April 12 [Easter]-April 18)
Love of Neighbor (April 19-April 25)
Love of Self (April 26-May 2)
Devotion (May 3-May 9)
Celebration (May 10-Pentecost)

And each week, light a candle in the morning before breakfast, and at night during dinner, or just after.  And as you light it, remind yourself that the growing fire indicates the approaching abatement of this liminal time.

You can accompany each week with a particular reading to hold in front of you.  A possible schedule of readings for the above candles might be:

Week 1: 1 Peter 5:8-10

Week 2: Psalm 69:13-15

Week 3: The Passion from the Gospel of John

Week 4: The Resurrection from the Gospel of John

Week 5: John 20:19-29

Week 6: John 21:1-14

Week 7: Isaiah 43:1-3

Week 8: Acts 2:1-11

For a less traditional grouping of readings, especially for those who may not find their home in the Christian community, or even a church at all, the candles could retain their same theme (as I think they’re universal human themes), but the readings might look something like this:

Week 1: “be easy: take your time. you are coming home. to yourself.” -Nayyirah Waheed, _Nejma_

Week 2: “‘Change and decay–in all around I see,’ we cheerfully sang in my days as a choirboy. Another stanza should have taught us this lesson: it is not only beauty and life that disappear in the cycle of time. Pain too passes, along with heartbreak, fear, and sickness. In a world doomed to fragility, death itself shall someday die.” -Robert Griffin, _In the Kingdom of the Lonely God_

Week 3: “My dear children, perhaps you will not understand what I’m going to say to you now, for I often speak very incomprehensibly, but, I’m sure, you will remember that there’s nothing higher, stronger, more wholesome, and more useful in life than some good memory, especially when it goes back to the days of your childhood, to the days of your life at home. You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all.  If a person carries many such memories into life with them, they are saved for the rest of their days. Even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky, _The Brothers Karamazov_

Week 4: “Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” -Walt Whitman, _Leaves of Grass_

Week 5: “To love is good; love being difficult. For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” -Rainer Maria Rilke, _Letters to a Young Poet_

Week 6: “Neal: You’re no saint. You got a free cab, you got a free room and someone who will listen to your boring stories. I mean, didn’t you notice on the plane when you started talking, eventually I started reading the vomit bag? Didn’t that give you some sort of clue, like hey, maybe this guy is not enjoying it? You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that, that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle. Your stories have none of that! They’re not even amusing accidentally. Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith. He’s got some amusing anecdotes for ya. Oh, and here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out. You’ll thank me for it. I-I could tolerate any, any insurance seminar, for days. I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. They’d say, “How can ya stand it?” And I’d say, “‘Cause I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take anything.” You know what they’d say? They’d say, “I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy.” It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you have a little string on your chest. You know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except that I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back, you would. And by the way, you know, when, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea. Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!

Del: You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right. I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you, but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me. I’m not changing. I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.” -from “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”

Week 7: “Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,

Listen to the DON’TS

Listen to the SHOULDN’TS

The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS

Listen to the NEVER HAVES

Then listen close to me—

Anything can happen, child,

ANYTHING can be.” -Shel Silverstein, “Listen to the Mustn’ts” from _Where the Sidewalk Ends_

Week 8: “We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.” -Maya Angelou, “A Brave and Startling Truth”

Of course, the imaginative practitioner could incorporate all of these readings, and add to them as desired.

Mark the days, Beloved.  They may not fly, but at least they won’t crawl.

 

 

 

 

When I Think About My Children on Ash Wednesday

636239814887137802-Ash-Wed-5I know I write and talk a lot about my children.  They have totally changed everything about my life, and even much about me.

Like, just now, my younger son, who attends preschool at the church I currently serve, popped his head into my office and said, “I love you, Daddy!”  It’s totally changed my work day.

He does this every day, mind you.  It’s one of the things I wait for in the morning.  “I love you, too,” I respond.  He always waits around until I say it, letting his class go on down the hall.  After he hears it he’ll run to catch up with them.

We wait for love.

One of the most moving and meaningful things as a pastor is Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we get to do some public art: the public act of remembrance that you place on the foreheads of everyone who comes, from the oldest to the youngest, that we are dust.

That time is fleeting.

That the world buries us one minute, one hurtful act, one sinful offering at a time (much of which we participate in), and there is very little that we can do to stop it, so we should wait around to feel love whenever we can get it.

A few years ago on Ash Wednesday I was walking through the neighborhood in Chicago when a well-known gadfly said incredulously to me in my formal collar, “Gonna peddle some superstition today, eh Father?”

I ignored him.  But as I thought about it, I realized that if I was going to speak to him on one day, Ash Wednesday would be that day, because Ash Wednesday is the day where religion offers something that speaks to everyone, regardless of what they do, or do not, believe: you will die.

Dying is the leading cause of death.

The knowledge of our mortality is too much to bear sometimes, though. And as I mark my own babies with that cross, I always choke a bit. It is too much for them to bear, too.

And yet, with their bodies, they do.  Because cells grow cancer. Because heart disease and car accidents and suicide don’t seem to care about your age.  And my babies are made of cells, and ride in cars, and live, and it happens. To all of us.

But instead of being depressing, Ash Wednesday is like the day when we all communally hug the cactus of our mortality, hug the cactus that we do wrong and harm in this world, even when we do want to (but also, sometimes, we do want to) and remind ourselves that we are not gods.

We are not God.

And once we get that fact out of the way, somehow we start to truly live.  Like the cancer patient in remission who realizes that life is better spent on love than arguing.  Like the near-death experience that increases are thirst for life rather than makes us more fearful.  Like the person living with depression who, because the meds are finally working, smiles and laughs and realizes that they are worth it, by God.

When I think about my boys, my babies, my children on Ash Wednesday, I am full of hope.

I hope that they will embrace life, and death, and all of it with a gusto, with a big bear hug, as confident as they wear that cross, that sign of hope for Christians, on their brow.  I hope it reminds them to love really freely, and really intensely, and to wait for love, and stick around for it.  I hope it reminds them that they don’t have to do it all, they don’t have to be perfect, that nothing is unforgivable, and that they can admit that sometimes life is too much to carry alone, and that they aren’t alone even when it feels like that.

And, sure, my eyes will tear up, and I’ll choke a bit, but not because I will think of their death, but because I will think of how they can, they will, with their lives, and their love, overcome all that tries to bury them in this life, by God.