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Monday, November 12, 2018

Staying Out of God's Lane



There is a dangerous prayer that I believe God will always answer. It’s not an answer that comes quickly. It may takes decades of chipping away at your previously held, even cherished, belief that you are entitled to be different than the person you are praying to become. The prayer is that you learn to love as God loves.

My personality is one that has been described by counselors as overly responsible and overly hard on myself. I’ve learned to be less so, but that life-long habit of critiquing myself and holding myself responsible for every flaw I can find is one I also apply to others. I am an expert critiquer. But, years ago, in the same spirit of wanting to correct every flaw in myself I could find, I prayed the dangerous prayer that I would learn to love others as God loves.

This desire coincided with my introduction to the Episcopal church and the habit of praying the confession at least every Sunday. “We have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.” My start in the Episcopal church was at a time when I was ready to leave the church altogether, but I needed rent money, and I had a job as an organist/choirmaster at an Episcopal church. Thank goodness. As that dear congregation, and especially that dear priest, ministered to me and brought me back, I was soon praying Morning Prayer on a daily basis. “We have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.” I want to learn to love my neighbor.

It starts with learning to love yourself and learning to forgive yourself and learning which of your rules for yourself are things God didn’t ask of you. When you are an overly responsible person, it can be very hard to let go of the rules you or your culture made because following them may be the reason you like yourself. But, that isn’t the way God loves. He doesn’t love you because you follow heavy expectations and rules. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. He loves you because you have worth that doesn’t depend on your doing everything right. This part of the process can take decades, and that is another thing I have learned. My expectation is that things can be fixed quickly, but God’s timing is not based on my expectations. (This paragraph is a blog post unto itself. Maybe later.)

Learning to love others as God loves is harder, I think. I want people to deserve my love, my patience, my time, my friendship, just as I once thought I had to deserve God’s love. If I can identify their character flaws, I feel superior to them. Never mind that some of my own character flaws may be worse, just the ability to identify theirs makes me feel justified in sitting above them as a judge. Honestly, sometimes, I have found it easier to love the worst of the worst – a mass murder, even – than to truly love an acquaintance who has a character flaw I can identify and which annoys me. Ironically, then I tend to feel virtuous for loving the mass murderer when the truth is I am all the more sinful for failing to love someone whose sins are so much like my own. Love is not being winsome to their face and critical behind their back. As I have become more aware of my judgmental tendency, I have slowly, slowly started to become less annoyed toward others’ character flaws and more sympathetic, knowing that they are engaged in a daily struggle just as I am, and that change takes long stretches of time.

In my last post, I mentioned that there is someone who I know is being judgmental towards me, but they don’t know my history and why I’ve made the choices I have. If they did, they might understand, but I’m not required to share my story with them just so they’ll approve of me. What if I realized that every person I’m judgmental toward also has a story I know nothing about? Loving as God loves means realizing that only God knows that person’s whole story. Loving as God loves means realizing that they are in the process of becoming holy, the process of messing up and trying again and again and again, just as I am. Loving as God loves means being patient with their process of learning as God is patient with mine.

I’m reading Greg Boyd’s Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgement to the Love of God. It’s been serendipitous to discover this book at a point of my life when God was already working hard on my judgmental attitudes. Boyd relies heavily on Bonhoeffer, and here’s a representative Bonhoeffer idea: “For man in the state of disunion (with God), good consists in passing judgment, and the ultimate criterion is man himself. Knowing good and evil, man is essentially a judge.”

There were two trees at the center of the Garden of Eden, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They are set up in the story in opposition to each other. One gives life. The other, death. I’ve never thought much about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. My former teaching about it consisted mainly of the fact that Adam and Eve were disobedient, and it was that disobedience that caused their downfall. Not much was ever said about why God wouldn’t want them to have the knowledge of good and evil.  I had an incomplete understanding. Only God is qualified for judging what is good or evil.

In Acts 10, Peter dreamed of a sheet of unclean animals being lowered from heaven. “Kill and eat,” he was told. Eating unclean animals was forbidden according to the law. He refused. But, the voice said, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Peter was called to give up his idea of what was good/evil so that he could accomplish God’s purposes, but he could have chosen to dismiss his dream and continue in his scripture-based judgment and even to feel virtuous for doing so. Who would have blamed him? What courage it must have taken for Peter to defy scripture itself because he had a dream. Peter may have known scripture, but more importantly, he knew firsthand the living word, Jesus himself. He had come to understand that rules, such as the one about honoring the Sabbath, are made for us, not us for the rules. He knew that God can decide to call clean what he once called unclean. It’s up to God, not Peter, not me. Union with God means leaving God’s job up to God.

Boyd says “The essence of sin according to the Genesis account is the transgression of this proper boundary. We are not satisfied being God-like in our capacity to love, we also want to become God-like in our capacity to judge, which is how the serpent tempts us. But in aspiring toward the latter, we lose our capacity for the former, for unlike God, we cannot judge and love at the same time. The essence of sin is that we play God. We critically assess and evaluate everything and everyone from our limited, finite, biased perspective. Instead of simply deriving life from that which is given at the center of our existence, we try to derive our likeness of God, our life and worth, from that which is forbidden at the center of our existence.”

I balked at “we cannot judge and love at the same time.” Can’t we? But, as I examined my own conscience, I must admit that I can’t. The minute I judge someone for their perceived sins, I feel superior to them. I can see their sin and feel sympathetic for where they are in their journey and still love them, but the minute my critical judging spirit jumps in, I’m not loving them anymore. I’m loving my own supposed virtue.

Boyd comments on the church: “…the church has tended to focus on the symptoms rather than on the source of the disease. We have tended to define ourselves as the promoters of good against evil and have often seen ourselves as specialists on good and evil.  We have consequently become judges of good and evil rather than lovers of people regardless of whether they are good or evil. As harsh as it may sound, we have sometimes promoted the very essence of the fall – the knowledge of good and evil -- as though it were salvation!”

I know I have tended to think that my knowledge of good and evil is salvation – the way I might be able to save myself. But, we can’t save ourselves. Nor can we save the culture with a judgmental spirit.

There is an attitude within much of evangelical Christianity that pointing out other’s sin is loving. Don’t think I’m suggesting that we pretend sin doesn’t exist. I do believe there is a place for gentle, private, individual admonishment done from a place of great humility based on the awareness of our own sin and great debt to God’s forgiveness. This is best done within the space of trusted friendship where individual stories can be told and loved. However, the majority of the non-evangelical world sees evangelicals as condemning, not loving at all. The urge to transform the culture with rules and regulations and judgements about whether those rules and regulations were obeyed will never succeed. This is never how God transforms us individually. Why would we think he would do so culturally? Only love that is received and perceived as love and not judgment will transform people. Sadly we have tried hard to redefine judgment as love because we are still tempted every day to be like God.

Indeed, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, I have felt entitled to be a judge. I have even cherished the ability to critically evaluate others. I enjoy sitting in a higher seat. But, God is showing me another more holy way, even though I stray off the path a bit just about every day. I pray that he will continue to break through my arrogance and teach me more.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Thoughts on Disapproval


1. Disapproval is a helluva drug. I have a friend who is seriously addicted. And I disapprove of her addiction. Sigh. I need rehab, too.

2. If I express disapproval of someone to a third party when the target of my disapproval isn't within earshot, but then I'm all loving and winsome to their face, my love is false. I'm trying harder.

3. A friend disapproves of some decisions I've made. She makes it clear by dropping little trolling comments that hint at it. If she knew more of my background and the reasons behind my choices, she'd probably understand, but I don't owe her my story so that she'll approve of me. I have decided to let her disapproval stand. It's hurting her more than me.

4. Discernment, as in discerning good behavior versus sinful behavior, becomes a very good excuse for indulging in disapproval. Discernment should always be directed toward yourself first. I always find that when something irritates me in someone else, it's present in me, too. See No. 1 above.

5. "I'm just so concerned about such-and-so" can become a very good introduction for a bunch of gossipy disapproval. Don't talk about people when they're not around unless you are expressing appreciation, praise, or sympathy. Period.

6.  Nobody, but nobody becomes a better person because 2 or 3 people self-righteously compared notes on what they disapprove about them. The people disapproving don't become better either. It's a no-win situation.

7. The next time I find myself sitting in a study of some kind at church that devolves into disparaging others' supposed sins, I'm going to have the courage to get up and leave. Even if they're right. I'm not there to point out splinters in others' eyes just so we can all feel better about ourselves.

8. "But, if we don't point out the sins of others, we might fall into those sins ourselves!" The best way to avoid sin is to keep my eyes on God and my own relationship with him, not on the shortcomings of others.

9. Pointing out the virtuous qualities in another is a good discipline, as long as it doesn't become the token good thing you say so that you can justify the 5 negative things you follow it up with. You know what I mean, "I love her to death, BUT..." or "She's got a heart of gold, BUT..."

10. Sharing mutual disapproval with someone can feel like a way to create intimacy in a friendship. In reality, it's a toxic intimacy that thrives on social neediness. You know that the other person will sooner or later say negative things about you, too. There are better friends and more sincere intimacies to be had. Don't settle.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Did God Reject His People? By No Means.

When I decided to study music in Boston, I knew I needed a roommate to share apartment rent, but I didn't know anyone there. I searched out message boards online and found one where people who attended the school I was going to had posted. And, there, I found Trelly. (named changed, of course) We corresponded for a while, and then, I flew to Boston to meet her and search for an apartment together.

Trelly was Jewish. I had never in my life known a Jew. In my small hometown in GA, there either weren't any, or the few that were there kept their Jewishness to themselves. Maybe because we had no Jewish population, never in my life had I heard negative talk about Jews. That's probably a small miracle considering that we had a KKK chapter that was operating even in the 1980s and probably beyond. My knowledge of Jewishness consisted pretty much of realizing that Jesus was one, and that the people of Israel were God's chosen people. I had no thoughts about them at all other than sympathy for the Holocaust and the desire that they might know Jesus. I am grateful that somehow, in my rural childhood, I was never infected with negativity towards them.

Not only was Trelly Jewish, she was Irish. This was stepping way out of my Baptist-raised, Protestant, Southern US, evangelically-raised comfort zone. But, I liked Trelly. She was smart, she was a good musician, she was personable, she was responsible, and we seemed to hit it off. We found an apartment and moved in together.

Trelly had a prayer book. I had a prayer book. Mine was the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I had become Episcopal after separating from the Southern Baptists a few years earlier. Trelly's prayer book was remarkable similar to mine. Prayer books are not just collections of prayers; they include the liturgy for services. I was fascinated to discover that the Jewish liturgy so closely resembled mine. We enjoyed talking about our faiths together.

I learned a lot from Trelly. I sometimes came home from classes to find her sauteing garlic in butter to add to pasta. The smell was just divine! Growing up, we used margarine and garlic powder. I've changed over to real garlic and real butter and will never, ever go back! But that's far from all I learned from Trelly.

I heard her perspective when the Southern Baptist Convention made a public resolution to evangelize Jews in 1996. She was angry - incensed, actually. I get that their intent was to bring people they loved into the fold, but it was just a giant example of something I've long said - evangelicals are great at talking to each other and horrible at communicating with others. Nobody appreciates being a project. What she heard was, "you aren't good enough because you aren't like us," and in light of the horrendous persecution of Jews by Christians over centuries, it was really rather dense on the part of the Baptists not to be more sensitive. But, that's not all I learned from Trelly.

I was studying organ, and I had a job as an organist/choir master. I came back to the apartment one day after an uplifting Easter service, all full of Easter joy. "It's a great day!" I exclaimed. "Uh...no it isn't," said Trelly. And then she taught me what I had never learned in school. She enlightened me about the Kishinev Pogram, an Easter Sunday and Monday slaughter of Jews in Moldova, and the countless pograms that occurred in the middle ages and beyond. I had never learned the word "pogram." For her, Easter was a day of mourning, and even as I celebrated the resurrection, it was right for me to mourn with her. Why wasn't this ever addressed in my history classes? I began to do some research, out of curiosity. I learned how so many Christians over the centuries have justified persecuting and killing Jews. I learned about something called the "blood curse."

Apparently, there are quite a few people who believe that God cursed the Jews because they killed Jesus. There is a passage in Matthew (Matthew only) that relates the Jews asking Pilate that Jesus' blood be on them. Pilate grants their request. Let's be very clear here. That group of Jews had been persuaded by their own religious leaders who had already rejected Jesus themselves. If Jesus could forgive the Roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross upon orders from their superiors because they didn't know what they were doing, I find it impossible to believe that he cursed an entire people group because a few in the first century were misled and incited by their religious leaders. There's a big difference between the natural consequences of sin, and actually being cursed by God. Paul says in Romans 11:1 - "Did God reject his people? By no means." And besides, Pilate is not God. He didn't have the authority to curse anyone. According to Revelation 13:8, the lamb was slain before the foundation of the world. Would God curse an entire people group for carrying out his plan? We all killed Jesus with our own sins. To suggest anything else is abject arrogance.

The people of those days, and some even today, believed that the punishment for sins could extend to their children. The Bible does not support this. In John 9, when Jesus heals a blind man, the disciples want to know who sinned, the man or his parents. Jesus says that neither sinned. If they had taken seriously God's law as stated in Deuteronomy 24:16, they would know that God doesn't visit the sins of parents onto their children. Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin. This is also addressed in Ezekiel 18. 

Paul says that all Jews will be saved. (Romans 11:25-32) In this chapter, Paul cautions Gentiles against arrogance. In Romans 11:18, he reminds us that we are merely grafted in: "do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you."

Look, I don't understand how the Jews will all be saved. I rejoice when anyone accepts Christ, and especially those who are Jews, but I don't know exactly what Paul means by asserting that all the Jews will be saved or how that will come about. As I am reminded in Romans 11: 33-36, I don't know the mind of God. I am sure that the Bible simply doesn't support a continuing curse on Jews. 

In the light of the recent attack on a Jewish synagogue in Philadelphia, we absolutely must communicate the truth about God's deep love for his chosen people and speak in joy about their ultimate salvation. We who are not Jewish should harbor no thoughts of superiority, and we should never invite people to feel condemnation in their hearts for an entire people group, especially in light of the history of evil persecution toward them.

Trelly is no longer my only Jewish friend. My world has broadened quite a bit. In fact, Trelly is now a Christian. That's not due to me; it's more likely due to her Christian boyfriend. But, I am happy to claim her now as my sister in Christ who is also Jewish. She was always my sister, and this weekend, I am reading some Jewish prayers in her honor and in memory of those who were killed in Philadelphia. 


God, make me brave for life: oh, braver than this.
Let me straighten after pain, as a tree straightens after the rain,
Shining and lovely again.
God, make me brave for life: much braver than this.
As the blown grass lifts, let me rise from sorrow with quiet eyes,
Knowing Thy way is wise.
God, make me brave, life brings such blinding things.
Help me to keep my sight; help me to see aright
That out of doubt comes light.

-Author unknown, from Prayers for Healing, ed. Maggie Oman



Prayer for the Dead

God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest upon the wings of the Divine Presence, within the range of the holy, pure and glorious, whose shining resemble the sky’s, to the soul of (Hebrew name of deceased) son of (Hebrew name of his father) for a charity was given to the memory of his soul. Therefore, the Master of Mercy will protect him forever, from behind the hiding of his wings, and will tie his soul with the rope of life. The Everlasting is his heritage, and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place, and let us say: Amen.




The mourner's Kaddish makes no mention of death or mourning, but is a prayer of praise. How beautiful.  

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently, to which we say: Amen.
Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.
Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort. To which we say: Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel. To which we say: Amen.
May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace us and to all Israel. To which we say: Amen.

Postscript:
Let it be known that I am not a follower of either Zionism or Dispensationalism. I tend to stay away from "isms" and similar labels in general. I'm not trying to draw conclusions on God's intentions for the future of the political nation of Israel and America's supposed role in it in this post. If you don't even know what I'm talking about, Jonathan Merritt has a good explainer here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

You Could Make This Place Beautiful

A week's gone by, and a full one. My girl has survived the first 6 days of a new school, a much bigger one than she's ever been to. She knew only one person in only one of her classes. A week later, she has a lunch group and a few theatre friends. She's auditioned for a play, didn't get cast, but might work tech. And, then she surprised me by applying to be a representative for her class in student government. Considering that 2 weeks ago, she was almost overwhelmed with anxiety, I'm so proud I could burst. If she can face her fears with this kind of aplomb, she can handle whatever life throws at her.

And, I worry every day about what it might throw.

The news has dragged me down lately. Children separated from parents, racially-charged conflicts, and now horrific news from the Catholic church in Pennsylvania. I find it hard to believe that humans can be so callous about the harm they do to other humans. I've let my girl see my feelings, and I realized I was bringing her down, too, when she asked, "Has it ever been this bad before?"

Oh, hon. My first thought was of slavery, lynchings, the separation of slave families, but the more I thought, the more atrocities I thought of. We humans have been horrible to our fellow humans for all of history. The near-genocide of native Americans. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Any targeting of civilians by any wartime force. The horrible treatment of so many political prisoners and prisoners of war in various places around the world. It's even in the bible. The bashing of babies against rocks. We humans have a bottomless capacity to be heartless, and we always seem to find a way to feel justified when it's us committing the atrocity.

Oh, hon, the truth is, it's hardly ever been this good. There are people speaking up, exposing the things that need to be exposed, calling for everyone to recognize the dignity of all people. We still pray every day that God's kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. I don't think he'd ask us to pray for that and work toward that if it couldn't ultimately be accomplished. It's just a long, long, long process, and our lives are too short to grasp the eternal perspective.

Good Bones
by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I've shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I'll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that's a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones:  This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Raising Daughters and Words

I need to write more. I need to read more fiction. I read three books, 2 fiction and 1 non-fiction, while we were on vacation last week, and they were the first books I've gotten fully through in a while. They were all life-giving. I downloaded Matt Haig's Reasons To Live on Kindle, and it might be one of the best books I've read on depression. He has no remedy to sell except your own remedy, all the while writing with great sympathy for the varieties of ways depression presents itself, and a generous, vulnerable account of his own. I picked up two novels in the used bookstore at St. Simons Island, and both were fantastic. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin kept me glued to the pages for a solid 2.5 days, which for me, is saying something. But the book that got into my bones was Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. After two chapters, I had to look up the history of the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in the 50s, history I had never been exposed to. But it was the story and the mesmerizing language that really captivated me. It stirred my inner poet and made me want to write again. And so, here I am, writing again.

I've struggled about what to do with this blog. I want to write, and I want to write for an audience. But, while I've done it with previous blogs, I find myself resistant to just keeping an online journal of my days/feelings/thoughts. I want to structure it with "music on Monday," "words on Wednesday," "thoughts on Thursday," etc. It assuages my worry that blogging is mostly just naval-gazing. But, artificial structure is not working for me. It feels contrived, and it turns writing into a duty. So, I'm going back to a more organic way of writing. I don't know quite how it will come out, but maybe that's okay.

xxxxx

My girl starts 10th grade at a new school on Wednesday. She's nervous, but she doesn't realize that she's so much braver than I would have been at 15. I marvel at her. She has become so much her own person. But, then, she always was.

When she was born, I felt the strangest sensation. It was as though another person had walked into the room. Of course, she was indeed a newly arrived person, but I had expected it to feel more like she was still part of me, not so much like a stranger had arrived. She came with an unmistakable message - "I'm not you." She was a presence. After a few tense seconds while we waited for her to cry, she finally let out a quiet, sweet, almost unbearably endearing "graaa." Soon, that weak little "graaa" was a big "WAH," And, now "WAH" has become, "I need you to take me to Ulta so I can buy some more makeup." (So not me.) And I'm so thankful that she is so normal.

On Wednesday, she'll arrive at a new school, her own person. She knows a few of the students, but not very many. She'll know them soon enough. She'll start with a graaa, progress to a WAH, and end up a leader. And I'll marvel at her again.

Maybe writing is like raising a daughter. You can't structure it. It takes you down avenues you weren't expecting. It exposes you, surprises you, scares you, exhilarates you. And then, ultimately, it humbles you because you realize that she, or it, belongs to itself. It is not you.

xxxxx

Is it weird to say that my writing has its own identity? Some writers like to talk of a muse, and I understand that. I don't speak the way I write. I don't even always think the same way when I write. Things come to me when I'm writing that don't come to me at other times. It's similar to when I'm playing and the music takes over and I become its servant. These things happen. Art has its own personhood. I don't know how to explain it.

xxxxx

The sun has set while I've been sitting here on the porch, all hot pink and orange between the pine trees as I listen to the kids at the neighborhood pool and the crickets and cicadas start their songs. The mosquitoes have been merciful, and the Georgia heat is not unbearable. I've a glass of wine and a sleeve of crackers, and the night is kind. I've written enough for tonight. Time to read again.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Music On Monday: Be Thou My Vision



St. Patrick's Day is later this week, and so it seems like a perfect time to write a post on a favorite hymn, Be Thou My Vision. I'm willing to bet that this is one of the most-sung traditional hymns apart from Amazing Grace.  Legends abound about this song, and they are charming stories that add to my enjoyment of the hymn, but we don't know much about their veracity. Here's what we know for sure. The Old Irish text predates the song itself by centuries, and we have copies of manuscripts from the 10th or 11th centuries. There's a good chance that the text existed long before that time within the Irish monastic tradition. Mary Byrne wrote a modern English translation of the poem in 1905 and just a bit later, Eleanor Hull wrote a translation in metric verse. The first published version of the song set to the Irish folk tune Slane (which has charming legends of its own) was in 1909 in a collection called Old Irish Folk Tunes and Songs. The title leads me to believe that the text had been paired with that tune for some time.

The original poem has been attributed to a blind Irish monk named Dall├ín Forgaill. The request that God would be his vision is even more poignant if this is true.

I wish I could read it in Old Irish, but since I can't, I enjoy Mary Byrne's translation - it's much richer than the metrified verses we sing in the hymn. 

Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.

Be thou my meditation by day and night.
May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.

Be thou my speech, be thou my understanding.
Be thou with me, be I with thee

Be thou my father, be I thy son.
Mayst thou be mine, may I be thine.

Be thou my battle-shield, be thou my sword.
Be thou my dignity, be thou my delight.

Be thou my shelter, be thou my stronghold.
Mayst thou raise me up to the company of the angels.

Be thou every good to my body and soul.
Be thou my kingdom in heaven and on earth.

Be thou solely chief love of my heart.
Let there be none other, O high King of Heaven.

Till I am able to pass into thy hands,
My treasure, my beloved through the greatness of thy love

Be thou alone my noble and wondrous estate.
I seek not men nor lifeless wealth.

Be thou the constant guardian of every possession and every life.
For our corrupt desires are dead at the mere sight of thee.

Thy love in my soul and in my heart --
Grant this to me, O King of the seven heavens.

O King of the seven heavens grant me this --
Thy love to be in my heart and in my soul.

With the King of all, with him after victory won by piety,
May I be in the kingdom of heaven O brightness of the son.

Beloved Father, hear, hear my lamentations.
Timely is the cry of woe of this miserable wretch.

O heart of my heart, whatever befall me,
O ruler of all, be thou my vision.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Words on Wednesday: The Light and Lightness of Ash Wednesday

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel

It's Ash Wednesday, the day on the liturgical calendar when we begin the season of Lent. Lent commemorates Jesus' 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, and on Ash Wednesday, the church encourages us to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It's a time for self-examination and repentance. Of course, we are called to do these things daily, but I think we believe that in Lent we are supposed to repent... harder. Instead, what I feel today is relief and thankfulness to be mere dust. It means that I can give up the burden of saving the world and saving me and trust that God is doing both of those things. The great thing is that the examined life can become the unburdened life, if you're healthy about it. But for some, the call to self-examination can result in self-blame and a failure to truly experience the joy of being forgiven. While I appreciate the liturgical calendar and the rhythm it can supply to worship,  I also think we need to guard against allowing the culture of an institution to suggest extra-biblical practices that seem to be more dark and heavy than light. If we're not careful, lent and Ash Wed observance can make us turn in on ourselves and try to repent harder than is necessary.

I'm protestant, but blessed to have served in a variety of denominations, including Catholic. They have a term that touches on what I'm trying to describe as over-repentance:  scrupulosity. It's a sort of religious perfectionism in which someone feels they can never stop confessing or feel able to enjoy forgiveness. It's a sort of spiritual OCD. I think that at times, I've been like this. So, this year's Ash Wednesday when I feel relieved to be dust - feels like a victory.

The pressure to participate in church programs can result in a sort of scrupulosity, too. I have in the past felt a duty to participate in as much as my time would allow. I've cut back. WAY back. Right now, I'm attending only one thing - a spiritual formation class that has been like manna from heaven. We have great discussions, and yesterday we talked about the difference between doing "great things for God" versus simply living fully into every moment being fully ourselves as God created us and sharing the gifts of the Spirit's fruits - love, joy, patience, goodness, kindness, self-control, etc. These are greater gifts than any earthly skill or talent. We talked about the ripple effect something as small as a smile can have - the ministry of welcome and love to those we encounter. We talked about Jesus' lack of an agenda or program. He had no schedule like this: 9:00 am: Woman at the well. 1:00: Take on some Pharisees. 3:00: start a ministry to the leper colony. Instead, God incarnate walked through life ready to encounter whatever came his way. I'm not knocking ministry or relief programs. They do good work. I'm just giving up the idea that I have to adopt an agenda or join a program out of duty. God will put in front of me what he wants me to do in his time. I don't have to get ahead of him.

It's easy to elevate the value of the program or the institution and fail to embrace the wildness of the Spirit. Today, I could easily allow the cultural and institutional weight of Lent to weigh me down. But, I don't feel heavy today. I feel light. I don't feel dark. I feel light. I think it's appropriate. So does this poet.


Ash Wednesday
by Louis Untermeyer

(Vienna)

I

Shut out the light or let it filter through 
These frowning aisles as penitentially 
As though it walked in sackcloth. Let it be 
Laid at the feet of all that ever grew 
Twisted and false, like this rococo shrine 
Where cupids smirk from candy clouds and where 
The Lord, with polished nails and perfumed hair, 
Performs a parody of the divine. 

The candles hiss; the organ-pedals storm; 
Writhing and dark, the columns leave the earth 
To find a lonelier and darker height. 
The church grows dingy while the human swarm 
Struggles against the impenitent body’s mirth. 
Ashes to ashes. . . . Go. . . . Shut out the light. 


(Hinterbr├╝hl)

II

And so the light runs laughing from the town, 
Pulling the sun with him along the roads 
That shed their muddy rivers as he goads 
Each blade of grass the ice had flattened down. 
At every empty bush he stops to fling 
Handfuls of birds with green and yellow throats; 
While even the hens, uncertain of their notes, 
Stir rusty vowels in attempts to sing. 

He daubs the chestnut-tips with sudden reds 
And throws an olive blush on naked hills 
That hoped, somehow, to keep themselves in white. 
Who calls for sackcloth now? He leaps and spreads 
A carnival of color, gladly spills 
His blood: the resurrection—and the light.