Mountains, Molehills, and the Necessities of Life

If mankind can send men to the moon, surely we can deal with the molehills that become mountains in our lives here on earth. Or so one would think. Six years ago, I pulled up my firmly planted stakes in the ground after discovering a whole new way of experiencing life in the wilds of terra firma. Indeed, the encounter spurred me to pursue a much higher calling – in the mountains of NW Montana and the heaven on earth that is the Flathead Valley and now, the place I call home. As I reflect on who I was then and who I am now, I am struck by how significantly this higher perspective has changed my approach to life. As someone who had spent more than half her life on the urbanized plains of Eastern Montana and the Rocky Mountain front, I was surprised to find such an innate sense of place and a passion in the wilderness and mountain climbing, a pursuit that eclipsed any of my previous past-times.

 Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Despite my prairie legs (though some say I have chicken legs – I’ll stick with my descriptor), navigating the wilderness and climbing mountains really wasn’t such a foreign concept to me after all.

 I remember the first time I visited Glacier. I was timid in my steps. I stayed firmly planted in the middle of the Avalanche Lake Trail, I shuddered at the height of the Hidden Lake Overlook, and I clung to the walls of the Highline Trail, afraid to look down for fear that my less than graceful tendency to trip would send me plummeting to my certain death.

 A lot has changed in my life since those early days of exploration. I went from living a rather sheltered life in a place I had known for more than 24 years with lots of friends and family providing a safety net of support to one of the unknown with a new job, a new town, and very new lifestyle. I will admit to suffering serious bouts of doubt in my decision to pull up stakes and head west in the years that followed. Rather than reaching mountain summit after summit with grand views, I found myself, like many people I have encountered on this journey, in a wilderness I had not prepared myself for – the twisting and often hard road of life without the comforts of the home I left behind.

 Losing myself in and climbing the genuine deals helped me realize just how important having the proper tools for navigating the wilderness and climbing the metaphorical mountains of life are. Now, with a few year’s worth of trail dust permanently ingrained in my soul and grander vistas broadening my perspective on life, I am learning to overcome the equally rocky, often steep mountains that tower within me with some key pieces of equipment and a hefty dose of strength and resilience

 A good pair of hiking boots are imperative to my hiking and climbing adventures. I will pay a premium price to ensure that I am walking in comfort and with control. Just like we need a good pair of hiking boots to keep us on solid ground and sure of foot when climbing mountains, we need a foundation of inner strength to keep us upright when we encounter the challenges we face in life. This foundation consists of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that help us maintain emotional, physical, social, environmental, relational, spiritual, and intellectual wellness. It can be developed by the practice of our religious faith; the moral and ethical values we were brought up with; and/or the lessons we learn from mentors and friends throughout our life. Your foundation of inner strength includes positive feelings such as calmness, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations, and embodied qualities such as vitality or relaxation. Your foundation of inner strength is the stable traits that serve as an enduring source of well-being and wise and effective action as well as the contributions you make to the lives of others. A strong foundation of inner strength helps us to be self-directed and self-reflective in our goals and maintain excellence and integrity in our work. When we encounter the unknown, our foundation keeps us focused. It allows us to be humbly aware of our successes; acknowledge areas where growth is necessary and to be courageous in our curiosity for what we might become. Simply put, this foundation is the basis of our identity.

Without a strong sense of who we are and what we desire for our lives, the challenges we face will be difficult to overcome as we do not know where we are going or how we define success.

 My hiking boots have seen me through some challenging routes and very long days on the trail. I am confident in their treads to keep me from slipping and their support keeps me pushing forward to the end. Likewise – my foundation of inner strength – knowing who I am at my core – has helped me make difficult moral judgment calls as well as life-altering decisions with confidence rather than doubt. And just like hiking boots need to be maintained and eventually changed as our feet flatten with age (ahem!)  – our foundation is a constant work in progress as we progress through life.

The next piece of equipment that accompanies me on all my hikes are my trekking poles. I used to eschew them as inconvenient hindrances to the free movement of my arms; an unnecessary weight on my pack, and a crutch for the clumsy. That was until I started climbing 10K foot peaks and descending scree slopes that grabbed and tore at my ankles and shins. Trekking poles give us much needed balance when navigating across rocks in a running stream, take the load off our knees on steep descents, and give us stability when scrambling through boulder fields. In essence, they are our friends – not an inconvenient weight on the journey.

 I have always been a bit of an independent spirit – choosing to make my way in life on my own. Certainly, I have friends, but it wasn’t until the last several years that I realized what true friendship is about and how important it is to have that connection with someone. It is important to have one, two, or if you are lucky, several good friends in your life- trekking poles, if you will, who can share your load, give balance to your perspective on things and provide support when the going gets rough. A good friend sees through our tough skins, excuses, and doubts and tells us like it is. They support us even when we don’t think we need support. They provide humor when needed and a non-judgmental shoulder to lean on when the trials of life get dark or endless. Like good friends, trekking poles make the steep summit climbs and descents of life a bit less painful and make the celebrations when we conquer the mountains of life all the more sweet.

 The last piece of equipment that is crucial to your survival on the mountain is your backpack. I have met many a hiker on a trail with just a water bottle clipped to their belt and maybe a fanny pack. I am amazed, not at their scarce need for sustenance and supplies but by their sheer stupidity. Inside my backpack are the tools critical for survival – first aid, food, water, bug and bear spray, extra clothing, matches, a map, and of course my camera! Suffice it to say my backpack contains everything I would need to survive if I couldn’t make it back to my car as planned. The necessities of life. Over time I have learned which items I will always take with me, which items simply add extra weight to my burden, and which items my fellow hikers swear by and I will one day too.

 The backpack you carry with you as you climb the mountains of life contains all the life lessons you have learned along the way, your experiences – both good and bad, and the wisdom you have acquired along the way. Some refer to this carryall as “baggage” in a negative sense. I look at this “baggage” as a collection of tools I have gathered throughout life, experiences in the past that have prepared me for the challenges I am facing now – just as these challenges are preparing me for the next life adventure. I am also learning to let go of some of the past that I have clung to for its familiarity – things that weigh me down or lay claim on my present and future sense of being: negative habits, wrongly help assumptions, and grievances I would be better off forgiving. When I look at my sometimes-heavy backpack filled with life lessons from that perspective, I gladly carry it with me and take comfort in knowing that in it I have the tools necessary to climb and conquer the mountains of life.

 With a firm foundation of inner strength to see you through the longest of journeys, friends you can trust to support you and give you the balance needed when everything else in your life seems off-kilter, and a backpack filled with the life lessons you have lived and learned upon your shoulders, you’ll have the tools necessary for climbing the mountains of life. So far, they have not let me down. The summits I have reached with them have provided life-changing perspectives worthy of celebration.

 So, go on, take stock of your equipment and go climb those mountains. If this once timid flat-lander can do it, so can you.

 Let your light so  shine!

 

 

Everybody’s Story

A sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What a tale rich with the complexities of this world we have here! The Prodigal Son – or is it the Tale of the Lost Sons or the Tale of the Lamenting Older Brother – or is it a Tale of a Prodigal Love? Ralph Waldo Emerson called this the greatest story in the Bible. I call it Everybody’s Story. Part of the reason we are so drawn to this story is that we are never only one of the characters. We find ourselves with the younger son mired in the messes of our own making, with the elder son in our righteous bitterness and fear of being overlooked, and we long to be like the father who empties himself in his selfless devotion to bring in the lost and the forsaken.

Who among us has not squandered the love we have been given? Who among us has not chased after our own impulses, passions, and needs be they hunger, thirst, or wanton desires instead of choosing a higher path?  Who hasn’t felt the unrelenting pain of losing someone we deeply loved and the regrets that fill the void they leave behind? Who hasn’t felt the bitter sting of insecurity and fear of being left out or chased blindly after love, hoping it will be returned? Who hasn’t thought better of themselves only to be humbled by a harsh lesson in humility? Who hasn’t hoped, hungered and prayed that someone — anyone – God — will come searching for us when we are lost, broken, and alone? It is a story about joy, about love, and about grace – and about our misunderstanding of the nature of grace.

And so, without further ado – as the late, great comforter on the airwaves Paul Harvey would so famously begin every radio show – the rest of the story…

The tax collectors and sinners were very near to Jesus now. He had them on the edge of their seats. Never had someone so different from them taken the time to talk with them. He offered them something no one else could or would. And the Pharisees and the scribes continued in their grumbling, saying, “Not only does this fellow welcome sinners and eat with them – he’s offering them grace – a cheap grace at that. He’s breaking every law in the book! He’s crossing the line here. The government surely won’t stand for it. He’s saying God loves them too!”

Jesus could hear the Pharisees grumbling. He knew they were right –  He did, after all, hang with the wrong people, he was breaking the rules – but he had more important things to do than observe the laws of this world – especially laws that served only to divide and condemn – laws from a time before – laws that served more to separate people from God rather than bring them to Him. His father sent him to take on the cloak of sin and bridge the great chasm it created between Him and his children and by George, he was doing a good job of it! He found it ironic that the most religious and pious in his audience where his greatest critics. Jesus continued.

Now, the younger son, still basking in the glow of his new life, overheard his father’s pleas to his older brother. He excused himself from the party and went to see to his brother.

“Come on brother, don’t be like a stubborn old mule, without understanding. Get over yourself! Your bitterness and resentment towards my redemption is confining you to a fallen world. Come inside and celebrate – there is much to rejoice!”

The older brother glared at his precocious and suddenly highly prolific sibling. Who did he think he was? Telling him what to do?

Seeing his brother’s continued hardness of heart, the younger one continued.

“Look, I don’t fault you for feeling as you do. Everything you said to Dad is true. I get it. You have worked all these years – and worked hard! I mean look at this place – it’s amazing – so much better than when I left it all behind.  You didn’t run off and desert Dad – let alone practically wish him dead by asking for your inheritance early. You didn’t squander the family’s wealth. You, for the most part, I am sure, have been dutiful and responsible and trustworthy all this time, and so it must really burn for you to see Dad running down the road flailing his arms like an idiot in disbelief and joy – for me – I mean what an embarrassment!! And then he welcomes me home with an outpouring of love and no questions asked. Even I wasn’t expecting that! I know you don’t think it is fair and that’s because it’s not!”

“Not just unfair, it is a complete disgrace.” Said the older brother – finally finding something to agree with.

“Look, this hasn’t been easy for me, either. I was so certain there was something more in this world for me – that there was nothing for me here. I felt suffocated by rules and expectations that meant nothing to me. I wanted to live! And it was great for a while in that distant country – living with abandon – enjoying what I thought were the finer things – a far cry from what you’ve been toiling at all this time – but then things took a turn. The recession hit and my careless living was taking a toll on me. I had nothing to lean on – no savings and no foundation – no relationships of value – nothing to give me strength. I found myself at rock bottom – well actually slop bottom – I had to feed pigs to survive! Can you believe that? The only job I could find that I had any skill for was on a pig farm! Not only that – but my hunger was insatiable – nothing filled me – I even began to eat the pig’s pods. Pride kept me silent but soon I realized I was dying inside. And look at me – my body practically wasted away! The weight of all that I had done and all that I had lost was unbearable. When I realized I was worse off than – well those people – I came to my senses.”

“Yeah, you came to your senses when you wanted more from Dad. I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe you would come back – that you could come back after what you have done. The shame you have brought upon yourself and Dad.”

“Oh, believe me, I know what I have done – and now so does God – he knows everything, you know. We had a long talk on my way back home you see – I told him about everything – I confessed my rebellion – I accepted my failures – it was a pretty long walk. But as I walked, I felt the weight of my guilt and my failures wash away with a rush of mighty water.

“Look, the more I think about it, my return home actually seems much easier than bringing you out of that cold anger making itself at home in the deepest corners of your being. Brother, your resentment is killing you. But it’s not just about me, is it? It’s about your virtue!”

“Hey, don’t try to bring me down to your level!” The older brother spat out defensively.

“Down to my level? Look! We are all sinners here. You just happen to be sinning in a different way. I am trying to lift you up.”

“Oh, come on! Where is it written that it isn’t good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? Such attitudes are praiseworthy!”

“And indeed, they are! We should all strive to be that way – I know I should have. But don’t you see, you are so caught up in being right that you can’t see past yourself! I see your despair! It’s like you are battling against yourself. At the very moment you want to act out of your most generous self, you get caught in anger or resentment. And just when you want to be selfless, you find yourself obsessing about being loved. And just when you have done your utmost to accomplish a task well, you question why others do not give of themselves as you do. You think you are better than me for overcoming the same temptations that I had, but in truth, you envy me for giving in to them!  It seems that everything you are basing your virtuosity on is turning you into a resentful complainer. Where is there happiness in that way of living?”

“I am happy…”

“Oh please, you are deceiving yourself – and Dad. Continue on this path and you will be stuck here and tormented forever! True happiness belongs to those whose sin is forgiven, covered – forgotten. Look at me! I feel like my slate has been wiped clean! Like God is holding nothing from me – because I held nothing back from Him. That’s the kind of happiness I have now. I have found shelter from my troubled ways and joy in my freedom.”

Shaking his head, the older brother replied, “You may be happy – but you are not being realistic. The world doesn’t work that way kid. I am proof of that!  God may have removed the label of “sinner” from you when you sought restoration but there are plenty of people here at your party who will try to pin it back on you as soon as they have had their fill of wine and taken their leave. They’ll cast sideways glances at you in the store and I bet they won’t sit with you in church.”

Having stood by and watched his two sons stand their respective grounds, the father had finally had enough. Shaking his head but at the same time opening his arms he interrupted.

“Sons, both of you have wandered far from me. You,” he said to his younger son, “alienated yourself from me by trying to satisfy your passions with no regard for anything or anyone but yourself. And you,” he said to his older son, “distanced yourself from me and all those who care for you, by indulging in anger, and envy, and caring only about your place in life.”

Putting his arms around both his son’s shoulders for the first time in a long time he continued.

“I wouldn’t want to live in this world if rules and fairness and equity didn’t matter. It could get out of control pretty fast. But we can get lost in the means and forget what the end result of rules and fairness and equity is all about. Just look around. Take a good hard look at your own hearts and motives. We want to be judged only by our best moments – but condemn others who have fallen short of our ideals. We seek validation and vindication for our accomplishments, but when it comes to those we deem as unworthy of the same we’d rather have our own pity party than join in celebrating them. We keep scores for everything. We literally count everything – from calories to miles to money – even good deeds – all in an effort to tip the scales of fate in our favor. We see life as a game of winners and losers and that skews our relationships and diminishes the value of every one of us. Good scores, accomplishments, fairness, equity, – those are important goals, but they are not the only things that matter in this life – at least not to me. What matters is that we have joy – joy in our hearts, joy that fills our minds, joy that strengthens us for this world. A joy that reigns in this house.

“That joy comes from love. And my love is something that cannot be counted. I could never apportion my love. I don’t track it or measure it or parcel it out. I can give all of my love to one of you and – guess what? – I still have all of my love left to give to the other.

“You might fear that there is a limit – or secretly hope that there is – and only a certain amount of love is reserved for a select few – including you – but that is not how my love works. There is never a limit – never was and never will be. You see, love is one of those things that the more you give the more you seem to have – you may try, but you will never be able to control who I love, how I love, or quantify it.”

Having been silent for too long, the younger son looked at his father and said, “Thank you, Dad. Thank you for forgiving me before you even saw me and loving me. I want to love like you love.”

Not to be outdone the older son reached deep.

“We live amid war, fires, floods, poverty, greed, persecution, imprisonment, betrayal, hatred, and sins we have yet to imagine. Signs of the world’s darkness that will never be absent. But you are telling me I can still have joy in the midst of it all? The joy of belonging to a household whose love is stronger than my present darkness and even death; a love that empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to a home of joy.”

“Yes, my son. It is yours every day. You have always been loved and that joy is yours.  Every day you are made new and made whole in the waters that wash away your sin and make you shine.”

Upon hearing this, the Pharisees went away in silence as Jesus broke another loaf of bread to share and the tax collectors and sinners were filled with joy.

And there you have it. The rest of the story. We are restored every day in the waters of our baptism. God’s forgiveness is always there; we are the ones who cut ourselves off when we choose envy and bitterness or go our own way. But God never stops trying. His love and grace have no limit. God promises us a warm welcome and complete restoration to God’s household -if we simply approach and come home.

As Paul so eloquently shares with the Christians in Corinth and as written in The Message: “He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own. Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

Amen.

God Always Wins – And So Does Love

Holy Saturday, a day in between. Our Lord has been crucified and now we wait – wait for the celebration we know is to come – of resurrection, of life, of promise, and hope. But for now we are suspended in the grief of our Lord’s death – cognizant of our fallen ways. With a broken spirit, I am uncertain of how to go about this day. Some fill it with Easter Egg hunts or as we did in my childhood –  making Easter Snow-bunnies – others just go about the day as if it were any other Saturday –  household chores, runs to the dump, shopping, sleeping in, and if we were lucky to be free of snow, maybe some early Spring yard work.

While I have several of these non-celebratory doings on my to-do list today, I can’t get past how the suspended feeling this day evokes so markedly reflects how I have been living my life the past year. The 2 years leading up to today have been the most emotionally wrought time of my life – with more grief than I thought possible.  The deaths of my parents – whose love accompanied me all the days of my life even before I took my first breath – left me casting about – alone and unsure of my foundation. That I would also face the death of a relationship that changed the course of my life and showed me how wonderful and painful love can be, left me hardened and shamefully bitter. While the immensity of the pain has waned, the aftermath of bitterness remains. Never in my life would I have associated the word bitter with the essence of who I am. But as I sit here reflecting on The Cross, I am well aware of the darkness I have allowed into my life of late.

I have faced the bitter cold of winter with verve and relished the bitterness of a strong cup of coffee, but I never, ever would have allowed bitterness to find its way into my life in times past and yet somehow it has made a home for itself in my heart. Anyone who has quaffed their morning thirst with a bitter jolt of coffee knows that bitterness has staying power –  it will stay with you no matter how you try to mask it. Despite my attempts to fill my life with diversions, flavor, busyness –  that bitterness has lingered.

I have seen glimpses of my former self – the strong, joyful, sentimental, independent, naïve, happy as a lark child of God from time to time – but inevitably the sweetness fades and the bitterness once again grips me and I am left wondering if I will ever allow myself to love deeply and be loved again.

Yet, if I let bitterness win, then I have no business reflecting on the Cross today. This bitterness is a selfish gift from darkness, one that encourages self-absorption, self-preservation, selfishness. It comforts me with a solitude of sadness and impassable independence. It eats away a life that is precious to God and denies His power to redeem and restore. It scoffs at the opportunities of today and the promises of tomorrow. It destroys faith and drowns hope.

But I am a Child of God. I AM a Child of God! This bitterness will not have the last word. God did not rescue me from the grips of death 24 years ago to spend however many precious days I have in this admittedly broken but beautiful world absorbed by bitterness and selfishness. As I have moved through Lent and journeyed to the Cross this last week, I have felt both numb and alive. Numbed by the overwhelming battle for my heart going on inside of me and alive because I know who is winning!!

God always wins – always! The outcome is His alone and this Easter I am once again relinquishing my life to Him – totally and uncompromisingly.  Bitterness be gone! I am letting go of you – and letting go of the pain that brought you into my heart.  I am letting forgiveness move in and embracing the same Easter joy I felt 2 years ago when I laid my mother to rest on Good Friday and celebrated with great joy her new life on Easter Sunday. While God did not promise me an easy road ahead that day, and the following days and months were anything but, He did promise that He would never leave me. I somehow lost sight of that. It is easy to do when you shutter yourself away and allow darkness and bitterness a place to stay.

With God, what have I to fear? He created us to love one another. It is the way of His kingdom on earth.  To love is to live in His light. Imperfectly. Deeply. With compassion. With abandon. This Easter I am embracing life anew in His Light and in His Love.

God always wins and so does love.

Happy Easter!

Jesus said- “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” – John 15: 9-17

Find True Belonging in the Journey of Lent

“Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something. Belonging is when others want you.”    – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

We are living in a lonely age, a time when, despite technological advances that make connectivity almost a distracting and annoying constant, we have never felt so disconnected from one another. It is our human nature to seek connection with others and we have an innate desire to belong. Scientific and social studies have concluded as much.  “(H)uman beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.” (Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995).) John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who has done extensive studies on the impact of loneliness, says that the “only real biological advantage we have over most other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, be in relationship with in special ways.”

Our need to belong is beyond our control, it is a part of our DNA, we have evolved to need one another and yet, we have come to idealize the independent individual. Because of modern advances in survival we no longer “need” each to survive. The less we need each other the more dependent we become on ourselves. The more dependent we become on ourselves the more certain we become of our ways and our ways of thinking. Yet despite our independence and strength in self, our need for connection remains, thus we take the paths of least resistance and align ourselves with those who think like us, look like us, and believe like us. Social scientist Brene Brown calls this a “high lonesome culture.” One in which we are the most sorted that we’ve ever been. Most of us no longer hang out with people that disagree with us politically or ideologically. The sad part of this type of “belonging” is that the commonality we share with “our people” we have sorted ourselves to is we all hate the same people or things rather than being joined together on the basis of mutual respect and acceptance.  Brene Brown calls this “common enemy intimacy.”

The thing about “common enemy intimacy” is it negates the self. We are no longer drawn to each other by the one qualities of our personhood –  it doesn’t matter who you are but what you agree or disagree with. No wonder loneliness is pervasive! We have lost what it means to be in relationship with one another. We no longer need to adapt to or accept each other’s imperfections to find community. Instead, we move on in search of those who bear our more perfect likeness.  Father Adolfo Nicolas, the former head of the Jesuits (the pope’s religious order) termed our present state as the globalization of superficiality — an “emerging era marked by extreme anomie and the deterioration of human relationships through technological advancement and materialism.”

Today, we can block out the cacophony of the world by losing ourselves in the addictive blue screens of our phones and we can skim and scroll through our choice of “news”- that which affirms our ideology and confirms our rightness and righteousness.  In turn, our perception of others remains shallow and we can keep a safe distance from the burdens and brokenness of the world.

Today, we can foster superficial, pseudo, and incomplete relationships by “friending” mere acquaintances or total strangers on social media and then — when necessary — “unfriend” real friends without the hard work that goes into forming lasting and real relationships through encountering, confronting and reconciling. What we have come to accept as belonging is really just fitting in. Fitting in is less risky –  you choose who you want to align yourself with without running the risk of revealing and being judged by who you are – the real you with all your strengths and imperfections. We no longer need to be vulnerable to amass a community we just have to be strong and set in our similar ways.

What if this pervasive loneliness is driven in part by our lack of vulnerability and authenticity? Have you ever been surrounded by people at a party or out and about but feel completely disconnected, lonely, or anxious, because never once during that experience did you feel like you could be yourself? Instead, you were who you thought others wanted you to be. You put on a face that masked your true feelings and your fears. These connections do nothing to satisfy the innate desire to belong to someone – for someone to want us for who we are. As Brene Brown states – “Your sense of true belonging will never be greater than your willingness to be brave and stand by yourself.”

As I was sitting in church this past Ash Wednesday – I was contemplating what it meant to belong. To be a part of something that was bigger than myself while at the same time being accepted and wanted just as I am – real, imperfect, somewhat stubborn, determined, shy, lonesome, life-loving, childish at times, frequently forgetful, sometimes impatient, often in a hurry, occasionally late, full of myself at times, compassionate, wanting to love, wanting to be loved, fearful of change, hopeful for tomorrow, challenged by my past… the list goes on.  Aw, if only I could find someone who wanted me with that laundry list of qualities!

By some perfect measure, this year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. The coincidence was not lost on me. As I thought about my 40-day Lenten journey to the cross –   the greatest act of love -where Christ died for our sins and freed us from our no-win human struggle for unachievable perfection – perfect love, perfect acts, perfect penance, perfect lives – and on to His resurrection with the promise of new life in the baptismal waters of Easter –  it donned on me that this is where belonging is born –  if we are up for the journey.

Talk about becoming vulnerable! As people of all different ways and ways of thinking we willingly stepped forward from the pews to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads as the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” were spoken. The ritual reminds  us of our common mortality and symbolizes God’s judgement upon us –  a rebellious creation and our sinful need for repentance.  Smudged with blackened ash as a sign of the divine love God has for us – a love that is depicted in a gruesome death and a new life because of that death – at once, there I was, inextricably connected to these likewise fallible and broken people by something greater than all of us. And that thing that is greater than us is rooted in love and compassion. It is a love so great and so deep that it is willing to suffer and die for another.

The traditional gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is Mathew 6:1-6, 16-21. Jesus instructs his followers in the manner of giving alms, praying and fasting: if done with the goal of gaining the attention or approval of one’s peers, that attention is your reward. There is, in other words, no spiritual value to the practice, if it only feeds your desire and need to “be seen” by your neighbors – kind of like that artificial self we share with others to fit in with “our people.” Rather, such practices should flow from a devotion to God that is expressed through caring for our neighbor, praying, and disciplining ourselves with fasting – attuned to our failings and in humble repentance for our sins – being authentic and selflessly driven. When this happens, we are seen by God and in this way rewarded. The text repeatedly talks of the Father seeing you.

Who doesn’t want to be seen –  to belong? Imagine a type of belonging born out of mutual love for one another! Rather than acting in ways we think will win approval from our peers, or make us appear more righteous, we must act out of genuine devotion to one another. Nowhere in Matthew’s gospel does it say that it is wrong to want to be seen by others, to matter to someone, to be noticed for who we are and be counted as worthy but Jesus urges us to look to God, the one who is not impressed by outward righteousness but sees even the hidden and broken places of our heart to fulfill those desires.

God sees us for who we are.  God notices us in all we do. In the waters of our baptism, God claims us as His own. What a wonderful sense of belonging that inspires! Belonging of the truest, richest kind! The Lenten journey to the cross – the greatest act of love – is one in which we can learn how to love again and find true belonging.  Over the next 40 days I will realign my life to one rooted in the authentic assurance of my relationship with God – not hoping to achieve the approval of others but trusting that God’s approval has already been given. With that confidence I can offer my life as testimony to the One who gives me worth and dignity in the first place and let my light and love shine on others so that they too may know what it means to belong.

Let your light so shine!

Lead Me Lord, and I Will Shine Your Light

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“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

~ Psalm 51: 10-12

It is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40-day journey to the cross; a time of awakening to the temporal nature of this life on earth and to the life everlasting. For me, this is a day for reflection on my mortality and my brokenness, and  for grieving my sins.  I strive to live a life worthy of the divine love and grace of our heavenly father and yet, I know I miss the mark.

Too often my focus is inward on the things of life that are not going according to my plan. Too often I do not turn the other cheek but hold spite in my heart instead. Too often I take each day “as it comes” and “for what it is” rather than giving thanks for each day that I have. Too often I allow my struggles to overwhelm my spirit and turn me to the darkness of doubt rather than trusting in the ways of our Lord and standing strong with an armor of faith.

As I struggle to understand the purpose of my Dad’s present suffering, watching this once sharp, vibrant man be reduced to a shell of confusion and despondency, I find myself  filled with doubt in the plans the Lord has for this faithful man. My heart questions just how merciful this “loving, grace-filled” Lord that I strive to live for is. This brings me to shame as someone who is studying to one day lead others to this same divine, loving, and merciful Lord.

Tonight, symbolic ashes born from the time before our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection will mark my forehead.  They will remind me that I am dusty. That like the ashes that stain my skin with the sign of the cross, I will one day be carried away in the wind and fire just as my mother was. They will cause me to ask myself what I am doing with the time that I have, however temporary, here on earth? How will I impact others. When He calls me, am I a willing spirit?

These ashes are also symbolic of the crosses we bear. They are not  worn out of shame, but rather, as signs of our acceptance that the struggles we endure are a part of our own journey to the cross.   The ashes remind me that my dusty-ness  is only temporary – that through my faith in Him, I will one day be made perfect.

In the meantime, our Lord does not want our crosses  – our struggles, our burdens, our imperfections – to define us. Rather, it is through those very crosses that our Lord’s grace and abiding love shines through.

Indeed, it was through my greatest struggle, one in which I laying dying to life that I found  new life in the Lord. He called me back to Him through my cross and gave me new life.

For I was dying… and He gave me life.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  

~2 Corinthians  5:17-21

 

Now,  He calls me, in all my brokenness, doubts, questions, and human failings  to shine His light to others as they journey to Him.

Lead me Lord. My spirit is willing and I will shine your light.

Shining Light in the Dust

 

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 “through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed;  sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” ~ 2 Corinthians 6:8-10

Lead me Lord,  and I will shine your light.

I spent the evening reflecting on my mortality, reflecting on my brokenness, and grieving my imperfections. It is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day journey to the cross; to death in this world; and to life everlasting.

Ashes born from the time before His resurrection mark my forehead. Symbolic of the crosses we bear are born not with shame, but with an acceptance that this yoke upon our shoulders, this struggle we face endure – is a part of our own journey to the cross and to the  dust from where we came. A symbol that our dustiness is only temporary – in faith we one day be made perfect

Our Lord does not want our crosses- our struggles, our burdens, our imperfections – to define us. Rather it is through those very crosses that our Lord’s grace and abiding love shines through.

Indeed, it was through my greatest struggle, one in which I laying dying to life that I found  new life in the Lord. He called me back to Him through my cross and gave me  new life. Now,  He calls me  to shine His light to others as they journey to Him.

For I was dying… and He gave me life.

Lead me Lord,  and I will shine your light.