Ashes for My Birthday – Amen to that!
“Remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”
Such fitting words as I mark the beginning of another year around the sun or as today will remind me, another year closer to my Maker.
They don’t always fall on the same day – my birthday and Ash Wednesday. The last time Ash Wednesday occurred on March 2 was 1960 – way before my time – but this year the juxtaposition of these two days is not lost on me. Today we begin the journey to the cross. On my birthday I will wear a cross of ashes reminding me of my life saved from eternal death
This morning, my coworker asked me how I was celebrating my birthday. Deep in thought, I said.
Yes, of course I am deep in thought today. It is what I do and who I am – from the very dust particles of my being. I am a deep thinker and feeler. The last several weeks even more so, as so many of the things I have clung to in life besides the One I should – have fallen away as everything eventually does. In the process I have come to know myself better – my TRUE Self. It’s an eye-opening, lay awake at night, unsettling process. I came to realize how heavy I have let this little life of mine become. Weighed down by the weight of my own being – buried in a very lonely place.
The crosses I bear are of my own making. The darkness I have held within me is my greatest sin. It has tamed and impoverished my life.
Yes, the ashes of this day weigh heavy. They remind me that life is fragile, finite, precious, and unpredictable. There are no guarantees on tomorrow and the past is but a memory – all we have is the beautiful, painful, everchanging now. God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in regret or despair. He made that perfectly clear in the waters of my baptism and on the cross I wear today. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. I must not wallow in my failures or dwell on my regrets. God is not my source of condemnation, He is the source of my life. He is my strength and my shield.
Jesus came so that I may have life. (John 10:10) Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls me (and you) to a meaningful life in the now, in this very messed up time and in this place – wherever and however that may be. A life that savors all that I have in the now and accepts what I don’t. A life that embraces the challenges – even a possible hip replacement and the changes that will bring. A life that finds its essence by sharing it and opening it to others – others who are also living through life’s deaths before death as well as giving life to life.
And so today I won’t be celebrating with birthday candles on a cake – but ashes on my forehead. Celebrating life – the life given for me and the life breathed into me by Jesus. The life I still have yet to live. The life I want to live.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.“When Death Comes” -Mary Oliver
Let your light so shine – especially through the ashes.
It can be a long drive to my “other life.” When the weather is favorable for windshield time, I actually relish the time behind the wheel as the mountains of NW Montana give way to the big wide open of Eastern Montana. When the weather doesn’t cooperate with my travel plans (which is at least 75% of the time) it can be the longest butt toning session ever undertaken! I had both experiences for my Easter trip home this year.
Armed with road snacks, MT’s own John Denver aka Mike Eldred and Phil Aaberg CD’s (yes I am old school) ready to rock me across the Divide, a plethora of podcasts loaded for my intellectual advancement, and 3 seasons worth of clothing (this is Springtime in MT) for 4 days of travel, I departed the Flathead on a very fine Good Friday.
It was a wonderful day for a road trip! Especially on the backroads that I love. Blue skies and dry roads were abundant. As I crested the Continental Divide and saw nothing but flat land and open sky before me, the deep freeing sigh that occurs every single time escaped my being. The open road ahead of me is not only the way home but an invitation to what I lovingly call my prairie wondering. It takes me awhile to get to this place of thinking deep thoughts. The stresses of packing and repacking, dropping the talkative dog off for his staycation at the ranch, and navigating the traffic to get out of the Flathead take a while to loosen their grip.
As I delighted in the multitude of calves finding their bearings in this great big, sometimes cold and harsh world, I couldn’t help but say a little prayer that all would be well, that all matters of being would be well – for them and for us, and yes, for me. For life has been uncertain of late – not unlike the lives of those darling mooers frolicking about in the warm sun – within moments a predator or sudden spring storm could snuff out all that was to be.
But while one could dwell in that particularly unsavory side to the cycle of life – which has been easy to do during this yearlong global pandemic (another cyclical event) – it is all part of the eternal pattern of change and transformation. Franciscan contemplative, Richard Rohr, says that for change and transformation to happen, we must move from Order (those warm times of carefree frolicking in the sun) to “a period—or even many periods— of Disorder.” Often that means loss and disappointment. “There will be a death, a disease, a disruption to our normal way of thinking or being in the world.” The ways of being and doing are disrupted and our notions of control and certainty are displaced by a sense of restlessness, an unease with our very nature and place.
I know I have grown increasingly unsettled – despite being pretty much homebound for the last year. With the busy trappings of my pre-pandemic busy life stripped away, I have had to come to terms with the core foundation of my life – the bare essence of who I am without external forces laying claim to my identity. I haven’t always liked what I have uncovered. And I wonder if others have found themselves in the same state of dismay. Rohr says this “is necessary if any real growth is to occur.”
The Disorder stage is all about letting go of control and stepping “out of the driver’s seat for a while,” Rohr says. (The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder [Franciscan Media, 2020].) Then we can open ourselves to Reorder, where we radically “let go and let God.” Which is why the template for “Order, Disorder, Reorder” is Jesus, who surrendered to God’s will, was crucified and was resurrected.
“Letting go and letting God” is easy to do when you’re driving across a landscape uncluttered by the demands of modern life and mirrors that dare you to compare your lot in life to those around you, not to mention bathe in the murky waters of your failures and regrets. It’s easy to hide behind the guise that while our world is plagued by righteous hate, sadness, power, fear, and judgement -thinking that I am somehow not a part of that – until I realize that I most certainly am! I sometimes feel I am stuck in a never ending state of the Christian observance of Good Friday – that darkest of days when all of humanity’s sin and ugliness were foisted upon a divine savior, Jesus, and hung on a cross to die a bloody death.
It’s times like that which inspire thoughts of putting the pedal to the metal and driving off into the sunset in search of an escape from it all – from me, from the world, from life – a place to start over – to start fresh.
Thankfully on this particular Good Friday, I had a rendezvous with Easter and family awaiting my arrival, which got me to thinking about which side of the cross I tend to live on on a daily basis – because Easter is not just a single spring Sunday once a year, nor is Good Friday a single dark day preceding the celebration of resurrection and new life.
Have I ever truly opened myself to the Reordering of life that God offers us – all of us – freely – freely if I surrender all my sins, failure and regret from my inherent need to control them – have I ever paid more than lip-service to surrendering them all to Him?
As the miles (and there are a lot of them on this particular journey) rolled on, I realized just how far apart the life I am allowing myself to live is from the life God wants for me. In my heart, I felt alienated from myself. In that moment, I knew that I knew little or nothing of my own heart. I have kept my distance out of some disabling fear of what I might find.
Henri Nouwen wrote: “Where we are most ourselves, we are often strangers to ourselves. That is the painful part of our being human. We fail to know our hidden center; and so we live and die often without knowing who we really are. If we ask ourselves why we think, feel, and act in such and such a way, we often have no answer, thus proving to be strangers in our own house.” [You Are the Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, by Henri J. M. Nouwen]
Jesus didn’t go to the cross for me or you to remain wallowing in fearful despair, regret, or sin. Nail those gifts from Satan to the cross, right now! Jesus longs to make his love known to us in the seclusion of our hearts, to free us from our fears, and to make our own deepest self known to us – even the parts we would like to hide. Only through Jesus can we come to know and love ourselves so that we might love as Jesus loved. Only then can we help others know and love themselves – free of their failures, regrets and the righteous hate, sadness, power, fear, and judgement that pervades our world.
That is the side of the cross I want to live on. It’s not far away at all – it is within me and you. The journey however won’t be easy. Jesus knows that well.
Just like those calves tasting life for the first time, amid the harsh landscape of their vulnerable reality, we need a savior to tend us. Jesus knows what seeks to destroy us from within and without and He will seek you out, yes, even you wandering wretchedly in the wilderness. Jesus will bring you safely home. Jesus gladly gives you His life to fend off the wolves and promises you a reordered, resurrected life – every single day you walk with Him.
That’s a promise that will stay with you for the rest of your journey down the highways and back roads of life. You won’t always frolic in the warm sun like those Easter calves, but you will always have Jesus shortening the miles between the life you live and the life God wants for you – life on Easter’s side of the cross.
Oh, and here’s one more for the road – a timeless guitar melody that will take you places fast! Don’t Look Back Turn it up and let it all go!
“Look at this: look! Who got picked by God! He listens the split second I call to him. Why is everyone hungry for more? “More, more,” they say. “More, more.” I have God’s more-than-enough. More joy in one ordinary day, than they get in all their shopping sprees. At day’s end I’m ready for sound sleep, for you, God, have put my life back together.” – Psalm 4: 3, 6-8The Message
Let your light so shine!
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
A Lenten Sermon
During this Lenten season, we’ve been hearing Martin Luther’s explanations of the Sacraments we as Lutherans celebrate. Tonight, as we reach the end of our Wednesday Evening Prayer Services, I will continue with the Sacrament of the Altar a.k.a Holy Communion.
It has been over a year since we last celebrated communion with our Lord together as one body. Yes, we have had the occasional virtual sharing of the body and blood of Christ – making do with a cracker or piece of toast and a blessed swig of our house wine or whatever we can find in the fridge while at the breakfast table or in front of the TV, but I will be honest with you – to me it seems a bit sacrilege and has left me feeling a bit empty. Most definitely, this long pandemic fast we have endured has made me hungry for the day we can be together again to share a blessed communion with one another, bound together by our common Baptism and a bond of love that reflects the love of Christ for us.
I have vivid memories of receiving and giving the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ throughout my life – from my very first communion as a newly confirmed 8th grader in my lace-trimmed white dress and black patent shoes surrounded by family and fellow formally dressed confirmands to the last time I served communion to my father on my last Sunday at our family’s church in Billings before I moved away. As I held my dad’s eyes and spoke the same words spoken by Christ – there was a love so deep and a common understanding between us that only God could create out a piece of bread and sip of wine. I have witnessed grown men cry as they came forward for this special meal, I have watched broken souls struggle through infirmities to come forward with the help of others, I myself have cried with tears of relief and tears of joy that I only feel after tasting the bread and drinking the wine.
Which begs the question that Luther asks:
How can bodily eating and drinking do such a great thing?
Eating and drinking certainly do not do it, but rather the words that are recorded: “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” These words, when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, “forgiveness of sin.”
But, you ask, weren’t we already offered and given forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism? Do we somehow lose that forgiveness so that we need to be re-forgiven, re-saved, resurrected to life again every week? What does that mean for us during a pandemic when we haven’t communed in over a year? Gasp! No forgiveness doesn’t work that way. What Jesus is offering you in Holy Communion is a RE–membering – a tangible reminder of his life and death. Not a memory that simply makes us think of Him but a memory that makes us members of His body. An intimate interaction with His presence. And where Christ is found, there is complete forgiveness – there and only there, whether you take the bread and wine this week or not.
What joins you to Christ is your faith in Him for the forgiveness of sins, faith that comes from hearing and living in His promise. Jesus called you to Him in the waters of your Baptism and through your faith in Jesus and His promise, your sins are counted – counted as forgiven – always and completely. But while God doesn’t keep a tally of your sins, the world and the devil do and they will do their level best to work against God and on you.
Your faith in God is a target. During His last days with them, Jesus told his disciples: “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) And He was right! You are literally surrounded by enemies who seek to sever your connection to Jesus, to pull you away from Him, and pull you away from God’s forgiveness and life. Who are your enemies? Who or what comes between you and God and keeps you from sharing God’s promises with the world and living the life that God wants for you?
Because Jesus knows what it is like to be human, to have our weaknesses tested and our faith tried, Jesus wasn’t content to give you only a once-in-a-lifetime Baptism. Jesus knew you would need more than that, something tangible – a symbolic reminder of His enduring presence and an open invitation to His mercy, grace, and love in the face of the world’s troubles and all that would pull you from Him. In remembering and celebrating the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, through the bread and wine, body and blood, He gathers your life and the lives of the world to Him.That is why Jesus, on the evening before he died, took bread saying, “This is my Body,” and took the cup saying, “This is my Blood.” “Do this in remembrance of me.”
I dare say there are a multitude of things vying for God’s place in your life right now. And you might – after a year most often described as one of separation, polarization, judgment, frustration, distrust, and hate – you might be feeling a bit unworthy of this great gift of God’s love.
Such thoughts were not foreign to Luther either. Indeed, he questioned this himself:
Who, then receives this sacrament worthily?
Fasting and bodily preparation are in fact a fine external discipline, but a person who has faith in these words, “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin,” is really worthy and well prepared. However, a person who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, because the words “for you” require truly believing hearts.
I think we have this fasting thing down pretty good – and we have been keeping our bodies well- prepped against ruthless invaders for over a year now – so that should make us worthy, right? Sure, that might make you LOOK worthy to others and FEEL worthy. But it isn’t very concrete. How can you be certain you have fasted enough or kept your body primed enough? So how do we define worthiness? It’s in our human nature to like lists and categories and systems that enable us to measure our success, align with the “right” group, and see others as not like us – you know – not worthy.
So here goes – where do you fit in? If you don’t have a single sin that needs forgiving, then by all means,don’t come taste and see. If you have no fear, no doubt, no weaknesses of the heart, then this bread for the journey is not for you. If your faith can’t be moved or shaken, if you’ve never thought only of yourself, if your “love for one another” is already perfect, and if you have had it with Jesus and feel no need for communion with Him, then this invitation isn’t for you. It probably isn’t going to mean much to you because this divine invitation is meant for sinners.
Who is worthy? Christ’s body and blood – His eternal presence – is for YOU. You who yearn to walk with Christ – but get tripped up every so often; you who long to be touched again by His sacrifice even when you can’t find the time to sacrifice for Him; you who long to receive forgiveness for all your sins from His wounded and outstretched hands all the while holding onto a grudge, and you who need His help in order to fulfill His command to love one another even though you have yet to love yourself.
If you feel the world pulling you away from God, if you know you need Christ and you know that all His forgiveness and all His strength is in here – in your heart – as you eat the bread and drink the wine of this Holy Communion, if you believe that you have been personally invited by your Savior to this feast for sinners, because you have, then come – taste and see. You are most certainly worthy and most certainly welcome.
Hope from the Ashes
The ashes I wore on my forehead in observance of Ash Wednesday weighed heavy on my thoughts and heart. I left our evening service feeling as dark and broken as the ashen cross smeared across my forehead.
I have been filled with much sadness, regret, guilt and shame since my brief but once so blessed marriage was annulled. There is heartbreak, a sense of deep loss, and a distinct absence of belonging – belonging to someone and finally belonging in a world that doesn’t always include the individual who is alone. I failed. He failed. We failed. Our relationship didn’t work. Our marriage was not the kind of marriage reflected in our vows before God and to one another. When one is more alone in marriage then they were when they were alone in life, the way forward is hard to discern. Trusting that God brought us together and trusting that He would see us through no matter the path we chose, we let each other go.
And yet, I could not let it go. For I was afraid. Not afraid of being alone – though that saddened me greatly – no, I was afraid of God – the retributive God that I had minded all of my days. How could I – me the ever faithful, chaser of God’s own heart- walk away from a covenant I made before God?
And so I wrestled, mightily. My life forever changed – condemned to a darkness one who believes should never know. I let the darkness get the better of me. I felt compelled to share the darkness of our situation and in so doing I gave more life to it. In hurt, anger, and shame I said things better left unspoken. I regret that. That is not who I am. I brought myself down and away from God. God knew the truth and that should have been enough for me.
I have felt separated from God and the life God intended for me ever since. I have transgressed from the way I have always strived to live my life – with perseverance and honor – striving only to share hope and shine God’s light into this world. Not dwell in darkness.
Yes, the ashes of Ash Wednesday felt heavy on my soul – long after they had been washed away. For a few hours, I bore the cross of Christ for all to see – while hanging on to my own cross of shame, regret, sin – at least that is what I thought my cross was about.
Later, as I was reflecting on the Words of Ash Wednesday, I realized that I seem to have forgotten the very faith that I profess, the very faith of which I preach the Good Life Saving News.
“God at the margins,
We have wandered far from your home;
again and again, we lose our way.
We turn inward, afraid of the world around us.
We forget that you have saved your people before
and promise to do so again.
Do not remember the deeds of our past,
but turn our faces toward the future,
where your forgiveness is sure,
your welcome is clear,
and your love overflows.
“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.” – from Psalm 51
Oh me, of little faith! The cross I bear is of my own making. The darkness I have held within me is my greatest sin. It has tamed and impoverished my life. I am the one who separated myself from God – He has never let go of me. God did not bring my marriage to an end but He will use every moment of that union and dissolution for good.
I have let fear, self-doubt, guilt, regret, disappointment, and wounds control my life. God did not put these stifling parameters on me. I let my brokenness embody my spirit rather than let the Holy Spirit embody me. I have let life go by me – afraid of what might come at me next.
The ashes weigh heavy. They remind me that life is fragile, finite, precious, and unpredictable. There are no guarantees on tomorrow and the past is but a memory – all we have is the beautiful, painful, everchanging now. God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in regret. He made that perfectly clear in the waters of my and your baptism. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. God is not my source of condemnation. He is my strength and my shield.
From the ashes God calls forth a question -Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? Well, if God can quote Mary Oliver – then so can I – I will pay attention, I will fall down into the grass, I will kneel down in the grass, and I will be idle and blessed – and revel in His presence. with a pure heart and a renewed steadfast spirit within me.
Strengthened I can let go of what I cannot change and focus on every single wild and precious day that lays before me. That is the life God wants for me and it will be good, Changed and strengthened – transformed by pain and redeemed by grace.
The light has shined in the darkness. Lord, have mercy on me.