Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A More Expansive Dance

Fr Thomas Keating told an apocryphal story about an elder monk on his hands and knees, combing through the grass in front of the hut that was his living quarters. A younger monk walking by asked, "Father, what are you doing?"

"Looking for my keys," replied the elder.

The young monk immediately got down on his hands and knees and began to comb through the grass.

Other monks passed by. Each stopped to ask what was going on and each received the same answer: "We're looking for Father's keys." Before long the expansive yard was full of monks crawling through the grass, looking for lost keys.

Finally, one of the monks who had joined the search gathered the courage to ask the obvious question which no one to that point had the nerve to ask: "Father, are you sure you lost your keys out here in the grass?"

"Oh no, my son," the older monk answered. "I lost my keys in the house. But since there is no light in the house, I thought I'd look out here in the sunshine."

When Fr Keating told the story, he would summarize the imaginary scene this way: "And that is the human condition. We are all looking for the keys to happiness where happiness cannot be found."

This is the perennial challenge of the spiritual life . . . to shift our center of orbit from all the ways, places, and things to which we look for fulfillment . . . to shift our orbit to the One who is the Center of all life. The shift is so difficult because we receive almost no cultural validation for making this shift. In fact, culturally we are encouraged to chase after all sorts of other things that promise happiness, but in the end cannot hold the weight of our being.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the center of life is not measured by your bank account . . . by the number of friends you have . . . by what others think of your work . . . by how mannerly -- or petulant -- you are . . . by the success you achieve.

For many of us, at issue is the way life itself, by its very nature, tends to sweep us up and carry us along, so that we feel carried along by a train whose destination was determined by someone else, and from which we cannot seem to get off.

In the daily run of life, it is so easy to believe that the thing right here before us is the only thing.

I remember in 1998 when my dad died . . . his death was the big thing squarely in front of me, demanding all the attention I could muster. Trying to be present for my mom, for my own children, for the funeral preparations which needed to be made, and still attend to my own grief, my orbit became very small, very focused on that which was right in front of me.

But I also had a couple of experiences that week around his funeral which said to me, "While my world has stopped at this place . . . while all I can see is this loss and the shape of life now in the aftermath . . . there are many others in the world who are completely unaffected by his death. For them, life is moving on."

It was a moment of revelation for me. My world had stopped. But the world did not stop for others. Life continued. At first, I railed inwardly about it: "My FATHER has died!! Can't you have some respect?!?! Can't you stop for a moment as I have stopped?!" When I realized what I was thinking, the lesson for me became clear: My life and existence so easily becomes the center of the entire universe, and actually I'm not the center at all.

Usually it takes the created world to remind me that life is happening always and everywhere, sustained by God, whether I am present to it or not . . . regardless of what concerns fill my life . . . no matter the deadlines I'm facing that feel as if they are pinching or the "pressing work" that calls for all my attention.

The waves of the surf will continue to roll in and out, no matter what my life is like today.

The river which slices through these mountains will continue to sing whether I am sitting there to listen or not.

These deer grazing by the roadside will go on finding their own "daily bread" whether I meet my deadline or not.

The lush green woods will lose their leaves, but then produce them again, far apart from whatever I think is important in my life.

Thomas Merton described what he called the General Dance or the Cosmic Dance . . . the dance of the world which humans often miss, as we are consumed with the far smaller dances of our own creation . . . shuffling papers . . . tinkering with websites . . . posting for "likes" on social media . . . building the life we imagine we are supposed to have . . . crippled by anxiety over political and denominational realities.

The things that mostly consume us are too small . . . they are not substantial enough to hold the weight of your being. They are dances we have learned from culture, from those who tell us what we should dance around. Most of them are completely disconnected from the Cosmic Dance.

Read Merton's words as he describes this larger dance, then spend some time meditating on them over several days.

What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash – at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.

[Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp. 296-297]

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Resurrection Sunday: Let Him Easter in Us

For a week or so I’ve been drawn to the Gerard Manley Hopkins line, “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness in us.” I’m reconsidering its meaning this year.

I first saw the line in a Catholic bookstore at an Iowa retreat center 20 years ago. Hopkins’ words were incorporated into the mission statement of a female religious order in the Midwest, and one of the Sisters of the order had painted the line in watercolor, beautifully depicting the phrase in a way that caught my eye. I’ve kept the framed work in a place where I can see it almost daily since that time.

All these years, I’ve been moved by the novelty of Hopkins’ use of “easter” as a verb, an action word. Again this Holy Week, I’ve played around with what “let him easter in us” might mean. At the moment, I only have hints and guesses. For now, I’m exploring.

A couple of days ago, I randomly connected Hopkins’ line with a familiar verse from Mary Oliver. Surely to “let him easter in us” has something to do with life and vibrancy.

The Mary Oliver question which came to mind in my pondering simply asks: “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

The line comes squarely in the center of her lengthy, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches,” a poem which invites us to a more vibrant, alive existence by getting out of our self-focus and into the lives of things around us: The long branches of young locust trees in early summer, or the sea, or the grass.

She writes:

And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?
Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!

And then:

For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!

It has occurred to me this week that “breathing just a little and calling it a life” is not the same as letting him easter in us.

Further, this week I am holding the tension of reconciliation as I ponder “let him easter in us.” Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 5 that this was Christ’s work in the world, reconciling the world. I assume this work continues in an even greater way post-Resurrection. Christ eastering in us and in the world surely has something to do with reconciliation, making right the divisions and factions that exist within us, among us, and in the world.

Reconciliation is making right, making peace. The dictionary definition says “to restore to friendship or harmony,” so it includes a work of restoration.

Many times I am like the political leaders who urge oneness and harmony among partisans, but who really mean, “There will only be oneness and harmony if you come to my position on this issue, if you see things my way, if you adopt my value system.” This is a sham of harmony and has nothing to do with reconciliation.

Authentic reconciliation stands in the center and holds all the sides, all the partisans, all the variances together. Again, Paul said that in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no rich or poor, no slave or free, but all are one in Christ. So it sounds like, when I take one position or another – and believe me, I definitely have my firmly-held positions!! – I’m in no place to reconcile. If I am in one position or another, dug in, I’m no longer able to reconcile, to bring together. I may be entrenched, but not in a place of restoring friendship and harmony.

From that place, people in the “opposing camp” become “elites” or “snowflakes,” or they become “a basket of deplorables.” Reconciliation cannot happen there.

It seems to me that reconciliation somehow holds both (or all) the extremes together, in order to work toward healing and oneness. This is strenuous work, and requires that we get outside of ourselves, that we take on a new mind, that our lives are oriented as “the mind of Christ.”

It is a bogus oneness to say that we all need to come together as one nation or one denomination or one whatever, while advocating that everyone needs to agree with me . . . that only if others come to my position can there be oneness. This is a pseudo-oneness, a sham of reconciliation.

To reconcile is to make peace, to live into a wholeness which transcends one position or another position. To make peace – shalom – brings completeness . . . making peace and restoring friendship with God . . . making peace among the scattered parts of ourselves, befriending our own lives again . . . making peace with others, especially those with whom we disagree.

Are some causes unjust? Certainly!

Are other causes worth fighting for? Definitely!

But in every case, we are invited to follow Christ, whose work was reconciling the world to God . . . to be reconcilers, to make peace, to listen to the other, to treat the other with respect and friendship, to work toward shalom . . . the invitation stands for those who are post-Resurrection disciples.

Let him easter in us. At some level, at least in my thinking today, Christ eastering in us means we join him in his work of reconciling the world.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Holy Saturday: On Tombs, Prisoners, and Antelopes in the Grass

On Christmas Day 2018, I opened a gift from my son, the junior high principal, the poet. It was a hardback edition of a William Stafford book of poetry (the softcover edition having been on my bookshelf for many years).

But this one different, and not just that its cover was hard. On the title page was Stafford’s signature, a luminous find in the mammoth Powell’s Bookstore of Downtown Portland – likely landing there after Stafford’s teaching career at local Lewis and Clark College.

Tears filled my eyes, because I have a son who thinks about these things, who loves poetry and literature.

And tears filled my eyes as I randomly opened the pages and read whatever my eyes fell upon, moved again by Stafford’s utter simplicity and by his way of jumping into the stream and letting the current take him wherever it would. He had no sense of building to a great crescendo in his poems, just tracking along to see where the poem led, as if each line were some golden thread which the reader could hold onto and trace to something else that might arise in his or her imagination.

I sat among grandchildren -- busily devouring gifts amidst loud laughter and chatter -- quietly reading along in Stafford, choking back the Christmas tears.

This is one of the poems that had my address on it, and still does . . . maybe because it explores themes I’ve often pondered for myself . . . and maybe because it is sufficiently unresolved to remind me of my life.

On this Holy Saturday, I give William Stafford’s poem about tight spaces, prisoners, and antelopes in the grass to you.

A Message from the Wanderer
William Stafford

Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.

Years ago I bent my skill to keep my
cell locked, had chains smuggled to me in pies,
and shouted my plans to jailers;
but always new plans occurred to me,
or the new heavy locks bent hinges off,
or some stupid jailer would forget
and leave the keys.

Inside, I dreamed of constellations –
those feeding creatures outlined by stars,
their skeletons a darkness between jewels,
heroes that exist only where they are not.

Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as – often, in light, on the open hills –
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then – even before you see –
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.

That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.

Now – these few more words, and then I’m
gone: Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way –
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.

There will be that form in the grass.

[William Stafford, Stories That Could Be True (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 9.]

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Good Friday: Praying with Psalm 14

Here is a psalm for prayer as you move into Good Friday.

Norman Fischer's book of psalms, Opening to You, combines beautiful poetry with a gentle spirit which renders the prayers in striking images. His work is my go-to when I want to see the psalms differently and pray them honestly. I highly recommend Opening to You.

Psalm 14
Norman Fischer

The useless fool says in his heart
“God is nothing”
People are corrupt, do only harm
Not one does good unselfishly, not one

You gaze down from the highest
Upon humankind in the middle
To see if there is one person with eyes
One with understanding
One capable of seeing your seeing

But they are all gone bad
All turned sour and blind
There is none who knows good
Not one

Is there not even a speck of understanding
In all the world of blind heedlessness
Among those who eat up others as if they were bread
And do not even know their own hearts
Or a single true word?

But they become terrified even within their terror
When they see you burning in the circle of goodness
Shining out of the eyes of the lowly and the poor
Showing your holiness in their defeat
Your invincible power at the center of their weakness

O that someone might come out of Zion
To bring freedom to the strugglers!

When you capture the people again
The sojourners will be glad
And the strugglers will rejoice with strong singing

[Norman Fischer, “Psalm 14,” Opening to You (New York: Penguin Compass, 2002), p. 17.]

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

In the Living Years

The Rich Man and Lazarus
Luke 16:19-31

19 Jesus said, “There was a certain rich man who was splendidly clothed in purple and fine linen and who lived each day in luxury. 20 At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. 21 As Lazarus lay there longing for scraps from the rich man’s table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores.

22 “Finally, the poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and he went to Hades, the place of the dead. There, in torment, he saw Abraham in the far distance with Lazarus at his side.

24 “The rich man shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in anguish in these flames.’

25 “But Abraham said to him, ‘Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides, there is a great chasm separating us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.’

27 “Then the rich man said, ‘Please, Father Abraham, at least send him to my father’s home. 28 For I have five brothers, and I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment.’

29 “But Abraham said, ‘Moses and the prophets have warned them. Your brothers can read what they wrote.’

30 “The rich man replied, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent of their sins and turn to God.’

31 “But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Jesus often teaches in parables. He tells stories which serve to illumine something about the way life is ordered when we are connected to God in life-giving ways. Sometimes the images are all positive, speaking in affirming ways about our God-connection. Other parables include examples of persons who sleep through invitations to a life of meaning and fullness. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus falls into the latter category.

As stories which impart spiritual wisdom, parables are not to be taken at face value. Most often, these spiritual stories are layered, nuanced, and invite a different kind of seeing. To read and understand them at a surface level may allow the hearer to have some understanding of what the parable is trying to say; however, a surface reading will also miss many of the undercurrents flowing beneath the story’s surface.

These undercurrents are suggested by symbols and images which show up in parabolic language. Much as you would do in dream-work, it is helpful to notice the symbols, to trace their meanings, to track where they lead, and to explore the multiple meanings held within a single symbol or image. This kind of investigative work will allow you to find the place where your own soul resonates with some idea or some invitation in the parable.

(Your soul’s language is most often not a verbal language, but a language of images and symbols. You will recognize in your own dreams that what you most remember are not the words spoken in your dream, but the wild symbols and images which point beyond themselves to deeper realities within yourself and in the world.)

So given all this background, I’ll say that the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is not first of all a commentary on the afterlife. The story is not trying to give a description of heaven, or the place of the dead, or any aspect of life after death. Thus, the story does not make a statement about whether there are different levels to which people go after death, nor is it about whether people can communicate across “chasms” after death. The story is basically about our living years. In the landscape of this parable, the “after death” aspect simply sets up a teaching about the way to live life with God in a way which gives life to the world.

Second, when looking at the parable, you do well to notice the many symbols in the story as Jesus tells it. Rich images appear everywhere. In working with the story, I made nearly a page-long list of the images contained in it. I spent some time following the trail of some images that seemed most crucial to the wisdom of this teaching story.
• rich
• poor
• Abraham
• Abraham’s bosom
• far distance
• great chasm
• death
• Hades (place of the dead)
• clothed in purple and fine linen
• lived luxury
• dogs
• sores
• gate
• scraps
• rich man’s table
• dip finger in water
• cool my tongue
• agony
• fire
• good things
• bad things
• send Lazarus
• five brothers
• Moses and the prophets
• rises from the dead

These images enliven the story and allow the reader to explore it for himself or herself.

The point of the parable seems to be about how we live now, in our living years, in light of death and the afterlife. How do we use our goods and our riches? How do we see our “resources”? Are we generous, miserly, hospitable, protective?

The Bible does not throw blanket condemnations on wealth and riches. Neither does it subscribe to the prosperity theory that God wants everyone to have an abundance of worldly riches . . and it certainly doesn’t teach that faithfulness to God = material blessings, which is a distortion of the Gospel.

In fact, while the Church has been obsessed with matters of sexuality – it seems like forever – the scriptures are much more concerned with the dangers of money and possessions. I sense that many of us are more comfortable demonizing certain elements of sexuality because we can objectify them or pretend we are not interested. But acquiring a lot of money not only is socially acceptable, it is encouraged, seen as a sign of ambition, drive, and creativity. But I digress . . .

In the parable, the Rich Man hides behind gates and doors, without interacting with the world’s need, which is personified by Lazarus. If not a picture of miserliness, at least the Rich Man is a symbol of self-protection, of luxury, of an “eat, drink, and be merry” lifestyle that lives oblivious to others or their needs. In the Rich Man’s world, the other does not even exist.

As I pointed out above, this story has a treasure trove of rich images . . . doors and gates . . . purple, fine linens versus body-sores and dog’s saliva . . . finest foods versus hunger . . . Father Abraham . . . life and death . . . chasms, separation, and alienation . . . the place of the dead . . . fire and water . . . luxurious excess or scraps from the table . . . on and on it goes. Any and all of the symbols are worth exploring.

The story portrays two rich persons . . . or even three, if you consider some of the alternative ways Lazarus was rich other than in possessions. (Each of us is rich in some way . . . just not always financially. In fact, sometimes financial wealth is the most impoverished state of all. Many persons are impoverished in compassion, or peace, or contentment, or generosity, or hospitality . . . you see how it goes.)

One man in the story is labeled “Rich Man” and he is portrayed in a negative light. But Abraham is also a wealthy man – the Hebrew scriptures describe his vast holdings of livestock . . . he was a wealthy man in his time – and it is Abraham who makes a place for Lazarus in his heart. He is a wealthy person who is generous, who opens himself to the other. He stands in contrast to the Rich Man who feasts solo behind closed doors and locked gates.

The parable turns on the Rich Man’s insistence that had he known better, his life would have been different . . . and at the very least, that his family should be warned so their fate will not be the same as his. There is no repentance, no real change of heart, just the thought – occurring too often among the privileged – that someone else should do something in order to alleviate their suffering.

But the moral of the parable is that everything you need to live a life of compassion and generosity has already been given. In the frame of the story, Moses and the prophets – especially the 8th century prophets – advocated compassion and kindness for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. If you don’t heed their call, you will not heed even someone who rises from the dead (see what Jesus did in that twist?).

There are many ways to slice the parable. I’ll leave most of them for you to explore. But I’ll suggest this basic question, which the story seems to ask in a most pronounced way: “Are you are child of Abraham (gracious, welcoming, generous) or are you a child of the world (gate-making, door-locking, door-not-opening, shielding, guarding, protecting, indulging)?”

Monday, March 11, 2019

Fasting, Pacifiers, and the Voices in Your Head

While I came late to the seasons of the Church calendar, still I’ve followed their rhythm for over 35 years. Especially as a minister, preacher, and worship leader, I’m challenged year after year to find new ways to think about Advent . . . or to envision Lent . . . or to celebrate Resurrection. There are only so many ways to twist the prism, only so many times I can lean into my reliable, stand-by descriptions of the seasons.

So I’ve been enlivened in recent days by Barbara Brown Taylor’s short essay on Lenten disciplines. I’ve followed her writing and preaching for several years. She is compelling and stretching, writing with honesty about the spiritual journey by offering fresh images for envisioning life connected deeply to God. I’ve read a number of her books . . . both Leaving Church and An Altar in the World have impacted me in huge ways. But for some reason, I had missed her essay on Lent until recently. Today, she is my teacher.

She writes with Luke 4:1-13 in the background, the account of Jesus fasting in the wilderness for 40 days before being tempted. Then she likens Lenten practices to being left in the wilderness by yourself for 24 hours, a common practice among men’s rite-of-passage groups and some wilderness adventure expeditions. The aim in that kind of boundary experience is to place you at the edges of what you know, to push you to see your own life differently, and to come to some deeper sense of what is beneath all the machinations and projections that are part of our daily life.

The Lenten name we would give to this kind of stripped-down experience is fasting. As Brown Taylor says,

That is when you find out who you are. That is when you find out what you really miss and what you really fear. Some people dream about their favorite food. Some long for a safe room with a door to lock and others just wish they had a pillow; but they all find out what their pacifiers are – the habits, substances, or surroundings they use to comfort themselves, to block out the pain and fear that are normal parts of being human.

I’ve long recognized that each of us have personalized patterns for dealing with life when we feel things are out of control. We are aware that when Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, we are especially vulnerable. Usually in those states, we’ll reach for something that brings comfort – that’s why we call some foods “comfort foods” – in order to escape the more difficult realities that rise up from within us. We’ll do most anything to not face our own selves.

I have my default habits, behaviors, and addictions, just as you do. Brown Taylor says she is convinced that 99% of us are addicted to something. I think the percentage is even higher . . . taking the form of eating, drinking, shopping, blaming, substances, entertainment, busyness.

Brown Taylor calls these things pacifiers. I think it’s a marvelous image.

That hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered throne room of the Lord our God. Nothing on earth can fill it, but that does not stop us from trying. Whenever we start feeling too empty inside, we stick pacifiers into our mouths and suck for all we are worth. They do not nourish us, but at least they plug the hole.

When you are dropped by the adventure group into the middle of the wilderness, you have left all these pacifiers behind. No more mac and cheese to soothe your anxiety . . . no glass of wine after work to take off the edge . . . no comfortable bed for an escaping nap . . . no strip-center down the street to look for the blouse that would take away your blues . . . no movie theater in which to lose your life in someone else’s story. It’s just you in that place, stripped down and vulnerable, the real self hungry-angry-lonely-tired.

This is Lent, forty days of this stripping down, forty days of saying “No!” to that one thing which pretends to make everything better . . . but which actually just pushes all the ugly inner stuff beneath the surface yet again.

Nothing is too small to give up. Even a chocolate bar will do. For forty days, simply pay attention to how often your mind travels in that direction. Ask yourself why it happens when it happens. What is going on when you start craving a Mars bar? Are you hungry? Well, what is wrong with being hungry? Are you lonely? What is so bad about being alone? Try sitting with the feeling instead of fixing it and see what you find out.

There is nothing magical about Lenten practices. Giving up chocolate for Lent is a worthwhile gesture for several reasons, but a.) if chocolate is not a pacifier for you, and b.) if you are not reflective about what it feels like to resist reaching for the candy bar when you feel stressed, then you might as well spend your time in some other productive pursuits for Lent.

On the other hand, if chocolate (or whatever happens to be your addiction of choice) IS your pacifier, and if you ARE reflective about what it feels like to go without that thing, then asking yourself the questions Barbara Brown Taylor suggests above is a good place to begin.

Of course, our inner voices chatter away, counseling moderation, urging us to back off such asceticism, reminding us of our commitment to never look as if we’re holier-than-thou. This is how she ends her Lenten essay.

Chances are you will hear a voice in your head that keeps warning you what will happen if you give up your pacifier. “You’ll starve. You’ll go nuts. You won’t be you anymore.” If that does not work, the voice will move to level two: “That’s not a pacifier. That’s a power tool. Can’t you tell the difference?” If you do not fall for that one, there is always level three: “If God really loves you, you can do whatever you want. Why waste your time on this dumb exercise?”

If you do not know who that voice belongs to, read Luke’s story again. Then tell the devil to get lost and decide what you will do for Lent. Better yet, decide whose you will be. Worship the Lord your God and serve no one else. Expect great things, from God and from yourself. Believe that everything is possible. Why should any of us settle for less?

[All quotes from Barbara Brown Taylor, “Lenten Discipline,” Home by Another Way (Lanham, Maryland: Cowley Publications, 1999), pp. 65-68.]

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Beginning Lent in Humanity

Shrove Tuesday

Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. Many of us will attend a church service in which ashes are marked upon our foreheads. We will hear the traditional Ash Wednesday litany that reminds us, “Remember, from dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.”

I will be with the Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Rogers, wearing a ministerial robe and clerical stole, standing in 36 degree temperatures, waiting in a parking lot in Downtown Rogers, Arkansas, to impose ashes on the foreheads of those who drive by.

The car pulls up. “What is your name?”


“Maria, remember your creation in God . . . from dust God created you . . . and remember your humanity . . . to dust you shall return.” The car drives away.

It seems a bit mundane, imposing ashes as people pull up in their cars, rather than in the formality of an Ash Wednesday service in a beautiful Chapel somewhere.

Yet, what better way to remember our humanity, to be reminded of our clay feet, than in the run of everyday life?

“Honey, I’m running to the grocery store and the post office. And oh, between, I’m stopping to get marked with ashes.”

It’s a powerful symbol of one central aspect of our humanity, the “dust” that will always be part of who we are.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” is simply a formal way to say, “You’re human and always will be, so don’t forget it!”

Too much perverted spirituality claims you can rise above your humanity . . . that spiritual practices can root out your human nature permanently . . . that you can overcome your humanity and rise to some exalted spiritual sphere where you don’t have to deal with everyday life any more.

In fact, that very illusion is carried by many who embark on an intentional spiritual path. They want to eradicate their impulses to control and envy and greed. They want a check on their egocentric longings and manipulations. They want to be better. They want to move beyond “sin.” The motive may be sound, but no matter how hard we try, we will never escape our humanness.

Lent begins with this reminder of our humanity. We are human. Dust. Clay. Too often weak and conflicted.

But we are also created in God’s image, created with God’s own DNA woven into our being, created for union with God, created to live in the fullness of our God-connection.

It is important that Lent begins this way . . . with this reminder of our humanity. Many of us take up some special practice for Lent, or we step into Lent intending to fast something . . . food or drink or a compulsive habit.

Some of us, for example, will vow to give up sweets, or more specifically chocolates, for Lent. Or we give up some kind of drink, perhaps alcohol. Or, if our own anger or envy is a particular issue for us, we will give up an afflictive emotion for Lent.

I realize that often I give up something for Lent that seems rather inconsequential. I can easily give up sweets, including chocolate, for Lent and will it come as no great sacrifice for me. Even something which comes nearer to addiction – my morning cup of coffee or evening glass of wine – still seems to be skimming the surface of Lent’s intention.

While there is something to be said for any form of fasting in which we say, “No!” to ourselves, there are some practices that seem to touch us more deeply than others.

Honestly, sometimes I wonder if we undertake practices for Lent that are more inconvenience than actual fasts because we want to do something for Lent at which we can succeed. Afraid that we might bale out three days into fasting some weightier afflictive emotion or addictive obsession, we opt for the thing we can accomplish, the fast at which we can succeed.

“How could I possibly tame my ego or lay aside my pride for seven weeks?”
“What would life be like if I didn’t have to worry all the time?”
“It is not possible for me to go a day without judging someone else.”
“I could not possibly spend 40 days without being critical, so why begin . . . why even try?”

We miss the point. Lent begins with this simple, earthy affirmation of our humanity: “You are dust” . . . loved dust, cherished dust, beyond-all-worth dust . . . but still, dust.

The point is not that you will mess up, that you will fall short. That is assumed already. The point is that you acknowledge when you do stumble . . . that you learn something about yourself, and about yourself in God, and about yourself in relation to others . . . that you get back “on the bicycle” after you fall and then keep going . . . that you find yourself loved and beheld, even as you fall . . . and that through it all, you come to experience that no amount of human failure can disqualify you from love.

If you begin Lent truly hearing and believing that you are dust, beloved dust, then you can go ahead and take on the improbable or the impossible in your life . . . you can endeavor to address the thing that most holds you in its grasp, knowing that no matter each Lenten day’s outcome, you are never disqualified from the journey and never outside the reach of love.

The visitor asked the monk, “What do you do here at the monastery all day long?”

The elder monk replied, “We fall down and get up . . . fall down and get up . . . fall down and get up.”