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Dust

27 Feb
Photo via Flickr user John

Photo via Flickr user John

Our church has three Ash Wednesday services, one of which is a family service. The children’s choir sings, and the pastor sets a bowl of palms on fire during the sermon, burning them into ashes. Each family is given a Lenten daily devotional book full of prayers created by children. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

Families come up together to receive a blessing, and then the family members place ashes on each other. I stood at a station blessing families, watching them remind each other of their dust-i-ness. As families filed up to the altar, the sanctuary was charged with love, affection, humility, mindfulness and a touch of melancholy.

My spouse approached my station with our sleeping three-month old son in his arms. I started crying while blessing us:

Holy God, we praise you for sending your Son into the world to show us how much you love us. Bless us with your grace and strengthen us in faith, now and always. We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

I continued crying as I placed my pointer finger into the bowl of ashes and made the sign of the cross on his little forehead:

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Dan and I exchange ashes, and I was filled with gratitude for this life we are given, this moment of consciousness together on earth as the dust brought our mortality undeniably into focus. I was not filled with fear of our dust-i-ness, but filled with wonder of the depth of goodness that occurs between dust and dust.

Just a year ago, I sat by myself during the family service, watching parents place ashes on their children’s foreheads. I didn’t go up to a station to get blessed. I didn’t want to place ashes on myself. I waited for the next service that wasn’t so focused on children. We were living in the grief of two miscarriages, and exhausted, sad and lonely, I leaned hard on God. Alone in the pew, I laid my heart bare to God. It was an Ash Wednesday and Lent that felt comforting, appropriate, raw and honest to me in my melancholy, in my grief. We are dust. We are human. We are dependent, like children, on our God.

I kissed my baby’s warm, soft cheek before they returned to their pew, and my heart sang with joy. Here is this person, given to us to care for for a short time. He is such a gift, and the ashes on his forehead, sitting right between his bright blue eyes on his tiny, innocent face reminded us that there was nothing and now there is something, and that something is so good. It reminded us of our need for God who gives us life now and promises life for us forever.

What Else?

20 Feb
via Flickr user Mufidah Kassalias

via Flickr user Mufidah Kassalias

Another day, a man stopped Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus said, “Why do you question me about what’s good? God is the One who is good. If you want to enter the life of God, just do what he tells you.” The man asked, “What in particular?” Jesus said, “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you do yourself.” The young man said, “I’ve done all that. What’s left?”

“If you want to give it all you’ve got,” Jesus replied, “go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me.” That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crestfallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go.

–Matthew 19:16-22

I identify with the young man in this story, so much so that I have to chuckle. I am a doer, an achiever, one who wants to earn God’s love and promises on my own accord. In school and more recently as an employee, I acted like this young man, saying to my teachers and supervisors, “Ok, done. Did that. Checklist complete. What’s next? What else can I do?” Read: How can I show you even more how competent, efficient and productive I am and thus gain your respect and approval?

I even acted like the young man in Matthew 19 during Lent. I got good at giving things up as a young girl. When I was twelve I gave up soda and candy and eating between meals. It was easy. So then decided to give things up and do more good. For example, one Lent I sent a nice note to someone different every day in addition to giving up everything I thought to be a vice. Look at me go, God.

The young man in Matthew goes so far as to treat the Ten Commandments like a checklist. Check, check, check. Got it. Now what? What else can I do? What is next? I, like this young man, was looking to Jesus for the same rewards I got from my teachers and bosses. Jesus, like he so often does in his ministry, elevates the conversation. He let’s me and the young man know that we are not even playing the right game. Following Jesus requires a lighter load.

The season of Lent is a time that invites us to downshift our lives. We take a deep breath, look around, and take stock of what we are holding tightly and what we can’t bear to let go. Jesus gives us a hint that it’s probably the wrong stuff, and it’s the stuff that is limiting us from following him. For years, I couldn’t bear to let go of my accomplishments. I clung to my competence and my ability to do do do more and do it well. And when I was finished, I’d go back to see what else there was for me to do. I don’t need to let go of chocolate and add more to my Good Samaritan to-do list. This Lent, I am praying about playing the wrong game. It’s not about doing more. What I cling to is doing more. For me, it is about embracing the being part of human being. Following Jesus means letting go of the spiritual checklist to be more free to love.

Sin of Hiding

13 Feb

In my undergraduate program, a fellow religion major wrote her thesis on the shadow side of Augustine’s Confessions. The sin of arrogance, for example, has a shadow side: the sin of hiding. It has stuck with me because at times Augustine’s writing is easy for me to dismiss in my personal life. My struggles are different than his. Like Aristotle’s virtues, it’s helpful for me to remember that there are two ditches to avoid, the excess and the deficiency. After reading through Matthew 6 with high school students

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

I asked them, “Do you know any showy Christians?” I got a resounding affirmative, accompanied by groans and eye rolls. “Okay, what does that look like in your world, when Christians are showy?”

“There are people in my school who are really vocal about their faith on Twitter and can go over the top. It seems a little inauthentic because it is just words.”

“Or the kids who hang out with people who drink but need everyone to know that they don’t drink, like they are better somehow.”

“How about the football players who gather to pray in the middle of the field? It makes me wonder if people of different faiths feel excluded.”

I wondered, due to the strength of their negative reaction, if in their quest to not be showy, they were hiding. I didn’t even have to raise the idea of a shadow side. One young woman pushed back, “Is there a difference between showing off and being authentic? Aren’t there times when it is appropriate to claim your story and beliefs publicly?”

We talked about how, as a group, we tend to be good at taking verses like Matthew 6:16-18 seriously. We can take it too far, as stoic Scandinavians, and hide. We use passages like this one to justify our hiding. I’m guilty of it. Sometimes I write safe, not venturing into controversial territory so as to not offend. Telling people that I teach theology, what I see assumptions and projections in their nonverbal, subtle reactions makes me want to downplay my role to the next person. I let the showy Christians have the floor. But there is room for my story, there is space for my beliefs if I am brave enough to come out of hiding.

In Matthew 6 we talk about using oil while fasting instead of looking somber. Today social media raises new questions about the heart of the verse in our quest to follow Jesus’ teaching. The #UseMeInstead campaign is one example, or maybe we’ll see another round of #Ashtag next week. Where is the line between acts of integrity and acts of arrogance using our faith for good versus using our faith for harm? Where is the line between my public faith and my private practice? Knowing my tendencies, it’s important for me to remember that there is a tension to be sought day in and day out between the sin of arrogance and the sin of hiding.

Gospel Reflection for January 4, 2015, Epiphany

30 Dec

Sunday Readings: Isaiah 60.1-6; Ephesians 3.2-3,5-6; Matthew 2.1-12

“The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child was.”

Matthew 2.9

MagiMatthew’s stories of Jesus’ birth don’t mention the manger, the swaddling clothes, the shepherds, or angels singing in the sky. Matthew gives us journeyers for whom a star in the sky sets them on an earthly journey. The great thing about being human is that we can always change.  Conversion, turning toward or turning away, is a capacity we have. We can become more and respond to mystery. We simply have to look up, see the star that is calling us, find some traveling companions, and set out. The divine awaits the seeker on every horizon.

What new horizon summons you?

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Gospel Reflection for November 23, 2014, Feast of Christ the King

19 Nov

Sunday scripture readings: Ezekiel 34.11-12,15-17; 1 Corinthians 15.20-26,28; Matthew 25.31-46

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

Matthew 25.37-40

Matthew’s gospel places the judgment of the nations immediately before Jesus’ passion in the flow of the gospel narrative.  In his passion Jesus himself becomes the least among us, suffering the kind of execution aimed to shame and subdue rebellious slaves.  Sunday’s parable invites us to recognize Jesus is all those who suffer.

In whom that you know do you see Jesus suffering?

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Gospel Reflection for November 16, 2014, 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

11 Nov

“Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter, so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.'”

Matthew 25.24-25

One talent is equivalent to 6,000 denarii. One denarius is the standard day’s wage for a worker in Jesus’ time. Anyone who works six days a week for one denarius a day earns 340 denarii a year. An ordinary laborer would work 17 years to earn one talent. The master in Sunday’s gospel entrusts his servants with incredible wealth.

Each human person receives the priceless windfall of life itself. We each have life without having caused ourselves to be. Our ancestors have invested themselves in relationships and efforts that bring us to full adulthood. Jesus invested his life in the human race, identifying with us totally unto death, opening to us all we can become in God. How do we use these extravagant down payments on ourselves?

What is one of the most valuable ways you have invested your life energies in our world and its people?

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Gospel Reflection for October 26, 2014, 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

21 Oct

“Teacher, which commandment is greatest?”  

Matthew 22.36

Gospel love is not an idea or an emotion but an imperative–a call to act.  The two great commandments–to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves–recognize that acts of love weave us into community, just as selfish and violent acts fray the social fabric.  The commandments are more than rules to keep and thereby gain heaven.  The actions to which they call us are the hammer and nails of Christians community.”

Who that you once treated as an alien or no-good have you treated as a neighbor?  With what result?

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Recover Your Life

17 Oct
via Flckr user Ali Catterall

via Flickr user Ali Catterall

What do I need to do to make it to heaven?

How do I be first?

I want one of my sons to sit on your right and one on your left in the kingdom of heaven.

Who is the greatest among us?

I’ve done all that, what am I missing?

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, the people just don’t quite get it. Frantically, they try to identify the hoops they need to jump through to assure their salvation. They want assurance. They want homework to check off. Heaven will be their gold star. Jesus keeps presenting tricky, paradoxical parables where things aren’t fair. Workers get the same wages without working the same amount as the others. It’s maddening. Jesus doesn’t answer our questions with what we want to hear.

I can’t blame these people in Matthew in the slightest, for I have similar instincts daily. We are all striving for the good life, now and later, and we can forget that God uses power, rewards, forgiveness and love differently than humans. It’s not about working harder and getting more gold stars on our chart. It’s not about being first in this world and checking to make sure God is watching. It’s frustrating because a lot of us kid ourselves into thinking we are pretty good at that game. But then, if we can sit in God’s love for just a second, we hear the good news:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” –Matthew 11:28-30

These verses are my learning edge. No one has ever had to tell me to work harder. Ever. I’m a prime candidate to perpetually fall into the spin cycle of work and life. I get frantic. And when I catch myself in franticness, I also know I am in a space of proving myself, of not feeling enough. It’s exhausting, this striving. My work is to stop working so hard from that place and feel the tempo of grace. It’s not a tempo that comes from laziness. It’s a tempo that comes from a deep place of peace, worthiness, and love. It’s recognizing the ill-fitting and learning to walk freely and lightly with Christ. I don’t have to walk on my knees for miles to prove that I am good. I just have to believe that God loves me and work joyfully from that place of peace.

I’m tired and worn out, and I know it is time to recover my life, to find real rest, and to once again attempt to learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

Gospel Reflection for October 19, 2014, 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

15 Oct

“Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

Matthew 22.20

In Sunday’s gospel Jesus confronts a worldview about who images God–Caesar or the human person.  Jesus insists we cannot keep separate our obligations to God and those to government.  God blesses and calls us to integrate the spheres of our lives and image the One who made us.

Christians image God by helping people who are poor, caring for the abused and sick, visiting the imprisoned, grieving with those who mourn, and listening attentively to those who ache.  Our advocacy for just and compassionate government policies toward the poor, toward health care, education, and immigration are examples of how we carry the image of God into the civil sphere.

How do you see God imaged in yourself?

Sunday Scripture Readings: Isaiah 45.1,4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-5; Matthew 22.15-21

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Gospel Reflection for October 12, 2014, 28th Sunday Ordinary Time

8 Oct

“I have prepared my banquet…everything is ready. Come to the feast.”

Matthew 22.4

Christians today don’t catch on readily to Matthew’s allegory. For first-century Jews, both Christian Jews and rabbinic Jews, the Jewish-Roman war that destroyed the temple was a watershed event. Until then, rabbinic Jews who studied the Torah in synagogues and Christian Jews who broke bread in Jesus’ name in house churches came together for temple feasts. With the temple gone, differences between the two groups sharpened. The community for whom Matthew writes lives in the midst of this conflict.

Over the centuries Christians have wrongly seen in Matthew’s allegory reason to persecute Jewish people. Matthew connects the parable to events in his time. The parable will say more to us today without these details. The parable is first and foremost the story of a man who prepares a great feast and wants others to share it.

What do you do with abundant leftovers?

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