This Lent artist Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ, and Sister Joan are praying the Gospels in words and images. You can join them by going to our homepage, goodgroundpress.com, and clicking on the Sunday Gospel images there. This coming Sunday is the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. Share this retreat with your parish by printing goodgroundpress.com in your church bulletin.
Today is Ash Wednesday, one of the most popular holy days in the church year. Most of us will try to get to church during the day to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads. If you are unable to do that, use this prayer service to begin Lent.
Gather with your family or in a communal space in your building or with other friends and neighbors. You can create ashes by burning some palm from last year’s Palm Sunday, or a small piece of paper or fabric. All you need for the prayer service is someone to lead and someone to read the scripture.
Leader: Loving God, be with us as we begin the holy season of Lent.
All: Loving God, be with us.
Reader: St. Paul tells us “God has sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts. The Spirit urges us from deep inside to say, ‘Abba, my father.’ We are no longer slaves. We are God’s sons and daughters.”
Leader: During Lent we want to grow closer to you, Abba, our father, and to be more loving to one another. These ashes are a sign of the commitments we make to keep Lent.
Pass the dish of ashes around. Each person dips his or her thumb in the ashes and makes a cross on the forehead of the person on his/her right, saying:
__________ you are a child of God. Make loving choices during Lent.
Ask if people wish to share their commitments. Sing a simple song everyone knows to conclude your prayer.
The Christmas story is full of vulnerability– God becoming a human baby, Mary saying yes to a child that will change her life, Joseph agreeing to raise a child that is not his. Even the Magi show great vulnerability in their star gazing and quest to find and worship Jesus.
Part of an Epiphany prayer in Women’s Uncommon Prayers reads:
If there had been three wise women…they would have asked for directions, arrived early, delivered the baby, cleaned the stable, cooked the dinner, and brought practical gifts.
The Magi’s visit may have lacked practicality, yet the visitors still earned their descriptor of wise. If we take a close look at their journey, their wisdom lives in their vulnerability and faith.
They leave the comfort of their homes and lives. They travel on a whim without assurance. Instead of giving into the darkness all around them, they look up to the heavens to see the light of a star. They show up. They come prepared with gifts. They understand that the child is not just king, but holy and divine, deserving of worship. And they are in tune enough with their dreams to take an alternative route home instead of reporting back to King Herod. Through the entire story, the Magi are open to God’s leading, humble enough to go where they are called.
How many of us, when given the chance, stay warm in our homes instead of venturing out to see God out in the world with our own eyes? When nights are filled with darkness, we often forget to look up at the stars for a sign, for light. We are so filled with cynicism and importance that our hearts can become closed off to the adoration and homage required of us to worship. How many of us fall asleep with a brain too busy to hear God in our dreams?
The Christmas season brings us back to the wisdom of vulnerability. We can choose to be like Herod, who wants to know about Jesus, is worried how his power might interfere, but is not willing to leave home to find out more. Or we can choose to be like the wise men, who are vulnerable enough to venture out into the darkness on God’s provision of a savior, not quite sure how it will all work out, but hoping the path will lead us to the one worthy of our adoration and worship. May this Christmas season fill your hearts and homes with the wisdom of vulnerability!
A dear friend of mine is a pediatrician who specializes in palliative care. That means, essentially, she helps children die well. It’s vocational work that is demanding of her body, mind and spirit. Because of the grueling hours and the deep sadness, she needed to find a hobby that would encourage her to sit still and rest in her time off. She started knitting. Specifically, she started knitting warm, beautiful sweaters for all the babies being born in her life. My son has one of these sweaters, and another will come soon once my second is born. At first she saw her knitting as a way to trick her body into being still and resting while still feeling productive. Creating something tangible also soothed her mind. Now, she realizes that, maybe most importantly, it is a spiritual practice. When she is not at work with children who are dying, she needs to be celebrating the children in her life who are healthy and thriving, welcoming them into the world. The knitting brings her balance and hope, one stitch at a time. It keeps her from slipping into fear and becoming paralyzed. It helps her show back up at work to sit with people in their sorrow.
Many people are speaking to the palpable fear washing over our society. Fear separates us from God and has the toxic ability to paralyze us. When I hear talk of this fear, I think of my friend, quietly knitting, creating, claiming hope, subversively choosing light over fear while continuing to work in the center of sorrow. She is practicing Advent.
We read in our Advent Scriptures the angels saying over and over again, “Fear not!” As I marvel at my friend’s courage and strength, we marvel at Mary’s ability to nod and courageously let go of fear and accept light and life.
Fear not, for a child is coming. Babies are precious and sacred in their ability to offer love and beauty, hope and life without asking for anything in return. They are fresh and new, full of possibilities we don’t even know. They help us dream, they invite us to wonder. Who are you little baby? The world is better because you are here!
God decided to become a baby. We often think of God as big and powerful and strong. God saw that more than big power we needed simple love. We need hope and light. God wants us to dream and wonder and sit in awe of things that are beautiful and precious. God came as baby Jesus, a little, cute, fragile baby that needed people to take care of him, nurture him, and love him to keep him alive. He is a light that starts out as small as a newborn baby and gets as big as we can dream it to be. We celebrate a how clever God is, to come as a baby, so that we know that God wants our attention, adoration and love.
That is what is so tragic about my friend’s work in pediatric palliative care. That is what is so hopeful about her knitting. She lives in the thin space where she experiences both God’s saving power that brings heaven to this place and God’s saving power that offers us life in the place to come. Creating as a knitter and working as a doctor helps her let go of fear and live in the light of Jesus, now and in the time to come. She is practicing Advent, and inviting me to do the same.
Fear not. A child is coming.
The days are getting shorter still. The nights are dark and the days are gray. We bundle up, hunker down, light candles, and wait. Advent is upon us, yet again.
Our bodies signal to us to slow down, turn inward, and hibernate. Yet Rumi, in his poem “The Body is Like Mary,” invites us to resist the urge to shut down altogether. He asks us to acknowledge that we, along with Mary, are in holy labor. There is work to be done. There is beauty to share. There is life and love to offer. There is a God within who needs to be born:
The body is like Mary, and each of us has a Jesus inside…
God is really there within, so innocently drawing life from us with Her umbilical universe–infinite existence…
though also needing to be born. Yes, God also needs to be born!
I will have a child in the next few weeks. I will, once again, go through the painful and sacred process of labor to bring life into this world. Yet even while I wait, there is other birthing to be done in the twilight of Advent. In the quiet darkness, we can tap into the desire to create beauty through a loving touch, a simple gift, a safe space of active listening, or a piece of art.
Christ is in all of us. We are co-creators, offering God’s light to the world around us. In these moments of Advent, when quiet reflection leads to a gentle birthing, sprinkling love and light, we know that yes, Jesus is coming and yet yes, Jesus dwells within.
Sunday Readings: 2 Kings 5.14-17; 2 Timothy 2.8-13; Luke 17.11-17
Jesus asked, “Weren’t ten lepers cleansed? Where are the other nine?” – Luke 17.17
In Sunday’s gospel only one of the ten lepers Jesus heals returns to thank Jesus. The passage prompts us to practice gratitude to God and to one another. Being alive calls us to appreciate the Creator. Evolution deepens the story of God’s creative love in which we live. We see with eyes that have evolved over millions of years in creatures that sought light. Our stem cells contain the memory of God’s love unfolding. To be part of giving life gives parents their moment in the evolution of all that is. The birth of a child takes them to a place of awe and closeness to God. The child immediately breathes in the oxygen that plants and trees make every summer day out of sunlight. Our lungs tie us to the outside world we share with all that squirms, flies, blooms, and in each of us says than you. Our hearts tie us to one another.
What are 10 things you are grateful for today? Use the question every day.
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I am walking with youth through a unit on Faith and Science. Can you believe in God and science, the Bible and evolution? Can you seek God in what you know as well as what you don’t? I’m finding the matter at hand repeatedly comes back to unfair assumptions about certainty. Certainty has become a value of society. It helps young people (dare I say all people) feel competent and worthy of being taken seriously. We associate it with confidence and knowledge. All too often we look to our political, scientific and religious leaders to exude certainty. In the midst of uncertain times, we wager it may help us feel safer. It rarely does.
At the core of both faith and science is not certainty, but wonder. Boiling either area down to certainty limits it greatly. It limits God. The deeper we get into the disciplines of both science and religion, we gain knowledge, yes, but also awe. Modern-day astronomers look up at the stars and think more and more that we are not alone, that we may never have one set of scientific rules to live by, that we are made of the stuff of stars.
Maybe it is time for all of us to embrace doubt as a friend:
Doubt then is not our enemy but our great friend. For it keeps us from the most unchristian of things: assuming that we possess certainty, that we need not think about our faith or love our neighbors, and worse, that we become certain is no longer (by definition) faith; it has become idolatry, where we no longer seek out a living personal God but make this God into a frozen idol. The truth, then, is that there can be no relationship at all when it is based on certainty. I cannot really love my friend and embrace the fullness of his being if I assume I know him with certainty, if in being with him I keep saying, “I know you; that’s not what you think. I don’t need to hear you, see you or learn from you. I know you certainly. You cannot change.”
–Andrew Root and Kendra Creasy Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry
The seriousness that Root and Dean bring to the matter of doubt and relationship is refreshing. Indeed, we do not want to limit our loved ones with certainty, so why ever would we want to limit God? Embracing wonder and doubt invokes love yet again, where we leave room to be surprised, we leave room for growth.
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned. –Buddha
September, for me, is still filled with the childhood feeling of fresh starts. When I was young, it meant new notebooks and a new teacher. As an adult, I continue to sense an opportunity to reboot come September.
In the New York Times, Carl Richards wrote an eloquent piece called “The Cost of Holding On.” He starts with a story about two monks who encounter a rude woman on their journey. The young monk stews and ruminates about how poorly the older monk was treated until finally, hours later, he spoke about it. The older monk said, “I set the woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?” Richard adds:
There is an actual cost to holding onto things we should let go of. It can come in the form of anger, frustration, resentment or something even worse. The question is, can you really afford to keep paying the bill?
Now, as the summer fades, is as good of a time as any to really acknowledge what we have been holding onto from last year or yesterday or earlier this morning that is no longer serving us.
Where do you carry your anger? Your throat, chest, hands, jaw, stomach?
What tools help you let go? Exercise, meditation, music, talking, writing?
Who gets the brunt of your anger? You, strangers, or someone you care deeply about?
What are some things that you are still holding onto? What is the actual cost?
Anger is energy, and it can be exciting even if it is only harming us. But Richards is right: there is a real cost to hanging on. With every exhale we have an opportunity to let go of something we have been holding onto. That will create space for God to rush in with healing and new life. September can feel like a fresh start indeed.