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Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

I wasn’t at an Ash Wednesday service this evening and yet it still seemed rather appropriate where I found myself…

Dimmed rooms and quieted voices and tears and grief and mourning. The rituals of how we mark the passing of life. Casket surrounded by flowers and loved ones and photos and tangible pieces of memories.

A shillelagh. Of all things. A shillelagh.

And I open the little memorial card, accented with Celtic design.
Inside is the Irish blessing, “May the road rise to meet you…”
Of course.
I smile and tears come to my eyes.
Of course. I would expect no less.

And I look up and there she is…
But the body is just a shell.
Emptied now of breath, of life.

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

I trace my fingers over larger, italicized words of the blessing,
“And until we meet again…”

We will.
For the life that is no longer here is now elsewhere
fuller, truer.

It is my understanding that Ash Wednesday is set apart to acknowledge our frailty and our sinfulness and to begin a Lenten journey towards the cross. A time to remember the sufferings of Jesus, to somehow enter into that reality and to confess our need for a Savior.

She understood suffering.
She understood her need for a Savior.
She clung to the cross.
She clung to Jesus.

And now this journey we make she will make no longer.
She is on the other side.
With the One who suffered and died and prepared the way for her.
And for us.

And so I journey.
And I acknowledge.
And I cling.
To Jesus.

(This began with intentions of a short little poetic Facebook status, but as I processed and remembered it quickly grew into a longer reflection.)

Hope in the already-not yet

from my lectio journal today (and the scripture was Isaiah 60:18-19):

Violence will not be heard again in your land,
Nor devastation or destruction within your borders;
But you will call your walls salvation, and your gates praise.

No longer will you have the sun for light by day,
Nor for brightness will the moon give you light;
But you will have the Lord for an everlasting light,
And your God for your glory.

I imagine that if I happened to be a Jewish person (by heritage and faith) living in Israel today and reading these verses, it would cause me great distress, doubt and dissonance.

“What do you mean no violence? No devastation? No destruction? When will this be? When will Messiah save us?”

I think I would give up hope.

But I know Jesus and believe Him to be the prophecy-fulfilling Messiah. The One whom John knew and testified about… this same John who wrote the letters dictated to him and fantastic images seen by him in the Book of Revelation… Revelation whose end echoes verse 19.

And I am in the already-not yet and I can trust Jesus even here.

… or especially here.

So I do not give up hope.

May you have struggle…

I take my birthday greetings – wishes – blessings – prayers seriously.

It may not always appear that way since I use the same birthday wish-prayer for everyone each year, but it’s true.

Each February (for my wish-prayer year begins with the birthday of Josiah in February, not on January 1st), I prayerfully sit down to consider and write out the next year’s birthday blessing. I let the images of hundreds of friends and family scroll through my mind as I reflect upon what God has been showing me recently and seek Him for words with which bless folks in the coming year.

Some years these wish-prayers are more poetic than others.

Some are longer and some are shorter.

Some come slowly to me and some seem to flow with ease.

This past year the words seemed to flow.

But when I reached the last word and read back over it, I cringed a bit.

May you have enough
so that want does not make you bitter.

May you lack enough
so that abundance does not cause you pride.

May you have peace
so that despair does not overtake you.

May you have struggle
so that you learn to rely on Jesus.

Everyday
may you have eyes to see what is at hand
and the graces which are all around.

Really? That is my wish-prayer for my loved ones?

And yet somehow I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the words written were meant to be.

And meant to stay.

Still, every morning as I got on Facebook to post my wish-prayer to that day’s recipient(s), I hesitated.

Would I want someone to wish and pray this for me?

May you lack enough?

May you have struggle?

Yet I did push send day after day.

And I prayed that my birthday greeting would be well-received.

And over the months I began to realize something:

“May you have struggle” does not mean “may you suffer”.

 

15 years ago this past August I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Common phrases that I heard went from “you don’t look sick” and “it’s all in your head” to  “fibro-what?!” and “you’re too young for that”. Doctors put me on various medicines to try and help different symptoms, which, of course, had different side effects. I was in my sophomore year of college, had gotten a part-time job at a florist shop and was leading a mime team of fellow classmates. My journal of the semester shows ups and downs with decreasing highs and increasing lows which felt (and reads) like a downward spiral of poor sleep, nightmares, deadening fatigue, depression, weight gain, poor concentration, brain fog, biting off more than I could chew and pushing myself when I should have been listening to my body better as I tried to deal with my new diagnosis in the midst of college life.

To put it simply, it was a struggle.

Because my brain and body were so impacted and I was having a hard time keeping up with schoolwork, I talked to each of my professors – more than once – to keep them abreast of what was happening and seek some aid in discerning and completing the most vital readings and assignments. Some of my professors were more than understanding, lenient with time and helpful in making needed adjustments. A couple of my professors came off a little harsher, not giving extra time and telling me that “in the real world” no one would give me a break because of bad days or bad health. (I’ve since discovered these were both right and wrong…)

But then I had one professor who basically said to me, “I’m glad you are struggling.”

Now, I don’t remember his exact wording. And looking back now, I wish I did. But that was the gist of it.

And I was insulted.

Now perhaps I should inform you that I attended a wonderful little Christian liberal arts college and this professor was in the Educational Ministries department wherein I was majoring. And though it was my first official class with him, I knew him well enough to know he had a love for Jesus and for students (teens and young adults) and desired to see them know Jesus and follow Him whole-heartedly. And I knew he had nothing against me.

So somewhere in my head I knew that his words were more wisdom than evil. He was not cursing me.

But I was still insulted.

And I’m pretty sure there were tears after I left his office.

See the thing is, for most of my life I have equated struggle with suffering.

And I equated suffering with sin. Not in the way that the disciples did in John 9 thinking the man was born blind because of his sin or the sin of his parents. I’d fallen in love with that story long before.

Sure, suffering comes sometimes as a direct result of our sin.

And suffering can come as a direct result of the sin of others.

Suffering can also come as an indirect result of the sin of others.

But sometimes suffering comes simply because we live in a broken world. A world broken by sin.

And because I equated struggle with suffering and suffering with sin and sin with evil, I felt that struggle was evil and someone being happy that I was struggling was… well… horrendous! 

Suffering is a struggle.

But struggling is not always suffering.

Struggle can be edifying.

Struggle can even be part of intended design.

Like the oft-used butterfly illustration. It is the work, the struggle of the newly reborn butterfly against the cocoon which strengthen it to fly. If you stop to help a butterfly’s struggle and release it from its cocoon, not only will it not be able to fly, but it will perish.

Or like the man-pushing-a-rock illustration (a version of which is illustrated here by mime artist Todd Farley).

 

I am slowly learning to remove the word struggle from its tightly-wound association with suffering and evil in my head.

Struggle is more closely related to discipline than to suffering.

And after months of posting this “may you have struggle” birthday wish-prayer, I am finally not hesitating as I tap the “post” button.

 

My own birthday is quickly approaching.

And I’ve come to know that should someone greet me with my own wish-prayer, I would not walk away with tears as I did 15 years ago.

I find it easier to see the wisdom.

And the grace.

The day after April posted about her girls' nativity, another friend with a new baby boy shared this picture saying, "I have a feeling this will be our house in a few years"

The day after April posted about her girls’ nativity, another friend with a new baby boy shared this picture saying, “I have a feeling this will be our house in a few years”

I don’t have any children. But most of my friends do.

In recent days it has become apparent to me that children can make for some great theological insights at Christmas time.

Take my friend Lydia, for example.

Lydia has 5 boys. Under 8. The other day she posted to Facebook:

Though I’d love to have those flawless, beautifully crafted porcelain nativity figures to arrange and display (up high; up very high), with their smooth, painted faces just beaming the glory of Jesus’ birth, a Fisher-Price version is what we’ve got right now. This morning I sat here feeding Levi and watching the boys play war with the little plastic shepherds and the angel (WWIII happened in the stable this morning) and something occurred to me… this plastic set is more realistic- more what it really was like that first Christmas morning… There was no hoity-toity fanciness; there was no “hands off” sign hung above the manger. Jesus made himself accessible, reachable, hands-on to all people– lowly farm-hands, kings, thieves, prostitutes, politicians, the rich, the poor, the clean, the dirty, and most definitely- the children! He is for everyone. So yes, kids; play with this nativity set. Play war, play house, play the donkey pooping on the shepherd- but play knowing He is accessible to you!

Her children’s play reminded her that God put on flesh, this baby-child-man was Immanuel, God with us.

The Message paraphrase of John 1:14 goes begins with this:

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.

And in story after story in the gospels he was indeed making himself accessible. He stretched forth his hand and gave the blind sight and touched the untouchables. The sickly, unclean woman knew that she could reach out and touch him.

Indeed, Lydia said it well, “There was no hoity-toity fanciness; there was no “hands off” sign hung above the manger. Jesus made himself accessible, reachable, hands-on to all people… He is for everyone.”

And not only is Jesus for everyone, he is always here, even when we don’t see him. Which is what Lydia was reminded of as they began to clean up after their play, trying to “find all the pieces after they’d exploded all over the living room”…

“Where’s Baby Jesus?” someone asked.

Of course no one knew, so the search was on. And you know, sometimes it’s that way in real life… you can’t see Him; you know Jesus is there, but you have to look for Him.

Gabe hollered out, “I found a wise person!”

Yep, you need those along the way, too, kid.

The funny thing was, you know where I found Baby Jesus?? I was sitting on Him. He was right under the edge of the rug. He was right there all along.

He was right there all along.

 

So I have another friend, April, who has 3 girls and a baby boy. The day after Lydia’s post, April was amused at her children’s Nativity set…

So baby Jesus has some interesting visitors at our house; the girls’ nativity currently has 4 dwarfs, rapunzel, minnie, cookie monster, big bird, and 4 little people in cars (along w/ the ‘normal’ characters)…

And judging by the comments on her post, we adults were cluing in on what the children do so naturally – allow anyone to come and worship the Baby Jesus.

One friend’s daughter helped a 2 ft dinosaur come to worship at their nativity.

Another friend was enamored by the scene, “Surely everyone is welcome at the manger!”

And as for me, it reminded me of a poem I’d read in college. It is found in a book of “Uncle Handsome’s Redneck Poetry” which was introduced to me by none other than April’s husband when we were in undergrad together.

The poem is entitled “Flamingos in the Manger Scene” and it goes like this:

There’s flamingos in our manger scene
We put ’em there this year
Leavin’ ’em standin’ off by themselves
Just seemed a little queer
With them other critters all gathered ’round
A-worshippin’ the baby Jesus
Them flamingos stayin’ across the lawn
Just somehow didn’t please us
So we pulled ’em up and set ’em there
‘Tween the wise men and the manger
Some folks think it’s a little strange
But I’ve seen a whole lot stranger
I reckon they do stand out a bit
Bein’ so pink and all
But the way they sway on one leg in the hay
They look so handsome and tall
Folks from town’ll come drivin’ around
And they’ll slow way down and grin
At them flamingos there with the camels ‘n donkeys
And them three fancied up wise men
And every now and then folks’ll stop their cars
And come stand by our white tire fence
And take pictures and laugh at our pink flamingos
But to us it just makes sense
For all of God’s critters to gather together
And worship at this time of year
And now that I stop to think about it
We left out the plastic deer!

Sometimes it takes those who see the world a little differently, like children, to help remind us of what we celebrate at Christmas:

Immanuel.

God with us.

Present. Touchable. Available to all.

 


 

(And, by the way, if you liked “Uncle Handsome’s” poem, you can find more funny, witty and poignant Redneck poems in The Road Less Graveled by Brent Holmes.)

 

Elephant Musings and Grace

My "Elephant Graveyard" (the mug) surrounded by the remaining elephants.

My “Elephant Graveyard” (the mug) surrounded by the remaining elephants.

This is my Year Of The Elephant.

I set out in January reflecting and praying over the “elephants in the room” of my life. I even blogged about what it was, why it was and how I thought it would look.

Of course, it hasn’t turned out quite like I had planned.

I think it has turned out better.

Not that it would appear that way at first glance…

I began with 66 elephants.

I now have 36.

Less than half are gone.

I need to remember, however, that probably close to a dozen more elephants were added throughout the year.  And I can be grateful, of course, that as many got done as did. And there was that massive project that was initially not planned for this year but came to be and overall worked towards my greater “purge and create margin” goal. And there was unexpected oral surgery and an unusually long and severe fibro cycle. And two great trips that I’d not foreseen in January…

Still, when November 1st arrived, I freaked out.

I panicked.

Way too many elephants left for the few and shortening days left of the year.

So I panicked. And then I prayed. And God began to remind me of a few of the things He’d been teaching me this year…

And then He taught me some more.

Early on in the year I realized that elephants:

  • Begat elephants. They multiply like rabbits. Once you have so many in your life, anything and everything else can become an elephant.
  • Keep me from living in Quadrant 2 (Covey reference). Everything is screaming “urgent!” and “important!” and overwhelming me and to escape the guilt I hide out in Quadrant 4 with unimportant, non-urgent time-wasters.
  • Impact my social life. I avoid going out and doing things because I feel I “don’t have the time” and then when I do go I end up arriving late, leaving early and/or being distracted. Elephants keep me from being present in the present.
  • Affect my relationships. Again, I am rushed and distracted. I don’t make time to enjoy time and be present with people. I have a poor response time on communications and commitments. I am both short on time and emotional energy. I am moody and anxious.

Elephants in the “room of my life” and “taking up headspace” is a much more serious matter than I thought when I started.

Within the first few months I was also learning that:

  • Not every idea that I have needs to be done now.
  • Not every idea that I have needs to be done by me.
  • Not every idea that I have actually needs to be done at all.
  • I have a fear of “missed opportunities” and I need to be aware and proactive to not allow that to create more elephants, pressure and stress in my life.
  • I have to “feed the good wolf.” There are different versions of the good dog/bad dog or good wolf/bad wolf story (here’s just one), but the point of them all is that whichever one you feed is the stronger. With every decision, small and large, you are either strengthening or weakening your will, character, etc.
  • There’s a monkey living in my brain who likes instant gratification. Tim Urban wrote a post regarding procrastination on his Wait But Why blog and when I came across it (as well as the follow-up post on how to beat procrastination), I was able to make so much more sense out of how my brain has been working and how I ended up with so many elephants up there!
  • It’s really all about continual progression. I’ve made note of this idea before (here and here), but I still need reminded of it quite often. Not everything is instant. It happens step by step and I must keep going forward. It’s true of defeating elephants, it’s true of of taming monkeys and not only is it true of feeding “the good wolf”, it is also how that feeding/strengthening happens.

So as my year progressed, it felt as though I had a whole analogous zoo in my head – elephants and wolves and a very ornery monkey. And when November 1st hit and I began to panic, the first thing God whispered to me was, “one day at a time.”

One day at a time.

One elephant at a time.

Every day on(ward).

In the four weeks since then, I’ve made some new discoveries…

  • Getting rid of all the elephants should not be my end goal. Of course I want the elephants gone. But it’s not simply to be “free” of elephants. It is to create margin, opening up a new way of living to achieve other purposes (and prevent future elephants).
  • Prayerfully creating a tangible list of why I want the elephants gone and why margin is important to me will help me to refocus and regain momentum I gradually lost in the tediousness and magnitude of my elephant-slaying tasks. I’m still working on that one…
  • It’s really okay that all the elephants won’t get defeated this year.

Actually, maybe they will…

No, I don’t mean I’m going to get 36 projects done in the next month. I’m not even going to try.

But just because a task or project is yet undone doesn’t mean the elephant hasn’t been defeated.

See, as I spent time again today in prayer over these remaining elephants, reviewing and sorting them again, I realized that a half dozen of them are part of the reasons why I’m working towards margin. They aren’t really elephants anymore so much as end goals and priorities. Nearly another half dozen began as elephants because of the head and heart space and “do it now/soon!” pressure they had in my life but now I have them recorded into my tea dreams notebook and they no longer carry that urgency or weight.

The remaining elephants have been divided into three categories:

  • Tasks I’d like to get done before Christmas. There are 6 of these, most of which are directly related to Christmas gifts (which are still going to be white elephant gifts this year).
  • Tasks I’d like to get done before Epiphany. (I’d say the New Year, but that’s a tight squeeze and the extra days off will help.) Another half dozen, these are “clean up” tasks mostly related to all the purging I’ve been doing of my things this year and preparing for next year (like a budget for 2015, though that was never an elephant to begin with)…
  • Projects to tackle this winter and with spring cleaning. 2015 may be the “Year of Completion” but I won’t think on that too much yet. The point is, I’m at a place where these elephants are looking more like simple projects again and they don’t all have to be done at once. The bulk of them (which are the oldest and most head-space weighty of my elephants) are something I can work on in the winter months and that is what I plan to do.

So it’s not really that the “Year of the Elephant” saw me valiantly defeating six dozen or more elephants.

Because I didn’t.

There’s still stuff yet to do on this path of creating margin and space to live and breathe in my life.


 

The Year of the Elephant hasn’t been successful because of all the work I was doing, but because of all the work which God has been doing in me.

So much more of hearing my Father’s voice.

So much more of turning to Him a little more, a little faster.

So much more of hearing Him a little more readily, a little more clearly.

So much grace.

For my good?

Sitting here listening to Jesus Culture’s “Your Love Never Fails” (not to be confused with “One Thing Remains”) and the bridge repeats over and over,

“You make all things work together for my good.”

Over and over and over.
My good.
My good.

And suddenly I’m struck by the thought, “but that’s not what the scripture says.”

Romans 8:28 says,

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

It’s a popular verse.

Quoted often.

I’ve read it. I’ve used it. I’ve studied it.

I had an entire paper in one of my seminary classes based off of an interpretation of this verse.

 

But for all my reading and studying and discussing this verse, I never thought of the aspect that now perplexed me.

Because I am all at once aware that for most of my life, I (and those around me) have typically understood this to mean that if I love God then God works all things together for my good.

Like the song says.

 

I find such assumptions prevalent in our current American culture. Perhaps even Western culture in general.

We tend to read the Bible’s verses as individual promises.

We do this almost always.

Especially with verses like this one. And Jeremiah 29:11. (But that’s a whole other conversation!)

 

So what if that assumption is wrong?

God does indeed work good.

Out of our bad. Our pain. Our hurts. Our losses. Our messes.

 

But what if the good worked isn’t for my benefit,

or isn’t solely for my benefit,

but instead for the benefit of others?

For the benefit of the Body of Christ. The Church.

“for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”

Plural.

So what if I never see the good?

 

I think it’s possible.

I think I need to stop thinking that this verse is for my personal benefit.

I think I need new eyes to see the bigger picture.

Because God does work good.

But it’s not all about me.

 

A new song indeed…

O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things…

I usually read the Psalms from my present day viewpoint

… reading it from my own circumstances

… and viewing terms like “salvation” in light of Jesus sacrifice, death and resurrection

Or else I read the Psalms trying to grasp the viewpoint of the original writer

… trying to understand his circumstances

… and viewing terms like “salvation” in light of physical enemies and ailments, sin and the sacrificial system and the Exodus, pre-Jesus

 

I do this because I live in the twenty-first century and all my life has been framed by what Jesus already accomplished and hundreds of years of understanding that and how the Hebrew scriptures pointed to it and how it was fulfilled.

And I do this because I have been ingrained since sometime in my youth (plus years of Bible, ministry and seminary training) to look at scripture in context and to try and understand things like original audience and context and meaning.

But something new happened today.

Something unexpected.

I didn’t plan it.

I didn’t control it.

It was a gift.

And it was beautiful.

 

I was reading Psalm 98.

Verse 3 contains chesed (aka “lovingkindness” in the NASB) and since February I have been making my way through all the appearances of chesed in the Bible.

There are 248 occurrences.

So I was simply reading Psalm 98.

 

But as my eyes moved across the words on the page, I was suddenly seeing the Psalm as though through the eyes of the disciples shortly after Jesus’ resurrection.

Perhaps even just after Pentecost when people from all over the “ends of the earth” were in Jerusalem and witness to the outpouring of the Spirit and first hearing the good news of Jesus and salvation.

Because the Psalms were used in worship.

And for as long as they were able the disciples and new believers continued to go to the temple (or synagogue) for worship.

And can you imagine?

In Luke 24 Jesus begins to open their eyes to how the Hebrew scriptures and prophecies pointed to him and must be fulfilled.

But surely, just as we make new discoveries and connections, they continued to do so as well.

So one day in worship at the temple Psalm 98 is being read or recited or sung and they suddenly see it in a new view.

A view I take for granted here two thousand years later.

 

Oh the beauty and the joy and the grace!

Can you see it?!

This Psalm they probably knew well and heard a thousand times… and it now holds more meaning and beauty than ever.

Step with me back into the days just after Jesus’ resurrection.

Remember the wonder and excitement of Easter.

Walk with the disciples to worship at the temple.

And glimpse through their eyes the reading of this Psalm.

O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things,
His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.
The Lord has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth;
Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
With the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
Shout joyfully before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar and all it contains,
The world and those who dwell in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy
Before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth;
He will judge the world with righteousness
And the peoples with equity.

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