Ash Wednesday Lavender

I have been doing a lot of thinking in anticipation of this year’s Ash Wednesday. For some in our new church it is a way to reconnect with the faith of our past – our youth – our tradition. Some of us grew up Catholic – or Lutheran – or Episcopalian… and now after a few – or maybe many – years we sense something calling us back to worship. For others Ash Wednesday is something new – we never did it as a child – it was never a part of our worship tradition but this year we want to go deeper on the spiritual journey and so we, too, find ourselves back in worship. And there may be those who never had any formal spiritual tradition but find something is going on deep within this year.

A poem I just discovered by Anja Sladek, “I Am Not,” puts it like this: I am not a pessimist but this world is dark and I do not see the dawn. I am not a traitor but I cannot love my country whilst friends are being killed. I am not optimistic but I cannot help but feel there must be something better. I am not a believer but I find myself praying to god in the evenings. I am not a poet but I must write this down and make somebody read. I am not a coward but I am very afraid of what will happen next.

It is my growing conviction that for whatever reason we find ourselves yearning for something deeper this Lent – from longing and fear to a thirst for refreshment -- as my beloved United Church of Christ likes to say: whoever you are – or where ever you are on the journey of life – there is a place – even a spiritual home – for you on Ash Wednesday. It is a time to acknowledge that all of us get it wrong more often than we get it right – that all of us are wounded – and that all of us ache for a God whose grace is bigger than our hurts. Ash Wednesday – and really all of Lent – is a journey more than a destination – a way of discerning and searching for the holy in the ordinary events of our human lives – and as you know if you have ever travelled, some journeys are wonderful and rich, some are messed up and filled with trouble, and some never get off the ground and seem empty or DOA. I love how U2 puts it on “Some Days:”

Some days are dry – some days are leaky - some days come clean - other days are sneaky -some days take less but most days take more - some slip through your fingers and onto the floor - some days your quick but most days you're speedy - some days you use more force than is necessary - some days just drop in on us - some days are better than others - some days it all adds up and what you've got is enough - some days are better than others.

In other words, as Paul Simon sings, "These are the days of miracle and wonder, this is the long distance call - the way the camera follows us in slo-mo - the way we look to us all - the way we look to a distant constellation that's dying in a corner of the sky: these are the days of miracle and wonder and don't cry baby, don't cry, don't cry." Let’s take this Lent slow, in other words, and see what happens. Let’s also go the extra mile by sharing some of the ups and downs of our Lenten experience with another because one of the only ways to make it through any difficult or troubling journey is with the help of others. My boys U2 once again remind us that “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own.” Bono said (shortly after his dad died of cancer): "My father worked in the post office by day and sang opera by night. We lived on the north side of Dublin in a place called Cedarwood Road. He had a lot of attitude. He gave some to me - and a voice. I wish I'd known him better."

Tough, you think you’ve got the stuff - you’re telling me and anyone you’re hard enough - you don’t have to put up a fight you don’t have to always be right - let me take some of the punches for you tonight. Listen to me now, I need to let you know, you don’t have to go it alone. And it’s you when I look in the mirror and it’s you when I don’t pick up the phone: sometimes you can’t make it on your own.

So let’s be clear: for Lent to be rich and deep, we have to make some connections with the people who have joined us on the journey. Every trip requires helpers, right? If you are driving on a trip, who helps you make the trip happen? What about air travel? Ever stay in a hotel… ok you get my point: part of the Lenten journey is recognizing – and embracing – our connections. It even has something to do with reaching out of our comfort zone so that we make new connections. You see, the traditional scripture readings for Ash Wednesday tell us something crucial about both the journey of Lent and our relationship with those who are travelling with us: Left to ourselves, most of us invert an important teaching from Jesus – we have him saying that “where your heart is there will be your treasure also” – but that is biblical dyslexia. In reality the text tells us that wherever you put your treasure that is where your heart will end up. Do you see the difference?

The United Church of Christ posted a blog for today that notes that in a world defined by the market place and bottom lines, much of the time our dollars follow our heart’s lead: Jesus seems to be saying something more profound and more hopeful than that, affirming that wherever you put your treasure that is where your heart will end up. To be sure, how we spend our money reveals something about the kind of people we are. But Jesus seems to affirm that how we spend our money determines the sort of people we become. "Give from the heart," people say. But Jesus speaks of a different dynamic: Give where you want your heart to be, and then let your heart catch up. If you want to care more about the kind of car you drive, buy an expensive one. If you want to care more about property values, remodel your house. If you want to grow in your relationship with God, bring an offering to God. Wherever your treasure is, your heart is bound to follow.

One of my favorite author’s, Kathleen Norris, likes to say that one of the reasons Jesus tells us to learn from children is so that we pay attention to the basics. Once, when she was working as an artist in residence at an elementary school she began to notice that some children had the capacity to rework the ancient Psalms into their own life experiences. For example:

Children who are picked on by their big brothers or sisters can be remarkably adept when it comes to cursing psalms, and I believe that the writing process offers them a safe haven in which to work through their desires for vengeance in a healthy way. Once a little boy wrote a poem called, “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’”

“My messy house” says it all (when it comes to the Lenten journey): with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for him that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on his way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?

Part of what I’ll be doing this Lent is cleaning up my messy house – and I hope to be doing some of the cleaning with others so that they can help keep me on track when I get lazy or cranky or just too tired or afraid to care. Too often this religion stuff is just busy work – and I need a clean house for the Lord – a house built on a love that satisfies like the poet Gerald Stern suggests in “Blue Like That," rather than misplaced intentions:
She was a darling with her roses, though what I like is lavender for I can dry it and nothing is blue like that, so here I am, in my arms a bouquet of tragic lavender, the whole history of Southern France against my chest, the fields stretching out, the armies killing each other, horses falling, Frenchmen dying by the thousands, though none for love.


rbarenblat said…
Every year I'm humbled by the extent to which the Lenten journey seems, to me, to mirror the journey that Jews take during the 40 days between the new moon of Elul and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement.) So much of what you're saying here -- about the ways in which we're all on a journey, about the realization that wherever we put our treasure is where our hearts will end up, about the hard work of cleaning up our houses.

The psalm we chant during those 40 days of preparation is psalm 27: "One thing I ask of You: that I might dwell in Your house all the days of my life." Maybe that's the real challenge: not only cleaning up our own houses, but transforming them into places where God too can dwell.

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