Days Like Grass

10425066_10205904265423195_2883495908755596358_n It's the first Ash Wednesday in 12 years that I won't be dipping my finger into a small pot of ashes and tracing the sign of the cross on the foreheads of people I love and serve.

On the upside, I don't have to make the call about canceling services tonight, as the threat of a snow squall looms right at evening rush hour.

Last night I brainstormed possible Lenten disciplines and came up with about fifteen different things I might try. Gee, overcompensating much?

It's so easy to get into competitive Lentening. No spiritual Crossfit for me, though. In the next few days I will settle on a couple simple practices that draw me closer to God. For today I am pondering time and mortality.

Would you believe a clickbaity post--a listicle, no less--is part of that pondering? Thank you to my brother for posting this to Facebook, 23 Facts about Time. It's light, but fascinating and even thought-provoking.

Things you think are eternal are not. Other things are more timeless than you might realize.

But in all things, remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

It's one of the most important things we do in the church, to trace the truth of Psalm 103 on one another's foreheads:

As for mortals, their days are like grass;    they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,    and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of God is from everlasting to everlasting.

...longer than calculus, the Pyramids, or Betty White.

~

Image: a friend posted this to Facebook--I'm trying to find out the source for permission and attribution.

"Grief" -- for Ash Wednesday

medium_3311021509 A couple of Sundays ago, in those restless moments before the alarm goes off but you know it's about to, Robert and I heard a large thud and the power went out. It came on 30 minutes later.

We assumed that a transformer blew, but later we saw one of the entrances to our subdivision was blocked off. Beyond the barricade was a police cruiser, repair truck, and a car. Or half a car. The front was completely smashed.

We later learned more about the accident. Or at least, the two pertinent facts. There was alcohol involved, and a person died.

Someone was driving drunk at 6:00 in the morning.

A person died at the entrance to our subdivision.

The next day, when the street had opened, I was taking the girls to choir when I saw the crowd of people at the crash site, with flowers and stuffed animals and notes. And, I saw tonight after dark, electric candles.

I've long been fascinated with roadside memorials. And this new one, so close to where my kids walk to school and where I begin almost every one of my runs, reminded me of the following poem, which I wrote about a different roadside memorial many, many years ago.

It seems appropriate to share it before Ash Wednesday.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

To dust all things return.

"Grief"

I. you are remarkably sober as you assemble what you need, a strange array of supplies: glue, feathers, cardboard, flowers, wire; and you fashion a set of wings (yes wings), and a funeral bouquet, and a sign that says Rest in Peace in black marker in your best script, and you take it to the tree with the bark ripped off, right there, at the ruthless bend in the road.

you hang the wings well above the tree’s white wound, and nestle the bouquet between two roots, and as you affix the sign a car speeds by, slicing the air as it goes. another car passes, and another, and at first the gusts knock you off balance, but you learn to adjust, to brace yourself, to stand firm and lean in.

but still, how dare these people glide past, floating on the waves of radio songs, laughing into their phones?

II. you think about the place often, but you don’t return for some time. you can’t, because the busyness of your mourning has tipped over into the business of your getting back to getting on with moving forward with living life. plus, well, it’s embarrassing, all your grief on crude display. so you leave the site untended; it’s just easier.

but sooner or later you must return, straighten the feathered wings, remove the sign that bled black letters, and clear out the wilted blooms, or maybe just crush them into brown confetti that trembles into the road.

fresh flowers were the right decision at first (vibrant, real, momentary, like she was) but now it’s time for practical silk, and you cry, not because she deserves better than fakes, though she does, but because silk lasts awhile, and you know now, this is going to take much longer than you thought. so you secure those wings even tighter, and you plant those silk flowers secure, for the long unchanging time.

III. now’s the season when nothing much happens. you glide by the place, just like the others; though you slow and breathe, you don’t stop.

as time goes on, you notice: the bright, fake flowers grimace on, stupidly, as if put there only yesterday, but the cardboard wings have aged: the feathers are dulled, the edges are worn, the fringes are ragged; despite all your hard work, they are becoming more and more an organic part of things.

it is the paradox of grief, always fading, always and ever new.

~

photo credit: MTSOfan via photopin cc

Resting in the Words of Others

medium_763255266 Lent begins tomorrow, and among other things, I'm experiencing the season by taking a break from blogging. But only sort of. These next several weeks I'll be highlighting posts from the archives, sharing quotes and links that mean something to me, and maybe even posting a photo or two.

There are a number of reasons for this, one being that I'm trying to make headway on my next book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. I need to create some space and time for those words to come. So I'll be resting in the words of others...

In this space, anyway. I'll be writing short weekly reflections on my email list, which you can sign up for here.

I've written before about how judgy people can get about Lent practices that strike them as too much about self-improvement and not enough about devotion to God. I'm not interested in diagnosing whether giving up blog writing is a "good enough" discipline. It's what I'm doing, that's all. I feel called to it.

How about you? Will you be taking on a practice this Lent?

~

photo credit: Darwin Bell via photopin cc

More on Lent at Tiny Church, Plus Easter Musings

A few weeks ago I shared a little about our Lent series at Tiny Church. Here are a few notes for the second half of the season: Our series on the last week of Jesus' life continued on March 3 with the Last Supper. I didn't do much with the table since it was set for communion. The kids went to Sunday School that day (we do SS twice a month and the Upper Room twice a month) and they made chrysalises. They made tissue paper butterflies, which they put inside toilet paper tubes, wrapped them in purple tissue paper and tied them off on each end. They are currently hanging from the ceiling of our fellowship hall with the idea that the "new life" will emerge on Easter Sunday.

On March 10 we shared the story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Here is the table:

photo copy

 

The white candle I had burning the entire time. The three purple candles were lit at the beginning of the service, and each time Jesus returned to find the disciples sleeping, I extinguished one of the candles (I told the story from the chancel rather than the pulpit).

Since the story was about Jesus praying, I gave the kids some prayer-related items to do in the Upper Room: I gave them a page with instructions for praying in color (I call them 'prayer doodles'), and a printout of this page on cardstock for them to make a prayer cube if they wished:

prayer cube

March 17 was a special day. I was away, recovering from the half marathon, and we had a completely elder-led service. We had a paperless order of worship, sermon, images on the projector, two guest musicians, luncheon afterwards, and the whole service was broadcast on Ustream. I eavesdropped from home and it was a wonderful sight to see.

March 24, Palm/Passion Sunday was heavy on the passion, since I told the entire story by heart---Mark 14 and 15. I kept the table simple: Black cloth spread flat, wooden cross in the middle, with a short white taper candle burning in front of it. We will extinguish several candles just like that one on Friday during the tenebrae service.

Now, Easter. None of this is formed yet, but I'm toying with a number of things:

First, I'm on the lookout for an Easter bulletin cover that doesn't stink. So many bad fonts. So many cheesy Easter lilies. Luckily we have a color printer so I expect I'll come up with my own image. I love this:

Untitled

It's so Johannine, eh? But a couple of friends said it was "creepy". Whatever...

In terms of service: two years ago we started with a call to worship that wove in the song "He Lives In You" from The Lion King. While the song played, we stripped the black cloth from the table (leftover from Good Friday---the song starts tentatively which lends itself to a slow build), then gradually added elements: water for baptismal font, communion elements, candles etc.

Last year we did the call to worship from the fellowship hall, so that our Easter breakfast led immediately to the service. As the people flooded into the sanctuary, the choir sang a boisterous introit.

What to do to start the service this year? We seem to have more than our usual crop of people out of town, so I'm going with video images rather than something involving a lot of people. I'm thinking about the Ode to Joy flash mob---thanks Marci---you can google it if you want (though if you attend Tiny, don't google it, be surprised!).

I will definitely be weaving this video (which has gone viral bigtime) into the sermon:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=3KyvlMJefR4

And I still want to find a way to talk about that woolly bear caterpillar.

It is traditional for Tiny to have communion on Easter. I have mixed feelings about it, to be honest. I'm not sure how visitor friendly it is. Of course we welcome all to the table, but do visitors really feel welcomed if they're not accustomed to the eucharist? In any case, I'm contemplating a slide show of evocative images as we come to receive the elements, perhaps while listening to David Wilcox's song "Rise":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBJqTdTK4t4

Beloved,  it is time for you to rise.  Time for you to RISE UP.. With a sudden sense of wonder | Though the promise goes unspoken As the joy comes to your eyes | When the joy comes to your eyes From the burden you've been under | For your soul was never broken

Beloved, it is time for you to rise, time for you to rise.

How about you? What are you planning?

A Whiff of the Divine: Lent at Tiny Church

Here at Tiny, our focus in worship this Lent has been the last week of Jesus' life. Using Borg and Crossan's book, we've been look at the stories leading up to the crucifixion. The sermon series is called Journey to the Cross. The 'journey' bit ties into another initiative here at Tiny, the Journey to Jerusalem. We are encouraging folks in our church to walk, run, bike, etc., then submit their mileage each week. We're trying to make it to Jerusalem before Easter!

So far so good. We set a modest goal of 100 miles a week, which when multiplied by 10, will hopefully get us there. But the initiative has been so popular we are using a factor of 5 instead... and we may still make it to Jerusalem and back. Check it out:

photo

Just a small way we're trying to encourage health and wholeness here at the church.

And yes... as the map indicates, we walk on water here.

I'm also making an effort to change up the look of worship each week, primarily on the communion table, but also through the kids' activities in the Upper Room. Of course I haven't thought to take pictures---sorry, I'll do better!---but I'll describe what I've done in case others want to adapt:

~

The first week, we looked at Jesus' "cursing" of the fig tree (Peter's word, not Jesus', which I talk about in the sermon). For that Sunday, I had a black piece of fabric laying flat on the table with a vase with several nice branchy twigs sticking out of it, sort of on the left, with the communion elements towards the right. I had a long piece of purple fabric that I snaked around the table, with one side wrapping around the vase, then curved around the communion chalice/plate and hanging off the  front. (By the way, you need to experiment with levels when you do focal point stuff. You can use books and things underneath the cloth to create some variations in height.)

We invited the kids to do this simple activity (sans leaves) in the Upper Room, which was meant to represent the withered fig tree:

Paper Bag Fall Tree2

The kids took these home to have on their dinner tables during Lent.

~

This past weekend was the anointing of Jesus. I used a different multi-colored cloth for the table and put a large glass bottle (actually a decanter) on the table, along with a copy of the St. John's Bible (which I talked about in the sermon), propped open to the gospel of Mark. I also included this figure I got on a trip to Mexico during seminary:

photo copy

We're fortunate at Tiny that we're, well, tiny, so people can see what's on the table pretty well. Also, folks came forward during the prayers of the people and we did an anointing with oil, so they could see the table elements even better.

For the kids in the Upper Room, I gave them a bit of nard (the oil mentioned in the story), which is smelly stuff. They were invited to make cards for each person in the church service, using construction paper, markers, stickers, etc. I asked them to put a little smear of nard on each paper so people would have the scent as a reminder of this story of extravagant love.

The children did a wonderful job of this, and stood with me at the door following the service, handing them out. Most of the notes were small, but Caroline did do an oversized one for Robert and me:

photo

It has been a very good Lent so far.

On the Return of Dessert

I backed into my Lent discipline this year. Caroline suggested we give up dessert for Lent as a family, then she changed her mind five days in. As Caroline goes, so go the siblings. But Robert and I stuck with it.

Many of my past Lent disciplines have provided a straight path from practice to benefit: Giving up Facebook --> more incarnational time with family and friends. Regular devotional reading --> new insights into the biblical story.

But a dessert fast is more circuitously beneficial, if it's beneficial at all. I suspect I lost weight much more slowly during Lent than I would have had I not taken on this practice. Sundays were feast days, and while I don't feel like I feasted all that much, I think my body got very confused and yo-yo'ed a bit.

But Lent disciplines aren't really about self-improvement, are they? They are deeper than a reboot of the New Year's resolution. They are about a relationship with God---a connecting with the Holy that is within and without.

Giving something up means acquainting oneself with deprivation and sacrifice, even if the sacrifice is small in the scheme of things. We don't do enough of that in our culture. In my case, No Dessert was a string tied around my finger, a chance to pause, remember, reflect. Each time I craved something sweet, I tried to think about the sweet things in my life that are always in abundance, things I take for granted. A fantastic spouse. Hugs from children. Dates with friends over coffee. Satisfying work that pays the bills. The chance to write. I also became more mindful about the stuff I was eating. I thought about my body. I thought about what it means to hunger.

I also admit---and I hang my head as I do so---that giving up dessert was hard. Very hard.

I went to a mainline Protestant seminary with predominantly white and economically advantaged people. If you're familiar with such places, you know that we talked about privilege.

A lot.

I like to think I am pretty tuned in to my own privilege. But my cravings for cookies and ice cream were enormous and sad and reminded me just how privileged I am. I hungered, strongly and several times a day, for something that is completely superfluous for survival. Sure, sweets make life a little more fun and, well, sweet, but they are not necessary. And yet it's probably not a big exaggeration to say that I despaired over the lack of them.

I don't say this to beat myself up. I say this to encourage people to push themselves with their Lent disciplines every so often. This was one of the most interesting, thought-provoking things I've done. If I can get so wound up craving dessert, what other wants do I try and turn into needs? To paraphrase the title of that cute little self-help book: what other small stuff am I sweating?

Robert and I broke the fast on Saturday night---OK sue me, I didn't wait until Easter---while we were cabin-camping with our kids (more on that trip another time). We ate s'mores roasted over the fire, with Special Dark chocolate bars. They were little pillowy sandwiches of joy. The next day, I had bought a small pie at Trader Joe's that we ate with our Easter picnic, and it was... just OK. Same with the cheap, ubiquitous Easter candy I'd been thinking about for seven weeks. It wasn't very satisfying.

As it happens, Robert had brought Food Rules with him on our getaway, so I was reading it at the time. Pollan talks in the book about eating the "good" stuff, but doing so less often---this method of indulgence can be more satisfying than submitting to our every craving. Turns out he may be right. I normally adore Reese's peanut-butter cups and can eat them by the fistful. But the Reese's egg I pilfered from my kid's basket wasn't that great. Whereas the marshmallow, toasted on a stick that Caroline had whittled and assembled into a s'more by my husband, was heavenly.

Image is by Maira Kalman, from the Illustrated Food Rules. "When you eat real food, you don't need rules."

Friday Link Love

Some things I found captivating, thought-provoking, or just plain fun this week: ~

"BLOOM SKIN" -- YouTube (video)

How cool would it be to do something like this in worship...

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGTOq4RGMP4]

~

NPR Tries to Get Its Pressthink Right -- PressThink

NPR has a new ethics policy:

With [the policy], NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

Maintaining the “appearance of balance” isn’t good enough, NPR says. “If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side…” we have to say so. When we are spun, we don’t just report it. “We tell our audience…” This is spin!

May God bless them and keep them as they (hopefully) seek to live into that...

~

Pursuit, by Stephen Dobyns -- Writer's Almanac

Each thing I do I rush through so I can do something else. In such a way do the days pass— a blend of stock car racing and the never ending building of a gothic cathedral. Through the windows of my speeding car, I see all that I love falling away: books unread, jokes untold, landscapes unvisited. And why?

More at the link. Powerful.

~

Forty Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent -- House for All Sinners and Saints

Good, simple ideas.

Day 7: Give 5 items of clothing to Goodwill

Day 8: No bitching day

Day 9: Do someone else’s chore

Day 10: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter

(Sunday)

Day 11: Call an old friend

Day 12: Pray the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news)

 Etc.

~

Tertium Squid -- Gordon Atkinson

Gordon has been blogging each day during Lent---good, heart-wrenching stuff from his vantage point as a former pastor. His mini-essays have become daily reading for me, since the book our congregation is using was written by yours truly.

I don't have much to say to God these days. No requests. No praises. No promises that I'll be a better boy. It's not that I have anything against talking to God. It's just that I did so much of that for such a long time. I grew up in the Baptist church where all we did was yammer on about this and that. Then I ended up being a preacher for twenty years. I've done my share of talking is what I'm saying. I'm kind of in a season of quiet these days.

I like to say I'm listening to God, but I've never heard God say anything. I get messages now and then but they always come through a side channel.

What I do these days when I pray is get very quiet. You have to work hard at real quiet. It takes me about twenty minutes to settle in. The Quakers taught me that. At first I thought the Quaker meetings seemed kind of long. Later I found myself arriving early so I could get calm ahead of time because I was losing a third of the hour to the fidgets.

~

Elaine Pagels on the Book of Revelation -- Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

Pagels ... shows that Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing. It’s essentially a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement in the late first century, with Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed and the Saviour, despite his promises, still not back. All the imagery of the rapt and the raptured and the rest that the “Left Behind” books have made a staple for fundamentalist Christians represents contemporary people and events, and was well understood in those terms by the original audience. Revelation is really like one of those old-fashioned editorial drawings where Labor is a pair of overalls and a hammer, and Capital a bag of money in a tuxedo and top hat, and Economic Justice a woman in flowing robes, with a worried look.

...

What’s more original to Pagels’s book is the view that Revelation is essentially an anti-Christian polemic.

~

We're Starting a New Presbyterian Church -- Bruce Reyes-Chow

It will be an online church.

It's an intriguing prototype (to use language we heard at NEXT) and I think I'd sum up my opinion of this with one of the comments: "Please push the envelope on this, while regarding the en-fleshed experience of the gospel as essential."

~

Why It Matters That Our Politicians Are Rich -- Boston.com

Politicians would like us to believe that all this money doesn’t matter in a deeper sense—that what matters is ideas, skills, and leadership ability. Aside from a little extra business savvy, they’re regular people just like the rest of us: They just happen to have more money.

But is that true? In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.

Read the studies for yourself and tell me what you think.

~

Have a good weekend, everyone.

The Pre-Lenten Roundup

The other day I surveyed my Facebook friends to find out what people are doing to observe the season.

Besides reading this OF COURSE.

I have done a variety of things for Lent, ranging from nothing special to taking on an additional discipline, such as morning prayer or devotional reading. If you are inclined to add a spiritual discipline, may I recommend my friend Mary Allison's practice of writing a letter each day? If you're in Memphis you can even take a workshop on the topic!

I was recently drawn to this blog that describes "speed creating," in which this inventive fellow spent 30 days making an amazing new thing each day. What would it be like to have Lent be a season for tinkering? It doesn't have to be elaborate, like the thread light:

I like the idea of creating something for Lent. It speaks to me of the tradition of repentance, but in a novel way. One definition of repentance is to "go beyond the mind that you have." What could be more in keeping with that than to repurpose the things of our lives? After all, we are moving toward Easter, the ultimate story of transformation and repurposing. Death gives way to new life. An instrument of violence becomes the place where God's forgiveness is proclaimed.

But as captivated as I am by these practices, I will be giving something up instead. I am in a Meister Eckhart-ish place, who said that the spiritual life is a process of subtraction.

The truth is, I am feeling like Bilbo these days: "thin, sort of stretched, like butter, scraped over too much bread." I am feeling the need for some space, friends. So something is going to go.

I'm a little wary of Lenten fasts as nothing more than self-help couched in spiritual terms: I'm going to give up sweets so I can lose some weight! Self-improvement is a good thing, but is a new exercise regimen during Lent really devotional at heart, or is it a second chance at the New Year's resolution? (That said, I think some people take the hand-wringing a bit far.)

When I give something up, it is a reminder to breathe and pray, to experience radical contentment, and to remember that the object of my fast is not the "one thing needful," as much as I may crave it in that moment.

An example: a friend of mine is going to give up bread, so that the only bread she consumes during Lent is communion bread, what we call the bread of heaven. I'll bet you good money that she will lose weight during this time. But do you see how weight loss is not at all the focus?

I still haven't decided what I will be giving up, but it's been a topic of conversation in our house. The girls have suggested we all give up desserts. I think we're going to do this. Dessert has become a point of contention in our home---I am soooo tired of the constant needling, the negotiating, the comparing of cookie sizes. Having that whole issue off the table (pun intended) feels very spacious to me. But I'm still pondering how it connects us to Spirit.

What do you think? Those who observe Lent, what will your practice be?

One final thing. To those folks, mostly non-religious or de-churched, going around saying "I'm giving up Lent for Lent"...

Yes, I've heard that one.