Ash Wednesday – Freedom from Fear

“From dust you were created; to dust you shall return.”

With those words, ashes were smeared on my forehead in the shape of a cross. For some reason the phrase startled me all over again. Maybe I just forgot exactly what gets said at the key moment this day?

The vertical thumb stroke: “From dust you were created.” The little bit of intimacy surprised me too. Brown eyes meeting mine, the press of another’s skin, the whispered voice. I felt myself flinch, before I relaxed into the word “created.” It is awkward but good, this alive created-ness, this being-touched.

Then the horizontal stroke: “To dust you shall return.” This last bit typically is the flinch-inducer. Not only the image of myself someday being sprinkled out of a tin can onto my favorite mountain meadow, but the word “shall.” That little word just kicks the phrase up a level of grave certainty. Whatever else will or will not be in store for me, my dusty end shall come.

Yes I remember this phrase well now, from many Ash Wednesdays. I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, so I experienced it first as a young man in a church that nearly threw the pastor out for introducing the rite one spring. What were these dirty Catholic ashes doing in a Wesleyan church? Why this talk of death in the days leading to Easter, our great celebration of life? The scandal threw everything into a mess that spring, and some people left. It strikes me now that if liturgical folk were paying attention, the ashes of Lent might put us all into more of a scandalized mess than actually happens. We have just been told we shall die, and we file back into our chairs and fiddle with our programs? If the same message had just been delivered over the airplane intercom, would we quietly return to our seats, minds wandering to trivial stuff?

So it’s got my attention, this smear of ashes. But this spring, most surprising of all, the ashes mean for me freedom.

I began my year with a commitment to explore “freedom from fear,” inspired by an essay of that title by Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi (and inspired by her life). That exploration has entailed embracing some new risks. My risks seem meager in comparison with Suu Kyi’s, and I’d feel wimpy admitting them to anyone in her sort of context, but they are real to me all the same. Even as she speaks of a totalitarian society, her words resonate for me: “Chanda-gati [corruption], when not the result of sheer avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill of those one loves; so fear of being surpassed, humiliated, or injured in some way can provide the impetus for ill will.”

This Wednesday’s ashes are a prompt toward liberation from such fear. All that I’m tempted to hoard and clench to my fists shall be dust. I myself shall be dust, plowed back into the elements of the earth. From those elemental molecules has sprung the marvel of created life—my life!—and I get this short exhilarating chance to find out everything beautiful and worthy that’s possible between dust and dust. I may have a few more minutes or a few more decades for it, but count me in.

Sounds bright and brave for the moment. Ok here’s the wimpy part, hedging: I’m in… but only with companions. Who’s in too? If nothing else, the shape of the smear on my forehead reminds us this dusty road’s been travelled, and travelled very well.

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Meal from Below – Action that Transforms

In contexts of great human need, we “contemplative activists” continue to pay attention to what sorts of social action are most truly transformational. Here is what we, together with many of the most cutting-edge practitioners among the poor around the world, are learning on a practical level: the most effective responses to human need are not essentially responses to need at all. They are responses that unleash abundance. And the source of abundance – this is critical – comes not from outside the context of need, but from within. (more…)

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Meal from Below – Shaped for Shalom

Many of us are active in responses to the world’s needs, wounds, and injustices. We resonate with Frederick Buechner’s often-quoted phrase, “God calls us to where our great joy meets the world’s great need.” If we’ve stayed around awhile, we have found this to be true. To be sustainable, our presence in hard places cannot be spurred merely by dogged heroism in the pursuit of righteous causes. Or worse, an asceticism that imagines if there is deprivation somewhere, we have no business enjoying anything anywhere. We have found joy in our difficult places of need, and the joy sustains us. (more…)

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Ordinary Easters

I travelled to Romania for two weeks recently. Out of all my many remarkable experiences, the most amazing was walking into the home of a stranger and seeing at the kitchen table a young woman eating a bowl of soup. Just sitting there, calmly, spoon in hand, slurping soup! Though my heart was pounding at the sight, I held it together in that moment—saving tears of gratitude for later. (more…)

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Meal From Below – The Sign of Jonah

Today is Palm Sunday, commemorating the triumphal entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, to the adulation of crowds. The day marked the apex of his popularity. It is an event in our faith story truly worth celebrating, because it so dramatically foreshadows the final stanza of the great ancient praise hymn quoted by Paul in Philippians 2: “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Even as we hand out palm branches for kids and adults to wave in our churches today, we do so with an asterisk, a celebration with hesitation, because we know how the rest of the week’s story played out. (more…)

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Meal From Below – Eating Brokenness

In the communion meal, Jesus invites us to “eat” brokenness, to take it into ourselves.

Much of our human reflexive impulse is to distance ourselves from brokenness, pain, and shame. We push it away. This impulse is so strong that we construct entire cultural, religious, interpersonal, and psychological patterns to sustain our denial of brokenness. The project requires considerable effort and resources. For that reason the poor typically do it unsuccessfully if at all; their brokenness is frequently on display. Those with more wealth and status usually have, among other prerogatives, the luxury of hiding their mess. (more…)

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Meal from Below – The Work of Affliction

Affliction “pierces our souls,” as the French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil said, and it is no accident that she paired it with beauty as a force that overwhelms our carefully defended selves. Like beauty, affliction cannot be contained or managed. At times, an intense encounter with beauty itself produces an ache, a longing, an awareness of something precious beyond our grasp. (more…)

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Meal From Below – Beauty and Affliction

“Beauty and affliction are the only two things that can pierce our hearts.”
– Simone Weil

The landscape of Lent presents itself as open, empty, deserted. Traditional Lenten observance, following Christ into the wilderness, emphasizes relinquishment. Following the One who emptied himself, we give up a familiar pleasure or comfort for forty days until Easter. Alcohol and meat are standbys, but these days it might be Facebook or Xbox360. Maybe with less clutter we’ll detox a bit and have a few more moments reaching toward God in prayer and reflection.

That much will do. We all could use a little more simplicity, and a little more spiritual connection. Especially for those of us who are activists, Lent proves worthwhile for re-centering and renewal.

If Weil and the mystics are right, the desert experience of the soul holds the possibility for a shift of entirely different magnitude—tearing open the human heart. (more…)

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Meal from Below – Exposed to the Elements

“Lent” comes to us from an ancient word meaning spring; literally, “lengthening.” In the part of the world where these traditions were first formed, the days are growing longer and the night is receding. (For our Street Psalms friends in Alaska this is quite dramatic; in Fairbanks the shift is 7 minutes a day.) People with a particular attentiveness to the earth and sky, as well as movements of the soul, discerned spiritual significance in this. At the very time when we are moving with intention toward the darkest and coldest regions of our faith experience, the cosmos is in movement toward the life and light of resurrection. We call this paradox of faith and experience “the paschal mystery,” recognizing in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the unfolding revelation that death is the gateway to life. (more…)

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Meal from Below – Into the Desert

Detail from “Christ in the Desert,” Ivan Kramskoi, 1872

Thoughts for this first Sunday in Lent:

“A voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:11-12).

The shift from one verse to the next at this juncture of Mark’s narrative of the life of Jesus is stunning. In verse 11 we are with Jesus dripping in the waters of baptism, soaked in the voice of a loving Father’s affirmation and delight. Verse 12 finds this “beloved one” driven out. The verb here (Greek ekballo) is the same language Mark uses to depict Jesus forcefully driving out merchants from the temple or expelling evil spirits from afflicted people. Immediately after his baptism Jesus is the cast-out one, blown almost harshly it seems by the wind of the Spirit into the desert. (more…)

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