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Palm ashes burnt in bowl with dried palm frond cross on top

A Poem on the Eve of Lent

Palm ashes burnt in bowl with dried palm frond cross on top

Palm ashes for God’s beloved dust

God’s beloved dust,
fabric of the universe—
of planets newly discovered
and ruins ancient, broken
and us.

God’s beloved dust,
we’ll walk into wilderness
on a Wednesday—
a wilderness of words
and want
and wonder,
a wilderness for the wise
and the weary.

God’s beloved dust,
ushered from pew to pastor,
they will pause.
Eyes averted
or closed
or resolute in meeting mine,
an awkward encounter
breaking the boundary of space—
to touch another’s face
and to mark it
mortal.

God’s beloved dust,
thumb to forehead,
brokenhearted,
breaking with tradition,
I will say

to God’s beloved dust—
to the squirming infant
barely a month from the womb,
to the mother, headscarfed,
halfway through chemotherapy,
to the wrinkled widow
well acquainted with ashes:

Remember you are God’s beloved dust
and to God’s beloved dust you shall return.

And we will watch and wait
to witness
what God can do
with God’s beloved dust.

Dear Celebrity

writing-1209121_640Dear Celebrity,

The first time I met you was a very memorable occasion. I’d met celebrities of your stature before, but they’d all been a meet-and-greet sort of thing or strictly business—the kind of official interactions where it didn’t matter at all who I was. Honestly, I haven’t liked many of them. So when I saw you, at the end of a long day that had started twelve hours before, I wasn’t exactly giddy. You were there, at church, with your kids, having just moved into the neighborhood a few months before. You were looking for an Episcopal church with kids’ programs, because apparently not everyone in Hollywood is either atheist or crazy, right-wing, born-again Christian. I found that hopeful. You were also there on the most somber of holy days: Ash Wednesday, that day when we smear ashes on our foreheads with the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. I thought, “Good Lord, what an introduction. Welcome to our church. Remember, you’re all going to die.”

I talked to your kids about Sunday School, about how long the class is and what they’d learn. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation, that you had entered my world. I’ve entered into your world—worlds you’ve created—many times. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen you in. You’re really one of my favorites. And there I was, talking to you in real life, like you’re regular folk. I mean, of course you are a person like anyone else, but let’s be honest, in many ways you’re not. You and I live in the same neighborhood but not in the same world. Yet there you were, in this church, on my turf, interested in things that are my responsibility. All I could think was, “I really hope I don’t make an idiot of myself.” I’m pretty sure I did, even though I was trying very hard to act normally and not geek out. Most importantly, I was trying to make it about the kids, because that’s why you were there. You were not there as a famous actress. You were there as a mom, and I wanted so much to make sure that’s how I treated you. I’m sorry I let it slip that I was a huge fan of your hit show while your son was talking about being friends with your co-star. It was a natural segue, but I hope it wasn’t unprofessional.

None of that is why your first visit was memorable, though. Read more

Swallowing a Bitter Pill: A Lenten Journey

Bitter Pills of Lent

Bitter Pills of Lent

“I’m giving up Lent for Lent!”

It is a common joke around this time of year when worship leaders start planning for the Lenten season. I know I’ve said it before — even meant it. Lent can be a big, busy, bitter pill to swallow.

Ash Wednesday is one half of the encapsulation of Lent. It begins the 40 days when we wander through our own wilderness before we turn our focus onto the actions of Jesus in Holy Week. We start with the confession: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The message is easy: you have an expiration date. You are inhabiting a body of dust and ash that will, one day, fail you. These words are meant to stir our hearts and allow us to deepen our spiritual life during the Lenten journey. Two people I love, one a long-standing friend named Martin and the other, a mentor for many of us through his writing, helped me confront my own mortality on Ash Wednesday about 10 years ago.

At that time, I had been reading the words of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, writing words to himself that he needed to hear, said, “You so much want to heal yourself, fight your temptations, and stay in control.  But you cannot do it yourself. …acknowledge your powerlessness.” Not only did Nouwen need to hear this, but I did as well. I wasn’t just pessimistic and melancholy. I found myself unable to concentrate and in a miserable mood all the time. I realized things had to change when I misplaced a paycheck and wore two different color shoes to work. (And, it wasn’t a navy and black shoe — it was a black and a red shoe!) Like Nouwen, I wanted to believe that I was in control and the answer to my problems. But I found myself unable to find motivation to do anything. I didn’t want to admit my powerlessness.

In this state of mind, I found myself crying to my friend Martin over the phone. He knew my struggle and encouraged me to call the doctor. Through my tears, Martin pointed out: “Jen, this is a grace moment.” That year my Ash Wednesday confession was to see the truth in my mortality, to recognize the spiral downward that was far from normal, and to seek help for depression.

I went to my doctor, and on Ash Wednesday my prescription for antidepressants was filled. It is amazing how one pill can force you to look at yourself and life differently. Sounds a bit crazy, but it is true. I didn’t want to go to the doctor; I didn’t want to admit that my life was being affected by being depressed. All of this was a desire to avoid admitting that I was mortal. I had certainly avoided admitting my need for help. But, with a sip of water and a small green pill, I stared down the fact that I was human, broken, and in need of help. It was thanks to those two voices in my life: Nouwen showed me courage to love myself enough to tell the truth, and my friend Martin gave me the final push to face reality because of God’s grace.

Just as Lent begins with our confession, the Lenten journey is encapsulated on the other side by Maundy Thursday and the powerful words of absolution. “By the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.”

By no means is depression sinful! No illness ever is. But for me, depression was part of the brokenness of the world within me. I desperately needed to hear that God overcomes brokenness. My sinfulness was my pride in trying to say I was in control; it wasn’t the disease. There is nothing more powerful than the voice of someone saying “you are forgiven” to make you ready to face Easter’s joy and to give you hope after your confession. Those first 40 days weren’t the end of my struggle with depression. They were, though, the beginning of a longer journey of healing, a journey that I found the courage to take 10 years ago with a confession, a pill, a sip of water, and the promise that God is greater than myself.

So, no, I won’t be giving up Lent for Lent. Each year it is another pill to swallow that allows me to deepen my mortal human experience of life. It prepares my heart for Easter, God’s greatest gift of grace.