Posts

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.

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Communion in the City

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Sign in a New York deli

There’s a story, a myth perhaps, about a congregation that stopped all activities during Lent. That season they gathered for Sunday worship, and then the pastor and elders visited the homes of everyone in the congregation to serve communion. They held no meetings and no rehearsals – only worship on Sundays and in homes.

Anytime I complained to a former colleague about how busy my church was she would tell me this story. The idea is wonderful, but one that would take tremendous planning and congregational buy-in. Neither I nor the congregation I now serve was ready for this kind of endeavor, but the story got me thinking about communion and Lent in new ways.

During Lent in 2014, I invited the congregation I serve to join me for “Communion in the City.” Each Wednesday evening we gathered in a public space for fellowship and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. During the five weeks that we met, we broke bread at two different Panera Bread restaurants, the mall food court, a McDonald’s, and a downtown outdoor space. Read more

Turbulent Waters: Discovering Church

OnesWeLoveImage

Sis on Rocks

Sleepily nursing my eight-day-old daughter after sending my one- and three- year olds off to school, I considered that it was Wednesday. Not just any Wednesday, but Ash Wednesday. I felt something stir deep within my exhausted, still healing body: “I want to go to church today.” Not to preside, but to be present at the beginning of the spiritual and temporal accounting that is Lent. Only the day before, my pediatrician had specifically forbidden me to take my baby to church and risk exposing her to others’ infections. Dare I disregard her advice? Choosing the safer route, I reached out to my fellow young clergy women, seeking sermons they would be preaching that day. I read each sermon aloud to my daughter, each one eloquent and challenging in its own way. But with each sermon that I read, my soul yearned more deeply for church.

I didn’t long to be in my church. I didn’t need to say anything or to know anyone. I imagined sliding into a back pew in a church full of strangers. I imagined joining a long line of worshippers receiving the imposition of ashes. I imagined the ashy sign of the cross on my as-yet unbaptized daughter. Body and soul, I longed for this experience.

It dawned on me that I needed to mark the Lenten journey somehow. Exhausted, on maternity leave from my congregation, I wondered what I might do to stay connected in the rhythm of the church year. I settled on simplicity as my Lenten practice. I resolved to clear out and clean my house during the six weeks before Easter. Each morning I would set my intention to allow the external cleaning process to clear away my internal barriers to God. And each day after only a few minutes I found myself on the phone – my mother, my sister, my best friend, anyone who had time to talk – because again, I longed for community. I wanted to be with someone in the ritual.

Only three weeks later, my infant daughter was hospitalized with RSV and my resolve toward simplicity became a large-as-life reality. I ate. I slept. My husband and I traded child care for our older children and vigil for the baby. And I prayed. On the second night that my daughter was in the hospital, I realized again that I needed church. I reached out to a member of my congregation who has the gift of healing. I needed connection. I needed someone else’s strength, someone else’s prayers. My soul yearned for church.

The next week my daughter came home, and the unrelenting pace of life with young children caught up with me. My husband and I were more exhausted than ever, and now everything needed to be done – dishes, laundry, play time with the children, grocery shopping, hair cuts, school pictures, etc. My life felt out of control, chaotic. I couldn’t find energy to pray or space to sit in God’s presence. I wanted someplace that I could find solitude and solace. I longed for a break from the chaos of our lives. Again, I yearned for church.

The longer I was away from church, the more spiritually unmoored I felt. I became a raft floating on turbulent waters. At the beginning, it seemed I could almost touch the shore from my little raft. But in a few short weeks, I was so far out to sea that I couldn’t even see which direction to point myself. I still longed for something beyond what my family, friends, therapist, or I could provide. I just didn’t know which way to set out in search of what might reconnect me.

And then, my daughter was old enough to venture into the world. We attended church as a family to celebrate Easter. I was exhausted, and I moved through the ritual almost mindlessly. But when I came home, I found I was reconnected, grounded. My soul felt peace. We had experienced church.

Certainly, you find church in the rituals of worship, and indeed in gathering for worship at all. However, church is so much more than worship. It includes my singular experience of God paired with others’ experiences of God, somehow coming together in a communal experience of God. Church is the place where body meets body and soul meets soul. It is the place of absolute safety and security, where we each are defined by God’s love of us — and where we together come to completion in that love. Without all of these elements, church never becomes church. Perhaps this was Paul’s intention when he spoke of the community as the Body of Christ. This community, this church, brings us connection, grace, strength, healing, peace.

Easter Sunday night was a tough one. I was up with the baby more often than I was asleep. Yet somehow, even in this sleeplessness, I found a rest I had not felt in a long time. I still had a long way to go on my journey back to wholeness, but I no longer felt completely unmoored. The waters felt calmer; I knew which way to head. I felt direction, connection, peace.

I can meet God on a beautiful lakefront. I can meet God in personal Bible study and prayer. But I can’t meet you there. I now understand how it is significant that we do church together. Participating in ritual alongside other people connects us with God in an important and unique way. Whether it’s trudging the road to the cross during Lent, or celebrating the risen Christ in the Eucharist, or living our day-to-day chaotic lives, church invites us to do it in community. Others’ simple presence tells us we’re not alone; we’re not the only ones. And that makes all the difference.

 

 

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.

Spring Comes

seedlingHas anyone else noticed that the liturgical calendar and the academic calendar seem to sync up from time to time? Think about Advent… The eager awaiting spirit we hold as we celebrate the birth of Jesus lines up with the anticipation of surviving fall exam week and beginning Winter Break. As a last semester divinity student, Lent’s unique spirit of endurance, intentional discipline, and dim-yet-present hope echo within my soul (and on my calendar) as graduation approaches.

This final year of Divinity School has been the most challenging of the three for me. I battle daily with self-doubt, fear, and answerless questions. Beyond the countless theological questions, I cannot run from the unanswered questions within my own self that ceaselessly bombard me as I traverse these last few months. Am I really cut out for ministry? Was what I interpreted to be a call really a call? Is ordination on the horizon in the coming years? What is this ever-elusive thing I keep hearing about called self-care? What can ministry look like in non-congregational settings? Am I going to find a position in a nonprofit or organization that gives me life? Has this all been worth it? Am I any more spiritual or knowledgeable than when I started classes two and a half years ago?

As I’m thrown into a place of reflection nearing graduation (as if the entirety of divinity school wasn’t reflective enough…), I think of the richness in images found in nature, particularly gardening. I’m planning spring/summer garden for this year and have been amazed over and over at the mystery of the growth process. Like planting and working a garden, my divinity school career has met its fair share of messiness, inconvenience, and failure. Plans were subverted, unexpected barriers sprung up, and chaos seemed to rule. Yet, I cannot deny that I have caught a glimpse of the breathtaking potential of beauty out of chaos, and growth out of the dirt. I may be overstating the divinity school experience, but as I think of the journey I’ve made throughout the years, I think of myself as a seed being gently placed into the earth. Watching the growth of a plant from its beginning as a seed to its fullness as a productive plant is undeniably an incredible experience. I feel like a rooted yet fragile sprout, not yet blooming; I have weathered an undoubtedly treacherous part of the journey with much nurture and maintenance, but I have much growth ahead of me.

Though the slow, steady walk toward my diploma this semester is nothing really like the slow, steady walk of Jesus to the cross (and resurrection), I see some parallels. The human Jesus must have had questions, doubts, and fears, wondering if his life and journey were worth it. Yet, there he was, in a particular place and time, for distinct, yet seemingly invisible purposes. This Lenten season, I await the beauty and renewal of Easter. I find myself here during Lent, in my final semester, actively waiting for the renewal of the earth in spring, the celebration of God’s living presence in Easter, and a completed chapter of my life in graduation. I traverse this academic season with a similar spirit as I do the liturgical season of Lent; I walk the divinity school halls daily with the hope of endurance, strained discipline, and a dim-yet-present hope that this bud will bloom, that graduation (and the set of adventures thereafter) is coming.

Baylee Smith will be graduating with her Master of Divinity degree from Wake Forest University School of Divinity in May. She graduated from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Ancient Greek in 2010. Baylee served as a Pastoral Intern at Salem Presbyterian Church and as a Garden Ministry Intern at First Christian Church in Greensboro. She serves on the Board of Directors at The Shalom Project, a nonprofit that seeks to meet the needs of members of the greater West Salem neighborhood in Winston-Salem. She serves on student government at the School of Divinity and sits on the Hunger Advisory Board at WFU. At Forsyth Futures, Baylee is working as Lead Researcher and intern on the Faith-Based Community Organization Community Engagement Initiative linking Forsyth County congregations to one another and gathering data regarding outreach initiatives.

photo credit: dixieroadrash via photopin cc

Breathe In The Breath of Life: A Lenten Breath Prayer

FOP2013_400God of all creation, you formed us from the dust and breathed life into us. Our breath is your breath. Your spirit moves within us and gives us life.

Too often we hold our breath, we are so focused on the immediate. Too often we feel choked by the tasks crying out for our attention.

Remind us, Creator, that we are yours, that every breath comes from you, that you sustain us and nourish us from the same earth which you used to form us, and to which we will one day return.

Remind us, Eternal Spirit, how to breathe. Fill us deeply with your powerful presence, open our mouths to inhale your goodness and your grace.

Remind us, O Redeemer, that you have set us free from everything that separates us from you. As we pause now to pray with each breath, help us to let go.

 

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing your sins to God’s grace

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing the assumptions that blind us to God’s truth

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing the desire to consume things that cannot fill you

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing yourself from the power of false idols

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing the fears that lead you to doubt yourself and God

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, releasing your need for control.

Breathe in the breath of life.

Breathe out, and let go of all that separates you from God. Amen.

 

With the theme of “Letting Go,” the “Fellowship of Prayer” daily devotional from Chalice Press offers reflections by young clergy on how to free ourselves from sin, assumptions, consumption, idolatry, fear, and control. Then, we can truly celebrate Easter with the freedom of Christ’s death and resurrection. Print copies are sold out, but the e-book can be purchased for download at http://www.chalicepress.com/Lent-Devotional-Fellowship-of-Prayer-2013-EPDF-P1241.aspx

Bethany Fellows seeks to nurture new, young Disciples of Christ clergy in order to help them develop a rhythm of spiritual practices and patterns for a life time of ministry. For four years, Bethany Fellows attend two retreats each year, where they are offered peer support, mentoring, site visits, inspiring speakers, prayer, worship, and a time of silent reflection. More information can be found at http://bethanyfellows.org/