Ashes to Ashes
Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust –
Now covered in dust. Read more
Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust –
Now covered in dust. Read more
I was in 8th grade the first time I learned there was a Nazi in my family tree. My mom was helping me with a school project for my English and Language Arts class. We were reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I learned much later that my English teacher covered this topic only with those classes with whom she trusted the material. The assignment was to create a family album and to learn about our history and narrative. As we were talking about how my grandparents came to live in Cincinnati, Ohio, my mom pulled out the old photo. She hesitated before showing it to me. “I want you to know that I will understand if you choose not to include this in your photo album,” she said. “I’ll leave that decision up to you.” Mom knew how cruel middle school kids could be. I doubt she trusted my classmates as much as my English teacher did. Who knew how they would react?
There it was, in black and white: a great uncle in his Nazi uniform seated next to his two young boys in their brown shirts. Mom explained that this great uncle is a family member about whom the family rarely talked. I’m still not sure how it came to be in my mother’s possession. Yet there it was, and it could not be ignored. Mom and I talked about what an impossible decision families faced if they were unable to emigrate from Germany: either join the Nazi party or face starvation. Even as an 8th grader, I knew that we cannot erase our history. We must attend to our histories.
2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
Lent is a tough season in the liturgical calendar. It is a time for preparation, which means that it is a time for spiritual discipline. Lenten discipline rests on three pillars: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which I have come to understand as all variations of fasting. Prayer is a fasting from the ego. Almsgiving is a fasting from holding on.
Lent arrives like salt in the wound during pandemic-time. Our collective series of lockdowns, quarantines, and isolations over the last two years have been an unavoidable and necessary time of fasting. We fasted from showing up, eating out, paid work, vacations, parties, hugs, and growing friendships or networks. We fasted from variety itself. We fasted from charting and anticipating the future. Whether or not we had gravitated toward this spiritual practice in the past, we were all shoved into the deep end.
During my fasting, the image of the clay jar kept rising to the surface of my thoughts. I had spent time in the past considering the spiritual implications of the outside appearance of the jar – its brittleness and plainness – but I realized that the boundaries of the jar are only half of the story. The other half is its hollowness, its emptiness. A jar is only useful as a jar if it is hollow, no matter its outside appearance. I came to see that who we are as human beings is as much the emptiness that we bring to the world as it is the claiming of our borders. God has called each of us jars into which They place the treasures of Christ. But the world also endeavors to fill us up with its “treasure” so we need times of fasting to empty out our hollow places once more. We tend to our hollowness by being quiet and still; by sleeping; by holding our ambiguity; by forming no hasty opinion; by observing, confessing, repenting, and listening; even by dying. Lent is a season to tend our emptiness.
Our fifth frozen embryo transfer (FET) was on Ash Wednesday last year.
Our first pregnancy ended on an Ash Wednesday three years before that. In between those experiences, Lent became a time not for deepening my connection with God but to try and wrangle my body into pregnancy through fertility treatments. I did not know if this last transfer then was ominous or an opportunity for redemption.
The senior pastor I worked with took care of everything that Ash Wednesday. I didn’t have to scramble to write notes for someone else to preach from as I did three years before while bleeding and cramping and crying. I didn’t just go to worship and sit on a stool to preach because I was so uncomfortable in preparation for an egg retrieval as I did two years before. I wasn’t meticulously planning my days around food, shots, and yoga as I was just one year before on Ash Wednesday. I had wanted then to be healthy and give myself the best opportunity to get pregnant, and I found out on the last day of that Lent that I was pregnant, only to miscarry again.
Lent, the season of forty days before Easter beginning with Ash Wednesday, should be a season of preparing our hearts for resurrection, of looking at our lives to see what we need to change to draw closer to God, of spending time in contemplation and prayer and discernment. Instead, for me, it has become a desperate struggle to keep believing resurrection is possible at all. It has been a desperate struggle to make meaning of the phrase from dust we are and to dust we return, instead of finding it a truth of the vast emptiness of my life.
When I began to write about God, I was 20 years old, reeling from the end of a four-and-a-half-year relationship, and still struggling to piece together my faith two years after returning to Christianity after a long period of agnosticism. There was very little that made sense to me that summer as I ached for the future I’d lost and searched for glimpses of the God I had once cut all ties with. It was out of the longing and the hurt and the confusion that I found words.
As I worked to intentionally reconnect with God, as I faced the reality of no longer being part of a pair, I strung together poems that were (I didn’t realize then) defining my lived theology. I discovered a God who was infinite and terrifying, playful and beautiful, and I worshipped this God in my words.
I kept these poems hidden. I’d compiled them into a document that I’ve only ever sent to those I felt a particularly close relationship with. I can count on my hands the number of people who have seen them in the decade or so since. There was something so intimate about the idea of letting people see this part of me, so I knew these poems had to be guarded and protected.
Eight years later, I graduated from seminary. While I am grateful for many things I learned and people I met while at seminary, there was a lot about the experience that was draining. My seminary had no real queer theological presence on campus—I’d slipped out of the closet as non-binary towards the end of my first year there, and I spent the rest of my time educating administration and pushing for gender-neutral restrooms and housing.
Another part of myself that I felt slipping away was the part of me that became curious about seminary in the first place—the poetic part of me that wanted to get to know all it could about the mysterious, glorious, confusing and incredible God I had met one summer in the mountains years before. Instead, I found myself picking up the beliefs that so often come with seminary and have nothing to do with God. The belief that my value came from exam scores. The need to have a ministry-related job that could be easily understood in a few words upon graduation. The sickening feeling that I had to compete, win, and be the best.
So, as I looked towards my Lenten discipline for the year after I graduated seminary, I knew I had to reconnect with the parts of myself that I’d neglected while in school. I needed to nurture both my queerness and the part of my faith that could not be expressed in a clean exegesis paper. The discipline I landed on was simple: write one poem, connected in some way to God, every day. The twist for me was my accountability check: I would post the poems on Facebook. Read more
Many years ago, my friend had a young daughter with serious medical issues who had to be hospitalized for several weeks. Understandably, my friend was under enormous stress and she did not have the time, energy, or desire to cook. Her priority was being with her daughter in the hospital. So, for these weeks, she subsisted on rice cakes (this being the early 1990’s, rice cakes were ubiquitous in the low-fat, high carbohydrate craze). It was a quick way to eat, and it felt the appropriate food considering her circumstances. She was sad and fearful, and food had no taste: might as well eat something that tastes as wretched as she feels. It wasn’t just that the rice cakes were dry and flat; her spirit was dry and flat.
Thanks to God’s mercy, the daughter recovered and was released from the children’s hospital. But my friend continued to eat race cakes. Though her child was now well, she had developed a habit of eating them, and a habit is hard to break.
A couple of years passed, and the season of Lent was coming up, a season in which traditionally people give up something of value to them. My friend was surprised when, in prayer, the Holy Spirit nudged her with an invitation: “maybe you should give up rice cakes for Lent.” When my friend told family members, they teased her. After all, people normally fast from something desirable, like chocolate or coffee. Who gives up rice cakes for Lent? But my friend did, and, within days of giving it up, she lost her craving for them. At the conclusion of Lent, she didn’t resume her rice cake eating ways. It was God’s way of signaling to her that her previously dry and flat season was over.
I resonate with my friend’s experience. Too easily I have slipped into the habitual thought. “This is my lot in life: I just have to make do with eating crumbs and feeling crummy.” When I look around at the state of the world and the state of this county, I grow discouraged and overwhelmed: how long will the wicked prosper? In the face of these challenges, I need to be paying attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Seasons change, and there will come a time when this painful season is over. Sometimes I act as if subsisting on rice cakes is the only way forward. But as Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season…a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” There is a season for fasting, and there is a season for feasting. There is a time for us to give up something of value, and there is a time for us to reexamine what has become too valuable to us and why. There is a time to eat rice crackers beside a hospital bed, but there is also a time to come to the Lord’s banqueting table, and experience afresh the banner of love unfurled over our heads.
My hope is that we pay attention and heed God’s gracious invitations to us. When appropriate, God will invite us to mourn and to wear sackcloth, and, also God will eventually invite us to cast off those sackcloth and grave clothes that cling to us long after a season has ended. When the Lord nudges us, let us trade the dry and the tasteless for God’s extravagant banquet.
Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
God’s beloved dust,
fabric of the universe—
of planets newly discovered
and ruins ancient, broken
God’s beloved dust,
we’ll walk into wilderness
on a Wednesday—
a wilderness of words
a wilderness for the wise
and the weary.
God’s beloved dust,
ushered from pew to pastor,
they will pause.
or resolute in meeting mine,
an awkward encounter
breaking the boundary of space—
to touch another’s face
and to mark it
God’s beloved dust,
thumb to forehead,
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
what God can do
with God’s beloved dust.
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
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.
“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.