Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sacred Dust

It's been on my mind a lot lately--our last Ash Wednesday service.  Not the one we just celebrated where my husband and I wrapped up our three sons like Ralphie's brother in "A Christmas Story," trudging out through our snow and ice-laden neighborhood to make it to church.  I'm thinking of the last Ash Wednesday service I celebrated as campus minister three years ago.  I hadn't realized at the time how powerful a moment it was.  But now the holiness of that time hits me so hard it takes my breath away.  It has a sacred quality that lifts it out of memory, making it real and alive for me now.  Even now.  When that moment past is so far away, so far out of my today experience, so far out of my grasp.
Ash Wednesday fell during our Spring Break.  None of the students could afford to go on a trip that year so we stayed in town, finding ways to be missional in our own community.  And on Wednesday we gathered on the front porch of our campus ministry house for our service.
We began outside  because we first had to make ashes.  Most congregations make theirs from the previous year's palm branches.  But ours were made from little scraps of post-it notes folded tightly into tiny packages, love notes offered to God during our worship throughout the year.  College students don't often have much money to put in the plate, but they have all kinds of things on their hearts.  Each week I would encourage them to write down whatever they needed to bring to God that week:  "Thank You", "I'm sorry", "Please help me!"  Each week I would gather the pastel scraps along with the loose dollars and change.  The money would go to support the ministry.  The scraps of paper would be kept for ashes.
So we stood on the front porch with lighter, post-its, and an old cake pan, surrendering those needs to the flames, entrusting them to God.  Once all was said and done, those were the ashes we spread on one another's foreheads, reminding each other that we are made from dust, and to dust we would return.
Wow.  How powerful is that?  To have the ashes of someone else's need smeared upon your forehead?  To recognize our own dustiness, our limited humanity,  by the need we cannot escape?  To bear one another's burdens by wearing them upon our own skin as prayer to God?  To touch at the same time our own deep need and God's deep mercy by standing in the gap for each other?  All I can say is--wow.
But our worship did not stop there.
We left the porch, piled into my van, and went to the heart of town to serve.  First serving lunch at the Salvation Army.  Next painting an old building to prepare it for new ministry.
We became the living sacrifices Paul talks about in Romans, carrying our crosses--literally the ones smeared upon our foreheads--into the places that need God's redemption the most.
In wearing the sign of our redemption we became signs of God's redemption in the world around us.
I remember at the time feeling less than, not enough, because we hadn't made it out of the city for a "Spring Break Mission Trip."  The irony is that now I stand before that memory, so tempted to feel like I am less than, not enough, because the needs and demands of my own life keep me from serving lunch at the Salvation Army or painting old buildings to prepare them for ministry.
But Grace asks me for a different response, a deeper one.  God isn't asking me to feel guilty for circumstances beyond my control; God is asking me to receive the gift that memory brings.
I am after all, only dust.  But this dust that I am, that all of us are, is sacred.  It is held as infinitely precious in God's eyes.  Oh so fallible, fragile even.  But of inestimable value to the Divine.  It is why God sent Jesus to us, to show us our value, to save us from our fallible, fragile selves.
And how we choose to live within the circumstances we have, shows exactly what our attitude toward dust is.
Do we live as servants?  Or ego-maniacs?  Do we labor diligently to save our own pride?  Or do we give ourselves to guard the dignity and well-being of others? 
I think about my station in life, mostly at home with three sons.  Each one is growing so fast.  And I realize how vast is my influence on the men they will become.  This mission field is so dear to my heart.  I am so thankful for the opportunity to nurture a spiritual harvest in the place I love most.
And then I think about my work at the preschool, where I lead chapel.  And where I serve as one who can step in wherever and whenever there is need.  One day when I was helping out in the office it became clear that a little one needed some extra attention.  For this little guy there are legitimate reasons why some days he just needs his own person.   I spent much of that day holding him close, softly singing in his little ears, praying as a shepherd who carries the smallest, most vulnerable lamb.  I'm writing with wet eyes.  I get it now.  This kind of moment is just as sacred and alive and holy as those others long past.
What are we to do with our dusty selves?
Sometimes we have the means to rearrange our circumstances, to altar the outlines of the life we are living.  And sometimes we can't.  We feel, for all intents and purposes, stuck.  But we can always choose how we will live within the life we have.  We can always choose how we will regard the dust that we are, and the dust that everyone else is.  We can choose to live as if the ground we walk upon is already Holy, just waiting for us to live as dust that recognizes the Hand of the Divine already at work where we are. 
We can choose to offer up who we are to the Divine Breath that works within us and through us to redeem the whole world.
Right in the very circumstances that we can't seem to change.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Snow Day

We finally got snow--the wonderful kind where you forget your 40-something life with its demands and obligations and responsibilities.  The kind that invites the most reluctant hearted grown-up to release propriety, to get out there and romp around a bit.  The kind that reminds us what it is to play.

It was that kind of snow day. 

We got out the sleds and spun ourselves around in the deserted street outside our home.  Proper parents that we are, we laughed like kids, joining in the delight of our children.  And I found much to my surprise that with enough layers even bitter cold doesn't have to be bitter.  Especially when it is filled with joy.  Warmth spreads all around, never melting the fun.

For me it was a true day of rest.  Sabbath.  I relaxed into its easy rhythm, a bit uncomfortable because I quietly fretted that there was perhaps work needing to be done after all.  But really there never was.  At the end of the day I settled my self into the arms of my husband, sharing a smile, relaxing into that hug as if it was okay to just enjoy the gift we'd been given.

This soul season has been a bit like our little break from the ordinary grind, well, minus the romping.  The way a serious snow blankets our southern town with immobility, this season has settled on me as well.  In our house we have battled incessant coughing and viral infections like everyone else.  And my own sinuses have kept my senses fogged.  In the weariness of getting everyone well and just keeping up with meals and basketball games and school assignments, it has become too much to try to keep up my own creative endeavors.   I've gone quiet on the inside, rolling through each day, attending to needs around and within me.  The whole time relinquishing the striving, driving spirit that must get something useful and purposeful and important done.  Relinquishing the need to prove my life has significance beyond itself.  Relinquishing so I can just be quiet, for a change.

 As my heart has quieted my writing has as well.

I've been listening.  Leaning my inner ear close to the ground of my own being.  Getting familiar with my own dustiness.  Seeing how my own feet are made of clay after all. 

I have wrestled for the past three years with identity issues.  God moved me from full time ministry and planted me squarely at home, without title, position, or matching salary.  I've struggled to know my place and my purpose.  I've struggled to know that I'm still the same person when there is nothing on the outside of me that points to who I thought I was on the inside. 

I've wondered at this long stretch of time, of emptiness and quiet.  And then the last few months of an even deeper stillness, where the emptiness around me seemed to seep into me.  I've wondered.  And watched.  And waited.  And listened.

And while situated in this very personal empty space, the snow began to fall, blanketing my outside world as deeply as my inside one. 

Snow and ice are great levelers.  No matter what human you are, you are at its mercy.  For a day or two, all of us in the whole region were rendered still by impassable streets and biting temperatures and hard-packed layers of cold. 

This stillness has the power to reveal, to show us to ourselves in a way nothing else can.

In my stillness this is what I heard--

I'm still the same me I always ever was.  I've been shaped and formed and named and claimed by all my experiences, and even when circumstances change, those markings still remain on my soul.  I look at the world the same way; I interpret life the same way; I move in concert with the Holy Spirit the same way; and God is as present in my life as ever I knew God to be.  And through this time when all the outward trappings of success and identity and accomplishment have been stripped away, I find that I am more.  

In the silence, in the stillness--I have discovered that I never really lost anything at all.

In fact, the outward trappings became my captivity.  I believed in myself simply because I had outward evidence to prove I was worth believing in.  My belief in my own worth never had any real foundation in reality as long as I believed it came from circumstances outside of me. 

So God set this captive free.

By taking away the very things I had built my sense of self upon.

And in the piercing silence, the quiet stillness, I have seen my true self.  The self I always have been.  Alive, vibrant, radiant with the splendor of a child of the Living God.  And in the quiet stillness I have heard God's simple question:  "Who are you going to believe, them or Me?"