What Is Left Behind

Scripture Passage:  Psalm 51: 1-3, 7-13 (Ash Wednesday Psalter)

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me .Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

So, how quickly did you wash them off?  Or were you saved from getting ashes by a Zoom Ash Wednesday Service.  It doesn’t matter.  We know.  We know that yesterday was our day of repentance.  Yesterday was our day of acknowledging that yes, indeed, we are sinful beings.  Goodness, Lent has barely begun and we’re already talking about sin?   We have begun the journey again. It is a journey of giving up and giving in, of wandering in the wilderness, of stopping or at least slowing down enough to let God’s Spirit begin once again to seep into our being. So why do we have to talk about sin?

But sin? Who wants to talk about sin? I mean, I’m Methodist. We are “grace” people, after all! We are forgiven people. Isn’t that what we’re told? God’s mercy is infinite. Jesus took care of all that, right? Really? So, you have no part in this? You just want to go on your merry way? The truth is, what relationship with God would we have if we truly thought we were either sinless or our sins were just hosed off of us without us even knowing what had happened? I mean, what in the world is forgiveness if there’s nothing to forgive? But the fact that God loves me not just in spite of me but BECAUSE of me is a much deeper understanding of God. This is a God who is not waiting for me to clean my act up so I can get on the yellow brick road toward a grace-filled life. This is a God who walks with me down this rocky, sometimes steep and treacherous trail through a wilderness I do not understand and showers me with grace even when I am muddied and worn by sin. This is a God who doesn’t just wait for me to return but takes me by the hand and leads me home no matter what I’ve done or who I’ve been. 

There I said it—sin, Sin, SIN! Hmmm! Steeple didn’t fall off, stained glass windows still there, me, still standing. I think even the Zoom connection is still working.  In this season of wilderness wanderings, it is our time to acknowledge that yes, we mess up; that yes, we make the wrong choices (I’m hoping God doesn’t yet regret that whole free will decision way back when!); that, yes, we sin. But the point is that we also choose—we CHOOSE to follow God on this journey. Now, at the risk of speaking for the Great I AM, I would much rather have a relationship with one who CHOSE to follow rather than one who knew nothing else. Choosing God and being innocent are not the same. In fact, it is from our sin, from the dust of our lives, that we choose God.

Do you remember the so-called “Second Creation account”?  It says that God created humans from the dust of the ground, from the dirty, yucky dust that blew uncontrollably across the land.  The dust moved freely from one place to another carrying the beginnings of life whether or not we knew it.  And then God breathed life into it and it became something new, a New Creation made in the very image of God.  Dust…dirty, yucky, dust…the leftovers, that which remains, that which stays behind clinging to that on which it lands.  We try to wash it away or wipe it down or Febreze it to give it a fresh, clean scent or just sweep it under the rug (you know, with the other dust).  But, no matter what, it ALWAYS returns.  And yet, this season begins by calling us to return to it.  And then we pray to God that we might somehow get a clean heart, a fresh start, a new beginning. 

 So, once again, we acknowledge that we are both in need of God and that God loves us more than we will ever fathom. Now, you would think those two scenarios would fit together rather well. But somewhere along the way, we have somehow replaced our need for God with our need to be perfect. Albert Outler called it “overreaching”, getting in God’s business. See, God doesn’t need us to be perfect, or sinless, or innocent. God desires us to choose to follow. God desires us to be who God calls us to be.

And so, the pathway looms ahead. It’s not always familiar territory. And, in fact, we usually have to leave part of what we carry and hold so tightly behind. We usually tend to travel too weighted down to notice where we need to go. So, give up what you need to give up or take on what you need to take on. And remember when you felt the ashes on your skin to remind you who you are and also whose you are. Let them be a blessing and a beginning. And know that God calls you away from the self that you have imagined. And begin to walk. It is a journey that is hard and difficult and takes you through darkness. But it is a journey that leads to life, that leads to beginning again.

And so this day, we return.  We return to our beginnings.  Rather than expecting God to “wipe us clean”, this day calls us to expect God to create us yet again.  We return to dust so that God can take us, breathe life into us once again, creating in us a clean heart and a new and right Spirit.  Today we become dust once again, moving freely and then clinging to God yet again.  

Meanwhile, sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. (Barbara Brown Taylor, in “Speaking of Sin”)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Both And

Ash Wednesday Lectionary Passage:  Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you… 16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So, several years ago, I heard some pieces of an interview with a political figure questioning another well-known political figure’s religion.  The claim was that it was difficult to discern whether or not this person practiced “legitimate Christianity”.  Really?  And what in the world, pray tell, is “legitimate Christianity”?  And how do you know?  I mean, especially since we’re apparently suppose to be in our rooms with the door shut praying in secret!  But then, aren’t we supposed to be out in the world showing the love of Christ?  Whew!  Well, regardless of the fact that it must have been a slow news day, sometimes it’s just a whole lot of mixed messages, isn’t it?

Today we begin this season of mixed messages, the season of “both-and”.  First of all, Lent itself, literally “springtime”, means that we begin clearing all of the winter debris that has grown and gathered in the flowerbeds and leaving room for new life.  This season is about both pruning and fertilizing, cutting and nurturing.  It’s about cleaning out and freshening up.  Theologically, this season brings images of walking through darkness toward the light, through the wilderness toward home, of giving up and taking on, of death and new life.  We are told to let go and to take up, to lay down and to rise up.  We are told to breathe in and to breathe out.  And now, to pray in secret and go out and serve the world. 

So, is your head spinning?  Maybe that’s why this season is so difficult.  There’s no baby; there’s no star; there’s not even, when you think about, anybody around to tell us not to be afraid.  No one comes to tell us what is going to happen.  There is no appropriately convenient Lenten Annunciation.  We just have to start walking that pathway toward Jerusalem with both assurance and humility.  But this time, in many ways we walk alone.  This God who has walked with us every step of the way has seemed to have gone on at least a few steps ahead of us.  Where Advent kept pushing us back, telling us to wait, in many ways, this season of Lent is pulling us kicking and screaming into something we do not understand, something that, given the choice, we might choose not to do, choose to go back into our room and shut the door.  And yet, we’re told to follow.

I’ve shared this story before, but it is one of my favorites:  A rabbi once told his disciples, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on their needs.  When feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “Ani eifer v’afar; I am dust and ashes.  But when feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or without hope, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha’olam…For my sake was the world created.”

Talk about mixed messages!  We are dust and ashes, resembling that cast-off debris.  And we are loved more than we can even fathom.  We are so very human, struggling with greed and hubris, with some inflated sense of our own worth that makes us think we are better than others or deserve more than others, makes us think that there is some sort of “legitimate Christianity” in which we are called to participate to prove our very worth.  And, yet, somewhere in the midst of our humanity, in the midst of all those things that we do not do or those things we do not do well, there is a piece of the Divine.  Bishvili nivra ha’olam.  Do you even know how much you are loved?  Do you even know how to imagine a God that has given you the world?

Perhaps the mixed messages are because we cannot let go, cannot see what God is offering, cannot fathom how much we are loved.  Today is the day when we proclaim we are dust, when we confess our sins and lay prostrate before the ruins of our lives.  Today is the day when we take burned palm branches and allow them to be smeared across our forehead in the faint shape of a cross.  Today is the day that we remember we are dust, remember that we are particles of waste that are left from what was.  Today is the day when we go in our room and shut the door.  But the only reason we do this is so that we will stop what we are doing, look at our lives, and know how very much we are loved.  Bishvili nivra ha’olam.  For your sake, the world was created. 

Faith is about mixed messages–letting go and taking on, human and Divine, death and life, sending and return.  Perhaps this Season of Lent is about realizing that there is a Holy and Sacred “And” connecting it all.   Lent is not about giving things up; it is about emptying your life that you may be filled.  Lent is not about going without; it is about making room for what God has to offer.  And today is not about clothing yourself in the morbidness of your humanity; it is about embracing who you are before God.

There was once a question posed to a group of children:  “If all the good people in the world were red, and all the bad people in the world were green, what color would you be?”  A little girl thought for a moment.  Then her face brightened, and she replied:  “I’d be streaky!”  We would all be streaky.  To be human is to be a mixture of the unmixable, to be streaky.  It is to live incomplete, yet yearn for completion; to be imperfect, yet long for perfection; to be broken, yet crave wholeness.  It is to live with mixed messages.  And as we begin what is essentially our own journey to the cross, we note that it is one that not only recognizes but embraces the fact that there are many conflicting and disjointed ideals that God, in God’s infinite mystery and wisdom, allows to exist together—arrogance and humility, good and bad, faith and doubt, human and divine, cross and resurrection, death and life—none can exist without its counterpart.  

Faith is about living a life of breathing out and breathing in.  Neither can exist alone.  So…remember…you are dust and ashes…breathe out…..For you the world was created…breathe in….

My ego is like a fortress.  I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God.  But I have stayed here long enough.  There is light over the barriers.  O my God…I let go of the past.  I withdraw my grasping hand from the future.  And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

What is Left

flower_ashes_by_dennisallendorfScripture Passage: Joel 2: 1-3

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.

I know.  What a way to begin the season–darkness and gloom, devouring fire and flame, and desolate wilderness!  I know what you’re thinking.  Can we go back to that manger scene now?  Can we go back to being bathed in light with the hope of the world nestled in our arms?  Well, the problem, is that somewhere on this journey between seasons, we forgot.  We forgot who and whose we were.  Somewhere along the way we became self-sufficient and sure of ourselves.  Somewhere along the way, we thought we had figured it out, thought we were so right.  Somewhere along the way the trumpet announcing the birth of our Savior became our own horn.  Somewhere along the way we forgot that we were blessed not by what God has given us but by what God has called us to do.  You know–scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful, filling the hungry and sending the rich away.  (Hmmm, that sounds distantly and vaguely familiar.) And now we sit in ashes wondering what to do next.

This has been an odd couple of months for me.  It seems that I have turned many times and have run smack-dab into loss of some sort—some have been real honest-to-goodness losses and others have been, well, maybe just sort of grandiose pity-parties because things have not gone as I had planned.  Either way, loss is a time that invites us to move, to pick up the pieces, and hand them back to God.  And as we begin walking, God takes what is left and once again breathes life into it.

Lent is our chance to begin again.  Because, think about it, those ashes that you are going to spread on your forehead today are what is left.  They are what has survived.  After all of the devouring fires scorching the gardens, they are left.  They are the remnant.  They are the hope for what will come next.  So we begin our Lenten journey in ashes because we repent for what we have done.  But that is not the end.  God does not leave us on the ash heap alone.  God picks us up and recreates us, walking us through the wilderness, through the valley of the shadow of death, through the Cross, to Life.  The ashes, the “what is left”, are the beginning.

So what will you do with what is left?  What will you do with your share of ashes?  Repent and turning–that is what this day is about.  No longer do we wallow in morbid shame and guilt; no longer do we pound ourselves down for our past mistakes; no longer do we sit on the ash heap sullen and morose.  This is the day when we begin to begin again.  Pick yourself up!  Dust yourself off!  And start.  This is the day when we begin the journey to life.  But we are called to travel light.  God has given what we need.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  (Luke 1: 46b-49)

As you begin this Lenten journey, what things do you need to leave behind? What things do you need to take with you?  Remember, we are traveling light.  The wilderness journey is long and difficult.  But we are traveling with the one who created us and calls us to live life freely and blessed.

And for a program note…I’m going to try to post every day again during this Holy Season, but sometimes it gets away from me (or I get away from it–I don’t know which).  So, true confessions…I may do some “rehashing” of past blog posts (this one was–with some new tweeking).  I mean, I guess it’s OK to plagiarize yourself, right?  Either way, I hope that it makes for a meaningful season for you.  So, give something up or take something on or just go a little bit deeper than you usually do.  Have a wonderfully profound Lent!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Oh, All This Talk About Sin!

flower_ashes_by_dennisallendorfScripture Passage (Psalm 51: 1-3, 7-13)

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me….Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

 

 

I know, we’re not really ready for Lent yet. (I saw a Christmas tree still up less than two weeks ago. That was a whole lot more festive.) This season has come WAY too fast thanks to an apparent impatient spring on the calendar. So, the pancakes were all eaten last night and the masks have been removed and put away. We are ready to begin the journey again. It is a journey of giving up and giving in, of wandering in the wilderness, of stopping or at least slowing down enough to let God’s Spirit begin once again to seep into our being. But first, first, on this day of dust and ashes, we have to talk about sin.

 

Sin? Who wants to talk about sin? I mean, I’m Methodist. We are “grace” people, after all! We are forgiven people. Isn’t that what we’re told? God’s mercy is infinite. Jesus took care of all that, right? Really? So, you have no part in this? You just want to go on your merry way? The truth is, what relationship with God would we have if we truly thought we were either sinless or our sins were just hosed off of us without us even knowing what had happened? I mean, what in the world is forgiveness if there’s nothing to forgive? But the fact that God loves me not just in spite of me but BECAUSE of me is a much deeper understanding of God. This is a God who is not waiting for me to clean my act up so I can get on the yellow brick road toward a grace-filled life. This is a God who walks with me down this rocky, sometimes steep and treacherous trail through a wilderness I do not understand and showers me with grace even when I am muddied and worn by sin. This is a God who doesn’t just wait for me to return but takes me by the hand and leads me home even when I sin.

 

There I said it—sin, Sin, SIN! Hmmm! Steeple didn’t fall off, stained glass windows still there, me, still standing. (I just went and looked—yes, the sign out front still says United Methodist!) On this day of dust and ashes, it is our time to acknowledge that yes, we mess up; that yes, we make the wrong choices (I’m hoping God doesn’t yet regret that whole free will decision way back when!); that, yes, we sin. But this day is also the day that we choose—we CHOOSE to follow God on this journey. Now, at the risk of speaking for the Great I AM, I would much rather have a relationship with one who CHOSE to follow rather than one who knew nothing else. Choosing God and being innocent are not the same. This day, we acknowledge that we are both in need of God and that God loves us more than we will ever fathom. Now, you would think those two scenarios would fit together rather well. But somewhere along the way, we have somehow replaced our need for God with our need to be perfect. Albert Outler called it “overreaching”, getting in God’s business. See, God doesn’t need us to be perfect, or sinless, or innocent. God desires us to choose to follow. God desires us to be who God calls us to be.

 

And so, the pathway looms ahead. It’s not always familiar territory. And, in fact, we usually have to leave part of what we carry and hold so tightly behind. We usually tend to travel too weighted down to notice where we need to go. So, give up what you need to give up or take on what you need to take on. And feel the ashes on your skin to remind you who you are and also whose you are. Let them be a blessing and a beginning. And know that God calls you away from the self that you have imagined. And begin to walk. It is a journey that is hard and difficult and takes you through darkness. But it is a journey that leads to life, that leads to beginning again.

 

Meanwhile, sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. (Barbara Brown Taylor, in “Speaking of Sin”)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

Return to Dust

Return to DustScripture Text:  Psalm 51: 10-12

10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.  11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Scripture Text:  Genesis 2: 7

7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

This is the day.  The pancakes are gone.  The Mardi Gras beads lay strewn across the road as the wind blows them toward the gutter.  Whatever you did yesterday is gone.  The bingeing stops. And now, now we return to dust.  What an odd lot we are.  We eat and drink ourselves silly early this week so that we can approach the altar today and have ashes wiped on our foreheads.  We party and binge and then mark ourselves as sinners, repentant once again.  I used to think that this day was somewhat overly morose.  It never made sense to me.  Why are we carefree partyers one day and then sullen pious ones the next?  And then, we are warned against being overly pious, overly “showy” of our faith disciplines.  So make up your mind, already!

Dust…dirty, yucky, dust…the leftovers, that which remains, that which stays behind clinging to that on which it lands.  We try to wash it away or wipe it down or use some product named Lemon Pledge to give it a fresh scent and perhaps prolong its return.  But, no matter what, it ALWAYS returns.  But on this day, we return to it.  And then we pray to God that we might somehow get a clean heart, a fresh start, a new beginning. And yet, the second Creation story says that God created humans from the dust of the ground, from the dirty, yucky dust that blew uncontrollably across the land.  The dust moved freely from one place to another carrying the beginnings of life whether or not it knew it.  And then God breathed life into it and it became something new, a new Creation made in the very image of God.

And so this day, we return.  We return to our beginnings.  Rather than expecting God to “wipe us clean”, this day calls us to expect God to create us yet again.  We return to dust so that God can take us, breathe life into us once again, creating in us a clean heart and a new and right Spirit.  Today we become dust once again, moving freely and then clinging to God yet again.  I think, given that image of the dust, I am tempted to become a little “Peterish” (oh no, not just my forehead, but ALL of me…Create ALL of me.) But in that speck of dust shaped in the form of a cross, God begins me again.

Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts but for realizing what we perhaps had not seen before.  (Thomas Merton)

FOR TODAY:  Become dust.  Become free to be created yet again.  Open yourself to God breathing life into you yet again.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

What Is Left

Flower in AshesScripture Passage: Joel 2: 1-3

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.

I know.  What a way to begin the season–darkness and gloom, devouring fire and flame, and desolate wilderness!  I know what you’re thinking.  Can we go back to that manger scene now?  Can we go back to being bathed in light with the hope of the world nestled in our arms?  Well, the problem, is that somewhere on this journey between seasons, we forgot.  We forgot who and whose we were.  Somewhere along the way we became self-sufficient and sure of ourselves.  Somewhere along the way, we thought we had figured it out, thought we were so right.  Somewhere along the way the trumpet announcing the birth of our Savior became our own horn.  Somewhere along the way we forgot that we were blessed not by what God has given us but by what God has called us to do.  You know–scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful, filling the hungry and sending the rich away.  (Hmmm, that sounds distantly and vaguely familiar.) And now we sit in ashes wondering what to do next.

Lent is our chance to begin again.  Because, think about it, those ashes that you are going to spread on your forehead today are what is left.  They are what has survived.  After all of the devouring fires scorching the gardens, they are left.  They are the remnant.  They are the hope for what will come next.  So we begin our Lenten journey in ashes because we repent for what we have done.  But that is not the end.  God does not leave us on the ash heap alone.  God picks us up and recreates us, walking us through the wilderness, through the valley of the shadow of death, through the Cross, to Life.  The ashes are the beginning.

I’ve used this before on Ash Wednesday (and for those who will hear me later in the day, you have two more chances to hear it in a sermon!), but it’s such a great reminder, I couldn’t resist.  A rabbi once told his disciples, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on their needs.  When feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “Ani eifer v’afar; I am dust and ashes.  But when feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or without hope, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha’olam…For my sake was the world created.”

So what will you do with what is left?  What will you do with your share of ashes?  Repent and turning–that is what this day is about.  No longer do we wallow in morbid shame and guilt; no longer do we pound ourselves down for our past mistakes; no longer do we sit on the ash heap sullen and morose.  This is the day when we begin to begin again.  Pick yourself up!  Dust yourself off!  And start.  This is the day when we begin the journey to life.  But we are called to travel light.  God has given what we need.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  (Luke 1: 46b-49)

As you begin this Lenten journey, what things do you need to leave behind? What things do you need to take with you?  Remember, we are traveling light.  The wilderness journey is long and difficult.  But we are traveling with the one who created us and calls us to live life freely and blessed.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli