Category Archives: Worship

Burning my own Ashes & Following my own Shadow

The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go,
no way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let you pass
except to call an end to the way you had come…
(David Whyte, “Finisterre”)

Stained Glass Window

So it’s Lent.

I made my own ashes this year, burning fragile strips of palm into dust in an aluminum pan on my back porch with my sister-in-law. “What do we say to make it official?” she asked me, and I said, “Maybe we could just say a prayer.”

We were quiet for a minute, watching the flames consume the old, dry leaves, then she said, “Thank you, palms, for your life and death.”

“And your resurrection as ashes,” I added.

The amount of ashes that were left after we’d burned our 4 or 5 palm branches was startlingly small. There was barely anything left of what had been. I mixed in a few drops of sweet-smelling oil so it would stick to skin. Then I took the mixture to my church where we smeared it onto our hands and heads in a candlelit chapel while we sang, “create in me a clean heart, O God.”

The tiny jar of oil and ashes was, after all, enough to go around our small group, even with some to spare, like the loaves and fishes, endlessly extending to include another hungry heart… and another. And so we proclaimed our humanness, our beings made-of-dust. And so we honored our own deaths.

I know that not everyone celebrates Ash Wednesday, that for some, it’s a strange, incomprehensible ritual. But this is what Ash Wednesday is for me: the start of the journey. It is a moment somewhere on the circle between one Easter and the next, between death and life again, when we pause to bow to our own shadows.

David Whyte walked the Camino de Santiago, the way taken by so many pilgrims for so many years, and wrote the above poem about the tradition of burning your clothes or shoes when you reach the end, when you reach the sea. I picture the ashes catching on the wind, blowing out over the water, consecrating the air as they disappear.

No way to the future now but the way our shadows could take…

Lent is a pilgrimage, and we let our shadows go before us, reaching their long arms into a future we don’t yet know. From here, we follow, stepping quietly after.

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Filed under Lent 2014, Liturgy, My Faith Journey, Spirituality, Worship

We Have Only Begun

But we have only begun
to love the earth.
We have only begun
to imagine the fullness of life.
How could we tire of hope?
–so much is in bud.
(Denise Levertov, “Beginners”)

This morning I meditated in my doctor’s office, my shoes left under a nearby chair and my socked feet tucked under me as I sat curled on that crinkly doctor’s office paper.

It’s been that kind of week for me so far, beginning with the moment when I rear-ended a confused elderly couple on my way to work Monday morning. It almost seemed like they’d never done this whole thing before.

“You take your car to the shop and then you call me,” I told the husband, pointing to my phone number, which I’d scrawled on a pad of paper I found in my car. The paper was decorated with the word faith in flowy letters across the bottom.

“You call me,” I repeated, and he looked unsure. A new ritual.

I really hate going to the doctor, but I’ve been to this doctor’s office a few times over the last months for routine follow-ups to various issues, so it’s starting to feel almost familiar. Every time I’m there, a different nurse weighs me before I go in.

“I don’t think I’ve changed much,” I say to this morning’s version, and she smiles and tells me to take off my shoes.

So I do, and I’m right: I haven’t changed much.

Then we walk down the hall and go to the room and she asks me the same questions and I give the same answers and when she leaves, I consider reading the only magazine in the room — Michael J. Fox is on the cover promising to tell us all how to live bravely — but I don’t even pick it up. I squeeze the blood pressure bulbs and watch the magical mercury rise and fall, rise and fall, and then I pull my feet up and just sit there.

I just sit there, and live bravely already.

I close my eyes and breathe deeply for a few minutes. Why do those exam rooms always feel so terrifyingly small and lifeless? It’s the places where we’re most vulnerable that we most need human contact, I suppose.

Before they got back into their car, the wife put her hands together and looked at me. “Do you think it’ll be okay?” she asked. I found the question a little surprising, not in small part because I had tried to take a picture of the damage to their bumper with my phone, but the dent was so slight it wouldn’t even show up in the photo. “Honestly?” I say, “I’m not even going to fix mine.”

But her face doesn’t look like that’s enough, so I tell her: “Yes, I’m sure it’ll be okay.” That Julian of Norwich comes through in a pinch, every time.

It’s normal to drive a little extra cautiously the first few days after a car accident, even a nearly invisible one. When I slowed down on the commute home to let a semi merge into my lane ahead of me, he flashed his tail lights at me in thanks. I felt surprisingly touched by such a gracious gesture.

Human contact, I suppose.

Later that night, I’m leading a worship service, and it’s quiet and dark in the stone chapel. We are almost too many to fit around the Eucharist table, and we have to squeeze close to each other, even standing before and behind each other, like we’re readying for a family portrait, even though we’re really mostly strangers.

It takes a long time to pass the bread and cup to all of us, so we sing while we wait: Use the light you have, and pray for more light.

By the time the sacrament gets all the way around the circle, like a game of telephone, we’ve forgotten which words we’re supposed to be using to serve, and each person is saying something different, like “the bread of heaven” or “the body of Christ,” and we break the pieces small so there will be enough for everyone.

Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharisteo, “to give thanks.” As in, “He gave thanks, broke bread, and gave it to them to eat.” And hidden inside it, the word charis, which means “grace.”

I think of my experience teaching middle schoolers about the meaning of Eucharist. They gave all the predictable lines about how it was gross and weird and cannibalistic. Then I shared with them that I always prefer to receive by common cup, when I’m able, and that one really threw them.

I can understand their feelings — unfamiliar rituals and all. And really, it’s hard to explain what it is that I like about that particular method. Human contact, I suppose.

I drink from the common cup tonight, and hold the chalice just so before passing it to the woman next to me. I’ve never met her before, so I can’t use her name.  I just say, “the cup of salvation,” and she drinks, too.

Before we close the service, I get up and walk to the center lectern to read. “We have only begun,” I say — not my words, but also mine.

“We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.
So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,
so much is in bud.”

The words echo like thunder, and I drive home in the dark, somehow changed and not changed.

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Filed under Communion, Musings, My Faith Journey, Poetry, Spirituality, Worship

Speaking into spiritual darkness

“[The dark night of the soul] is a time of special vulnerability,
not only the kind that makes you feel weak,
but also the kind that opens you to signals in the world around you…
You may think that the time spent in a dark night is a waste.
You accomplish nothing… [but] you need to see
the waste of your life as having a place in the nature of things.”
Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul,

Talking about spiritual suffering

It’s been difficult to write about spirituality over the last year. Mostly that’s because I haven’t been feeling very spiritual, and that can be difficult to admit — especially as someone who makes my living as a religious leader.

Our spiritual lives are intimate parts of our selves, parts that are often difficult to express in words. Working in ministry, I continue to be amazed at the depth and unique complexity of the spiritual lives of every person I encounter.

So, why is it so hard to say when we’re suffering spiritually?

A missing conversation

One of the main challenges I’ve encountered in my own effort to be authentic and transparent is that we just don’t talk about spiritual sorrow very much in the church.

Sometimes it seems to fall into that category of off-limit topics in the church — like divorce, addiction, financial accountability, or racism. You don’t hear very many pastors preaching about their own “dark nights of the soul,” seasons of spiritual darkness and separation from God. Even grief can become a topic that we push to the more private corners of our worship and congregational lives.

Perhaps it’s that we’re not sure how to measure our own spiritual well-being. Or perhaps it’s something too personal to share. Still, I’ve found myself longing for more openness and conversation within my religious community about the struggle to connect with God.

And I don’t think I’m alone. Often people in conversation with me — many of them also ministers or seminarians — will quietly admit that, secretly, they don’t have any kind of prayer life to speak of, or that they don’t actually get very much out of worship.

I wonder what resonance and edification might be possible if we brought those kinds of conversations into the open.

Re-framing spiritual language

One of the most profound insights I’ve had during my own journey with spiritual atrophy is that a deadened, grieving, or strained spiritual life is still a spiritual life.

We are not spiritual beings only when we are spiritually flourishing: we are always spiritual beings, no matter what our spiritual state.

One of the most helpful exercises for me has been identifying new images for God as my personal faith shifts and moves into new landscapes. Scripture, hymns, and poetry are filled with descriptions of a God that feels distant, or even entirely absent. Sometimes, we relate more to the God who forsakes us than we do to the God who shelters us under wings.

I think it is important to make sure we include these kind of dark or difficult images, names, and descriptions of God in our worship so that people who find themselves in a period of spiritual dryness may know that they are not alone in their struggle and that they may perhaps find new language for what they are experiencing. Otherwise we may unintentionally give the impression that the only God the church knows is the God of spiritual vitality and connection.

And how good it is that God is bigger than that. How good it is that, as Rilke writes, “even when we do not desire it, God is ripening.”

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Filed under Church, My Faith Journey, Spirituality, Worship