Thursday, February 26, 2009

Strangely smudged.

Ash Wednesday. It's a jarring day to me. A few random people show up in the morning at work with black smudges on their foreheads and when I first see them it takes a second to register, to recognize the sign of the cross, the thumbprint of ashes. Yesterday one of the administrative assistants at my work, a hard-working recently divorced young Mom, slipped back into her chair after lunch with an ashy cross on her face and a slightly guilty look. Like she was sorry to admit it, in and among her group of "too cool for God" co-workers, that she believes in this whole crazy Jesus/redemption/Lent thing, even though she may not know why. Or maybe that's just me. Maybe she was just feeling guilty about taking a little longer for lunch.

Last night I went to the Ash Wednesday service at our church and I was struck by the reading of Isaiah 58 how much people wanted to be connected with God but couldn't quite get it right. They were doing what they knew how to do--fasting, prayer, sackcloth and ashes--but it wasn't really getting them anywhere. But they wanted it to. Like those people at my work with strange markings on their foreheads, they were looking for some kind of relationship with God, and some kind of insight into why we're here and what the hell we're supposed to do with ourselves while we're here. And they weren't afraid to admit it.

I was sitting at the front so I was one of the last to go forward for my ashes. Which meant I had a ringside seat for the line of people walking up, kneeling, receiving their cross, turning to go back to their seats, a newly marked man or woman. Everyone was quiet and orderly and serious...even the single 5 year old angelic-faced blonde girl who walked up to the front with her Mom, but went alone to the pastor at the railing for her ashes. When she came back she was smiling, like she'd just gotten away with something.

While I was waiting I was thinking about the words the pastors say when they draw the cross on your forehead. You come from dust and to dust you will return. In years past those words have annoyed me, troubled me. I get the whole Lent as a time for penitence and personal reflection thing, but why must we start it with those words that seem to be just a reminder that death is going to come at some point, as if we'd forgotten. Couldn't we start things off with something more positive and affirming? Couldn't the cross on our foreheads symbolize that we were loved by God, claimed by God, that we belong to God. To me, that always seemed like a "nicer" way to kick off Lent--with a message of God's love, with the symbol of God's touch on our lives.

But last night those words finally made some kind of sense to me. You come from dust and to dust you will return. You are not God. You are simply a human being. You can't fix things. You can't do things perfectly. You don't know everything. You can't DO everything. You don't have all the time in the world.

So I want to start there with Lent this year. Reminding myself that I am human, not God. Too often I think I should be God, or at least powerful and perfect and all knowing. Rather than simply flesh and blood, finding my way through every day like a blind person touching an elephant--what is this whole thing?

Ashes on the forehead to remember that I am a mere mortal. And I'm not afraid to admit it. To admit that I can't do everything. I can't do everything perfectly, I can't control any of this. I can only live honestly and openly and lovingly in the midst of all I can't fix or manage or control. This strange smudge on the forehead to remind me that life is short.

I just have today. What will I do with today?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Neediness and its discontents

I'm not a great singer, but I love to sing, and I love music. So I sing in the choir at church. And several days ago I was practicing my alto part by trying to sing along with the CD, with the music blasting out of my car stereo as I drove at 65 mph down the expressway. One of the songs I was attempting to sing along with was the gospel song, "I need you to survive." This song, made famous by Kirk Franklin, is about being the church, and kind of rare in its approach because the words are directed towards other people rather than addressing God, which most gospel songs (and most of our church songs) are.
And as I was driving down the highway singing along, I almost became a danger to myself and others because I just started crying, tears billowing out of my eyes, choking back great gulping sobs as I sang:

"I need you, you need me.
We're all a part of God's body.
Stand with me, agree with me.
We're all a part of God's body.

It is his will, that every need be supplied.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.

I pray for you, You pray for me.
I love you, I need you to survive.
I won't harm you with words from my mouth.
I love you, I need you to survive."

Why does this song get to me so much? Is it because it feels so vulnerable to admit that I need someone to survive?

We're going to be talking about what it means to be the church in our next Affirmation group meeting coming up, and I've been thinking about this--about how this song, these words, tap into some reservoir of shame and fear and desire and hope in me. How much I want to be a part of this kind of body and how much I'm afraid of it. How much I hate to admit my need of anyone and yet how needy I am. I think about how we all look on a Sunday morning, for the most part, fairly well put together, cleaned up, all the crap that doubles us over in tears, keeps us awake all night, fairly well camouflaged by decent clothes, good eye makeup, years of practice. You can't tell by just looking quickly how close to the edge we might be, how close to not surviving.

And yet...maybe by just showing up it's an admission of sorts. It's a little flag we're all subtly waving. It's us saying I don't know how to do this whole living thing by myself, and I don't even know how to say this out loud but I need you to survive.

My daughter Hannah just had her 14th birthday and had some friends over to celebrate. The girls did a sleepover then the next morning some boys joined them and they went out to play Laser Tag together. I know how cruel teens can be, how mean and gossipy and territorial, but I didn't really see much of that with these kids. I saw them looking out for each other, offering support to one girl who has been doing a raw food diet, helping Hannah fix her hair--Hannah who doesn't much go for the girlygirl thing, allowed a couple of her friends to do a little more styling of her hair than usual. And when they were looking at their Laser Tag results they were actually apologizing for accidently shooting each other! Then last night I helped backstage at Hannah's junior high production of the Music Man. I was supposed to help with the girls' costumes--there's a lot of costume changes in this show and lots of zippers and bows that need doing. But the truth is, I wasn't really that necessary. The girls were taking care of each other, looking out for each other, adjusting collars and curling hair and straightening ribbons. They weren't afraid to need each other and they were happy to help each other.

And I realized, my Affirmation group probably knows more about being the church than many of us older people do. They haven't developed so many defenses against needing each other. They aren't so afraid of it. They understand that we need each other to survive.

And clearly I need them to survive--they have a lot to teach me.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I was thinking about my merry band of Affirmands this morning and about all the things I wish I could just tell them, convince them of, now when they're only 13 or 14. About God and life and faith. So they wouldn't have to figure it out on their own through trial and error. So they don't start wandering around and lose their way and get hurt and do stupid things and maybe never find their way back.

Sitting at our church's newcomer's dinner the other night there were about 15 young adults in the room, people in their late 20s, early 30s, each of them telling a little about what had brought them to LaSalle and so many of them had stories about giving up on God, being burned by the church, losing faith sometime in their teens, and now finally taking some tentative steps back, starting with walking in the door of our church a few times.

Of course, I told my story that night too. It's not all that different than theirs. Except that I'm older. And I've walked into and out of a lot more churches along the way. Lost and found my way a few more times. Keep losing it. And finding it.

And I guess it hit me again this morning, that my job isn't to inoculate these kids against doubt, it isn't to find a subtle way of chaining them to the church so they won't leave, it isn't even to create some sort of protective bubble around them so they don't get bruised along the way. It's simply to let them see where I've been, the ups and downs of my stumbling, fumbling path toward the holy. And that's enough.

I started out thinking I needed to give them advice and I realize I can only really give myself advice. So here's the advice I wrote to myself this morning.

Advice to myself:

Let it go.
All of it.

This is yours.
This day.
The heat coming in through the vent in the dining room, warming your legs, your hips, your hands.
This time.
These words.
What you do with the day.
All yours.
Things will be all right.
It may take a little time, but you’ll get there.
Laugh more.
Don’t worry about doing things perfectly.
Just do things as well as you can.
Know that you’re all right.
Sometimes you have to just shake your head and realize
You’re not God.
Nor would you want to be.
At least all the time.
Give yourself a break.
Take plenty of hot baths.
Keep a heating pad handy and warm blankets.
Let someone who loves you caress you back, run his hands gently up and down your back, like they would a fretting baby who can’t sleep.

Let someone love you.

When you’re sad, ask to be held even if it makes you cry.
Don’t be afraid to cry. Tears are the smooth stones you find next to a riverbed as you’re walking through the woods, the ones that tell the best stories, the ones you keep in your pocket then place at the foot of the candle you light when you pray, the ones that feel just right in your hand, the shape of them, the weight of them.

The scars that are them and how they ache with beauty.

Grasp the beauty.
Your own.
Everyone else’s.
The beauty of objects. Like paperclips. And popcorn.
The beauty of moments. Like before. And after.
Even the beauty of a bunch of people sitting around a conference table having a meeting. Each of them trying to do something right. Do something good. Say something worthwhile. Be of worth. Be loved. Not lose their job today.
Oh Jerusalem
How often I wanted to gather you under my wings.

Forgive yourself for not being perfect.
Laugh at yourself.
Laugh at how hard you try to get everything right.
Laugh at how much it matters.
And how little it really matters.

Be silly.
Silly silly silly
Insanely silly.
Life is too short not to be silly.
Whoop it up.
Speak in your British accent.
Laugh until you pee your pants.
Life will not end if you pee your pants.
Tell funny stories about yourself.
Stories that show how silly you really are.
Tell about the time you thought that guy was coming over to hug you.
His arms opening, you fell into them, like it was the most natural thing in the world, embracing this stranger, embracing him and all of the strangers of the world.
And then he told you he was actually just coming over to get his coat.
You were standing in front of the coat rack.
Bless your heart.

Bless your heart.
Remember how beautiful human beings are.
You are.
When they aren’t holding on too tight.
When the blood is flowing.
When they are leading with their hearts.

When they stop pushing away.

Pull everyone to you.
Tell them you love them.
Tell them they love you.
Tell them you need them.
Know that they need you.

Like air. And water. And blood.

Oh yeah.

And trust me on this. You might want to forgive some people. For all their bad advice.
And yourself for following it for far too long.

Touch the places where it hurts. Push hard on those tender places until the knots loosen.



Be happy.
It’s OK to be happy.

Let God love you.