Sunday, March 30, 2014

Looking for Crocuses

John 11:1-45

I went looking for crocuses the other morning, and I found them, thank God.  They were right where they are every spring --- perhaps a little later this year than some --- but there they were.  Although they were looking a little peaked, I have to say --- I 'm thinking this hard winter has been tough on them, too.

I went looking for crocuses because I had had enough of cold and darkness and death.

For you see this week I officiated at the funeral of a 47 year old.  He went into the hospital with what he thought was a bad cold or flu.  He leaves behind a five year old little girl who adored him.

A few nights ago I got the call telling me that the 30 year old son of a member had died in his sleep.

And late in the week, I spent time with a woman who is, coincidentally, just my age, who spoke to me of her fear of living and dying both. I can't say as I much blame her.  She had a heart attack this week --- culminating a lifetime of health issues.

I went looking for crocuses this week and thank God I found them.  Yes, because I have had enough of a winter that won't let go. And more than that, because I am weary of thinking about suffering and death.  Even so, my imagination is small, don't you think?  For as I walked and looked for crocuses a few days back, I was also carrying the story of the raising of Lazarus with me. Might my yearning for signs of hope be too easily satisfied?

And yet, as I read the story again, I really don't think Martha and Mary expected Jesus to do what he did, even though Martha asserts that anything is possible with Jesus. Even so, notice that nowhere do they directly ask Jesus to bring life to this dead place.  At least not in the way that he did.  Their heartbreak, in fact, had already begun to settle in. They appeared to have no real expectation that he would suspend their grief.  They only expressed the certainty that if he had just gotten there sooner, things would not have turned out as they did.  Maybe they, too, were only looking for crocuses.  Even late, peaked ones.  How surprised they must have been to hear Jesus call for their brother to 'Come out!" How stunned they must have been to hear that same command echoing in their own hearts to leave their grief behind!

For it is so, it seems to me, that the shout to Lazarus to "Come out!" was a shout meant not just for one, but for all.  It was a shout meant to alert the whole wide world that things were about to change.  And yes, that shout is not meant only for one dear friend of Jesus who had been too long dead to reasonably have been able to respond to his command.  It is also meant for all of us --- all of us friends of Jesus to "come out!"  Come out of your losses, your fears, your despairs, your unsettled griefs.  Come out of your too long winters and your weeks full of too much suffering.  Come out now.  For we are not done with this world yet, Jesus seems to be saying,  and it surely is not done with us. Come out and live. And don't settle for crocuses.  Don't settle for pale signs of spring.  Indeed, don't even settle for spring itself for it is only a foreshadowing of what is yet to come.

For that matter, like those sought after crocuses on my morning walk, even the raising of Lazarus is just a pale foreshadowing of what will one day be.  In fact, I'm pretty certain that even after his miraculous exit from the tomb, that his body and spirit still bore all the signs of the wear and tear this life on earth can bring.  For I imagine it is so that even after walking out of the tomb, that his left knee still caught sometimes when he tried to climb stairs.  Or that even having had his grave clothes removed so he could move freely, it is altogether likely that he could still could not move with the speed and energy he had as a youth. And having come back from a place of utter silence --- perhaps experienced as a kind of peace? --- Lazarus was thrust back into a life where such peace was not always experienced.  For one thing, you and I know well the stories of how his sisters apparently did not always see eye to eye, not to mention all those other ways in which peace is not yet realized in this life.  Indeed, as a seminary professor so bluntly reminded a classroom of budding pastors long ago, all those whom Jesus healed would one day die. Even Lazarus.

The raising of Lazarus was a gift to those gathered in their grief that day so long ago.  The every day and extraordinary miracles you and I experience all the time are gifts as well.  But they only point us to that last day when we never again wonder at when winter will finally let go:  When never again will we stand at the gravesides of those too young, or struggle with our own fears about living and dying. They give us just a taste of that last day when along with Martha and Mary and Lazarus, we will know the full meaning of Jesus' promise, "I am the resurrection and the life.'

  • What is Jesus' call to 'come out' calling you out of today?  What loss or fear or despair or grief are you called to leave behind in this life now?
  • What 'pale signs of spring' point beyond themselves to the fulfillment of the promise in this Gospel?  What small (or large) miracles speak the truth to you that along with Lazarus and along with Jesus, death does not have the last word?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Seeing and Believing

John 9:1-41

It is an amazing story we encounter this week --- this one of the man who was born blind who gains his sight.  Indeed, as I read it I am tempted to take a number of side trips away from the main point for, in fact, there are many such opportunities.

For instance, it would certainly be worth spending some time refuting the suggestion that this man's suffering was the result of sin --- either his own or that of his parents.

One could certainly pause in the wonder of Jesus' healing powers.

One could consider the fear that gripped the man's parents when questioned about his miraculous healing --- or the intricacies of the legal system regarding who was a credible witness and who was not.

In my meandering through this familiar and layered story I even took a side trip to the pool of Siloam, wondering if that place --- largely unfamiliar to me --- could hold a special window into this story.

And yet, for all those paths one could follow, I find myself coming back to what seems to be the main point of the story:  the experience of blindness and then miraculous sight and their parallels: unbelief and belief.  Indeed, this story explores the question of how faith and understanding take root in us.  In particular, I find myself wondering about the Pharisees in our story now whom Jesus points out are still blind at the end of the story.  For while I don't like to admit that it is so, I rather understand those Pharisees, I do.  At least if I understand them to be those who first were not open to new ways of seeing things... Oh yes, I am much like them in those times when I have found myself unable or unwilling to consider new ways of thinking or being or doing.

It is an odd snippet of memory that returned to me while I was out walking a few mornings ago.  I was six years old and had just learned to read.  A whole new world had opened up to me then and I couldn't get enough of it.  I read everything I could lay my hands on at home and everything I could lay my eyes on out in the world.  I can remember being in the back of the family station wagon one day and  looking out at a world whose written symbols suddenly held meaning for me.  I was literally soaking up the signage on the street as I practiced my new found skill.  Just south of the tracks on Main Street in my hometown stood a cinder block building with peeling white paint.  The large sign painted on its side read simply "Body Shop."

Now at the age of six I knew no other 'body' than the one I was walking around in.  I can remember reading that sign for the first time and wondering at what kind of 'hospital' this was --- for it certainly wasn't one I thought I would ever care to need.  It goes without saying that language (and perhaps especially the one I know best) is nuanced.   What I wonder at in that memory, though, is that I never asked.  I never thought to wonder out loud beyond my first understanding.  Eventually, of course, I came to know that there were different kinds of 'bodies' which, when broken, got put back together in different places.  Only I could have come to that deeper understanding a whole lot sooner.  If only I had asked.  If only I had been a little more open to the truth that my first understanding might not be entirely complete or correct.

Of course, it may not be entirely fair to compare a six year old's reasoning ability to that of the grown Pharisees and it would certainly not be fair to equate the ruthlessness of the Pharisees to the relative innocence of a six year old.  Even so, it is possible, isn't it that perhaps the Pharisees we encounter now certainly could have started out like me?  For it is so that they saw the world in one way and were not open to other understandings.  Indeed, they had a sense of what healing was and where it came from and they certainly couldn't figure out how it came from Jesus.  'What sort of 'hospital' was this, after all?'  More than that...they had no sense that there might be other kinds of healing needed --- even by themselves --- for they had no idea that they, too were, in fact, blind --- not entirely unlike a certain six year old just learning to read and bringing the only understanding she held to a complex world.  Like me, perhaps like you, still today --- when along with those Pharisees we don't even recognize our own blindness then we also don't begin to have a clue that we may just need something more.

And so my prayer today, and most every day, is that I might overcome the Pharisee in me --- that I might be open to the surprise of what I do not yet know or even think I need to know.

And so I wonder as I live in this amazing story once again:
  • How much richer would my understanding be if I didn't always try to figure out why things happened --- especially the hard things --- but instead kept my eyes and ears and heart open to how God is working in and through it?
  • How much broader and deeper would my world be if when I encountered healing I approached it not with skepticism, but with hope?
  • How much surer would my faith be if I was only a little more open to the possibility that Jesus might be able to bring wholeness in places the world can't touch?
  • And most of all, I wonder how much more might I be able to 'see' if only I would acknowledge that often I can't see at all?  That there is so very much I simply do not know?
For without a doubt, there is still some of that six year old in me --- who think she knows and doesn't even need to ask.  For just think of it. If I had never learned that there was another kind of hospital, what would have become of me?  And if I had never learned there was another sort of healing altogether, just imagine how broken my world would still be.  

Indeed, may I know and recognize my own blindness so that I might, in fact, begin to see.
  • What do you think?  Are there places in your life where like the Pharisees, you are blind and don't even know it?
  • How do you understand the parallel between belief and sight? 
  • In my reflection here I have only explored one way of thinking about the meaning of this story.  What am I blind to here?  Would another understanding, another avenue, another entry point make more sense?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Story Worth Telling: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well

John 4:5-42

Every story worth telling begins with something being out of place.  Every story worth re-telling begins with a conflict.  Every story told over and over again is about obstacles overcome -- or not.  Otherwise there is no story.

Think it through with me and you will know this is so.

For instance, I caught up with our middle school youth for a while this morning. They are an hour away at a week-end retreat in a large suburban hotel.  Bleary eyed, this morning they were all telling the same story.  Someone had set off the fire alarms in the night not once but eight times.  Fire alarms being activated intentionally and without cause are 'out of place.'   It stirred up all kinds of things in this group of young people (and their adult chaperones.)  And it led to things happening that would not have otherwise.  At 1:30 a.m., after having been awakened yet again, one room decided to have a pillow fight --- turning their frustration into laughter.  And now they have a story to tell.

And here's another: A couple of weeks ago I officiated at the funeral of a 91 year old World War II Veteran.  He had been a bomber pilot in the South Pacific.  All of his life and on the day of his funeral, too, the story was told of his having to land his plane in an emergency on a different aircraft carrier than the one they had taken off from earlier.  He did this in the dark. When he and his crew woke up the next morning, others looked at him and shook their heads and pointed at his plane and said,  "That plane is too big to land on this carrier."  And yet, it had.  This young airman had already overcome the usual obstacles and this was just one more.  And he had a story to tell. His children and grandchildren, neighbors and friends do, too.

Every story worth telling begins with something out of place, with some kind of conflict, with obstacles to overcome.  The story before us today in John's Gospel bears this out.  Indeed, we hear this from the start when we are told that Jesus is in Samaria --- out of his usual territory.  He's out of place.  And then he is met by a woman from the town of  Sychar and we sense that something is afoot because the woman is alone and at the well in the middle of the day: apparently not the usual time for going to draw water.  And once the conversation begins between them, the woman points out that Jesus is, in fact, 'out of place' --- speaking then of the long standing conflict between Jews and Samaritans.  And then we know something more is going on as we listen in to the exchange between the two: recognizing this woman from Samaria is more theologically articulate than the learned Nicodemus was just a few verses before.  And yes, the content of their conversations leads us to conclude that there has been struggle and most likely, pain, for this woman for some time.  For while we are not privy to the details, we do hear that she has had five husbands.  Whatever else this may have meant, it meant that her life had to have been hard.

Can't you see why this is a story worth re-telling? All sorts of things are out of place, conflict is brewing under the surface --- and right out in the open when the 'astonished' disciples return a few verses later and we recognize that the obstacles between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the well would seem almost insurmountable. But which were overcome.

Indeed, the fact that this is a story worth telling comes through in the story itself for the woman at the center of it all can't keep it to herself.  Now it is only our very human speculation which brings any kind of understanding to why that woman traveled to the well alone in the middle of the day.  With many of you, I grew up believing that she was somehow especially sinful and that perhaps she was not welcome with the other women when they traveled together to draw water.  Notice, though, that the story does not tell us that.  It could well have been that all five of her husbands had died.  (And do remember she lived in a time and place when divorce was not hers to grant.  Legally, she could only have been on the receiving end of such as that.) And if five times she had gone through such heartbreak perhaps she, herself, had isolated herself from her fellow townswomen: unable to look upon their carefree joy without it stirring up her own losses all over again. 

We don't know why the woman traveled to the well alone.  We do know that she couldn't keep this story to herself and we do know that when she went and told the story of Jesus she had enough standing in that town to be heard and believed enough so that the rest of her community wanted to see for themselves. 

It's a story worth telling. And it is a story we all tell in one way or another as we share with those we know the power of Jesus in our own lives. Your story and mine many look and sound nothing at all like the woman whose story is told today.  Except that Jesus meets us, too, in the middle of the day or in the middle of the night when we find ourselves outcast or we have isolated ourselves in our misery and our grief.  Jesus meets us, too, and offers us gifts which do not end.  Jesus meets us, too, and sees us and knows us and invites us, too.  And so we tell our stories and as we do we also recall the conflicts experienced and the obstacles overcome that amazingly led us to know the very same powerful love and acceptance the Samaritan woman at the well experienced so long ago.
  • What do you make of my premise that any story worth telling begins with something out of place, a conflict, or an obstacle to be overcome?  Can you see how that is so in this story in John's Gospel?  Can you offer some other examples?
  • What is your story worth telling and telling again?  What obstacles did Jesus overcome in you or in your world to get close enough for you to experience his love?  How have you put that story into words and shared it so that others might hear it and then come and see for themselves?  If you have not, where and with whom might you be called to do so?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Nicodemus By Night

John 3:1-17

I saw a little of Nicodemus in myself this week.  For you see, it's the first week of a new session for my early morning workout class.

Winter has worn on for us here in Northern Illinois and I have found it more and more difficult to respond immediately to my alarm when it awakens me at 4:45 a.m.  So I've been pushing it more and more and managing to walk in with the last stragglers just before things get started.

But it is the first week of a new session and with new sessions new people often sign up.  New people who don't know that I have a favorite spot in the second row between two others with whom I have developed a quiet, but understanding companionship over these last couple of years.

I have to say, though, that I didn't choose that spot because of them.  I chose it because it was in the second row --- where perhaps my clumsiness would be less noticeable.  And yes, to be honest, I chose it because it is the one angle in the room where you can't see yourself in the mirrors which line the north wall.  I did not want to see myself.  And this way, I didn't have to.  I could show up, yes, and I could do the work but I didn't have to fully acknowledge whether or not it was making any discernible difference or not.

And so on Monday morning when I arrived someone else was in 'my spot.'  I dragged my blue mat to the front row... in full view of everyone, including myself, now that the mirror was no longer obstructed.  (Oh this has happened before, but the last time it didn't last... I don't know what became of the new person that time --- perhaps she sensed my unspoken angst from across the room, but she pretty soon she didn't return.  Or maybe I just managed to get myself out the door a little earlier and was able to reclaim my space.)  On this past Wednesday morning, I was a little earlier, but the new person was earlier still.   And I found myself in the front row once more.

And so I have to say I understand Nicodemus, I really do.  While this is not true for all parts of my life, when I am uncertain, I prefer the 'darkness' of the back row.  When I'm more uncertain, I don't like my ignorance or my struggles held up for me to see in a full length mirror before me.   And certainly not for everyone else to see either.

Not that this is necessarily where we find Nicodemus today.  Oh, many believe that he is sneaking around in the dark 'for fear of the Jews' for he is described as 'frightened' for this reason later in John's Gospel.  And it could well be that he came at night out of fear.  But it could also be that he came at night to avoid the crowds --- wanting some one-on-one uninterrupted time with Jesus so that he could get to the bottom of the questions which had been nagging at him ever since Jesus entered the picture in his walk of faith.  It could be that Nicodemus was finally pulling himself out of the back row all on his own and plopping his mat down front where he can get a better view.  Or maybe he simply couldn't help himself.  Maybe his coming 'by night' was because he had been awakened by his nagging questions one too many times and he just decided to take a walk to see if he could get those questions answered.

For it is evident that Nicodemus has been watching and listening to Jesus for some time now, but he is still struggling mightily to put the pieces together.  He knows that Jesus 'has come from God" for he can see the evidence of that and he says so.  And yet as he sits with Jesus away from the day-time crowds, it is also obvious to those of us who listen in that he doesn't really fully understand.  And Jesus knows that.  Poor Nicodemus is standing precariously on the edge of mystery and Jesus seems to push him right in.  Because this is not intellectual parsing that is called for now.  Rather, Nicodemus --- body and soul --- is standing before the full length mirror Jesus is holding up and for once he is looking at Jesus and at himself with all of his struggles and all of his hopes and all of his fears right out there in the open. 

I expect we will never really know why Nicodemus came 'by night' to see Jesus.  Maybe it was fear.  Perhaps it was practicality.  And maybe he just couldn't sleep for the questions which would not let him go.  And maybe in the end, it doesn't matter.  Because as long as he is in the 'front row' where he can see and be seen?  Well, that may well be his first step towards wholeness in his relationship with Jesus. Because sometimes?  You have to be forced to look in the mirror to see who you are and where you are and where you still are called to go.

  • As I indicated above, one could understand Nicodemus' coming 'by night' in a number of ways.  Which way makes the most sense to  you?
  • How have you been 'forced out of the back row' in your own life of faith?  What has that meant to you?
  • Or are you one who has voluntarily put yourself in the front row?  Why is that?  What difference has that made in your life?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Cross of Ashes and Another Cross

Psalm 51

"For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me..."  Psalm 51:3

This story comes to mind most every year on Ash Wednesday.

I was six, maybe seven years old.

We were on a family camping trip.  The fold out camper had been backed into its spot and unhitched from our station wagon.  My mother had taken my sisters to find the rest room and I was back at the campsite with my dad, 'helping' him get things set up.

This is what happened next. My dad caught my eye and very directly told me to watch my step.  He nodded his head towards the ashes of the fire left behind by the last occupants of that space and he said to me, "Don't walk there.  It's probably still hot."

It was.

For you see, no more than a few minutes passed before I forgot his warning and barefoot, I walked right through those still hot coals.

I sometimes still feel like that little girl who was duly warned and then forgot it altogether.  Oh yes, how often do I still do the same --- walking through fire as though it's not there, or believing that somehow it can't hurt me --- entirely disregarding a voice of protective, loving-kindness which only wants good for me.

I do it all the time.  And so it is that along with a multitude of others across an unending spectrum of time and space on this first Wednesday in Lent I kneel with you and receive that smudge of ashes and hear the words once more: "Remember that you are Dust and to Dust you shall return."

For, yes, it is so. I am dust.  I am frail and flawed and often so very broken and I am in desperate, yearning need of the certainty that while I am all of these things, God is not.  Oh yes, I am one who will walk through hot coals immediately after having been told not to, and I cling to the certainty that Jesus is there waiting to bind up my wounds and set me back up on my feet once more.

Those many years ago when I walked through those white-hot ashes, I stifled my cry so that no one would know for in that very first instant, I knew I had done exactly as I had just been told not to do. And for the longest time I never said a word.  Somehow I must have been able to disguise my limp and yes, I do know how fortunate I am that healing came on its own in my silent shame. 

On Ash Wednesday, though, we all wear the crosses of our frailty, our disobedience, and our brokenness right on our foreheads for all the world to see.  As much as we would like to hide our sinfulness so that no one else will know, we know that we cannot. For we are all the same and so very able to recognize in each other even what we may refuse to acknowledge in ourselves. But ashes or not?  God sees and God knows and God does not leave us in our shame.  Instead, God acts to bring healing and hope and with God's promised forgiveness, new beginnings.  Indeed, this precious promise make it possible for me to acknowledge the truth.  And so I do.

For I am frail and flawed and often so very broken.  I do what I should not, sometimes as soon as I'm told not to and the scars are mine to live with in this life now.  I walk with a limp --- disguised  --- hoping that no one will know and all the while I ache for the pain to stop, for my shame to be erased, and for healing to come.

And God hears my cry, God hears our cry, and God answers.

For with a smudge of ashes in the sign of a cross I am reminded that Christ Jesus paid the price for my frailty and my flaws and my brokenness.  On another cross.

  • What does the ritual of ashes on Ash Wednesday mean to you?  Is it comforting, frightening, or something else altogether?
  • Do you have 'sins' of which you are so ashamed ---whether those of a seven year old or a fifty seven year old ---  that you would want no one to know?  How are you disguising your "limp" and aching for healing? What difference does it make to you that God sees and God knows and God still and always loves and forgives?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Gifts for the Wilderness

Matthew 4:1-11

I wonder sometimes if the most challenging part for Jesus in the wilderness was not the tests that came at the end.  I wonder if the hard part was those forty days which came before.  Indeed, I wonder how it was at day seventeen when not a whole lot was happening yet --- at least not in a way that would have been visible to anyone else ---  and there was still no end in sight.  That time when it must have seemed as though God was so very far away. 

For I've had those times.  I expect you have as well. Such wilderness times come for us, usually unexpected and surely unbidden.  It has always been so.  Indeed, you and I have the gift of the entire Biblical witness recounting these times in the wilderness for others of God's people.
For just think of the wilderness encountered by Abram and Sarai when in their latter years, God called them to a new place.  And then those decades of waiting for God's promise to come true for them in Isaac.
Consider the family Isaac formed with Rebekah --- and their twin sons, Jacob and Esau, whose entire lives, from what we can tell, were marked by rivalry.  Think of the heartbreak they all must have felt in the wake of Isaac's betrayal by his wife and son.  And what sort of wilderness must Esau have experienced as his life played out in ways he could not have imagined?
Remember Jacob --- his flight to his Uncle Laban --- and then his falling in love with one woman only to wind up with her older sister on his wedding day.  And then remember the heartbreak of Rachel when she was so-long barren, her grief accentuated as she witnessed her sister bearing child after child.  What wilderness that must have been! 
Oh, and don't forget the wilderness Jacob had to navigate when he was led to believe that his beloved son, Joseph was dead.

I look back over these stories and so many others like them and I know that part of the gift they bear for all of us is that you and I know the ending.  We get to witness the emergence from the wilderness --- those times of overwhelming joy when the child is born, when brothers are reconciled (more than once in these stories), and when the father's grief turns to joy once more.  Unlike some of these stories in the account before us now for this first Sunday in Lent, we hear little about Jesus' forty days in the wilderness.  Rather, what is described before us now is the end of that time when Jesus responds to those three temptations posed by the devil in ways which continue to inform our lives of faith.  But as for the middle of his time in the wilderness? We don't hear so much.

This is why I have been so grateful in these last months to spend a little more time with the "story of the family of Jacob" -- the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Our local community theater will be sharing this much loved story this month and so we decided to use this as the theme of our Lenten Study this year.  (In order to enhance and deepen our learning, I have written a reading guide to accompany us as we walk through the story.  Should you wish to use it, too, there is information about how to access it above.)

Indeed, Joseph surely knew 'wilderness' --- not in a defined forty days as described in today's Gospel, but for decades as he lived out his life.  (Of course, it is also certain that the wilderness Jesus knew was not limited to those forty days either.)  From the moment Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery until they were reconciled late in the story, his life was marked by struggle --- by wilderness --- if not always physical, then certainly emotional and familial.  Spend a few minutes with the scene of Joseph in prison.  This particular portrayal certainly offers a sense of Joseph's deep despair.  At the same time, you can also hear him clinging to the already ancient promises of God.

To be sure, in my own wilderness times, it helps to sit still in stories like these --- both those mentioned here and those in my own life or in the lives of others I have known --- which offer endings marked by meaning and purpose, reconciliation and hope. I wonder if Jesus also clung to these stories passed down to him in addition to so many others like them during day nine, and day seventeen, and day twenty-nine in his wilderness.  I wonder if that is not what partly sharpened his clarity, what deepened his strength, what enhanced his resolve when the devil offered to satiate Jesus' hunger with bread and with power and with glory  I wonder if that's what gave Jesus what he needed so that he could rely instead on those eternal gifts of God which were meant for him and for us all.  What do you think?

  • What gifts do you draw on in your wilderness times?
  • How does it help you to hear the stories of others who have been through such times?
  • How do you think the endings of these stories are shaped by day nine or day seventeen or day twenty-seven in the wilderness?   In other words, how might our 'wilderness times' result in strength or resolve or purpose? 

Productive Pain: Standing Still in God's Love and Mercy

Joel 2:1-18

"Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.  Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing."  ---Joel 2:12-13

"If you look for the pain, you will find it.  Don't go looking for it."  ---- My dentist, a few weeks ago after my root canal.

It is so that my experience this time was entirely different from those previous occasions when I sat in the dentist's chair for this same purpose.  In fact, those other times I would have to say I 'looked for the pain" and you can be sure I found it. I planned ahead and arranged to have someone drive me to and from my appointments.  I filled the prescription for pain meds as soon as I could and yes, I took them until they were gone.

Well, it turns out this time my dentist was right. Yes, I did use it as a good excuse to have someone else step in for leading Confirmation that night, but I probably could have gone.  Even so, my actual pain was minimal.  In fact, as I've poked around since I've discovered that there is actual research to back her up. Sometimes when we 'look for' pain we are, in fact, more likely to feel it.  And that seems especially foolish when that pain is less than 'productive.'

On the other hand?  Sometimes pain is entirely productive.  This is the sort of pain which alerts us that something is wrong, wounded, or broken.  Indeed, had I tended to the pain in my tooth weeks before I actually surrendered and found myself in that dentist's chair, I would have been in a whole lot better shape. That nagging toothache was telling me something that for reasons I now find hard to comprehend, I chose to ignore until I no longer could. In the same way, that nagging sense that something is not right in the world, in our world, between those closest to us or people far away --- it alerts us to the truth that something is terribly wrong and is crying out for healing.

This is one gift of Ash Wednesday, of course.  Oh, on this day at the threshold of Lent, like on any other day, we don't necessarily have to 'look for the pain.' For it is, as we well know, already there.  And yet that smudge of ash on our foreheads forces us to stand still within it for a while and to pay attention to this pain which is as present as a long held regret which refuses to let us go, as pressing as the needs of a neighbor we've chosen to ignore, as persistent as the loneliness our own self-righteousness has imposed upon us. This pain belongs to all of us ---- even though sometimes, like with my toothache, we choose to ignore it, wishfully hoping it will just go away.

And so it is that on Ash Wednesday --- this day on the calendar or any day similarly marked by ashes---you and I are able to stand still in this pain, it seems to me, only because we do know that it is 'productive' pain.  We can receive it as gift, pushing us to pay attention to those places in ourselves and in our lives whose cries for healing have been ignored for perhaps far too long.  Indeed, with those crosses of ash we are visibly reminded of our frailty and our failings, urging us to stand still in it and to pay attention.  And with words of hope and promise we are told once more that this pain is not all there is.  That in Christ Jesus who died on another cross, there is forgiveness and there is healing.

It seems to me this is precisely what the prophet Joel was getting at when he spoke in God's behalf to the people of Israel so long ago. This 'pain' --- this weeping and mourning he so vividly described is a result of acknowledging that pain as we return to God. Indeed, this rending of the heart which is called for here is the act of standing still in that pain and returning to God with it and within it.  In our grief --- in our 'broken open hearts' we claim responsibility for the pain and express our deep yearning for it to be different.  First between us and God.  And then between one another.  Oh yes, there is pain to be stood in on this day.  But it is also a day when healing begins and the promise is ours that our pain will one day be behind us as we stand still in God 's steadfast love and mercy. 

  • Does the practice of the 'imposition of ashes' enhance your experience of Ash Wednesday? Why or why not? How do those ashes point to 'productive' pain?
  • What 'pain' surfaces for you as you approach Ash Wednesday this year?
  • How does the promise of God's grace, mercy and steadfast love make it possible for you to stand within that pain on this day or on any day?  Take those words apart and stand still within them.  God is gracious. God is merciful.  God is slow to anger. God is abounding in steadfast love.  Stand within them even longer than you stand within the pain.