It's the last day before the onset of Lent. As such, and as I'm living at home again, I'm eschewing pancakes and other pre-fast treats and instead returning to a less tasty but nonetheless rich tradition from my childhood: burning dried palm branches to make ashes that will be smudged on the foreheads of the pious during tomorrow's Ash Wednesday service.
The smell of the burning palm leaves takes me back to a smoky resource room at Westside Alliance Church in Regina, Saskatchewan, where I heard Mum say, "That smells like my youth!" by which she of course meant marijuana. A year or two later, when I was thirteen, I burned them again in that same room with my lifelong best friend as part of our baptism preparation classes. As I was being dunked into the community of Christ that Easter, while under the water in that comically huge baptismal tank I heard my other best friend (a new friend at the time), call out, "You go, girl!" and I thought how lucky I was to be surrounded by such great women--from those best friends, to my baptism sponsor who spoke in support of me, to the pastor who did the dunking--who saw through my shyness and insecurity and the obnoxiousness that spewed out of me when I tried to break free of those limitations and instead saw who I really was and could be, people who, despite all our differences, only ever spoke to me in love as an equal.
A dozen years later I spent my first of what would be three Lents in Jerusalem (and am tempted to say that the melancholy of the season is nowhere more inescapably magnetic). In those years I took multiple trips to the Quarantal Monastery near Jericho, which commemorates Christ's temptation in the wilderness after his baptism--the biblical story that's the source of the Lenten tradition. I twice walked up the Mount of Olives to join in the Palm Sunday procession, from which we collect the branches to burn into smudgeable ashes. I got ash-smudged in the Holy City and spent time in contemplation in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the spot where Christ was most likely crucified and buried. But never throughout all of this did I escape my significantly more mundane history. Never did I write over the memories that gave me my original Lenten self.
Speaking of which, this pre-Ash Wednesday smell of burning is always also the smell of campfires, which to me is the unfailing trigger for memories of Katepwa Baptist Kamp, a setting that taught me many spiritual lessons but none of them about Lent exactly (however, some of them about guilt and shame, and many of them about abstinence). I learned my first real lessons about mortality and grief there; KBK gave me the first person I lost, and my first of many experiences of grieving someone whom I felt I didn't really deserve to grieve--in this case a person I barely knew but whose kindness to me in a desperate moment had been my saving grace, an intervention, my much-needed picture of a truly human Jesus.
With the griefs of different kinds that have followed in the many years since then, I've come to see the beauty that can grow in the space of loss, but this doesn't make grief itself any easier to bear when it appears. Mortality is a tough pill to swallow even for those who anticipate heaven; earthly life is still finite, and heaven is still the unknown.
For me this last year was, in many ways, a year of loss and hurt and failure. I feel a bit silly naming all the things that left me feeling that way, but the attendant griefs persisted no matter how outwardly silly the circumstances. And yet, each unwelcome change for which I've grieved has eventually yielded gifts I never could have anticipated. And in more than one case a loss proved itself to be a rescue in disguise.
In Christian tradition Ash Wednesday has been an occasion for us to face our mortality, "for dust we are and to dust we shall return." But even this phrase that speaks to our insignificance, our fleeting lives, and the humbleness of our state of being should remind us simultaneously of our connection to the Divine, for it was the divine hand that shaped that dust to form us, and the divine breath that filled our new lungs with life rather than scattering our seemingly worthless ashy dust into nothingness. What is human will become dust, but so also will the dust be reborn into something that dust cannot imagine.
So here we are. Welcome to Lent.
Hannah Ayer is a writer and editor based in Calgary, Canada. At the moment, she’s finishing the thesis for her MA in Middle Eastern Cultures and Religions from Jerusalem University College, focusing on an identity reclamation movement taking place within the Aramean (Syriac) Christian minority in Israel. In her copious spare time she sings in the choir at the Anglican cathedral in Calgary and indulges her undying love of all things comedy. Having grown up alongside Nancy’s youngest daughter, she has always treasured Nancy Buschart as one of the motherly influences in her life.
When Herod realized he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious . . . .
Herod was in control and his control was real. He held life-and-death power over the people in his kingdom. He was willing to manipulate, deceive and kill to achieve his agenda, and when frustrated by the Magi he brought devastation to the families in Bethlehem.
The coming of an infant-King and his Kingdom was a matter of record. “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” [Is 9:7]. The Magi’s news of a natal star meant the rivalry had begun, so Herod postured and connived. But, Herod had it right. The birth of this Messiah-baby was going to change his life forever . . . and he was spitting mad.
The motivation for such an exertion of control may well have been a misguided “good of the kingdom” or, more likely, “the good of Herod”. But motivation gone sour may mean that “fear” is the core motivator. Fear of loss of property or loss of position, security or station.
Centuries later, we continue to wrestle with the implications of the Christ child’s birth and his reign and rule over the Kingdom he established including our daily, hourly lives. We need to pay attention to our own frustration and anger, our own desire for control, and our exposed fear of failed illusions of security.
The truth: the Messiah came because of our finitude. Hopeless and lost in our desperate need of a Savior, the baby came. We can’t save ourselves; we can’t clean ourselves up. No matter how desperately we try, we return again and again to being “prone to wander” from “the One we love”. Without Christ, we cannot approach the throne of grace to receive mercy. The Messiah whose coming frustrated the powerful Herod is our only hope for experiencing sweet fellowship with the Father and abundant life that Christ came to provide here and now and eternally to come. Our citizenship in Christ’s eternal kingdom is won through the infant-King.
In our finitude, Christ’s infinite love expands to encompass our fears and to rescue us, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And although modern-day Herod’s continue to rage and devastate, we may surrender to the greater King who has no rivals and to his Kingdom that will never end.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
The life of faith always requires movement from one allegiance to another.
"The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, "Look the Lamb of God!" When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus." John 1:35-37
Jesus' disciples, then and now, have to make choices every day. We must choose who we follow and we must choose what we pursue.
Countless loyalties and allegiances are available to us and are continual temptations to our commitment to Christ. We can choose to follow the powerful, the beautiful, the radical, the popular, . . . We can choose to pursue money, power, possessions, success, prestige, control, beauty, pleasure, approval, self-promotion. Fear is a great motivator of our choices. Fear invites us to try to "eliminate" risk by choosing certainty, safety and security.
Human beings’ history of bad choices is long and sad.
God is speaking:
Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes of bread for the Queen of Heaven [the Babylonian goddess Ishtar]. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to provoke me to anger. But am I the one they are provoking?, declares the Lord. Are they not rather harming themselves, to their own shame? Jeremiah 7:17-19
Henri Nouwen wrote, "The movement from illusion to prayer is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many 'safe' gods to the God whose love has no limits." From Reaching Out
Lord, by your Spirit and because of your love which has no limit, help us to fix our eyes on you and to be faithful to our allegiance to you on the soul’s journey?
"Everyone, at some time and in some areas, is a follower, and it is just as important to be discriminating in choosing whom to follow as it is to prepare to lead." From Servant Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf
We are "the fragrance of God, the aroma of Christ to God among those who are perishing and those who are being saved."
What do you smell like?
Our aroma gives us away. Like walking in the house and smelling fresh baked bread, or beef brisket, or richly seasoned Italian sauce, the truth that these have been baked, roasted, or simmered is all taken in the moment we step foot in the door. Mouth-watering, hunger-raging, "When do we eat?"!
What is the fragrance of God that emits from us? The Message calls it an "exquisite fragrance" and a "sweet scent rising to God." It is Christ In Us. It is the aroma of Christ Jesus Himself. It is the aroma of life redeemed and released. It is peace that makes no sense at all except by God-mercy, God-grace and God-love extended and received.
Terrible aroma is also a quick give away. Opening the garage garbage can tells me there are dirty diapers or rancid foods within.
What would it take for the aroma emanating from me to be rancid?
A bitter, unforgiving spirit?
A greedy, stingy, self-serving heart?
Pent up anger and self-righteousness?
A critical, judgmental spirit?
Disordered loves and attachments?
Arrogance and independence?
These produce a rancid aroma that repels relational connection and intimacy with God and with others. Room freshener Febreeze sprayed over a nasty pile of garbage may cover up the truth for a time. But what produces death in our souls will eventually be exposed and known for what it is.
The good news−by God's grace and mercy toward us, the love and sacrifice of Christ and the indwelling Spirit of God produce the sweetest aroma imaginable. Like fresh baked cookies, it is an aroma that draws others in. It is an invitation to come, taste and see the goodness of God.
Lord Jesus, I want to exude the sweet aroma of your life and love. Search me and know me. See what evil and rancid way is in me. Remove, Redeem, Reconcile me.
Do what you will so that I may be evermore a wooing and fragrant invitation to others to come and receive you and your life lived out in them. Amen
I’ve heard them called “ear worms.” Those songs that get stuck in your head. One line that loops over and over until you want to scream. There is a billboard in terminal B at DIA that did me in the last time I traveled. A picture of a man, Mr. Robinson, with the quote, “And here’s to you, Mr. Robinson.” I spent the next day and a half singing the Simon & Garfunkel lyrics.
And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know. Oh, oh, oh.
God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray,
Hey, hey, hey
“Heaven holds a place for those who pray.” At some point during that day and a half, I began to connect the dots. Ear worms can be prayer. And, when one is in a posture of spiritual receptivity and intentional listening, ear worms can be a spiritual discipline.
One perspective of prayer is that we are invited to join the eternal conversation already in progress. The communication among the Father, Son and Spirit has always been happening. In Christ, we are invited to enter into the communion that is already occurring in the heavenly places.
The eternal conversation is also happening within believers. Prayer is often considered something we “do.” I believe it is something we “receive.”
By day the Lord directs his love,
At night his song is with me--
A prayer to the God of my life. Ps 42:8
Lord, sing your song in my subconscious until my distracted mind and heart wakens to your music. Then, courage Lord. Courage to hear and courage to respond. . . . Amen
Ruminations from my Journal for: January 6, 2009
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to reap;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance.
This morning, I turned my chair around to face the painting that hangs behind it. The Cycle of Life, a hand-painted lithograph by Canadian artist Donna Kriekle. An apple tree branch is woven into a wreath that gradually and naturally moves through the seasons.
It tells me this: life flows from one season to the next. Winter gives way to Spring, Spring to Summer, Summer to Autumn, Autumn to Winter, Winter to Spring. . .
What time is it today?
Yesterday, I spotted the first emergence of my earliest tulips! Already, January fifth, Spring is pressuring Winter to let go of its grip.
Yesterday, too, my eighty-three year old mother surrendered another part of her life to an end that is pressing us all. Her body is letting go.
Is this, then, a time to weep or a time to laugh? A time to mourn or a time to dance?
Could it be both?
You, Lord, created time and existed before time. In your love and wisdom, you orchestrate events and lives, births and deaths, to accomplish your will in salvation history.
The birth of John – prepared the way.
The birth of Jesus, Emmanuel – brought God to us.
The death of Herod – brought the end of oppression and exile.
The death of John – brought Jesus’ ministry into focus.
The death of Jesus – brought salvation and reconciliation to all he created.
My tulips are emerging into Spring. My mom is dying into eternal life.
Today is a time to weep and a time to laugh. As we mourn, she is preparing to dance!
January 2, 2017 Postscript: My mother died just a month after this journal entry. Eight years, already?? Wow! Time flies!
But the question remains: "What time is it now--in my life? and in yours?
A little weeping, a little laughter, and always a heart full of worship. Amen
Recently, I played Eye-Spy with one of my grands. We stood at the window looking out over the street. We spied the orange in the setting sun, the leafless trees, the blue car with four wheels. . . . We looked through the window to what was beyond.
The lights on the Christmas tree were lit in the corner next to us and were reflected on the window glass that we were gazing through. When I said, "I spy tiny red, green and yellow lights," she was puzzled until I said to look at the glass rather than through it.
Immediately, she saw the tree's reflection in the window. We turned from the window and began to study that which had caught our eye on the glass and had cast the reflection. The reflection was good, but the tree itself was better!
Reminds me of 1Cor 13:12-13. "For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."
The day is coming when our questions and confusion will become understanding. We will know fully as we stand in the presence of the Real. In the meantime, you and I are the reflection as we reflect the Image of our Creator.
Yes, we reflect that Image imperfectly distorted as it is by sin and our sinful propensities. But, as the gracious, redeeming life and Lordship of Christ makes its home in us, we become an increasingly accurate Christ-reflection to others.
Creator God and Father,
Jesus the Christ, our Savior,
Spirit--Comforter, Teacher and Guide,
Cleanse us of all that is distortion and help us to reflect you truly and well.
Lead us daily toward the face-to-face worship of heaven.
For the reflection is good, but the Creator and the Christ is better. Amen
Christmas Day is over and we enter the days of Christmas-tide.
In Bethlehem, the shepherds have returned to their flocks in the hills while the town's people are either excited or irritated by the commotion in the night.
"What was that all about?"
"Have you not heard?"
"Angels! Shepherds! Stable! Manger-Baby! Savior! Messiah!"
But then, bread needs to be baked, animals fed, cows milked, water and food gathered. One night's unusual events begin to fade and the necessities of the day take precedence and attention.
Spirit of Christ, compel us to remember the Baby's birth. Enable us to understand the implications of The Gift of Christmas for our lost and hungry souls.
Thank you, Jesus. Amen.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
Come into his presence with singing.
I have found a lovely new favorite song on a CD that I’ve had for years but never played. The song’s chorus sings, “How much more we are to You.” The song is a celebration of God’s creative work of the beautiful flower and its aroma, the birds and their lovely and varied songs, the day and the night, and more.
To see God’s unique and detailed creation is to stand in awe and to give thanks. But each mention of bird or flower or sun and moon ends with “How much more we are to You!” Truly believing that God sees me, knows me, desires intimate relationship with me, loves me, somehow requires more faith than believing that God loves his creation.
So, with the psalmist and the songwriter,
I join the bird song, the babbling brook, and the wind in the trees.
I, too, will make a joyful noise – I will worship Him with glad song as I enter into His presence without fear.
For, He loves me!
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
To “know that the Lord is God” is to know that God is God and I am not God.
The psalmist guides us here into a right posture. The need for this guidance is universal and it has life and death implications for us.
In the Genesis garden, our first parents wanted to be like God knowing good and evil. Today we want to be like God by seeking to control our lives, manage our wants and pleasures, and avoid our suffering. Rebellious and resistant, we give no nod to the truth that the psalmist declares:
It is he that made us,
And we are his;
We are his people,
And the sheep of his pasture.
He made us. We did not make ourselves.
We are his. We do not belong to ourselves, but to him.
We are his people.
We are the sheep of his pasture. Like sheep to the Shepherd, we are utterly and completely dependent upon the One who has given us life.
But, is this wrong posture really a life and death danger? I say, "Yes, indeed." When the sheep leaves the care and protection of the Shepherd, danger stalks the sheep and the human soul invites the devouring presence of its greatest enemy.
In this one verse, our attitude, our perspective, and our posture toward our Creator/Shepherd is aligned aright.
And we respond:
O God, you are God and I am not God.
Forgive my arrogance and presumption. Guide me into right relationship with you my Creator, my Shepherd, my Savior, my Redeemer.
Protect me from the enemy of my soul.
Thank you always and forever for your love and care.
How much more we are to You!
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
Once the Creator re-aligns the attitude and posture of the sheep to the Shepherd, a hard-to-be-believed, urgent invitation is extended:
“Come! Come in!
Be with me. Enjoy my presence.
In your re-newed and new-found humility, don’t stay outside my holy gates; don’t remain on the safe side of the inner courts.
Come deeper in! For I am your Maker, the Lover of your soul.
Thanksgiving, worship and praise are the heart’s response to such a Good Shepherd. Come! Come in!”
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
If the sheep still hesitate to “Come! Come in!,” the psalmist definitively assuages the lingering fear. He says, “For the Lord is good.”
If the Lord is not good, if the Shepherd is cruel or neglectful of his sheep, if the soul’s danger is equal within the fold as it is outside the Shepherd’s care, then it is wisdom that keeps us at a distance.
This wisdom, however, has come to us through our lives’ experiences of suffering and disappointment. The source of this suffering, these disappointments, is often ascribed to the same One who made us, the same One whose “steadfast love endures forever” and whose “faithfulness” continues “to all generations.”
This resistance to entering into his presence cannot be wisdom then. For, one and the same cannot be both cruel, neglectful, and dangerous and loving, good, and faithful.
The One who made us and to whom we belong understands the lingering fears resulting from the wounds of our suffering. He knows our souls’ longings and deprivations. Yet, his goodness can be trusted by even the most frightened wounded soul.
And so we respond:
Lord, I am afraid.
The wounds of my past and present continue to define me to myself. I have blamed you for these wounds, believing that you are not good or loving or faithful to me.
I have only a little faith and only a modicum of trust in the Good Shepherd.
But Lord, if you are truly good; if you are trustworthy, and if you indeed love me – even me, then I confess that I want to Come! I long to Come in, come deeply in.
Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.
I trust you are good, but only a little.
Inspite of my fear, I will venture in a just little further.
Meet me at the gate of your presence. For my soul needs to receive your steadfast love and my heart longs for your faithful care.
So, Lord, I come. With fear, and hope, and joy, and thanks, I come.