Category Archives: spiritual reflection

Pancakes and Ashes

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”
Ecclesiastes 8:15

 Pancakes and ashes. What do the two together have to do with the season of Lent? For me the peculiar juxtaposition of the two in the liturgical year relates to the equally peculiar and powerful juxtaposition of feasting and fasting—and then feasting again—in Christian spiritual life.

Shrove Tuesday, also called Fat Tuesday, is the last day of carnival or Mardi Gras, a final day of celebration and feasting each year on the edge of the wilderness journey of fasting. During the Middle Ages, Christians “shrove” or sought absolution before the start of Lent. Shrove Tuesday was the last day of “Shrovetide.” Shrove Tuesday is known in some parts of the world today as Pancake Day. On Pancake Day, we eat our feast-fill because, as the Shrove Tuesday text from Ecclesiastes says—“for tomorrow we die.” Ash Wednesday. A day of “dying.”

Ash Wednesday’s “day of dying” marks the beginning of Lent. The origins of Ash Wednesday are rooted in the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Both Lent and Yom Kippur emphasize fasting and self and communal reflection. Christian worshippers today mark their foreheads with ashes to mark the start of Lent’s 40 days of fasting. Why ashes? In Scripture, ashes symbolize death (Genesis 18:27), judgment (Ezekiel 28:18), lament (Esther 4:3), and repentance (Jonah 3: 6). Ashes are also associated in the bible with fasting (Daniel 9:3 and Isaiah 58:5). Some burial liturgies include the phrase, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” spoken as dirt is sprinkled into the gravesite; both the ashes and the dust symbolize the finality of death. Both also symbolize life and growth. Fasting and feasting merge, it seems, as ashes and soil intermingle.

Feasting to fasting to feasting again is a liturgical arc encompassing the Lent/Easter seasons. In Eastern Christian traditions, Lent is called the Great Fast and Easter’s 50 days the Great Feast. During Lent, some traditions bury the Alleluia—we fast from this word of celebration—to enter into spiritual quiet—to let our spiritual soil rebuild for the springtime to come. But this work is not only symbolic or metaphorical spiritual work; it has to do with concrete realities of living in a world where too many people endure fasts that they did not choose. To choose to fast during Lent is a privilege for many of us.

Consider: this season reminds us that we were made from the soil and that we eventually return to the soil. We are dependent upon the dirt of the earth—the sacrificial gifts of the earth—to eat and live. Christians sometimes think of fasting as a kind of contract with God; I’ll give up “x” in order that “y” might come to pass. But what if fasting has more to do with the rhythms of harvest and the gift-bearing wonders of the dirt from which we come and to which we will return. What if fasting teaches us how to live more redemptively with the earth and calls us to work with greater passion and urgency for Isaiah’s grand feast where there is plenty for all?

Ε. Β. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, writes of his wife Katherine, an avid gardener, who every year in the fall, even in the fall of that year when she knew she likely would not live to see the spring, headed out to the garden to plant bulbs in her garden:

Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katharine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes, and proceed to the director’s chair, a folding canvas thing…at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate interment.

As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion. . . her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.*

Historically, Christians fasted each Friday to recall Jesus’ death. Sunday was always considered a feast day, even during Lent. Between Sunday and Friday, eating practices were more “normal.” Perhaps the feasting and fasting themes of Lenten biblical texts can help us to embrace this historic sacred rhythm in our daily lives. Or we can consider again that the central meal of Christian worship consists of simple basics, bread and wine, that shared in community become a nourishing feast of radical welcome and promise of food for all. The possibility of such a Lenten consideration is a restored relationship to food—to earth’s good dirt—to each other in a world where too many are hungry.

So Lent begins. And despite all that is wrong in the world and our uncertainties about what the future holds, we yet again take up the radical Gospel work of plotting the resurrection.

 

*from E. B. White, “Introduction” in K. S. White, Onward and Upward in the Garden.

Answered Prayers

Dr. William Barber, II, is a hero. He wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the New York Times on February 3, 2017, following the National Prayer Breakfast. I have continued to think about that letter and the powerful words he quoted from Frederick Douglass (1818-1895): “I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
*********
“These times we’re living in
call for courageous people,”
the preacher said that day.

I am not brave.
Never have been.

Bravery is something to be
read about in storybooks
where quixotic heroes
ride out on prancing
stallions to do battle,
sabers flashing in
magnificent sunlight.

Bravery is something to be
prayed for in church
where harsh living
daylights must first pass
by saintly stained-glass
sentinels of bygone years
before being transmuted
into the kinder, gentler
beams that caress Sunday
morning’s bowed heads.

Isn’t it?

Or maybe we should
pray for freedom,
like Frederick Douglass did,
walking in faith
until our legs are braver
than our thoughts.

So, in this present cloud
of unknowing, being not
brave, we resolve, if
we can find the honesty
to do it, to live on
as best we can,
stringing together each
momentary breath
like pearls of hope to
place with the gentleness
of a lover around our
fear to name its wounds
as our own and journey on
not in spite of
but with it.

For out there, where the
times we’re living in
call for courageous people,
the groaning ground that
soaked up the life-blood of
all who died unjustly just
trying to live
needs the redeeming touch
of feet determined to walk
with their fear until
their legs have learned
to move each day to the
rhythms of justice,
mercy, and love.

While Not in Other News

For the last six and a half weeks, my 81 year old mom has been undergoing radiation treatments for tongue cancer, cause undetermined. She finishes on Friday a “tour of duty” of 33 treatments. Her mouth is raw; her throat is swollen; she is weary. The doctors told her she would need a feeding tube to make it through the therapy. She said “no tube.” Her friends at her senior independent apartment complex, the generous cook in the kitchen of that complex, the kindness of an assortment of drivers, amazing doctors, nurses and technicians at our local hospital, and her desire to keep on doing what she does every day–eating with 102-year-old Lenora and her other friends in the dining room and watching her soap operas–has kept her going. She has grit. Now, with one treatment to go, she has lost 6 pounds instead of the 25-30 the doctors predicted. No feeding tube.

Many headlines have splashed across the news waves this week. I celebrate in this poem news that does not make the Times but that does make a difference. My mom said today what I think is true about life in the midst of so many troubling headlines: “Things happen to us. We are human. We just do the best we can.”

“Egyptian Air Plane Crashed into the Mediterranean”
the week the doctor phoned to break the news:
“Biopsy Is Positive for Cancer”
A life sentence, headliner understated,
one of many.

Eighty percent survival rate;
Eighty-one year-old woman with an
eighty two year life expectancy.
so the doctor said.

Stubborn senior citizen
expectant of everyday life until death
is escorted on the arm of a shiny blue walker
into iron man battle.

Thirty-three excursions down Radiation Way;
Thirty-three high dose zaps to the tongue;
Thirty-three days of taste wasting away.
“Pulse Nightclub Massacre: 49 Dead”
“Zika Arrives in the U.S.”
“Alton Sterling Shooting Sparks Protest”
“Five Dallas Police Officers Fatally Shot”
“Summer Olympics Begin with
Uplifting Spectacle in Gritty Rio”
and Tina in the kitchen
down at the Cypress Gardens
apartments for senior adults
stirs up milkshakes three times a day
even though they are not on the menu
or in her job description
so mom, boosted up, loses six pounds
instead of the 30 they all said she would
with no feeding tube against all life expectancies.

Fortified by 102-year-old Lenora,
91-year-old Doris,
91-and-a-half-year-old Ruth,
and 70-year-old Mary and her 2001 Buick LeSabre
with the extra-capacity trunk,
determined octogenarian perseveres
while doctors and nurses cheer, amazed.

“Hillary Broke the Glass Ceiling” last week;
while not in other news
mom shattered expectations, gained 1.8 pounds,
four more tours to go:
“I’m with her.”

Thirsty: A Lament for Flint, Michigan

Baptism of Our Lord
January 10, 2016

How disturbing that just days before the Sunday when many Christian congregations recall and celebrate Jesus’ baptism, first the mayor and then the governor of Michigan declared a state of emergency in Flint, Michigan due to lead in the water supply (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/12/16/459983352/michigan-mayor-declares-state-of-emergency-over-lead-levels). Now, people in Flint, Michigan face the fear and uncertainty of the Flint River’s “irreversible neurotoxins” said to be swimming in their children’s bloodstreams.

What do our liturgies’ words, prayers, and proclamations about the redeeming and cleansing power of baptismal waters mean in the face of tainted waters in Flint and other places around the globe? The story of Jesus’ baptism calls us to pay attention to the damage being done to our earth’s waters and, as a result, to human lives. Our own baptisms call us to lament, to speak out, to take action, to do what we can to restore and renew these watery playgrounds of silk-spinning caddisflies, river-dancing trout, and our beloved children.

God’s Spirit moved over the face of the waters in the beginning and imagined, created, stirred up life. How can we, God’s people, imagine, create, and stir up again living waters in desert places or in places where unclean water threatens life?

A Lament for Flint, Michigan on the Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord

But now thus says the Lord, the one who created you, the one who formed you: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. . .  (from Isaiah 43)

And she brought forth her first born child,
womb-waters splashing
hopes and tear-drenched dreams
infant life
baptized–
too soon estranged.

Spirit-sparked rivers unleashed
to dance and delight
now tainted
carrying
not-life
alien
uncertainties
“irreversible neurotoxins”
eroding pipelines
and trust
and tender souls.

We weep.
We wait.
We wail.
We wait.
God,
be with us.

Thirsty,
we wait.

She brought forth her first born child.

Twelfth Night: Reflections on Epiphany 2016

Note: the above photo is “Bethlehem’s Orb” by Sheila Hunter and is used by permission.

Tonight is Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany when we remember how magi from Persia followed to Jesus’ birthing place an unusual God-flung orb of light that appeared in the heavens. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “a striking appearance.”

(The remainder of this post, including an Epiphany poem, is published on the Patheos Unfundamentalist Christian site linked below.)

Source: Twelfth Night: Reflections on Epiphany 2016

Cedars in Snowy Places

Advent Reflections for Winter Solstice

Winter
Solstice.
Gyroscopic dance choreographed by Earth’s axial tilt.
Sun stand still
Longest night,
shortest day
Yule
Midwinter
The land is vulnerable now,
sometimes covered by snowflakes
that have let go of something
somewhere
up there
and pirouetted down
down,
down
from the heavens
to enchant rooftops
and leaning-over farm fences
and autumn-tarnished grass.
And while tulip bulbs repose
in unseen silence
beneath the austere earth,
cedars in snowy places
fragrance the cold air
with emerald stillness
and praise the December moonlight.

Winter is coming. Soon, cold will blow up on our doorsteps and clamor to get in through our windows. Winter is coming. But even in winter-dead forests, cedars are green forever. Even when all other creation colors hibernate. Cedars remain. Not boisterous or extravagant. Steady. Green in every season.

On this longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, I am grateful for cedars in life’s winter place. Cedars perfume the air with God’s evergreen promises during a Christmas season when so many hearts are broken and so much about our world causes spirits to ache. Thanks be to God for people who are “home” to us in every season, for places that cultivate our best selves, and for Gospel promises with deep roots that even in wintry times know how to live on.

**Note: Winter Solstice happens in the Northern Hemisphere in late December (11:48 p.m. ET, 10:48 p.m. CT, 9:48 p.m. MT and 8:48 p.m. PT on December 21 and on December 22 in other places in the Northern Hemisphere).

Photograph, “Cedars in Snowy Places,” by Sheila G. Hunter, all rights reserved.