Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Return to ashes

"From dust you were created, and to dust you will return."

I can't think about Ash Wednesday without remembering Anne Lamott's story. She talks about scattering the ashes of her father and her friend Pammy. "They're impossible to let go of entirely," she writes. While it is an odd story, I find the idea of ashes clinging beautiful. As I think about today, I picture Anne tasting the ashes of her friend.

And yes, it is creepy.

For those not used to thinking about death, the entire Lenten season is creepy. We stumble toward the cross, pondering our own mortality.

I grew up fascinated by Lent, likely the effects of being an evangelical in Louisiana. My church didn't observe the season, but the community and culture around me did. We got out of school for Mardi Gras. One year, I even learned the French National Anthem to sing with an ensemble for one of the local parades. The school cafeteria resorted to serving fish on Fridays and all over town one would see invitations to fish fries.

The Episcopal church down the street had a large wooden cross next to the church sign. Throughout Lent, fabric would be draped on the cross, bearing the colors of the season. Even before I understood the significance, I enjoyed when we drove by and saw the colors changing throughout the season.

These days, evangelicals are more likely to be schooled in Lenten practices. My Baptist church will have an Ash Wednesday service tonight, and while we aren't yet brave enough to mark crosses on each other's foreheads, we join our brothers and sisters in being symbolically marked for death.

And perhaps, in the midst of communion, I'll think about Anne Lamott, licking her friend's ashes off her fingers... in that nice, symbolic sense, I suppose that is exactly what we'll being doing.

EDIT I stand corrected. First: I mistakenly mentioned communion because I was thinking too far ahead in the Lenten season. Second: we did indeed impose ashes this year. Who knew, my Baptist church is growing up ;0) And yes, I did taste them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Life as a spiritual refugee

I admit it. I have a love/hate relationship with the church. Several years ago, my friend Chad and I served as college interns at the church we both attended in Springfield. Both of us were injured church-goers, licking our wounds and hiding from loud denominational noises. We had each seen the mildewing underbelly of churches whose leaders spewed out Christianeze, but thought only of notches in their salvation belts. And slowly, we watched the beauty of our faith turned into something militant and predictable. The mystery was gone.

And so we became spiritual refugees, hiding in the third floor of this new (to each of us) church, trying to remember why we felt Christian community was so important to begin with. Many weeks, Post Traumatic Church Disorder would spring up in unexpected places, and the two of us would flee the building for the safety of mexican food and movies.

Along the way we met other spiritual refugees who would join us for a weekly faith and film class. The hodgepodge of spiritual misfits coming together to watch movies and discuss the meeting place of faith and culture helped heal wounds, perhaps in all of us.

The gathering of broken individuals stumbling around in search of grace was beautiful and reminded me of why I loved church; why I kept coming back, despite my duck-and-run impulses. And the sanctuary of community (and the cinema!) helped quiet the need to flee.

Last semester, I created a personal Code of Ministry Ethics for a class I was in. While I'm not a licensed or ordained as a pastor and have never served on a church staff (unless you count the college intern role), I often find myself playing the part to various people in my life. My copy of the Code is signed by seminary colleagues, and reminds me not only of the promises I've made concerning ministry conduct, but of the powerful repercussions that breaking such codes can cause.

This week, I've heard story after story of folks — of friends — who have been deeply hurt by the hands of the church. Whether or not the church causes the first abuse, churches often cause re-victimization and further harm. Instead of being the hands and feet of Christ, we cover up the "unsightly" by removing personhood and shifting blame. And those wounds we inflict can be deadly — if not physically, then mentally, spiritually and relationally.

We are all broken. And we desperately need someone to listen, to affirm, to help us as we scramble around searching for grace.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

We lift them up

This morning a choral piece written by Pepper Choplin has been running through my head. The church choir has been working on it, and I fell in love the first time Rod played it for us. The words are fairly simple. The basic gist is, "Pray for the person on your left. Pray for the person on your right. They may seem strong, but we don't know all of the struggles and the burdens they hold. We pray, Lord we pray, give them power to face the day."

Prayer is something I think about often. I wonder what significance it holds. Theologians seem to debate the purpose of prayer quite often, as well. Does prayer change God's mind? Does it cause external things to happen? Or does it merely change the heart of the person praying? Might the purpose of prayer be to open one's self to hear from God? Maybe a combination of some or all these things?

I'm not sure.

One of my favorite movies is Shadowlands, the story of CS Lewis and Helen Joy Gresham. Jack (as Lewis is called by friends) realizes he is in love with Joy while she is in the hospital, being diagnosed with terminal cancer. A well-meaning friend tries to encourage him by saying that Jack has been praying and now God is answering. Jack says that isn't why he prays. "I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because I can't help it. The need flows out of me all the time waking and sleeping. Praying doesn't change God. It changes me."

Elsewhere, Lewis wrote that praying for others causes a change of heart. That as one prays for another, he or she begins to see the same need in his/her own life.

While this is certainly not the extent of Lewis' thoughts on prayer — or even praying for the needs of others (the book "Letters to Malcolm" deals with the issue, as do others of his works) — I find the ideas intriguing. To pray because one NEEDS to pray, regardless of the outcome. It's an idea I rather like. It is humbling, recognizing the otherness, the biggerness of God; recognizing the great need that we have — even when we aren't sure what that need actually is. We can't figure life out, and so we pray.

As we pray for others to have "power to face the day," we recognize hurts that we may not have noticed. We are opened to have compassion for those around us. And we are more likely to recognize our own need for that same power.

Beyond that, I'm not sure. But like Lewis, I find the need flows out of me. And so I pray.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The cost of Justice

For some reason complete strangers like to tell me their life stories. It always takes me by surprise. Within half an hour of meeting someone — often without exchanging names — I know more about a stranger than I do about people I have known for years. The conversations never begin with me, and I often don't say more than a few words — yet there it is, a heart-wrenching story that asks nothing from me but a listening ear.

Often, such as the case of "Saint Rick," I never see these folks again. But the stories — usually tragic, but strangely motivational — always stick with me.

I don't recall how it came up, but while still standing in the board room at a trustee's meeting yesterday, I found myself discussing the fairly new film "Slumdog Millionaire" (which I almost always accidentally type as "Slumgod." hrmmmm...). The film tells the story of Jamal Malik, a rather unlikely contestant on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." This "slumdog" is doing remarkably well — to the point that he is believed to be cheating. After all, what does an uneducated, impoverished orphan know? The film gives a rather brutal depiction of how he came to know the answers, and by doing so, gives insight into the lives of India's poor.

My friend suggested that we don't like knowing such things go on in the world. I countered that I simply don't like that such things occur. The more I think about it, however, the more I think she captured me more fully than I like to believe.

Last night, I read a blog update from my friend Gary Snowden. He is back in Guatemala, leading a team from his church in Lee's Summit. They have been working with a church in San Marcos, bringing bags of groceries and a listening ear to those who desperately need both.

I find myself wondering about the systemic problems that produce such poverty. Is it lack of clean water, lack of education, government corruption? And how can someone sheltered by living in a rich country possibly help? I find myself without answers.

I climbed into bed last night, planning to do some reading before falling asleep. Instead, I found myself looking around my room and observing the luxuries that surround me. The stack of books by my bed. Clothes hanging in the closet. Curtains on the windows and art on the walls. An extra bedroom that simply holds stuff. Food in my kitchen. Heck, I often have to throw away food, because vegetables and leftovers go bad before I finish them.

I want justice, but only on my terms; and my terms include my own comfort. In my ministerial ethics class last semester, we discussed money and the Scriptural way of using it. Many of us admitted that we believe the way we use our money is sinful, but that we were too selfish and too scared to make the changes we believe we are called to.

I hereby admit that I am the person talking about in "Hotel Rwanda." I hear the stories, mourn for them, but then return to my dinner and the latest episode of a TV show. I'm the girl who slaps a Save Darfur magnet on my car and drives on, believing I've done my duty.

But that isn't justice. Hearing and remembering isn't enough. And I confess I'm too caught up in my own culture to know how I'm supposed to live. Have mercy, O God.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The fantasy of faith

I've found myself thinking about the oddities of my faith a lot this week. It is incredibly messy, and I really like that about myself.

Last week, a friend posted a blog asking how Christians can view God as "good" in light of the Hebrew Scriptures. Is a God who assists people in eradicating entire cities, who flooded the world really good? I had to admit that such passages give me pause. That I wonder if such historical stories tell us more about the people's perception of God than the reality of God. That the story and hope I gain is that throughout the Hebrew Scripture is a woven tale of God loving God's people; of God going to amazing lengths to display that love. Strangely enough, the response from my post-Christian friend was that if he returned to Christianity, it would be my brand. And here I just thought I was confused.

On Sunday, instead of watching the Super Bowl, I went on a walk (you can read the tale of that experience on my running blog at Since my buddy Chad has been bugging me about the downloadable lectures at Veritas ("Denfolls, go to Veritas NOWS" -- this may or may not be the place to note that Chad and I most often write to each other in the phonetic rendition of five year olds missing their front teeth. Which can be interesting when we are discussing issues of depth), I downloaded a few lectures of some folks I dig and transferred them to my seldom-used mp3 player.

As I walked, I listened to Madeleine L'Engle discuss fantasy and faith. She discussed the idea that truth is often somewhere beyond facts. That faith is best addressed in fantasy instead of theology, because it is something beyond the realm of mere facts.

"A Wrinkle in Time" was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. To this day, whenever I wish I could get somewhere faster or miss a friend who is far away, I wish for the ability to wrinkle in time. And I hope my recollection of that part of the book is accurate enough for that sentiment to mean something. I desperately need to reread that series!

Madeleine is another messy faith sort of person. And dreadfully honest -- I love it. After the lecture, she was asked by an atheist about the "fantasy of God." "That fantasy has always seemed too simple," he said. Ah, but it is the most difficult fantasy in the world, Madeleine responded. And I find myself agreeing. I don't find faith easy. Perhaps it is my questioning, cynical nature, but I struggle regularly to believe. Madeleine said "If I believe in God wholly and completely for two minutes every 7 or 8 weeks, I'm doing well... it is life-threateningly difficult, but it matters."

I've begun following the blog of Nadia Bolz-Weber, a rather unlikely ordained minister in the Lutheran church. My buddy (and pastor) Jeanie introduced me to her by sending a sermon Nadia preached recently on the confession of Peter. In it she states: "I often have people say to me 'I can’t say the apostles creed because I’m not sure I believe all of it' Well, do I believe every line of the Apostles creed when I say it? Sometimes yes, but sometimes no. But here’s the thing. In a congregation….for each line of the creed there is probably someone there who believes it. So we are covered. Because it’s not my creed. It’s the church’s creed and I, thank Jesus, am a very small part of the church. When we confess our faith, the Body of Christ carries the faith for one another. As a body. On each other’s behalf. God creates faith in community where we daily convert each other to Christianity."

Since I'm pulling from all this great women of faith, I should pull in my friend Robin, who first introduced me to the idea of the church community carrying faith for us. I think it is a lovely thought. I mentioned on my running blog that my training partner and I need each other to believe in each other's running abilities -- Tiffany (another great woman of faith) believes that we can be faster, while I urged us to become marathoners, believing we could handle the distance. If such interdependence is necessary in something as inconsequential as running, how much more so is it true in faith?

While the Baptist church doesn't tend to recite creeds in the manner of our mainline friends, each song we sing and Scripture we read is a creed of sorts. And through that collective action, we believe together, for each other. You taking these two minutes, and maybe me finding the strength to carry the next.

And to tie up and sum up what is impossible to tie or sum, it is in that deep mystery -- that fantasy -- that I find a God who is good. A God beyond my comprehension or ability to believe -- but a God who makes all the work of faith worth it.