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Archive for February, 2016

Isaiah 55:1-13

 If you are thirsty, come to the waters. If you have no money, come, buy and eat.

Imagine, if you will, that every day, you walk past a particular house in your neighborhood. Sometimes, at dusk, you walk by, on your way home. Through the clear glass windows, you can see into the dining room. What can you see? A huge dining room table that stretches from one end to the other. Beautifully polished silver candelabras, their candles lit, flickering with a warm glow. All kinds of delicious food waits on this table—roast beef, turkey, ham. Brightly colored sweet potatoes and green vegetables. Homemade pasta dishes. Fish, crabmeat, shrimp. Loaves of hot, homemade bread. Someone has poured good red wine into the wine glasses to decant. Folded napkins rest neatly at each place. The banquet awaits.

Open door sm1 And you, who have stopped for a moment in the cold winter dusk to gaze upon this scene, are hungry. Really hungry. Just when you are ready to keep walking, someone opens the front door and calls out to you.

“Hi! Dinner’s ready and on the table. Why don’t you come in and eat with us? Oh don’t worry. There’s no charge for dinner. We have freshly baked bread and a good roast from the meat market. If you want milk or water instead of wine, we have plenty of that too. Come in, and eat. We’ve been waiting for you, my dear. But you shake your head.

“No, thank you, I already have plans.” Now those plans include going home to eat a grilled cheese sandwich while you check your e-mail—another evening that leaves you vaguely unfulfilled. So that person who stands in the open doorway, backlit by the glow of candles, slowly and reluctantly closes that front door. You have refused her invitation. You stand there on the sidewalk for a moment, shivering and hungry. Then you turn and walk down the dark street. Alone. Hungry. Behind you, the feast has beckoned, and you said no.

 

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The Power of Words

Ash Wednesday 2 smYesterday, thousands of Christians gathered to usher Lent in with a Holy Day: Ash Wednesday. Some of my colleagues did “Ashes to Go.” (I had done that the past two years, but took a break this year.)  All over the internet, there were offers of daily Lenten meditations that one could subscribe to.  Many of us offered the liturgy of Ash Wednesday–which includes an invitation to a holy Lent, the imposition of ashes, the reading together of Psalm 51 (one of the most penitential psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures), a Litany of Penitence, an absolution, and then Holy Communion.

As I wound down last night, I was reflecting on the day. For me, it was a very full one. It had included meetings about Christian formation of our youth and children with our Director of Family & Youth Ministry, a tutorial on electronic media, a meeting with our organist/choir director about Lenten worship, a couple of pastoral phone calls, lots of e-mails, an unexpected connection with a first cousin whom I have never met (we are doing some family genealogy), and the two services.

Litany of PenitenceWhat was a common thread in all of these encounters?  Words.  I exchanged lots of words with people, in several milieus.  Yet what I was most struck with–and not for the first time–was the power of the words in our liturgy.

I grew up in a Southern Baptist preacher’s home. I was familiar with people who did extemporaneous prayers. No one used a book. The Book was the Bible. So by the time I was twelve years old, I could (and did) pray in public with no problem.

Yet I left that Baptist tradition. As a college student, and the young adult, I fell deeply in love with the music, the liturgies, the powerful words in the Book of Common Prayer. That poetry of the Prayerbook drew me in. The symbols of Eucharist–bread and wine–drew me in. It was not that there was less power in the words we prayed out of a Prayerbook. There was MORE power, for me.

So yesterday, I began both services with words written hundreds of years ago, in a long line of tradition: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. . .” God hates nothing that God has made. Just think about the incredible depth and power of those words. If you claim those words, you will not ever hate yourself again. God does not hate anything God makes–that means you. That means me.

Yes, later in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I prayed a prayer that acknowledges our humble beginnings:  “Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.”

Ashes 2And then, I slowly moved down the altar rail. One by one, people, knelt–young, old, male, female, black, white. I traced the sign of the cross on their foreheads and said, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” At both services, I knelt and asked a parishioner to etch those ashes on my own forehead. I do not want to forget. I do not want to forget that I came from the earth, and I will return someday to the earth. I do not want to forget that God created me. God loves me. God has never hated me, and never will. God is sitting in the old wing chair with a hot cup of tea, waiting for me to come and be held and loved. In this ultimate Word, I fall silent, and just know Love.

May that Word hold you this day.

Pictures taken by McJilton

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Ash Wednesday

“Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.”

Ash Wednesday, by T.S. Eliot

In 1927, the poet T. S. Eliot converted to Anglicanism. This is the final stanza of this powerful poem. There are many things about life that I do not understand. One of those things is why I am so drawn to T.S. Eliot. I can still remember phrases from his “Love Song to J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled. . .”)

I have been living with Ash Wednesday on so many levels lately. As I have prepared for the various liturgies of Lent, Ash Wednesday is only one–yet an important one, for it is with this solemn liturgy that we usher in the forty days of Lent. Ash Wednesday is visceral.  In my parish, I make sure that there is extra space for silence during Lent, and we start today with that.  So the intentional silence, I hope, gives room for reflection. There is the solemn recitation of Psalm 51.  People either stand or kneel in front of me, and I feel the gritty texture of ashes. Etching them on the foreheads of men, women and children, I often look at the faces of these children and remember another day when I took holy oil, blessed by our bishop, and etched the sign of the cross after I baptized them. One year, I finished doing this part of the liturgy and remembered that no one had done that for me. So I went over and knelt in front of one of the acolytes, told him the words to use, and asked him to make the ash cross on my forehead. It was a powerful experience, to feel a childish hand take gritty ash and remind me that I, too, am dust. To dust I will return.

Our souls are eternal. We are, in a real sense, made of stardust–pure energy. Yet the shell that is our earthly body will, someday, become part of Mother Earth again.

This helps to remind me that I should do a little more in taking care of that earth. Fewer plastic bottles used. More recycling. Less water run as I brush my teeth (also remembering the people of Flint, Michigan, who do not have this luxury, as well as the millions of people around the world who are always thirsty because they do not have the same access to good, clean water that I do).  I am not going to spend time feeling guilty about this. I just need to do something concrete about it in my own life.

I have subscribed to a daily Lenten reflection from Ignatian Solidarity Network, which is “a Lenten journey towards racial justice,” and as I read the first reflection this morning, I was struck by the image of our (collective) standing on the ashes of those who have gone before us–especially our African American brothers and sisters who have been treated shamefully.  As a white woman, I have often wondered what I can do to make reparations. I think that maybe, I can just do my own part–to lift up voices unheard, to preach about the importance of doing justice so that there is peace.

Last year, when the riots erupted in Baltimore, MD, I was keenly aware of my own parish’s engagement with justice issues. We are a diverse parish, and we are a Main Street parish. The violence and unease, the conversations I had with local African American merchants who live in the west side of Baltimore–all of those made me more aware of what my own parishioners live with–fear for, concern for, their black teenage sons. Together, a group of us read Ta Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, and the African Americans in the room helped this priest and pastor learn, on a more personal level, the challenges they all face that I will never face.

I am who I am. I was born to a certain set of parents, out of a particular family line–one that may have a trace of Native American, but is mostly from Scottish, Irish and English roots. I will never, on some deep level, really understand the pain of the people upon whose ashes I stand this day.

But I can ask God to open my heart and mind to the pain that others have borne, and will continue to bear. I can ask God for forgiveness of the sin of my own racism. I can ask God to change my heart. Today, I will do that, and I will feel the grittiness of dark ash on my forehead, and be grateful for the God who has created me out of the dust of the earth, and who will–at the end of my life–welcome me to a table where all of us are welcome, regardless of our color, race or creed.  Even on Ash Wednesday, that reality is something to celebrate.

 

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