Friday, April 28, 2017

Friday Music: Madison by Ola Gjeilo

A beautiful composition by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, who plays the piano here.

Enjoy your weekend!


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Making Resurrection Real

Years ago, when my children were small, a friend sent me a card. On the front was a picture of a little boy wearing a 1950‘s era cowboy outfit riding a cow through the living room of a house, firing his toy pistol left and right. And behind him are the signs of all kinds of havoc - the front door knocked off its hinges, pictures dangling crookedly on the walls, the lamp lying on its side. His apron-clad mother stands on the stairs, looking on with widened eyes and an O-shaped mouth expressing startled surprise.  Inside the card, the caption read:  “You can childproof your house, but they still get in.” 

And so, here are the disciples, locked away in their room because they are afraid. Were they afraid of being put on trial themselves? Maybe so. Are they trying to “get back to normal” after the horrifying events of Friday? Perhaps. Are they locked in? Or are they locking something out? My guess is a little of both. That’s what we do, isn’t it? Try to create a safe zone. Try to put a barrier between ourselves and things that challenge us, things we are afraid of.
And then Jesus gets in anyway and reminds them of the terrible Friday that has somehow been redeemed - the wounds are still there, and yet Jesus is among them, alive, full of the breath of the Spirit. All has been redeemed. And all receive new life.

All except Thomas. Who only wanted what everyone else had gotten, an experience of Jesus in the flesh, wounds and all. He absolutely needs this, he says, and so Jesus comes again and offers himself to Thomas. Touch me, he says, and believe.

After hearing Bryan Stevenson speak at VCU during Holy Week, I see this experience of Thomas and Jesus as an example of what Stevenson calls “getting proximate.” We have to get proximate, to have real human contact in order to be transformed. 

Transformation doesn’t happen from a distance. Thomas needs to stand next to Jesus and see his wounds to understand something he couldn't be convinced of through the stories of his friends.

Resurrection is something that happens in the body, not in the mind, and it is made real to Thomas by a physical experience. But resurrection also is of the Spirit, a power working on a different plane. 

We see the Spirit’s work in its wake - and it might look like the living room of the card my friend sent me. The Spirit does not come to soothe or straighten, but to move us to break out of the places into which we have locked ourselves, separated from the world and its disasters. 

More and more, I have come to believe that the way we experience resurrection in our lives is to touch the suffering of others and let that experience transform us. If my goal in life is to stay comfortable (and I admit that on some days that is my goal) nothing is going to change in me or in the world around me except that my locked room is going to get smaller and smaller and beauty and goodness are going to shrivel along with my soul. I’m going to experience emptiness, not the fullness of life.

This transformation may well come unbidden. Despite my best efforts at keeping chaos at bay, Jesus might get in anyway. I can usually tell that I’m in for it if I am feeling adamant about something. 

That’s like sending up a flare to the Holy Spirit  come make me do the thing I claim I have no interest in/am afraid of/am convinced I already know all about. Then I get a phone call. A visit. Or an invitation. Or a series of invitations, in case I ignore the first three. 

If we are going to be transformed, and if we are going to participate in the transformation of the world (which is our work as Easter people), we are going to have to get proximate to suffering. To touch people’s wounds. Heck, to touch our own wounds, if we’ve been hiding from them.

To allow ourselves to get out of our self-styled safe space and into the lives of those who are lost or hungry or different. (And honestly, I think “different” can be the most challenging.) To move toward, instead of moving away from, the things and people that make us uncomfortable and afraid. 

And thus we might lose our fear 
and find our strength and power to follow Jesus and bind up the wounded and befriend the friendless and stand up for those getting kicked around in life. 

There is a prayer in the New Zealand Prayerbook I am especially fond of. It’s the prayer for this day,  and it goes like this:  

“Living God, for whom no door is closed, no heart is locked, draw us beyond our doubts, till we see your Christ and touch his wounds where they bleed in others.”

This is how we too can make resurrection real in this world. By touching Christ’s wounds where they bleed in others.

This might well mean that chaos will ensue. Life may get rearranged. Because, after all, despite our best efforts, the Spirit gets in anyway.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Caturday! Mending day with Bella

When you are replacing broken buttons on your jacket, the first thing to do is slide all the buttons under the jacket so you can't find them.

Then you bat the spool of thread around and let it unwind.

Last, you bite the pins.

All the while, make sure you shed some hair on all the black clothes.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Holy Hell

One of Fra Angelico's depictions of The Harrowing of Hell painted on one of the monks' cells at San Marco in Florence. Between his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus the Christ visited Hell (notice the door he broke down which crushed a demon and the other demons hiding in fear) to bring out all those righteous folks from the beginning of time - those who had died before Jesus came into the world. You can see that they are righteous because they are wearing haloes. 

A blessed Holy Saturday to you.

Friday, April 14, 2017

What is truth?

And so we look on the one whom they have pierced. We look on his bleeding side, his bruised face, the welts on his back. We see him crushed by a lethal combination of official state power fearing for its own survival and the power of the mob who have turned their backs on love and compassion. (“If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor,” the people hiss. “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate sneers.) 

We hear them accuse, we hear them demand punishment, and if there is a voice somewhere crying out “Stop! Why are you doing this?” that voice has been drowned out. Together Pilate, the police, the chief priests and the crowd come together as judge and jury who condemn what they do not understand and brutally bring about the end of a human life.

What is it about overt displays of power that attracts us? Or at least persuades us to tolerate them? What makes us shrug at injustice or look down at our shoes in the face of mockery and posturing and hateful condemnation? A question I heard public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson ask a large crowd at VCU on Wednesday night haunts me: Why do we want to get rid of broken people?

I believe we despise weakness and look down on vulnerability and cheer on the powerful who spew vitriol and disdain and revel in (and indeed seem proud of) humiliating others, because deep down inside we are afraid.

We are afraid of being abandoned, of being mocked, of being hurt, of losing our status, our way of life, our very lives. We are afraid of being overwhelmed by forces over which we have no control. 

We are all caught up in this in one way or another, this narrative that says we need to be afraid. Some of us are implicated as power players, concerned with our own interests. Some of us have been victims, and we may hear this story and feel our own humiliation and pain. Some of us are just standing by in our own bewildered grief trying to hold onto some kind of hope. 

It seems to me, as we look on this heartbreaking convergence of hate and fear, violence and brokenness, that this is the way Jesus draws us all to himself: gathering us all together the way a crash, a spectacular smash up, so powerfully draws the gaze and attention of us all - perpetrator, victim, and by-stander alike - to say “Look. This is what the world does. But this is not what I intend for you.” This is not what God wants for us, to live in fear, to be so afraid that we turn away from love and compassion and instead put our faith in some strong, but ultimately straw, thing that does not care for us.

Power itself is on trial today. Neither Pilate nor the people understand that power over Jesus’s life and death rests with Jesus and no one else. The judgment is not on Jesus but on the world that does not recognize the revelation of God in him, a man who gave water to the thirsty and sight to the blind and love to sinners and life to the dead. While standing before Pilate at his trial, Jesus says that he came to testify to the truth and Pilate’s answer is “What is truth?” He wouldn’t recognize the truth that was standing right in front of him. Because his concern was keeping his power and asserting his authority, he was not open to transformation in the presence of truth and love.

And the people do not understand that ultimately neither Pilate nor the Roman soldiers nor any of their institutions can be the protector they long for. The powerful will sacrifice life for political expediency. The Empire will fall and so will the Temple.

The truth is, there is no stronger power than love. It is only love and mercy and hope that can protect us from the degradation we are seeing today. We are all degraded by hatred and violence. Hatred and fear warps everyone. Of course we long for a protector.

And today we have seen him. Our protector is the Good Shepherd, who knows us all by name, who is willing to sacrifice his life for us out of love for us because we belong to him and he has come to give us life. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, not like the hired hand who runs away when the wolf approaches. The Good Shepherd will sacrifice himself to keep the wolf from snatching us.

Now Jesus has bowed his head and given up his spirit, and we offer up our lament. The fact that we know how it will turn out does not lessen the need for grief. Grief for what we do to each other, grief for the soul crushing that hatred and killing does to both victim and perpetrator, that kills some and hardens others and frightens us from naming injustice and violence for what it is. Grief for all who suffer in this life, and for those who cause the suffering, and for those who cannot bear to look, and for those who cannot face their own complicity.  

Let us grieve and lament, and be gathered together into the tomb, perpetrator, victim, and bystander together, and together let us there summon hope, for the truth is that out of this utter darkness salvation will rise.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Music for Holy Week: Allegri's Misere mei

Traditionally sung during the last three days of Holy Week, Gregorio Allegri's Misere Mei is sung here by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge from a 2015 recording.

The story is that this music was kept secret but the secret was let out by 14-year old Wolfgang Mozart who went home and transcribed it after hearing it once.

A blessed Holy Week to you.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Crowd and Community

The Poet Thinks of the Donkey 
by Mary Oliver

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

Today, after the reading of Matthew's Passion Narrative, this thought has stayed with me:

There's a difference between crowd and community.

A blessed Holy Week to you all.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Music for Lent: What Wondrous Love is This

The St. Olaf (College) Choir (Anton Armstrong, Conductor) perform "What Wondrous Love". From the collection "Southern Harmony", arr. Robert Scholz

Monday, April 3, 2017

Monday Night Music: Stopford's Ave Regina Coelorum

Philip Stopford's Ave Regina Coelorum.

This is in the regular rotation for our Sunday evening compline choir, Sanctuary. It never fails to transport me. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Some thoughts on the Lazarus story

The story of the raising of Lazarus appears in the exact middle of the Gospel of John.
It is the last of the seven “signs” or miracles in this Gospel. The signs are about life, even abundant life as evidenced by the gallons of wine at Cana, the thousands fed on the mountain, the restoring of wholeness to the blind, the lame, and the marginalized. Grace up on grace upon grace.

Not only is the story in the center of the Gospel, but you might call this story a hinge. The unfolding of Jesus has been moving toward this point - the teachings, the encounters, the miracles. And now we reach the climax. It begins with what I like to call The Vindication of Martha - Martha gets to play the role otherwise occupied by Peter in the other Gospels. She, not Peter or one of the male disciples, is the one who says: You are the Messiah! (Take that, all you Martha haters.)

And Jesus expounds on this - he identifies himself as the Resurrection AND the Life. Whatever people might believe about the Messiah or about Resurrection, he stands those notions on their heads to proclaim that he is not just about life the in eternal presence of God after death but also about life NOW. Abundant life, even. That’s why people needed to be given joy at the wedding and food when they were hungry and sight when they were blind and working legs when they were paralyzed. That’s why they needed to know that he was powerful enough to walk on stormy seas to come to them and even to reach into the darkness and depths of death and call his own back into life. Because he wanted them, as he wants us, to have abundant life.

As he stands before the tomb, Jesus weeps and is angry. This is not just grief. This is John’s rendering of Jesus’ agony in the garden. He is about to confront the darkest power in the world. The raising of Lazarus, a story found only in this Gospel, is the event that triggers the final and successful plot against Jesus’ life. He calls Lazarus out from death, and this disruption of the way things are supposed to be - the dead are supposed to stay dead just as the blind are supposed to stay blind and especially on Sundays - is, to some of those in power, a threat. And so there is going to be a price to be paid for this act of bestowal of abundant life. And isn’t that amazing? That someone giving life to those who are lacking is seen as such a serious threat! Some things never change.

After this, the hinge story, Jesus is headed toward his death. We will get there soon.

But for today, we consider abundant life. Which is to be confused with rainbows and constant happiness. I think I’d characterize it more as “full.” Not only are there baskets of bread and gallons of wine but there is also grief. There is also is loss. There is anger and bewilderment. Part of this full life is stinky, as Martha warns. Maybe even gross. Part of life is suffering consequences. Jesus is showing us that this is all part of full, abundant life.

Jesus also shows us that the life of abundance here on earth is also partly our responsibility. Jesus calls Lazarus by name, as he does all of his sheep, and Lazarus answers Jesus the Good Shepherd. Jesus calls him out of death and into life. But when Lazarus comes forward, he is still bound by strips of cloth, the literal wrappings of death.

And Jesus, his work done, tells the people: Unbind him, and let him go.

Since we are not Jesus, we are not called to raise the dead. But we are called to unbind those who are bound in ways that keep them from having abundant life. This is our work. And that work may have consequences. We may suffer because of it. But it is part of our full life, once we understand our own freedom and our power, to unbind the bound, and let them go and live.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Music for Lent: Byrd's Emendemus in melius

Emendemus in melius
Quae ignoranter peccavimus,
Ne subito praeoccupati die mortis
Quaeramus spatium poenitentiae
Et invenire non possumus.
Attende, Domine, et miserere,
Quia peccavimus tibi.
Adjuva nos, Deus salutaris noster,
Et propter honorem nominis tui
Libera nos.

Let us amend what we have transgressed
Through ignorance,
Lest, should the day of death suddenly overtake us,
We seek time for repentance
And cannot find it.
Hearken, o Lord, and have mercy,
For we have sinned against thee.
Help us, O God of our salvation,
And, for the glory of thy name,
Deliver us.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Annunciation

Donatello's Annunciation in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Love the way Mary and Gabriel are looking at each other, she in the superior position, he almost playfully inquiring.

How people were able to chisel stone and make something like this is one of life's great mysteries.

Hail, Mary, full of grace.....

Friday, March 24, 2017

Music for Lent: Rachmaninoff's Vespers Nunc Dimittis

I prefer posting videos that show some images and movement, or best yet live performances, but there simply is no better recording of Rachmaninoff's Nunc dimities (also known as the Song of Simeon) than this one, featuring Karl Dent, tenor, and the Robert Shaw Festival Singers recorded in Quercy, France, in a church there, in 1989. The CD was released in 1990 and I bought it not long thereafter. The whole CD is just magical (who knew Rachmaninoff could create this kind of stuff???) but the Nunc dimittis is my favorite.

Rachmaninoff requested that this Nunc be sung at his funeral, but for some reason this proved impossible and so it was not. Perhaps there were not enough low basses.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Being Chosen: A reflection for the 3rd Sunday in Lent

My colleague Michael Sweeney, our Director of Family Ministries at St. Stephen's, shared this beautiful reflection at our Celtic service this evening. I love how he draws a connection in his own life with the story of the woman at the well, which was the Gospel reading for today (John 4:5-42), about how God seems to put us in the right place to serve his purpose. This is a great mystery. So here is Michael's story: 

In December I shared a bit about my time in Mexico City, how I was hired via email to teach English at a private school there, how my desire for adventure and weakness for feeling chosen blocked out all rational consideration in my decision-making. So I packed my suitcases and moved to Mexico. 

The school turned out to be awful. A for-profit operation, it had grown its student body from 300 in year 1 to 600 in year 2 without adding the requisite staff or classroom space. I taught about half of the 600 hundred students, squatting in other teachers’ classrooms. When I complained to the principal that this wasn’t a very good arrangement, she offered to set up a tent in a corner of the playground. 

I’d go home each night, cook some food, and sit at my kitchen table with the seventh Harry Potter book until I was tired enough to go to sleep. My life was like the waiting room at the slowest doctor’s office in the world. I needed a shot of courage to quit, but it seemed like the doctor had forgotten about me, so I just read my book as patiently as I could. In fact, I read each sentence as if it were the last, two or three times, slowly, always covering the next sentence with my fingers so I wouldn’t cheat and skip ahead before I’d licked the bone of every word completely clean. 

It was the last Harry Potter book, and I wasn’t at all eager for the story to be over, but more importantly, I didn’t know what I would do with myself when it was over. Having another story to live in every night was the one thing that made the day almost bearable. And I didn’t know how long I’d be stuck in that apartment, waiting for the courage to leave. It sounds so silly in retrospect, that I couldn’t just walk into the principal’s office and quit, but I couldn’t. I tried twice and failed.

There’s one night that was different from all the rest. I had sautéed onions and peppers, browned some beef, and sat down with Harry Potter. I was dangerously close to the end. At one tender moment, I began to cry and closed the book. The story continued to move even though the words had stopped, like water blown from a tree after the rain.

My phone rang, interrupting the moment. I answered in Spanish, trying to sound as normal and put together as I could manage. I needn’t have bothered. The voice on the other end was broken—slurred and sobbing—the voice of my Dutch colleague Dominic. We’d spoken only a handful of times, only at work, always polite and mundane. His girlfriend had left him and he was afraid that he was going to drink himself to death. He asked me if I’d be willing—he knew it was a lot to ask—but would I be willing to come be with him?

Of course, I said, and I went. I listened to his heartbreaking story, I brought him water when he needed it, and when he could stay awake no longer I watched him sleep until morning.

I don’t know why Dominic chose to call me that night. Perhaps it was helpful that we had no history, that we weren’t especially close, that we might not ever be good friends. Perhaps he was as alone in a foreign country as I was, and there was simply no one else to call. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that I was in Mexico City that night, sitting at my kitchen table, waiting.

I know I’ll never understand God’s will, even in retrospect, but I enjoy guessing at it. I look at scripture for clues—how God puts us in the right place to serve his purpose, how the Samaritan woman, sick and tired of her grueling and monotonous chore of fetching water, met Jesus at the well, that place she didn’t want to be, and from there spread his message of hope and salvation to her whole city.

I can’t say that God used my foolishness to put me in Mexico City, or my lack of courage to keep me there. But I sure do wonder. Soon after the night with Dominic I found the conviction to quit. Were it only for that one night that I spent nine hard weeks living in Mexico City, I thank God for my time there.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Extra: Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you. 
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight. 
When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home. 
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~ John O'Donohue ~
(Echoes of Memory)

Music for St. Patrick's Day: Lunasa's Merry Sisters of Fate

Recorded live at The Burren club in Somerville, Massachusetts in August 2012.

Seán Smyth -- Fiddle, Whistles
Kevin Crawford -- Flutes, Whistles
Trevor Hutchinson -- Double Bass
Cillian Vallely - Uilleann pipes, Whistles
Ed Boyd - Guitar

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Gospel in a Nutshell

Martin Luther declared that John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life) is "the Gospel in a nutshell.” Luther, a highly opinionated man, had a lot to say in his life (he wrote hundreds of sermons, essays, commentaries, books and letters), but nevertheless for him, this one verse is the essence of the story. This is the Good News.

Personally, I don’t see why a nutshell only has to contain one verse. And so, with apologies to Martin Luther, I want to add the next verse as well: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Because as much as I like the part about the Love, I also need the reminder that the Good News has nothing to do with condemnation and everything to do with God’s desire to redeem everything and everyone, no matter how messed up things (or we) are.

In John’s Gospel, the world doesn’t really know God, and the world rejects God, preferring secrecy and doing things in the dark to bringing the good to light. Sometimes things don’t seem to have changed that much in the nearly 2000 years since. There’s still a lot going on out there that looks like a rejection of God and God’s desires for the world. And there’s a part of me that wants God to come down pretty hard on this. 

But instead, because of Love, God wants to save this crazy, broken world that I get so frustrated with. God sees hope and possibility where I see an irredeemable mess. And that, in a nutshell, is Good News.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Music for Lent: Arvo Part, De Profundis

Arvo Pärt
Paul Hillier, Theatre Of Voices
Harmonia Mundi

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuæ intendentes
in vocem deprecationis meæ.
Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit?
Quia apud te propitiatio est; et propter legem tuam sustinui te, Domine.
Sustinuit anima mea in verbo ejus:
Speravit anima mea in Domino.
A custodia matutina usque ad noctem, speret Israël in Domino.
Quia apud Dominum misericordia, et copiosa apud eum redemptio.
Et ipse redimet Israël ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.

1Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice; *
    let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
2If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss, *
    O LORD, who could stand?
3For there is forgiveness with you; *
    therefore you shall be feared.

4I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; *
    in his word is my hope.
5My soul waits for the LORD,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
    more than watchmen for the morning.
6O Israel, wait for the LORD, *
    for with the LORD there is mercy;
7With him there is plenteous redemption, *
    and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
(BCP Psalm 130)

Sunday, March 5, 2017

First Sunday in Lent: The Decalogue

Detail from a pew in the Abbey on Iona, Scotland.

This is how we begin on the Sundays in Lent at church, by kneeling and hearing the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) read by the Celebrant. We agree (Amen) and ask for God's mercy after we have heard each commandment, for we know that we have not kept them all. 

And thus we come together each Sunday in Lent to remember and repent of our sins, knowing that pardon is our is we ask for it, and so that we may continue our worship with joy and thanksgiving that indeed, the Lord will not hold our sins against us forever.

The Decalogue:

Hear the commandments of God to his people:
I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage.
You shall have no other gods but me.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

You shall not make for yourself any idol.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

You shall not invoke with malice the Name of the Lord your God.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

Honor your father and your mother.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

You shall not commit murder.
Amen. Lord have mercy.
You shall not commit adultery.
Amen. Lord have mercy.
You shall not steal.
Amen. Lord have mercy.
You shall not be a false witness.
Amen. Lord have mercy.
You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Music for Lent: Tavener's Lord's Prayer

MUSICA SACRA Chór Katedry Warszawsko-Praskiej / Warsaw-Praga Cathedral Choir
Paweł Łukaszewski - dyrygent / conductor
Michał Markuszewski - organy / organ

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Celestial Ashes

When I was in college, I was susceptible to getting into those silly arguments about whether or not it was more important to have art or science. Twyla Tharp or the steam engine. Beethoven or a washing machine. You know. 

I always chose Beethoven (or e.e. cummings or Mary Cassatt) to the chagrin of my science-minded friends. You gotta have art to help us see the beauty of the world, I argued. They shot back that I’d be miserable in a minute without an oven and a dryer. Little did they know how uninterested I was in cooking and cleaning  - and much I enjoyed arguing.

These were, of course, false dichotomies. The world is filled with beauty and people who are tuned in to that beauty. And the world is also filled with people who notice matter and motion, who invent and create helpful machines and systems. We don’t have to choose between the internet and Appalachian Spring - it’s all there for us.

One of the places I’ve seen art and science come together most beautifully is in the saying that we are made of stardust. Both the singer Joni Mitchell and scientist Carl Sagan affirmed this when I was in high school. But even in the 1920’s astronomers were saying that our bodies and the earth we stand on are made of star stuff; they contain the ashes of an ancient stellar explosion. We and the universe are made of the same elements.

By way of those celestial ashes we are connected to the earth and to each other and even to those seven new planets just discovered and of course also to God, the source of all life and creation. We are both scientifically and poetically interconnected with the cosmos and all that is in it.


We are about to be invited to observe a Holy Lent, and we are about to have ashes rubbed on our foreheads to remind us that we came from dust and we will return to dust. We consider our mortality today, definitely.

But, as I feel those ashes smudged on my forehead, I also want to open myself to interconnectedness - with the Earth, with the stars, with God, with people everywhere, with you - as I begin my own observance of this holy Lent because too often, my sin is that I think I can go it alone.

My sin is the belief that I can save myself, that I can work my way to salvation, that I can transform myself into a righteous person through my own efforts. I forget that as a person in relationship with God and neighbor I will be transformed by those relationships and instead imagine that foregoing something that, honestly, is a luxury anyway (chocolate, wine, gossip) or embarking on some kind of personal self-improvement program for forty days will somehow bring me closer to God.

How small is my thinking. Here we are carrying pieces of the cosmos within us, of mountains and galaxies and oceans and spotted eagle rays and redwoods and Fiona the baby hippo and God and all of you, and in my vanity and my limited vision I come up with a plan to cut back on carbohydrates as a pathway to a new and contrite heart. 

Perhaps because something small feels easier to manage than exploring my relationship with the whole universe. And so I am tempted to close down instead of to open up.

But what I honestly wish to do is to stop striving to fend off things I am not sure I can control, to let all the things that come between me and God, between me and people, between me and my true self just blow where they will. What I want is to embrace my cosmic nature, to live as if I were part of all creation, as if I were connected to God and to everybody without all these barriers and conditions and especially without any notion that I might work my way into God’s heart. What I want is to expand my scope and live as if stardust, that which is from God and in everything God made and God loves, is where my heart lies and is my treasure.

The traditional disciplines of Lent are prayer, fasting, and giving alms. Many of us practice those disciplines every year. We commit to more or special prayer time. We fast from certain foods or habits. Some keep track of the money saved through that fasting and then make a gift of that amount to church or charity, so that their fasting translates into a benefit for others.

Whatever we choose as a discipline speaks to our need for repentance and pardon and the renewal of our faith in a particular way. But its easy to fall prey to a vision that we are each out there working on ourselves by ourselves, tempted to solitary self-improvement during this holy season. To become smaller, more controlled, more streamlined and self-focused. This vision is a trap for me.

And so this year I want my prayers to be for the needs of others. I wish for my fasting to be for the sake and benefit of others. I want to give alms to alleviate the pain of others. I want those ashes smudged on my face to remind me that I only have so much time to live a life in service of God and neighbor, in service of earth and sky and sea, and not simply in service of my own small self and my own small plan for self improvement. 

I am just a speck in the universe, but I am already a beloved speck called to recognize the beloved-ness of all those other precious specks with whom I share star-stuff essence. I do not need to hone my soul to achieve yet more beloved-ness nor hoard beloved-ness as if there were only a little bit to go around. The universe is full of it, and I can relax.

And in my relaxing, I can let go of my sin, the sin of stubborn self-reliance and self-absorption, of my concern with my needs (when I have so much!) and my blindness to the needs of others, and in that letting go open myself to allow God to come close to me and fill my mortal self with Divine love and grace. 

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, star stuff to star stuff. Amen.


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