Becoming

As I write this, it’s a beautiful autumn day outside. After a week of extreme heat, today is a desperately-needed refreshment. It rained lightly last night and the smell of rain is still hanging in the air. The sky is cloudy with some spots of blue daring to peep through from time to time. Some leaves on the trees are starting to change colour, but I think this is more due to the recent heatwave than to the new season, which is not even a week old.

AshWedesdayCrossIt’s also Ash Wednesday.

Traditionally this is the day the liturgical church declares the depravity and mortality of humankind.

As a cross of ash is made on our foreheads, we are reminded of our transient state:

“Remember you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Or, instead, we may be challenged:

“Repent and believe the good news”

Or, in different words:

“Turn from your sins and follow the Saviour.”

Ash Wednesday contains in its essence both a reminder of who we are and also a challenge to become who we are meant to be.

While our own mortality is something we all must learn to deal with (death happens to all, no exceptions), turning from a life of self-fulfilment and self-pleasure to walk in the way of Jesus is counter-intuitive at its best. Giving up what we want? Letting go of what we have? Forsaking the identity we’ve forged for ourselves and lived out all of our life?

In the words of Coldplay:

Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard
Oh take me back to the start

(The Scientist)

It’s always difficult when we are called to give up, let go and forsake. We must come first to the place of recognition that there is a better way. We must then go through the process of casting off the old and exposing ourselves–being vulnerable–in acknowledging the part we have played in who we are at the present.

But then . . . but then! We are privileged to be able to start again. No matter what we have done. Regardless of where we have been. Despite all our past.

In this moment we are made new. The slate is wiped clean. We begin again.

We start on a journey as we, through humility and courage, move forward in the way of Love, becoming who we were created to me.

I’m not a big fan of the institutional Church nor of what Christianity has become. There is no argument that organised religion has a lot for which to answer, both in the past and in our world today.

Yet, the symbolism attracts me and speaks to me in ways no catechism, no systematic theology, no rules or standards ever could. And in accepting the symbol of ash in a sign of the cross on my head, I am accepting that I have not yet arrived at where I need to be, but, every day I am changing, growing, learning, loving . . . becoming.

This is where I need to be today.

And, on Ash Wednesday, this is my hope and prayer for you:

Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.

Welcome to Lent

Ash Wednesday Ushers In Lenten SeasonIt’s Ash Wednesday today.

It’s not a big event in the Evangelical Christian calendar and I never knew about it–let alone celebrated it–until I landed a job in an Anglican/Catholic school.

Now it has become part of my and my family’s yearly spiritual tradition (and yes, we do have pancakes for breakfast on Shrove Tuesday–but the day is more of an excuse to start our day with a sweet stack of carbs than anything else.)

I love the way our staff prayer (the Collect for Ash Wednesday) began this morning: “Almighty God, you hate nothing that you have made . . .” It’s an encouragement and a reminder that our God has a love for us and for all Creation that is overwhelming and everlasting.

I’ll leave it to Fr Richard Rohr to suggest an appropriate response:

The Jewish people have a beautiful prayer form, a kind of litany to which the response is always “Dayenu!” (It would have been enough!).

They list, one by one, the mirabilia Dei, the wonderful works of God for their people and themselves, and after each one, shout out DAYENU! As if to say, “How much is it going to take for us to know that God is with us?!” It builds satisfaction instead of feeding dissatisfaction.

If we begin our day with any notion of scarcity, not-enoughness, victimhood, or “I deserve,” I promise you the day will not be good–for you or for those around you. Nor will God be glorified.

Maybe we all should begin our days with a litany of satisfaction, abundance, and enoughness. God, you have given me another day of totally gratuitous life: my health, my eyes, my ears, my mind, my taste, my family, my freedom, my education, clean water, more than enough food, a roof over my head, a warm bed and blanket, friends, sunshine, a beating heart, and your eternal love and guidance.

To any one of these we must say, “And this is more than enough!”

As we embark on our Lenten journey, one of self-examination and following God in the way of Jesus, may we recognise daily God’s intrinsic goodness and gain a deeper appreciation for God’s love, grace, and peace which is even through this time being poured out on us all.

Dayenu.

To Lent or Not To Lent . . .

In an excellent article on Lent, The God Article looks at the practice of giving up something in honour of the sacrifice of Jesus. I have always been appreciative of the practice of self-sacrifice as a spiritual discipline, and I believe it is still a valuable part of the church’s (and the Christ-follower’s) year-long journey. However (and this is a major “however”), I feel, like prayer, giving and fasting, giving up something for Lent is something you do privately–something only yourself and God know. That is the critical difference between what is a path to spiritual awareness or growth and simply another New Year’s resolution.

“So, why are those kinds of things what we most frequently give up for Lent? I’d say it’s because the way we practice Lent has turned it into nothing more than a time for religious New Year’s resolutions. The timing is perfect too. We’ve had just enough time to not follow through on our actual New Year’s resolutions and to start feeling guilty about it. Lent gives us a second chance to not follow through… um, I mean succeed.” (Read the entire article here.)

So whether or not I choose to give up something for Lent, I won’t be publicising it. That will be a matter between God and me. Whatever I do, I know it won’t have any impact on the love God has for me or on God’s acceptance of me, so I will feel no guilt if I fail. Disappointment? Maybe. Shame? No. Because it’s not about perfection, but about a heart that is moving in the right direction.

Your Image of God Creates You

I came across this short piece from Richard Rohr today which I though well worth sharing:

Your image of God, your de facto, operative image of God, lives in a symbiotic relationship with your soul and creates what you become. Loving people, forgiving people have always encountered a loving and forgiving God. Cynical people are cynical about the very possibility of a coherent loving center to the universe. So why wouldn’t they become cynical themselves? Of course they do.

When you encounter a truly sacred text, the first questions are not: Did this literally happen just as it says? How can I be saved? What is the right thing for me to do? What is the dogmatic pronouncement here? Does my church agree with this? Who is right and who is wrong here? These are largely ego questions, I am afraid. They are questions that try to secure your position, not questions that make you go on a spiritual path of faith and trust. They constrict you, whereas the purpose of the Sacred is to expand you. I know they are the first ones that come to our mind because that is where we live, inside of our ego, and these are the questions we were also trained to ask (unfortunately!).

I would, however, offer you and invite you to ponder another question. Simply having read the text, ask: What is God doing here? Then ask yourself: What does this say about who God is? Then, what does it say about how I can also meet this same God?

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(Added 22/2/12): What is God doing in the Scripture reading? With that question in mind, I want to give you an operative principle that, I believe, had it been used the last 500 years, would have given us a much more exciting and positive Christian history. If you are meditating on a Bible text, Hebrew or Christian, and if you see God operating at a lesser level than the best person you know, then that text is not authentic revelation. “God is love” (1 John 4:16) and no person you meet could possibly be more loving than the Source of all love itself. It is as simple as that.

Haven’t you read texts like this, and not known what to think? Yahweh presumably tells the Israelites to kill every Canaanite in sight—men, women and children—and then has them impose a ban on every pagan town, telling the Israelites to enter, burn, and destroy everything (e.g., Joshua 6-7). Do you really think that is God talking? I don’t think so.

Well, you say, it is in the Bible and that makes it right, right? That is why we have to use a whole different lens for interpreting any authoritative text. How we deal with sacred texts is how we deal with reality in general. And how we deal with reality in general is how we deal with sacred texts. And both reality and all sacred texts are also fragmented and “imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:12). It takes a certain level of human and spiritual maturity to interpret a Scripture. Vengeful and petty people find vengeful and hateful texts (and they are there), but even when they are not there! Loving and peaceful people will hold out until a text resounds deep within them (and there are plenty there!). In short, ONLY LOVE CAN HANDLE BIG TRUTH.

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(Added 23/2/12): The sacred texts of the Bible are filled with absolute breakthroughs, epiphanies, and manifestations of the highest level of encounter, conversion, transformation, and Spirit. The Bible also contains texts which are punitive, petty, tribal, and idiotic. A person can prove anything he or she wants from a single line of the Bible. To tell you the truth, the Bible says just about everything you might want to hear—somewhere! Maybe this sad and humiliating recognition can be your ashes today. Like a phoenix you can rise and rebuild your knowledge of Scripture in a prayerful, calm, skillful, and mature way. Then you can read with head and heart and Spirit working as one, and not just a search for quick answers.

Maybe one of the biggest mistakes in the history of Christianity is that we have separated spirituality from theology and scripture study. In other words, we put the Scriptures in the hands of very immature and unconverted people, even clergy. We put the Scriptures in the hands of people at entirely egocentric levels, who still think “It’s all about me,” and who use the Bible in a very willful way. It is all dualistic win or lose. The egocentric will still dominates: the need to be right, the need to be first, the need to think I am saved and other people are not. This is the lowest level of human consciousness, and God cannot be heard from that heady place. Perhaps it is not accidental that we place the ashes of Ash Wednesday precisely on the forehead.

Food

Food Glorious Food,” sings Oliver Twist, the shrewd street child in Charles Dickens famous novel turned musical.  Oliver never knew where his next meal was coming from, and was well aware of food as a precious lifeline.

We, as part of the 5% of the global family who do not want for our next meal, don’t usually think of food as glorious.  That’s usually left to the hungry or five star restaurants.  I wonder if perhaps we have lost the “soul” of food.   In Frederick Buechner’s words, “Is [food] not a window through which you can see the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life?”— simply hold a piece of fruit in your hands.  Can you not sense your connection to soil, farmer, sunlight, rain?”* How do we recover a relationship with the food we eat?   After all, we are “dirt beings,” created from the soil where our food grows.  Yet we have become divorced from this soil and anything resembling food production in our society.

Today our food comes pressed into almost unrecognizable forms, highly processed, irradiated, flooded with nutraceuticals, it’s genetics tampered with, industrialized and ferried around the world for the wealthiest to enjoy raspberries in winter and caviar, far from the dwindling fish who supply their eggs.  Food has become a commodity to be bought, rather than a link to the earth, to one another, and to the Creator.  How do we reconnect with the ancient communal dance of food-making, in which all humans, plants, and animals have intimately participated throughout time?

It is a challenge in our time-starved, fast food society.  I know that I regularly fail to understand food as Holy Provision and Simple Gift from the Creator’s hand—connecting me to rain, sun, soil, wind, animal and the farmer who has bent to sow, grow, and harvest the food that nourishes my body and soul daily. I fail to give gratitude for each morsel that goes into my mouth on its way to my belly.  I see how my husband and I stand in our kitchen for a mere 20 minutes, passing like ships after long days of work, grabbing food before we head out to our evening activities.  I eat pre-popped popcorn from a bag, while he waits for a processed soy burger to heat up in the toaster oven, fresh from a cellophane wrapper in a cardboard box.  There is no smell of supper wafting through our house, no anticipation of sitting at a table to share from our day.

These days I am experimenting with radish, alfalfa and broccoli sprouts on my kitchen countertop.  I love watching those tiny seeds faithfully unfold, as I daily water them, eager for the day when I can harvest and eat them.  When I participate in growing and nurturing food, something changes in me. It slows me down.  As I watch those tiny sprouts grow, I am changing my relationship with food—connecting with the earth and all creaturely beings that need to eat.  Rather than buying them in a $5.00 plastic package at the store, I am left with a sense of wonder.

–from Radical Grace

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* From Food & Faith: Justice, Joy, and Daily Bread, p 63, edited and compiled by Michael Schut (296 pages, $20.00, ISBN: 978-0-8192-2411-8), and used here with permission of Morehouse Publishing, an imprint of Church Publishing Inc., New York. For more information, visit www.churchpublishing.org.

As We Begin our Pilgrimage Through Lent

Today marks the start of the 40-Day period of reflection and repentance known as Lent. This morning, as part of our staff prayer, we received the mark of ashes on our foreheads as a symbol of repentance. Commenting on this, Marianne (our school’s Director of Spirituality) summed up the Lenten experience with one word: Wilderness. Whether we think of wilderness as a time of testing, a time of retreat, or a time of journey, it describes what Lent means to the millions of Christians who observe this season each year.

Lent is a time to confess our sins. It’s also a time to “go deep” into our lives as we reflect on what our sins may look like. They may not all be obvious on the surface. In fact, Brian McLaren writes that we may be blind to many ingrained (or inherited) sins:

This blindness (itself a kind of social sin) explains why in many churches in my childhood, people could passionately confess certain personal sins (within polite categories) – dishonesty, greed, jealousy, and so on – but remain absolutely oblivious to our racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, environmental irresponsibility, homophobia, nationalism and denominational pride – not to mention the sins of our ancestors that created structures of privilege that we took for granted. (from Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words. HarperOne, 2011, Chapter 9)

It may be that we haven’t even seriously considered that certain thoughts, actions, ways of speaking about others, or prejudices could be sin. Be honest: If we consider something sin, then it means this too must be acknowledged, confessed, repented of, and forsaken–and we may not wish to forsake certain sins . . . so we ignore them, or make excuses for them: “My family has always thought this way,” “I can’t help it,” “That’s just who I am.”

Lent is a time in which we invite God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) to be our companion in the wilderness, journeying with us, conversing with us (are we listening?), and changing us to be more like we were created to be.

What does Lent mean for you?

Is there one word which would sum up your journey during this time?

I close with two prayers: one being the Collect for Ash Wednesday and the second being a prayer of repentance.

Almighty and everlasting God
You hate nothing that you have made
And forgive the sins of all who are penitent.
Create and make in us new hearts
That, lamenting our sins
And acknowledging our helplessness,
We may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
Perfect forgiveness and peace;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
Who is alive and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit;
One God, now and forever.
Amen

Father Eternal, giver of light and grace,
We have sinned against you and against our neighbour
In what we have thought,
In what we have said and done
Through ignorance, through weakness,
Through our own deliberate fault.
We have wounded your love
And marred your image in us.
We are sorry and ashamed
And repent of our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us,
Forgive all that is past;
And lead us from darkness to walk as children of light.
Amen