Ash Wednesday

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I know longer strive to strive towards such things
–T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Today is the beginning of Lent, when Christians, take a hard look at death, at how we so often fail at doing the right thing, choosing the good thing, how we desperately need to be saved from ourselves.

These lines have been running through my mind all week. Because I do not hope to turn again, because turning is another word for repentance. Jesus has called us to repentance, to turn from our wicked ways, and turn towards him, towards goodness, but often that feels nearly impossible.

The confession that we spoke says, “I know that nothing good lives in me. That is in my sinful nature. I have the desire to do good. But I cannot carry it out. What I do is not the good I want to do. No, the evil I do not want to do, this I keep on doing.”

We were offered silence to reflect. Here is what I came up with awhile back that fits how I feel my lack: I have felt by simply not being able to receive the goodness of my days. I don’t feel like I’m taking the advantage of so many free hours. I have felt compelled to read blogs and read what’s going on with the latest drama du jour on Facebook, and clear my email daily. I have become a political junkie, though I wonder if there is a vocation in this, since I have been reading books that help me understand what’s going on between people. The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt makes the argument for how liberals and conservatives think differently and it’s helping me find footing. My friend Laura says I am a bridge person, which sounds about right. Maybe that vocation first murmured in my ear through recurring nightmares about bridges breaking and the car hurtling into the air. Sometimes the car would stop just in time the water bubbling hard currents just below.

But when there are books to read, horses to spend time with, books to read, even the pretty drive between our farm and town, I dip my head to my screen. 

I think of what CS Lewis says, ““It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” 

And I think of what my friend Deborah Levy has said in her book The Secret Behind the Brown Bags. She tells about John Smith who dies and asks the angel with him to let him into the locked room. Inside there are shelves of brown bags. John asks the angel, “Why is my name on all the boxes and bags?” The angel replies, “Those are all the presents God had for you while living on Earth and you never opened them.” (Levy’s work is so full of light. I hope you spend some time at her website.)

That’s how I feel, that I’ve been given this wonderful gift of time, necessary time to fill up my well, and to offer those books, now in draft form, back to you, my readers, and I’ve wasted it on screen time. Though I feel there’s ministry embedded there too. Some people I’ve met on Facebook have enriched my life greatly. It’s easy to put my finger on the pulse of the culture, which makes conversations easier. And I’ve become less frantic about how I see things because I’ve found communities that see things in similar ways. I can find reasons for my intuitions. Yes, I have found confirmation bias.

But it also means I’ve not opened those brown bags, the gifts right here on the farm–riding the horses, going for walks, reading books on bridge building, and trees and joy.

For a time, I have felt something dreadful was rising and that I better be ready for it. The virgins with the lamps without the oil speaks to this, only it was a wedding party they missed out on. Drinking in this rest, has been my job to get ready for that time of trial, though maybe there’s a party brimming just over the horizon. I think of The Fellowship of the Ring, how the fellowship stopped at Rivendell and were nourished and rested before the journey became hard. Bruce reminded me of Elijah who was fed cake and water, who slept, and then told to go to the mountains to meet God.

I confess this being caught up in my phone, trying to click off the articles and blogs that show up there, so my email stays up to date. It feels too sweet to be an idol, but maybe that’s what idols do, trick us with sweetness.

Then we were offered ashes and the cross rubbed on our forehead–the words: Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But the thing is I don’t want to die. My brother and mother would have been gone by this age, so dying is on my mind. I don’t want to part ways with this body, that I used to hate because my hips and bottom were wide, and I don’t fit in with the skinny tight jeans image that our culture seems to press on us. I have made much peace with my body. I have come to love her, maybe because Bruce loves her so much, despite my rumpiness. I don’t want to leave this body that lets me see the world, sit down on a soft chair, taste honey mustard pretzels, breathe. I don’t want to lay down in a box, buried in the cold ground, preservatives pumped in, not letting me ease into the dirt. I can’t stand the idea of being trapped in a box under ground, even if it’s just this shell of my body. Jesus came to save all of me, not just my soul. He has promised to raise me from the dead, but I don’t want to lie in the earth, closed in a box, even for a minute. It takes all the Presence I can muster to slide into an MRI machine.

Now in my sixties I’m closer than ever to dying, but I wish the Lord would come back before then, so like Elijah, Bruce and I, people we love, can hop on the chariot and ride into the sky, fiery horses tails flying in our faces. But our world hasn’t broken enough and even if it does, there’s no guarantee, that would spring Christ’s return on us. That’s another brilliant thing about Christianity. We don’t look to our dying to be reunited with him, we look to his second coming, what we call the blessed hope. It’s stunning to read how Christians thought He’d be right back after he ascended. It’s been two thousand years and we’re still waiting.

I watched people go forward to receive the cross on their heads. There were so many, lined up waiting to be reminded that we will return to dust. We sang with the loud voice of people coming to life in Christ. We spoke the words: “He has brought us to a place of abundance!” When he has brought us to this abundance, we need to receive it, but it also comes with a warning: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth. You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the power and to get wealth…'” (Deut. 8:17 – 18).

A refrain from Shawn Claiborne’s Common Prayer says this, “We need your help against the enemy: for human help is useless.”

Doing our Taxes

Death and taxes. Both inevitable. Both call us to think about how we are spending our lives and wealth. We did our taxes the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. We go to Oakbrook because I’ve been seeing Tony since I arrived in Illinois, doing my first job, back in the early 1980’s, so I’ve known him longer than I’ve known Bruce and most of my friends. I am amazed at how quickly the year cycles back to tax time and Tony. I used to watch my parents meet with their accountant around the dining room table, tension in the air, as they wondered whether they would be able to pay the taxes. (People say a higher tax rate back then made for a more prosperous country but that’s not how I remember it. My parents struggled and worried. It seemed as the years went on, we became more prosperous despite what the popular press says about the tax cuts.)

Being an accountant is more than working numbers. Tony has heard my stories from when my brother wouldn’t settle our parents’ estate, to my getting married to Bruce, to my brother dying, and all the pain that went with that, to Bruce’s mother dying, and the NIU shooting, and our buying this farm. We have heard about his children growing up and how his business has changed, the kinds of work he’s done for companies through the years. We talk politics. Bruce tells me not to distract him. I hand him our forms and receipts, a bare outline of what our life has been like for the year.

We talked this year about mortality. He said I was the final, remaining client from the company he worked for back in the 80’s. That it might be good to set our final wishes down on paper. He said he’d be willing to be our trustee or co-trustee, at least for now. “You need to get your final wishes on paper or the state will take it all. You don’t want that,” he said.

Almsgiving: Chasing an ambulance

We listened to the siren running down the highway. I stepped away from the barn to see if I could see what direction the ambulance was driving. It was coming east. The siren stopped by our neighbor’s place at the crossroad where our highway meets our road. Then he turned toward us. I watched the lights rise above the little hill. I watched as it turned up the next road and passed our across-the-field-neighbors’ to the East. My heart raced. My eyes watered. They could be coming for us. Bruce backed the car out of the shed. And I dumped the manure and hauled my muck wagon back to the barn, making sure to latch the gate.

The EMT’s were big, strong men, with a young woman taking notes. Our neighbor had fallen. He was awake and talking. They called his wife and lifted our neighbor onto the gurney. Bruce and I stayed to clean up and close up the house. These are neighbors who have welcomed us to their table at Christmas. They are gentle people. Our neighbor is all right, headed to rehab and we are letting their dog out while his wife works.

Bruce says it’s what we do, follow ambulances when they come to the neighborhood. He remembers well how the neighbors stepped in to help his mother when his father died. I remember stopping by our neighbors’ home to offer condolences when their dairy barn burned on Labor Day when I was still in grade school. We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. During Lent we are told to do good to our neighbors, but also not to tell our right hand what our left hand is doing, so I probably shouldn’t be sharing this.

My new friends from Christ the Rock church.

We also served lunch to the folks at Carpenter’s place, a homeless shelter that takes very seriously their task to help people retrieve their lives, get a job, find a home. All we did was scoop potato salad and hand out chicken and cookies, but it too felt like a tiny way to serve God’s good people.

How are you finding this season of change, Lent, between a hard winter and spring?

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