A prayer as we enter Lent


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Two days from now I’ll be reading and singing and praying with my brothers and sisters, then lining up with them, slowly moving toward the front of the sanctuary where a fellow human will look each of us in the eye and mark a cross of ash on each forehead, reminding us that we are dust. Loved dust.

As we begin once more this journey with Jesus toward the cross, I find myself drawn back to words that I prayed several years ago. They are still my prayer:

Jesus, as we prepare to enter Lent this week, my mind wanders back to St. Anselm who wrote a theology text and then rewrote the whole thing as prayer; it had seemed to him all wrong to talk about you as though you weren’t right there listening to the conversation, initiating it, allowing us to know you at all.

You are one who stands at the threshold, calling us into this journey with you.

You are the one who invites us to come closer, to lay our head on your chest, our ear pressed up tight against the deep lub-dub of your heartbeat.

You are the one in whom our journey ends.

We speak of Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday as though we know the whole story. We know it only a little bit. We need to know it again, to live it more deeply, to walk through it hand in hand with you. We need you to point out the details and show us how our stories mingle with and flow from yours.

Teach us, we pray, what it means to be human.

Shape in us your heart’s love-beat.

Satisfy our longing, and help us long more deeply still.

Mighty God made one of us, love us closer to you as we walk these weeks together toward death and then on through death into life that can never be broken.
 

_______

Taking it further: For some wonderfully practical thoughts on how to cooperate with God as He uses this season of Lent to help shape in us His heartbeat of love, check out Kasey Kimball’s article, Freedom to Love: The Heart of Lent

Why God calls us to take up our cross

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

As I sat back down in the pew last Wednesday, my forehead marked with a cross of ash, I noticed the little girl, two or three years old, in the front pew, her forehead beneath her fine blond hair also marked with the sign of the cross. Her mother, too, many months pregnant, bore the sign of the cross. In the pew in front of me sat an older man, and a woman in her late nineties, also marked. We are all together here, all level—men and women, infants and elderly, all dust, and all loved.
This year was the first time I remember someone commenting not only on the ash with which we are marked, but on the oil in which the ash is mixed. We are not only dust, but honored and anointed, dust shaped in the image of God and crowned with the honor of living that glorious image in the world.
A few days later, I sit again, this time with my legs stretched out on a couch in the basement office of the home where I’ve been a guest these past few days. The gas fireplace is warm behind me. I look out on a maple tree with every branch and twig weighted with snow. It’s the end of my three day retreat. It has been just what I needed, but not what I planned.
I haven’t been able to control the retreat at all. I couldn’t spend as many hours alone with God as I usually do when I come here. I haven’t spent as many hours soaking in Scripture as I had planned. I haven’t lingered over the reading from my soulcare group meeting, nor discerned God’s specific invitation for me during this Lenten period. But I have come to God as I was and I have been welcomed and rested in the ways that I needed. There has been much needed sleep, and walks in fresh snow, and the restful beauty of trees and water and mountains. There was even the gift of a power outage which encouraged an extra hour or two in bed since it was too cold and dark to get up at my usual hour. There was a roast beef dinner, and fresh scones, and hot soup, and fruit salad with papaya, and a perfect balance of time alone with God and time with people who know how to create safe and restful space. I have received and savored the many gifts God gave and the ways he wanted to meet me this time, and have had the lovely experience of being reminded yet again that my plans are often not best, and of surrendering to God’s gentle love which remembers that I am dust and cares for me physically as well as spiritually. I am leaving here feeling loved and much more rested than when I came.
Maybe, after all, God has led me into his Lenten invitation. Maybe I just didn’t recognize it at first because I was looking for a specific discipline and he was inviting me into something bigger and broader and, for me this year at least, more full of love and life.
There’s nothing wrong with giving up chocolate or taking on extra reading if it helps open me to God. Concrete disciplines can be helpful in training my body and soul to follow. But they can also become a way of avoiding surrender and asserting my own control. And in the end, isn’t the purpose of Lent a growing attentiveness to God and surrender to His way of doing things rather than an insistence on my own? Isn’t it about releasing my own plans and attempts to control life and opening a little further to God and his love?
There are always surprises along the way, and the surprise for me this time (though I’ve experienced it so many times before) is that God is immeasurably more kind and gentle with me than I am with myself, and he knows much better than I what I need, and delights to give it. He’s much more interested in love than in sacrifice, and he knows I can only love Him and others  as I settle deeply into his tender love for me. He calls me to take up my cross, to let my own self-determination die, not because he wants me to suffer (though for us self-centered people suffering seems an inevitable part of letting go) but because he wants me to live free in his love and in the abundant life that he offers, and he knows that no matter how hard I try, I can’t make that happen through my own disciplined attempts to control life.

“I’m after love that lasts, not more religion.
I want you to know God, not go to more prayer meetings.”
(Hosea 6:6, The Message)

Looking down to look up: the gift of Lent

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Sometimes you can only look down. But even that can help you see up.
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On Wednesday, someone will smile into my eyes as they touch the cross-shaped ash onto my forehead, one creature handing another the truth that sets free. “From dust you have come; to dust you will return. Live in grace.”
I grew up in a tradition that didn’t practice Lent. We had other ways to remember Jesus’ death, week by week. But somewhere along my journey, I discovered that the discipline of Lent extends to me the great grace of being a creature. His creature.
During this forty day journey, we don’t look down to stay there, floundering in the quick-sand of our clay beginnings with all their heavy frailty. We look down to look up, notice our weakness to love His strength, see our sinfulness to revel in His forgiveness. We let ourselves feel our dustiness to turn and live more deeply in grace.
This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. I love that. It points me once again to the truth that the crowning reality of life is love. Love, not my frailty or failure, has the last word. And Lent’s purpose is to help us pause, to provide space to notice our frailty and failure so that we can then, with more dependence and delight, look up and see and savor and settle more deeply into that life-giving love.
It’s not painless to become aware of our creatureliness. When we slow enough to pay attention, most of us know the ache of emptiness in one way or another: empty arms, deep places where longing carves great caverns, bodies emptied once more of strength. We wrestle with our inability to rest, feel failure at returning again to the same struggles. But right in this place there is gift, for we can discover once more that weakness is not sin. Nor is the need to be held and loved and strengthened again and again. On the contrary, dissatisfaction with being a dependent creature lies at the root of all sin. And, where we do sin, there is grace great enough to swallow that sin, trading it for his all-sufficient love and righteousness.
And so I turn back, free to be small, and ask my Creator to return to me the joy of being His creature. (It’s a big weight off not to try to be God!)
Isaiah helps, offering many grace-gifts to us creatures. (Just have a look at chapter 40, or 41, or 42.) He frames the first seven verses of chapter 43 with the twice-spoken reminder that we are created, formed, made. The verses between offer joy-gifts of living as creatures of our loving Creator:

  • We forever belong  (“You are mine.” v. 1)
  • We are known (“I have called you by name.” v.1)
  • We are accompanied (“I will be with you.” v. 2)
  • We are protected by His presence  (We don’t get to skip the troubles; we’re sheltered in them.  v.2)
  • We are treasured (“since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you. . .”  v.4)
  • We are being made whole, all the parts gathered together, healed and restored in loving relationship with Him (v. 5-6)

It’s here, small and safely held, willing to be fully human rather than trying to be our own God, that we’re finally able to offer our bodies—these fragile, treasured, vulnerable bits of clay—back to the One who asks us to rest in His hands.
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My Creator, at the start of this day—Your loving gift—I offer my body to you again. All its strength, and all its weakness.
May I not draw back from its weakness but allow the full force of its weight to press me into your hand.
May I not withdraw from its strength but let each breath, each word, each step become a gift of love to You.
Teach me how to live the rest of surrender to being held while I pray, play, and do the work given me.
Help me learn that the way to take up my cross and follow is to let myself be taken up and carried.

An edited repost from the archives.

Related posts:
The real call in Ash Wednesday

When you're so aware of your humanness

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Revisting this post from the archives because—really?—so much of what I need to remember to dare to take this long Lenten journey with Jesus is right here.

_________

Someone asked her the question, “How do you identify when you’re doing something out of excellence vs out of perfectionism and striving?
Holley gave several responses but this one captured me most: “When I’m doing something out of perfectionism I always feel fear. Our bodies usually tell us when we’ve slipped into striving.”
I’m starting to learn that this is one of the gifts of being body interwoven with soul and spirit: if I pay attention, my body can be a window into what is going on more deeply in me.
The problem is that often enough I’d rather not see. Even when my body is shouting at me through tense muscles, sleepless nights, and irritability, it’s quicker or easier or less scary to take a zopiclone or an ibuprofen and press on with my usual life—or let the illness become a new place to hide—than to stop and sit quietly with God in the discomfort and ask “What’s really going on here? What am I trying to hide from myself and from You? Why am I afraid to come out of hiding?”
Our culture trains us to hide or override our creatureliness. My medical training ingrained this in me still more deeply. On my first night on call I was taught the words I was to live by: “Eat when you can, sleep when you can, pee when you can.” In a busy twenty-four hour shift, racing from room to room, there wasn’t much room to be human.
I soon learned that doctors are expected to be people who, at the end of a sleepless thirty-six hour shift, can still think clearly enough and respond quickly enough to be handed a scalpel and the life of a patient. There’s no room for error, no room for slowed reflexes or lapses of judgment. No room to be human. And so I learned to ignore the messages my body was sending me. My body shouted louder. I bought industrial strength ear protection and kept on working. And in the process I forget (if I ever knew) that the body is a gift, one of the primary ways God communicates the state of the soul and reminds us that we are not God but creatures, small and dependent—and meant to be.
I hadn’t known that in plugging my ears against my body, I was also deafening myself to the gentle voice of God.
I keep needing to begin again.
She looked straight into my eyes and spoke the words. Slowly. As though my life depended on them. “Carolyn, remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I could feel the gentle pressure of her finger on my forehead, marking me with a cross of ash. Ash. Dust. A reminder of my frailty. But not a splotch or a splash or a shapeless blob but a cross, all of my dusty creatureliness gathered up here, safe in the One who Himself became dust to hold my dust safe in the eternal Love of the Creator. I am dust. And I am His.
Just before we were each marked with the cross, we’d read Psalm 103 and I’d realized all over again: I can dare to remember my dustiness because God remembers too.

“. . .for He knows how we are formed,
He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14)

And—(this is what I need to know!)—

“This remembering on God’s part evokes in God an act of gracious fidelity. The reality of our “dust” does not evoke in God rejection or judgment, but fidelity.” (Brueggemann, “Remember, you are dust.”)

It’s so clear, there in the psalm:

“V. 14 stands as a pivot point between two crucial affirmations about God. Just preceding this verse (vv. 11-13) human transgressions are noted by God and removed; they are made distant, removed as an immediate danger and threat. No big accent is placed on human sin. Human sin is acknowledged and then ignored. What counts is God’s gracious act of removal. . . .
Just following our pivotal verse 14, human finitude and mortality are recognized by God (vv. 15-18). God knows we are going to die, and this awareness evokes in God deep, caring concern:
The steadfast love (hesed) of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting . . .” (Brueggemann)

He sums it all up with this enfolding that gives us a safe place to live our frailty:

“Thus Psalm 103 surrounds our “dust” with all of God’s massive faithful power.”

I’d sat, the next day, and picked up the small wooden cross off the table between us. I was preparing to share my heart and I’d known I needed to cling to the cross as I faced my vulnerabilities. The conversation got messy. Or, rather, I did. Tears running down my neck and the pile of soggy kleenexes growing. Our time was full of precious moments of daring to be vulnerable and finding myself loved by God in that place. But I’d hesitated as I’d lifted the small cross from my lap to place it back on the table at the end of our time. I’d been blowing my nose. I hadn’t washed my hands. I’m a doctor. I’m supposed to know better. What was she thinking? Unable to let it go, I emailed to apologize and say that I wouldn’t pick up the cross again. And then, receiving her reassuring response, I realized: I’ve missed the point of the cross if I think I can only cling with clean hands. There’s room for all of me at the cross. Room for my frailty and room for the part of me that wants to hide it, room for the tears that make my nose run and room for the part of me that fears what others will think, room for the bossy perfectionist that wants to ditch my messy body and come to the cross with just my soul, and room for my body that is pushing itself forward and insisting that it wants to cling too, it wants to kneel and dance and cry and be part of worship and brokenness and grace and finding my whole self loved.

A prayer as we enter Lent

DSCN4380Jesus, as we prepare to enter Lent this week, my mind wanders back to the man who wrote a theology text and then rewrote the whole thing as prayer; it had seemed to him all wrong to talk about you as though you weren’t right there listening to the conversation, initiating it, allowing us to know you at all.
You are one who stands at the threshold, calling us into this journey with you.
You are the one who invites us to come closer, to lay our head on your chest, our ear pressed up tight against the deep thrum thrum of your heartbeat.
You are the one in whom our journey ends.
We speak of Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday as though we know the whole story. We know it only a little bit. We need to know it again, to live it more deeply, to walk through it hand in hand with you. We need you to point out the details and show us how our stories mingle with and flow from yours.
Teach us, we pray, what it means to be human.
Shape in us your heart’s love-beat.
Satisfy our longing, and help us long more deeply still.
Mighty God made one of us, love us closer to you as we walk these weeks together toward death and then on through death into life that can never be broken.
 

_______

Taking it further: For some wonderfully practical thoughts on how to cooperate with God as he uses this season of Lent to help shape in us his heartbeat of love, check out Kasey Kimball’s article, Freedom to Love: The Heart of Lent