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“Remember That You Are [Star]Dust”

Today is Ash Wednesday …

… when we remember our mortality,

     in order to more readily appreciate the gift of life;

… when we remember the ways we have
     fallen short of God’s expectations,

     in order to more readily embrace all our possibilities;

… when we recognize our frailty,

    in order to courageously offer our vulnerability.

My thanks to Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, the author of this inspirational poem, and to Table Manna, the blog where I discovered it:

Ash Wednesday

Remember you are stardust,

and to stardust you shall return.

You are the ash of a great fire within a star.
The star shines within you.
You are the dust of the earth, given breath.

The breath of God breathes within you.

In fear you have shrouded that light,
and led yourself by the darkness.
In fear you have fled from the dust,

only to cling to dust that has no breath.

You don’t need to punish your body,
you need to honor that it comes from God.
You don’t need to separate from your body,

you need to return to it.

You can’t be other than dust
but you can return to the Breath.
You can’t be other than light

but you can free yourself from trying.

What veils your glory?
What catches your breath?
What betrays your belovedness?

What separates you from the world’s flesh?

Become dust of the earth again,
moved only by God’s breath.
Given life by the Breath within the Breath,

become an earthling.

Your repentance is to return to the stardust that you are,
return to your heavenly Source.
Return to the light that you are,

shed all that shrouds your light.

Remember that you are stardust,

and to stardust you shall return.

(Unfolding Light, February 17, 2010)

A Fond Goodbye

Holy Family

It’s 8:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve … and I’m going to bed.

It shouldn’t be that surprising: I’ve spent much of the last four days in bed. I’ve been closing out 2011 with a miserable head cold.

Between the NyQuil and the naps, the sniffling and the coughing, I’ve managed to plan my sermon topics for Lent and Easter … and do some reflecting on both the old year and the new.

The year 2011 has presented its own particular kinds of blessings and challenges. On the whole, it has not been an easy year. Some are like that, I think.

And so, 2012 begins with great hope and promise.

I haven’t made any resolutions for the new year, no drastic changes or dramatic shifts that will click into place at 12:01 a.m. on January 1. But I’ve been wondering, perhaps more than usual, what will this year hold for me? And I couldn’t help but think, today, of the speculation surrounding December 20, 2012.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating an alarmist perspective, or even wondering of the validity of such speculation. I am just enjoying the opportunity of wondering about the coming year.

What complications will be simplified?

What friendships might change?

What hurts will ease?

What opportunities will come?

What new people may come into my life?

What will be the cause for celebration?

No one can know, of course, what the year will bring. There wouldn’t be much point in wondering, if you could know for sure. But I suppose that’s what this season is for: wondering.

Perhaps that’s why I shy away from resolutions. Resolutions seem like one more attempt to be in control, to conform our lives to some prescribed norm. I wish for the threshold between the old and the new year to be less about control, and more about wonder … about mystery.

May the mystery of this season surround you, and give you hope.

Longest Night

Advent is coming to its crescendo …

when heavenly choirs will sing …

and the stable will stir with the raw sounds of new life …

and even so,

I am still acutely aware

that Christmas has not yet come.

Advent is one of my favorite seasons on the church calendar. What can I say, I always cheer for the underdog; and Advent is sort of the underdog of the church calendar. It always seems to get shortchanged by a culture that begins selling and celebrating Christmas while I’m still answering the door to Trick-or-Treaters.

But I will not be deterred! Every year, it is almost my battle cry: I will not skip Advent! I will honor the season of waiting by, you know, WAITING! I will listen to the voices of prophets! I will pay attention to the longing and the yearning, and not simply give in to the voices crying out for instant gratification! I will not be sucked in to a consumer mentality, but will find creative ways of giving of myself and giving sacrificially.

Each year, I answer these challenges with a sliding-scale of success: some years I honor Advent better than other years.

But this year, I have no trouble entering into an Advent state-of-mind. Advent means “coming”; it signals change. It is a time of waiting and hope, of expectation and anticipation, and – sometimes – of uncertainty and anxiety.

No problem. I’m there.

This year, just before Advent began, the session of the congregation I serve finished 4 months of honest, prayerful, difficult budget conversations. And they decided that the best way to be faithful disciples of Jesus and faithful stewards of their resources was to move from full-time pastoral leadership to part-time pastoral leadership.

Their decision invites me into a time of discernment: a time of prayer and listening for God’s guidance about how I am to move forward in the ministry to which God has called me. And this time of discernment brings with it all of those things that are characteristic of the season of Advent: waiting, hope, expectation, anticipation, and (sometimes) uncertainty and anxiety.

It also calls forth the question: How do we wait?

What do we do in Advent that helps us make peace with the uncertainty … and frees us to focus on the hope?

I think the answer is: we remember.

Ancient peoples did not have the scientific knowledge that we have about our solar system. They did not know that the daylight hours grew shorter in the winter because of the earth’s position on its axis. The waning sunlight caused anxiety and uncertainty. Often, they lit huge bonfires on the longest night – the winter solstice – to remind themselves of the sun’s faithful appearance each morning and to comfort themselves with its warmth and light. Their antidote to anxiety was memory.

Isn’t that also what the Israelite prophets did? They spoke of the vision they had seen – a vision of the future that God was planning – and taught the people to trust that future by remembering God’s faithfulness in years and generations and centuries past. “How can we trust that God will save us and not abandon us?” the people ask. “Remember God’s mighty acts, God’s faithfulness throughout the generations,” reply the prophets.

From Isaiah 41: But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off ’; do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, l will uphold you with my victorious right hand. 

This Advent season, I invite all of us to remember God’s faithfulness … and I invite us to be a prophetic voice – the voice crying out in the wilderness – to those who may have trouble remembering that God is forever faithful and will never abandon us. After all, that’s what we’re celebrating on December 25: Emmanuel, God-with-us. Perhaps in surprising and unexpected ways, but always with us.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! Amen.

High Water Marks

Just outside of town, the empty fields are ringed with trees that have been marked. You can see it even at a distance: a perfectly horizontal line marking every tree for miles.

It’s the high-water mark.

Above the line, foliage is green and growing. Below the line both bark and treeless branches are covered with a grayish-brown film like the haze left on the sides of a bathtub with a too-slow drain.

In a few days or weeks or months, the highwater mark will have faded. While images of the flood will remain lodged in this community’s living memory for quite some time, soon we will no longer be able to point and say, “The water got clear up to here!”

Every time I drive past these two-tone trees, I consider the high-water marks of life: the milestones or transitions or moments that marked both the beginning and the end.

Twenty years ago this month, I was graduating high school: a high-water mark, too be sure. In the fall, my twenty-year class reunion will be held – strangely enough – on the day of the my 38th birthday. There’s some strange irony in that.

In honor of life’s high-water marks, here is a quote from Scott Simon (of NPR). It reminds me that not all of life’s transitions can be marked by a cap and gown; not all of our beginnings /endings are moments for pomp and circumstance.

“Let life change you. You’ve worked hard and learned a lot. But if you live well, you’re going to know love, loss, confusion and failure—life’s truest teachers. Real life can shatter certainties like a delicate cup in a tornado. Keep learning. Be inconsistent. Don’t have a rich, full life only to wind up at 40 with the same convictions you had when you were 20. Let life in.” (Scott Simon on NPR)

I Don’t Need a Thing

This week I’m preaching on Psalm 23, and in my preparation I found an interesting juxtaposition. The NRSV reads: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  The Message reads: “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.” 

There’s a big difference between the two … and it points to something I’ve noticed. Too often, I think we find ourselves resisting the ways in which God would care for us. We find ourselves saying the words of the paraphrase: “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.”

“God, you go on and take care of somebody who really needs you. I’m doing just fine. I don’t need a thing.”

In my interaction with folks in the area that have been affected by recent flooding, I’ve see a lot of examples of this resistance to being cared for. Too many folks resist help, resist supplies, put on a brave face and say they’re doing okay. “You give those things to someone who really needs them. I’m doing okay.” Or “we’ll be fine.”

We folks in rural areas are really good at care for others … but sometimes we’re not all that comfortable with having other people care for us.

“Oh, Pastor Meg, I don’t need to be on the prayer list. There are so many other people who need prayer more than I do.” OR
“Pastor Meg, I don’t want you to make a trip all the way down to Paducah just to see me in the hospital. You’ve got too many other things to do.”

To me, those things sound an awful lot like: God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.

Psalm 23 invites us to envision God as our shepherd: one who is with us and who is for us. But it also challenges us to give up our resistance to God’s shepherding care.  Psalm 23 challenges us to let our independence slip – ever so slightly – and to give ourselves permission to receive God’s care.

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