Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Reflections

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I feel the thumb that marks my forehead, grimy with oil and ashes. It's a visceral ritual - I feel my own death hovering in , under, and through my being. Twice each year I am jolted into an examination of my own mortality; brought face to face with the reminder that I will someday die. You are reading this on Ash Wednesday, one of those days. The other, the day I began writing this devotion, is All Saints Day. Doubt and fear assail me on these days. have I done enough, been enough, loved enough? Will anyone remember me if I should die tomorrow? Is that vanity? Humanity? I look deep into the doubt, the fear, the vanity, and the frailty of being human. I think about the unthinkable in the company of saints - those gone before me and those beside me in the pew. I hate it; I love it.

These holy days are gifts. Days steeped in ritual and marked with symbolism to help me face the unthinkable: I will die someday. Like alarms set on my phone to remind me of meetings and appointments, they sound a warning: you have to die someday. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." And there, in the injunction to remember and return, I find the boundaries of my life in the bookends of All Saints and Ash Wednesday. All Saints calls me to remember, to stop and revisit those who have gone on before me; to recall those I miss, those I loved, and those I never want to forget; to remember that I belong to a community that transcends liner time. In years to come, it will call others to remember, long after I am gone. Some of them will remember me.

The other boundary, Ash Wednesday, enjoins me to return: to return to dust, but also to "Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. . ." I return to the one who made me from dust in the first place. I return to the one who loves me steadfastly across all borders of time and space and who loves me enough to have voluntarily gone where I fear to go: to death.

Ash Wednesday rightfully marks the beginning of the Lenten journey. Without contemplating my own death, I can be tempted to minimize the love that was shown to me in Jesus' death. It is in facing my own fear of death that I come to appreciate all that follows. And so I return, year after year, to have ashes imposed on my forehead; to look in the mirror and see myself marked for death, and then journey with Jesus as he steadfastly walks toward his own death, for me.Only from that visceral place can I fully appreciate the magnitude of the sacrifice Jesus made and the magnificence of his resurrection.

This entry was originally written for Triumphant Love Lutheran's annual Lenten devotional and is based on the one of the texts for this day Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Plans I Have For You

The news is full of the death of singer Whitney Houston. She was a complex woman of great talent, plagued by addiction and self-destructive behavior. And she was a mother. I saw a story on Yahoo this morning tracing the lives of children left behind by famous parents who died prematurely. Such an event changes the life of the child forever. While Whitney Houston's daughter or Michael Jackson's kids may have not had normal lives by my standards, it was their normal, and the death of their parent shattered that normal.

Many years ago this issue came up in conversation with my own children. It may have been precipitated by the death of Princess Diana, but I truly don't remember for sure what brought about the conversation. One of them asked, with the other listening closely, "What will happen to us if you die?"  Not really sensing the underlying fears I answered that their Daddy would take care of them. They left, only to return later to ask me "What if Daddy dies too?" Still not really understanding the fear that was generating these questions, I pointed out that it was extremely unlikely that they would be left orphans. Finally, in frustration, one of them blurted, "But if it did happen, where would we live?" We had arrived at the real question.

"If you die, where will I live?" is a very real question to children. None of us really wants to think about it or talk about it, but to a child this is a much more urgent question than what happens to them when they die. They are acutely aware that they are not ready to fend for themselves. So they need to know who will take care of them if something should happen to us.

When I finally locked in and answered my daughter's question about where they would live, they went back to regular activities, their fears at rest. I had a plan. How about you? Have you made provision for your kids? Do you have a plan? A will? Some life insurance to pay for their college education?  The Bible reassures all of us that God (our heavenly Father, right?) has a plan for us: For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Jeremiah 29:11 NRSV

Our loving God knows our fears and rains down reassurances we don't even realize we will need, until we do.  Try to do the same for your children. Use these teachable moments to give them information that will make them feel secure.  Let them know you have a plan. And if you don't - please move making one to the top of your to-do list. We don't know what tomorrow holds, we can only know who holds it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Facing Our Fears

Wow! Warnings about 'gators and snakes just a few yards apart!  It was an eerie kind of welcome to Louisiana yesterday afternoon. In spite of the warnings you can see that it is a beautiful spot. Normally in the face of such beauty I would want to explore a bit but bayous give me the creeps. I am unreasonably afraid of snakes and the idea of one dropping down on me from above is just more than I can handle. So, though I know that there is stunning beauty in the bayou, I will settle for the PBS version of this extraordinary scenery.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In Case of Emergency

Sometimes it's really comforting to have a specific response ready for a specific circumstance. When my girls were little we practiced a very formal, but always appropriate statement for leave-taking. "Thank you for inviting me, I had a very nice time." While it was a bit stilted it gave them two ways to be comfortable. First, they didn't have to figure out what to say to the adult in charge of the event, and secondly, it formed the bridge they crossed to leave the event.

Similarly, as a young mother, I read a book that recommended you define your life in terms of projects. Being a mother was a project, being a wife another; being the household manager was another project that required attention. The book said that you should never have more than seven projects going at the same time. This served me very well in my more or less permanent quest for balance - partly by giving me a specific response to all those requests to take on projects for the school, the church, the neighborhood association. It allowed me to truthfully respond, "I'm so flattered that you would consider me but I have seven projects in different stages right now, maybe another time.  Really, thank you!" That little speech kept me from drowning in my own goodwill more than once!

It seems like there ought to be a list somewhere of the simple instructions we should give to our kids. There are lots of lists out there that include things like "None of this will matter in five years." This is useless advice for a fifteen-year-old who just broke up with her first boyfriend.  "However bad a situation is, it will change." This will not comfort a kid who is about to fail fourth grade. The ubiquitous "always wear clean underwear" only prevents embarrassment; it doesn't help when a problem arises. So what can we teach our kids that they can pull out and dust off when the going gets rough?

Here are a few "road rules" that will stand the test of time and the challenge of children's unique dilemmas:
  • When you can't figure out what you should do, do the next thing that makes sense.
  • It's always OK to ask for advice, but make your own decisions.
  • If a relationship has to be secret, you shouldn't be in it.
  • We learn more from our failures than our successes.
  • When you are scared, pray.
Random? Yep, just a list I have accumulated over a couple of days. You know so much that your kids don't know. Spend some time thinking about things they should know when they are faced with a challenge. What wisdom would help them? Don't send them out into the world equipped with nothing but "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." They need to have some rules to live by when they hit the tricky spots.

While your past challenges will be different than your child's future challenges, along the way you have learned some important truths. Taking some time to think back over the challenges you've survived will yield a treasure trove of useful wisdom.

If you can't come up with a single thing, wade into the Bible's book of Proverbs and see what resonates with you. You are much wiser than you think you are!