Lent, Week One: Hot and Cold

Happy first Friday of Lent, Reader, if such a thing can be deemed “happy.”  Lent, though traditionally a pretty rough space for me, is actually a good time to go internal and take stock of one’s faith journey.  It also happens to start smack in the middle of midterms this year, which I think is God foregoing actually saying anything and just chucking me out in the wilderness.

It’s been a really, really long week.

Part of it, though, was officiating for the very first time at an Ash Wednesday service.  There’s one other student pastor at the church where I serve now and she and I were put in charge of the entire service:  plan it, prep it, preach it.  So we did; we met twice to plan what hymns we wanted and write the liturgy.  We each wrote half of the sermon and then preached it as alternating voices.  We got to the church early to move furniture and set the scene, making sure everything was in place just as it needed to be.

And, human endeavor that it was, things went wrong.  My lapel mic came off my robe just as I stood to begin the sermon—I seriously should get all of the theatre points for how calmly I grabbed it and reattached it.  Then there was a bat that decided to join us for a couple of laps around the sanctuary in the middle of the sermon.  Yes, a bat.  I’m not kidding.  And I nearly ran out of oil as I was working my way through the ashes.  This is what the pastoral life is, Reader; it’s super human.  Sorry if that’s breaking any cherished notions for you.

6c3ae1418d0d0367d1ae643ae283d3e6But it’s also incredibly holy.  This is the second time in my life I’ve ever put ashes on someone else, and the only other time was on Interpreter and that had all sorts of emotional complications going on.  But this; this was feeling the oil and cold ash against my thumb, feeling the warmth of people’s skin as I placed my fingertips at their temples and drew the sign of the cross.  This was standing by the Christ candle and watching its flame flicker against the semi-darkness of our shadowed sanctuary.  This was hearing What Wondrous Love Is This roll down out of the choir loft behind me and remembering the times I have hummed that to myself on the chancel steps back home when I felt so completely separated from God and so terribly cold in my very soul.  This was raising my hands in benediction to this congregation with whom God has entrusted me and feeling the fiery warmth of praying that I will be worthy of that trust, of praying that they will be open to God’s Spirit.  The pastoral life is a terrifying and electrifying gift.

As we move throughout these forty days, I want to take a page out of the sermon my friend and I preached this past Wednesday in terms of imagining and fleshing out the story of the wilderness to which we’re called in this season.  What does our wilderness look like?  How does the temperature vary, with the extremes of heat and cold that such landscapes have?  Where are the rocks upon which we trip?  What plants struggle towards the rain that rarely comes?  Let us imagine ourselves into this space, Reader.  Let us name our wilderness, that we may hear our names from the One Who walks it with us.

 

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness.  (Exodus 14:19-20, ESV)

Egypt and Other False Hopes

Why yes, I am writing this instead of the sermon and two papers I need to be writing.  Welcome to divinity school.

Just so you know, it has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad few weeks.  Even in Australia.  Part of it being so bad is that all the spheres of my life are currently out of whack.  My friends and I have been in some weird spaces, school is frustrating and exhausting at best, my three jobs are financially unhelpful and not terribly life-giving, my faith is a wild mess, the political scene is terrifying and sorrow-inducing, and my car now has a crunched bumper and a tail-light magnificently patched together by Interpreter and jank as all get-out.

Nearly everything is not good.

Perhaps that laundry list resonates with you, Reader—I sure hope not, but if it does know that I hate everything right now, too.  I’m weary; not just tired, but worn to strange edges that constitute no recognizable shape.  I’ve found myself wondering a lot lately why I moved here to the Wicket Gate, why I left the Land of Pilgrims, why I’m in divinity school.

In short, why I left Egypt.

I don’t pull in the metaphor to say that the Land of Pilgrims was at all comparable to slavery (far from it; part of it was home in a way I’d never experienced before, but part of it was completely unhealthy), and I know I’m not the first to connect the complaining Israelites to modern angst with God’s leadership.  But I’ve never felt so clearly that connection.  I am soul-sore, spiritually thirsty, and starving for hope.  Of course I’m going to say to Moses that we should never have left, that at least in Egypt we were fed, that selling my soul wasn’t so bad—at least it was safe.  And it was; I was by no means rich in the Land of Pilgrims, but I was stable.  I didn’t have the fanciest place to live, but it was mine and it was home.  I hated my job, but my church sustained me.  I had community.  I had a life.

And here, in this in-between place, I don’t have that.  I have a banged-up car and more student loans and disappointing professors and damn it, God, why did You make me leave Egypt?

Because God had other plans—plans to which I agreed as I sang my little self across the dry Red Sea, as a I said okay, God, I trust You so much I’ll even get a tattoo to commemorate it.  I left my Egypt because it was killing me to stay and every one of my beautiful, caring friends saw it.  I left because the wilderness was terrifying but wide open in possibility.  And I left because God said come on, we’re moving, and I said, okay.

I now have three jobs in which I regularly practice pastoral relationship even as I am learning what that even means.  I helped a friend move this morning and then we sat on his stoop in the chilly sunshine and just were with each other, which is one of the best ways I re-energize in a relationship.  I got to simply be with Interpreter last weekend while he patched up my car and patiently answered my questions about how it’s put together because I know zilch about cars.  I get to go back to Egypt this summer for an internship that will probably kill me but will definitely change me.

13This wilderness is not accidental.  Do I need to change some things to make it healthier?  Yes.  Moses had to pull water from rocks and the Israelites ate raining bread; the wilderness isn’t mean to be experienced without change.  And it isn’t meant to be itself a destination; the Israelites were looking for the Promised Land.  I am looking to be ordained (which sometimes feels as far from a Promised Land as possible, but hey).  And sometimes, the wilderness lasts longer than intended—it took the Israelites forty years to go a distance that should have taken a month at most.  But even on the worst days when you are freaking sick of bread and your feet hurt and your throat is parched and you have run out of travelling jokes completely, going back to Egypt is not a helpful choice.  I could indeed go back to the Land of Pilgrims and, I’m sure, settle into a lovely and comfortable life.  But it would be turning my back on all that God is asking of and offering to me, all of the ways that I am growing and changing and learning, all of the impact I’m having on others even as they are impacting me.

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day that kicks off Lent.  In the Lenten season Christians remember the forty days in the wilderness that Jesus spent, itself an echo of the forty years of the Israelites.  We hold all of who we are to the Light in preparation for the incredible celebration of Easter, the central point of our faith in which we proclaim a risen Christ Whose love overturns even Death.  Easter is a party—but the wilderness is my current reality, even as it itself is shot through with Easters.

Walk the wilderness with me, Reader.  If you feel comfortable, let me know some of what your desert looks like.  Slough off the idea that going back to Egypt is going to help.  And please; remind me to do the same.

 

 And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt?   Is this not what we told thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.  (Exodus 14:11-12, JUB)

Lent, Week One: Holy Orders

Welcome to Lent, Reader.  I sort of have to say this to welcome myself; I’m having a hard time situating myself in days and times lately.  I think it’s because I have a few too many things going on (well, always, but now in particular) that bleed into each other and cross the days and seasons without care for anything but their own deadlines.

Choosing schools is rough, yo.

But we persevere, and despite the fact that I forgot both that today is Friday and that it’s the first Friday of Lent (hello, innocent turkey sandwich that totally triggered all of my childhood Catholicism but only AFTER I’d eaten it…sigh) it is indeed Friday in Lent.

I think part of the reason (besides the Million and One Things) I’m so disoriented is that both Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday were super weird for me this year.  Normally Mardi Gras is a festive gathering with a few friends eating muffalettas and listening to crazy swing jazz and then Ash Wednesday is a whole drawing in of myself, almost literally preparing for the wilderness.  Both days had those usual elements, but in entirely new ways.

Mardi Gras was a kids musical and a pancake dinner at my church (I know, we’re getting all Episcopalian up in here).  It was great, but it was a day of so much people and meetings and class and craziness.  It was also somewhat unhelped by the fact that people kept coming up to me after the show to ask what my part had been, utterly flabbergasted that there would be a church event in which I was just another congregant.  I’m not terribly comfortable with the idea that this expectation has been created that I’m essentially staff; I don’t like that church, in many ways, has become somewhere I cannot simply be.  I realize that’s the direction I’m headed with the career, but I hadn’t intended to arrive there quite yet.

It was an evening of all sorts of unexpected ministry moments, really, which is what I bring to you.  I like doing a loose series for Lent, if only to keep myself from wandering too far into the desert (but sure, also to learn to see thematic connections for when I’ll be doing sermon series.  You have to know I’ve been practicing on you, Reader, and that I appreciate you letting me).  So this Lent I’m taking the awareness that I’ve been walking away from the sacred in favor of focusing only on the profane (in the sense of mortal, earthly) aspect of things and I’m using this series to walk through the sacraments.

I’m going to have to cross denominational lines for this (no, say it ain’t so!) because we United Methodists only recognize two sacraments and there are a few more than two Fridays in Lent.  So I’m reaching back to my Catholic days (or, more likely, my medieval theology semesters) to pull forth the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

Still with me?  Good, because I want you to understand that I’m not going to give you a lecture on the sacraments for forty days.  I’ll let you know what’s what, for sure, but I want to see where I see these holy things in my own life—outside of the box, as it were.  So what even is a sacrament?  It’s a ritual of the Church considered to be of enough significance to be seen as a foundational aspect of charting holiness—literally “a sign of the sacred,” sacramentum.  You don’t have to do all seven to be faithful, of course, but they’re sort of the compass points of the thin places where we brush against God.  Steer by these.

So, week one?  Holy orders.  Of course, right?  This takes on a different shine as the Catholic sacrament because it means only the official, professional ministry within the Church, so only baptized, unmarried males can make it to this sacrament.

But I am no longer Catholic, so I can broaden this.  Although I lose track of it a lot, I do firmly believe in the concept of the ministry of all believers—yep, you sign on to the Jesus train, you too are a minister.  (Don’t worry, I won’t make you come to seminary with me.)  And this shows up in the most quotidian places; I spent almost half an hour talking with a teenager friend of mine on Mardi Gras because she is freaking out about becoming an adult and she needed someone to say that’s okay, you’re not wrong to do so, God will be with you in adulthood too even though you’re going to make the wrong choices sometimes (a lot).  It was incredibly humbling, that unexpected pastoral moment, but it reminded me quite forcefully that ministry doesn’t wait for official sanction.

I will not be in ministry after I finish school; I will not be in ministry after I can wear an elder’s stole (although I’m not gonna lie, I’m pretty excited about building that collection some day); I will not be in ministry after the United Methodist Church has a bishop lay hands on me; I will not be in ministry after I am appointed to my first church.  I am in ministry right now, because God is not bound by our rules.  Holy orders are a sacrament, a sacred thing because they are indeed orders that are holy; they are an invitation to us as the people of God to get involved in this Kingdom-building nonsense, to get our sleeves and stoles dirty in the day-to-day honesty of ministry.  We are all of us called to this, to these holy orders; we are all of us called to this place of the sacred wrapping its arms around the profane.

So holy orders for me are talking with that teen.  They are a young woman opening several sets of doors for me and learning my name.  They are me buying doughnuts for my office mates.  They are Magister empowering a friend to stand on his own in teaching the faith.  They are that friend teaching the faith.  They are the friends who stand with Hopeful in the tempestuousness of having a newborn.  And they are all the many ways, Reader, that you shine the reflected Light in your world.

Sacred indeed.

 

 

And [you] yourselves, as living stones, are being built up [as] a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:5, LEB)