Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

It is Lent.

Lent and I, as with many things and I, have a very love/hate relationship.  I love it because it’s intense, it’s deep, it forces me to confront my own faith and its place in my day-to-day life, its insistence that religion not overwhelm the reality that is God.  I love it because Lent was my original journey to faith.

I hate it for pretty much the same reasons.

So this past week was Ash Wednesday, on which we get marked up so the folks at Wal-Mart politely ask why we haven’t washed lately.  And it’s not just a Catholic thing, despite what my Catholic grandmother thinks.  I don’t even know where to start with the shock and intensity of how that service turned out for me, so you know what, Reader?  Instead, let us discuss What Comes Next.

There are two mini-seasons people tend to recognize within the full ecclesiastical year, Lent and Advent.  Advent is great, because we get to put up the tree and wait for Christmas and watch the first snowfall and add in Christmas carols to our routines.  Lent…well, Lent, we get to fast, and pray, and wait in this darkness that finally gets to the awful awfulness of Holy Week.  Then, and only then, do we get the raucous awesomeness of Easter—but man, the waiting period is rough.

I help with altar decor at my church, which basically means the folks who plan worship recognize that I love messing with fabrics and statues and they let me play in order to visualize the sermons (with helpful suggestions and nudges along the way).  Since we’re doing a sermon series for Lent, we decided to put six different shades of purple on the altar, one for each Sunday, that we’ll peel off as we go.  It took me a while to figure out the shades that went together (because, under sanctuary lights, there are some purples that ARE SO NOT PURPLE ANYMORE) and then to plan how to get them all on the altar without looking like a gypsy train had settled in for the season.  It was awesome, and frustrating, and totally consuming, which is pretty much why I love doing that kind of thing.  It, like running, gives me the space not to think about whatever else is going on.

Because there is so much else, you know?  My students and teaching partner continue to drive me nuts with their silence and apathy, my own classes are continually falling to the bottom of the pile (which is doing myself no favors), I’m navigating a book group which has both Magister and Interpreter, which is SO CRAZY INTIMIDATING.  (Seriously.  They’re fantastic gentlemen, they really are, but it’s sort of like having a confab with Tolkien and Lewis.  They’re super nice, but you are well aware that the sheer force of their knowledge and theology could do battle with meteors and win.  I mean, it’s awesome, too, and this last week was great, but ain’t no way I’m going to come unprepared to that.)

And there’s other stuff, as there always is.  There’s the intensity of my friend’s memorial service this past week, the knowledge that next week I start some new stuff I’m not at all thrilled about, and, of course, the What Comes Next.

There is nothing quite like having graduation loom large on the horizon to make you totally enamored of spending an hour or two sorting fabrics in your church sanctuary.

It’s scary stuff!  I’m supposed to have some sort of plan, some idea of this Calling that everyone and my mother seems to have adopted to the point of basically referencing me as though I’m already ordained; it’s supposed to be a hop skip and a jump from a career path of medieval literature into that cushy senior pastor job I was absolutely made for.  What?!  How did that happen?  It’s like saying we can go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter, like having Ash Wednesday kick off a one-week season of thinking.

It doesn’t work that way.  Trust me, a lot of the time I wish it would.  But it doesn’t work that way.  Reader, the thing about Ash Wednesday, the thing about this Lent thing being about preparation—somewhere in the year we have to look full in the face of the fact that we fuck up.  A lot.  In the imposition of the ashes, we are told we are dust, and to dust we shall return.  Through the season we are reminded that before Easter we get Palm Sunday, when Jesus wept for Jerusalem.  We don’t get to skip to the bits when we have everything figured out and nothing went wrong and the trip was uneventful.  We have to stay in these forty days of wilderness that suck pretty badly because that is how this works, because that is real in a way that has nothing to do with pretty appearances and platitudes and graduation gowns that make you feel like you can conquer the world.

We don’t stay there, of course, but for right now we acknowledge that place of brokenness, of mortality, of not having a clue What Comes Next because most days we barely understand What’s Happening Now.  Lent is not “fun” in any normal sense, but it is honest.  And considering that some people seem to expect me to acquiesce to a whole life plan  in the next three months, I could use a little honesty.

 

And he cried against the altar in the word of the LORD, and said , “O altar, altar, thus saith the LORD; ‘Behold, a child shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name; and upon thee shall he offer the priests of the high places that burn incense upon thee, and men’s bones shall be burnt upon thee.'”  And he gave a sign the same day, saying , “This is the sign which the LORD hath spoken ; ‘Behold, the altar shall be rent , and the ashes that are upon it shall be poured out.'”  (1 Kings 13:2-3, KJV)

Advent Week 2: The 12 Days of Christmas

This is definitely not one of my top picks, but then, it is the oddities of a life of faith.  I quite dislike the song, actually, as I dislike all songs that build on previous verses and make you repeat the same lines over and over…and over.  I try to avoid “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” for roughly the same reason.  As to the “12 Days of Christmas,” I tend to prefer the Muppets version (because, well, Muppets), the Straight No Chaster version, or the cynical parody my father always sang to me when I was a kid (which may explain a lot) about what happens when the loving couple has a falling-out.  It’s hilarious, really, and I sing that one with gusto.  I’m also aware of the cultural love of the song only for certain pieces.  Be as obnoxious as possible if you’re going to bother.

So it’s not my favorite song, but it fits this week in terms of its absurd largesse.  On Monday I went out for a run and noticed that my neighbor had left his keys in his door.  I figured he had just gotten home, he’d had his hands full, whatever.  Off on my run I went.

When I got back half an hour later, the keys were still in the door.  This is no good, so I knocked on his door to let him know.  He, of course, had forgotten all about them, and was profusely grateful that I had pointed it out.  He and I have had a couple of neighborly fluff conversations before, so we’ve met (though I don’t know his name).  He’s a friendly gent and apparently his wife is visiting family back home in the Middle East.  (She, by the way, has the most beautiful head scarves.  As a general note.)  He asked me, after thanking me, if he could make me dinner one night in gratitude.  I agreed, a bit floored that those were equivalent in his mind, and thought nothing more of it.

A few minutes later he knocked on my door with a bowl of rice and roasted chicken, which I can only assume was part of the lunch he’d had for himself as there was no way he’d had time to make it.  “Take it,” he said, “thank you.”

I had no idea how to refuse it, so I took it and figured, well, that was that.  Nope.  When I got home from class Tuesday he knocked on my door with a whole meal—salad, chicken dish of deliciousness, an orange, olives, a pomegranate, and bread; he had made a meal of his culture for me, for sure, and it was awesome.

I was flabbergasted by the magnitude of this response, this homemade gesture of thankfulness for a mere set of keys.  I took a picture of it—I’m not usually in the habit of photographing food, but this needed to be proven to have truly happened.

So we were definitely not even, but that was that, right?  Wrong.

The next night, when I got home from rehearsal, he knocks on my door with chicken soup.  Now, God help me, I’m suspicious; he misses cooking for his wife, I’m thinking, I’m filling that hole for him.

Why is it so difficult to simply accept another person’s generosity?  Why does it have to have any ulterior motive?  He is bringing me gifts, and the only thing I can think is, “Dude, they were just keys.”

I’ve since mulled this over with a couple of people who have pointed out various parts of the story I haven’t considered that may make it either more than just keys or less than an overwhelming amount of food.  I don’t know; I haven’t asked.  I might, when I take his dishes back (yes, he gave me all of this in his own dishes; a great deal of meditation was done Wednesday night while washing them for return).  But in the meantime, I am still so totally unsure of what to do with this bounty.

Yesterday was my last day of class in Difficulty.  It was a bittersweet farewell to the city, and the class and its other stalwart historians.  We’d agreed to begin by meeting for lunch at a local restaurant—a classy joint, not terribly cheap—and my professor very quietly and firmly decided he was picking up the bill for all of us.  And one of my classmates gave us coffee, preserves, and chocolate from her hometown.

Again, this crazy unexpected munificence that is characterizing my week.

And there are days, weeks, like that; if I were to sit down and consider how I get through much of living as a graduate student and a human in general, I would be pushed to speechlessness by the willing openhandedness of others.  Not always—there are definitely the misers out there, and those who give expecting you to be in their debt.  But there are those who uncomplainingly drive you to or pick you up from the train station week after week, those who loan you money when you have nothing left, those who invite you to dinner, those who simply stand quietly with you when you need to rant—or when you need to say nothing at all.

The 12 Days of Christmas ends with the singing lover having a ridiculous amount of rather useless crap.  But it was given in love, in the outrageous, discomforting generosity of one who wanted to give gifts to a beloved one.

Ah.  Yes.  You can see where this is going, perhaps?

I don’t mean to say that Jesus comes as Santa Claus with a bag full of lords a-leaping.  I do mean to say that He stands with arms full of blessings of all varieties that often have very little to do with gold and sometimes very much to do with bowls of rice.  And He wants to give this to us, to me, His true love, in an absurd and incomprehensible liberality that provides without question of merit and only wishes us to see that that kind of love will go through the whole song for us—even if it’s annoying as all get out.

 

“Give to everyone who asks you. And if anyone takes what belongs to you, don’t ask to get it back. Do to others as you want them to do to you.”  (Luke 6:30-31, NIRV)

Knowing What You Know

Editorial note:  So very many prayers for the families rebuilding after Sandy; me and mine are fine, thank God, but many aren’t as lucky.

I hate the days when I know darn well that I won’t get weather like this again for a while and I should go for a run, but I just don’t feel like going through the trouble of changing out of work clothes and driving out to the trail and doing so.  Alas, my laziness that will make my upcoming 5k a very bad decision.

I had an interesting morning, though; today was the day to take my students to Special Collections at the library, where they house all of the beautiful manuscripts and odds and ends that need extra protection from human carelessness.  It’s one of my favorite parts of the semester—if you’ve never seen an illuminated medieval manuscript in person, Reader, you are missing some of humanity’s great creations.  The pyramids are awesome, but the San Luis Bible is a wonder to behold.

So it was cool to see these beauties again, many of which are facsimiles in our library but some of which are the originals.  It’s a heady thing, handling something that’s a thousand years old.  I’ve been working with manuscripts in some capacity for about six years, and every time I really realize what that collection of sheepskin has seen, I flip out a little bit.  Sort of on the level of when I realize that the Earth’s core is made of molten iron.  It’s an intense piece of knowledge.

So it was a good day, even better with the fact that my students, for the most part, asked good questions and seemed interested in what was going on.  That’s more of a blessing than non-teachers can ever realize, I think.  It was also good because Interpreter was able to tag along—he shares an interest in manuscripts, so I invited him a while back to sit in on this intro session, and wonder of wonders, he did.

It was a bit nerve-wracking, actually, because the spheres of my life don’t mix much.  My work people are my work people and everyone else is everyone else, so I was kind of worried about Interpreter coming to see me on my turf, doing my thing, interacting with my students.  I am Ms. Pilgrim there, where no first names are allowed to break the incredibly fragile veneer of authority I hold so loosely.  It’s odd to me to have friends see me in professorial mode; it’s different from when I teach Sunday school, not least because this is what I’m being trained to do, this is what pays me.  This is the life I used to want.

But it went well, and Interpreter stayed after a bit to take a closer look at the manuscripts (MSS) with me.  It was kind of funny; he had me do any and all handling of them, as he was “just along for the ride” and didn’t want to risk harming them in some way because he didn’t know what he was doing.  And he was right, to a certain extent; I did know far more about how to treat a MS than he did, and I was off on a merry expedition of answering his questions, explaining the MSS we were looking at, generally getting my academic geek on.  And he was letting me, which not a whole lot of people do—to his credit (?), he was sincerely interested, so he wasn’t just humoring the medievalist.  And I realized at one point that I had a lot to say, because I knew a lot of what to say.  I’ve taken classes on paleography and codicology, I’ve worked with medieval primary sources, I’ve written papers on this and read papers (and books and more papers) on this.  I’m no expert, to be sure, but I do have a handle on what’s what in a manuscript collection.

I could go off on a well-documented tangent of modern anti-intellectualism, but I’ll say instead that there is such a bizarre backlash against being knowledgeable about things that, when I realize I know something, it surprises me.  I’m somehow unsure of using this gift of a mind God has given me, worried that I’ll appear aloof, arrogant, unconnected in my strange medieval ways.  I get the patronizing brush-off a lot, actually, when I start talking about medieval stuff; it’s irrelevant, old, useless.  Surely I only need to know about modern politics and whether or not the Jersey Shore house survived the storm.

That’s harsh.  I realize that’s not how things are, really, but I do think that it’s so interesting how we don’t allow ourselves to know what we know.  There’s definitely room to guard against intellectual arrogance, and I will be first in line to tell you that I don’t always guard myself well enough.  But there’s also the idea of embracing the mind  and its functions we’ve been given, and the utterly astounding world given to us by a Creator with the craziest imagination possible—why would we not want to know all that we can about it?  Why would we not want to explore who we have been, what we have been able to create, what we could be?  If we’re delighted that we can freefall from space, why not revel in being able to master the element of gold?

 

It was just a really neat experience to be permitted to know what I know, both by Interpreter and by myself.  Many people have taught me a lot of things, and I am very grateful for their time and energy in doing so.  If all of that has been just so that I can see Interpreter’s face light up when he sees the Hebrew  notations in the Morgan Crusader Bible and connects to this 800-year-old pastiche of scholarship—well, that is a good day’s work.

 

A wise heart shall acquire knowledge: and the ear of the wise seeketh instruction.  (Proverbs 18:15, DRA)

 

To Search for Light, to Listen for Hope

My dear Reader, may I borrow any hope you have to spare?  How rapidly I run through mine!  How short-sighted!  How human!

This week has been so different than last, thankfully.  No one I know personally has died.  Hopeful has begun her wanderings on the Appalachian Trail, which I find fascinating, inspiring, and wondrous (please, if you think of it, send out a prayer for her—this renewal is badly needed).  My church is finishing its week-long VBS, which has its own microcosm of grace, stress, drama, and exploration.  The friend I’m stubbornly trying to push away is doggedly, blessedly holding on.

And it rained.  That alone should be enough to make my week, Reader—it poured, and I wandered in my apartment’s parking lots kicking the rushing streams and dancing through this precious gift.  This morning I went running and, for only the second time in my life, got a 9-minute mile out of it.  The air was cool for the first time in months, and I didn’t begrudge the arrow-shafts of sun that pierced the leaves protectively shadowing the trail, the drips of light that slid out of the golden bowls on the treetops.  My prayer for a cloudy day was answered yesterday.

And with it came a nasty headache from the pressure shift, physical twinges of other sorts, a flurry of frustrating paperwork as my life continues to be reduced, reduced, reduced to employment history, address, worth by merit of lines, and the unwelcome realization that I have sorely miscalculated the compensation of a freelance job I’ve agreed to do.

How hard it is, Reader, to live a life of faith and wonder when paying the rent is an all-consuming worry.  I will just barely make my August bills, as long as a few more reinforcements from previous jobs come through in time.  But there’s no way I’ll be able to take care of September before my fall employment.  Woman cannot live on service alone.

I felt awful last night in my VBS work and class—I was so distracted by this worry, I was absolutely useless in discussion and community.  I finally took myself out of the class for a bit to remember that mulling it over and over in a church conference room wasn’t going to change anything, but I never made it to being fully present.  You can tell, perhaps, how it gnaws at me, that I should lay this at your doorstep, that this space meant for searching for God’s plans in my life should be so heavily laden with cries against the seeming impossibility of having the means to complete them.

Yet I listen to myself, read my own words, and hear the doubt of the Israelites I myself scoffed at not four days ago.  “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger,” they grumbled to Moses—this, after God (via Moses) had protected them from His plagues, parted the Red Sea for them, and brought water out of a rock when they were thirsty.  Was it still possible that they should think He would leave them?

Is it still possible that I think He will leave me?

Being poor sucks.  It doesn’t matter why you’re poor, or how long you’ve been poor, or whether you’ve learned to work around being poor.  It sucks.  I hate that so much of my mind and energy are spent on finances and paycheck juggling and frugality to the point of absurdity.  I hate that I can’t return the generosity of my friends.

But I have to remember my own Red Seas.  How many times has God been there to pull me through?  He has given me those generous friends who give without expectation, He has given me the trail on which to run for free, He has given me the rain to cool the parched land, my parched heart.  It hasn’t been easy, not at all, and He certainly hasn’t made me a millionaire.  Yet I have to realize that I started this blog almost exactly one year ago seeing the grace God extends when the money runs out.  That seems like a lifetime ago, but here I am, wrestling with the same fears.  He has asked me to trust Him, and with each new desert I forget, and I complain, and I worry, and He lovingly sends me a breeze, manna…rain.

I thank you for going on this journey with me this past year, Reader, whether you’ve been along from the start or you just dropped in last week.  I ask that you pray for me, especially in August, that even if the money runs out, my faith will not.

Blessings on your own journey and worries, Friend.  He knows them, and He will not leave you, either.

 

But Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the LORD rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never ever see again.  The LORD will fight for you. You just keep still.”  (Exodus 14:13-14, CEB)

 

The Mountains and the Valleys

This will be a short post this week, Reader, not least because I’m not entirely sure what to say.  It has not been my favorite week—on Saturday, a friend of mine stopped fighting dementia and Parkinson’s and passed away.  On Monday, my one remaining grandfather stopped fighting pneumonia and kidney failure and also passed away.  On Tuesday, I had the first day of the book study for which I have so hopefully been preparing…only to have but one participant.  On Wednesday I sat with a woman who realizes that she is living only in biding time until death.  On Thursday I realized that one of my friendships will never be what I would like it to be and it would behoove me to start withdrawing from it slightly.

It has been a hard week.

It is easy to see the sorrowful Godlessness of a week like this, especially when I am reminded—lovingly, jokingly, but harshly—that this is life.  This is adulthood.  People I love will continue dying.  Friends I appreciate will continue changing, just as I will.  People have their own schedules that do not (and should not) answer to mine.  This is life.  This is adulthood.

Quite frankly, that sucks.

I’ve never wanted to be anything but grown up, and I still wouldn’t trade that even if I could, but this is rough.  Where is the comfort of God when all things and all people fall apart?

He is in the quieter moments.

Almost like the I Spy pictures from my childhood, I have seen God in and behind even this week.  He is in the way that my family can laugh over who my grandfather was and how, in a certain sense, he died in exactly the way he chose, which is how he lived.  God is in the moment when my friend realizes that something is wrong and reaches out to me, to let me know that this isn’t over.  God is in the dozens of Facebook messages I’ve had sharing my sorrow and offering sympathy, in the completely unexpected phone call from a friend specifically to make sure I was okay, in the fervor of that one person who came to my class and really wanted to be there.

God is in my choice to stay with that person for an hour to discuss the things that matter, because that time matters.  He is in the lives that my friend and my grandfather lived, as they were both men of great passion for social justice and change.  He is in what they taught me, and the life that I am choosing to live.

He is in the moment when I run farther than I have in weeks, and the moment when a sprinkler catches me by surprise, and the moment when the first cool breeze of the morning comes through my window.

This, Reader—amidst the grief and the sorrow, this is joy.  Not happiness, but joy, the deeper well of knowing that there are mountaintops after the valley, that my life is not done yet.  My service is not done, as evidenced by being asked to be a camp counselor soon, as evidenced by adding a Sunday school version of my study, as evidenced by asking questions always and truly wanting God to wrestle through the answers with me.  It has not been a good week, my dear Reader.  I hope mightily that yours has been better.

But I rest in the nascent trust that the whole world is not valleys, and I am thankful.

 

The Lord hath broken the staff of the wicked, the rod of the rulers, that struck the people in wrath with an incurable wound, that brought nations under in fury, that persecuted in a cruel manner.  The whole earth is quiet and still, it is glad and hath rejoiced.  (Isaiah 14:5-7, RHE)

“The Fog Comes On Little Cat Feet”

Five bonus points if you can name that poet.

It is indeed foggy this morning here on the Pilgrimage, and I’m talking serious, can’t-see-two-cars-ahead-of-you fog (although it’s burning off by now).  I like fog—I like most inclement weather, really, but I like fog.  There’s something forgiving about it, something accepting about it, something that allows you to be whoever and whatever you are in that moment because you can’t see the next and no one else can really see you.  I like that fog inhabits all spaces, capping the world in damp velvet and pooling in valleys as a bowl of roiling mist wrapping lovingly chill fingers around the sentinel trees.

The obvious connection for a blog like this and a fog like that is the limitation of it, the acceptance of not being able to see ahead of you but trusting enough to walk forward, anyway.  If you haven’t realized by now, Reader, I’m not always a fan of the obvious.  Go deeper.

I went running this morning–I try to run once or twice a week, which counts as my recognition of the inevitable age of my body.  I rarely run with an iPod, partially because mine gave up the chip and went to the great Apple Store in the Sky a few weeks ago, but also because running is really the only time for me to just let my brain go.  I’m a very analytical  person, usually, so having an hour block of time when I can’t do much besides think allows me to wear my own head out, in a way.  When I run, I can compose this blog, or plan out tomorrow, or review the whole of yesterday; I can pray (sometimes also known as ranting), I can try to remember my seventh grade teachers, I can wonder what I’m going to do for my final paper, whatever.  It’s mine to think, and then it’s mine to stop thinking.  By the end of mile two, the world I live in becomes much less pressing compared to the world of the crunch-crunch-crunch of my sneakers on gravel, the pulse of my heart against the trill song of the robin laughing at the joy of a shining sun, the feel of the rise and fall of the trail as I lean on the hills, using the land to help me run. I like running because eventually it becomes about the running, becomes about the breathing, the left-right-left-right rhythm that has nothing to do with Life Decisions, Scheduling, Expectations, or Possible Mistakes and everything to do with feeling the hip that strains at mile one and a half, the ankle for which I finally stopped wearing a brace last year, the blood that thumps through my body to let me know I’m not dead yet.

The fog helps this, which is part of why I like it.  It forces me to forget everything else while I see only going forward, dimly hearing the roars of the highway that ghost through my route on their rumbling way to bigger cities, other lives.  Running this morning was a focusing, a grounding, a reminder that being right here right now is important, too.  This week has been about looking forward:  counting classes until the end of the term, planning out when I teach, beginning to make decisions about what I’ll take in the fall—being reminded, always, that I am creating a forked path, pushing myself to choose one of two lives.  Running in the fog gives me the space to live the life I have, with all of the prematurely aging joints and the lungs that say this is too much, we should have stopped a mile ago.

This is not to say that I use running to run away from my life—I have done that, in various ways, and it never works out for me.  But it is to say that sometimes, whether the week has been great or crap or absolutely level, I need to stop living in the future.  I’m not a fan of where I am, in some ways, in my life, and this creates a way for me to keep looking forward, to seek always tomorrow and tomorrow’s day after.  I feel as though I’m living a life that won’t happen for some years because I don’t know what to do with the life that I actually have, and that’s not only cheating any Plan there might be, it’s cheating myself.  Yes, I’m relatively young, but do I really want to get to the “golden” years and realize I never lived through brass, bronze, or silver?  I don’t believe in reincarnation, so I have this one life to live—why would I want to skip any part of it, no matter how unpleasant?  Why would I want to shorten it, twist it, ignore it, manipulate it as if things will be some nebulous sort of “better” down the line?  In this week there have been disappointments, there have been frustrations, there have been moments of anger and fear.  But there has also been running in the fog; is that not worth noticing?

For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as also I am known.  (1 Cor. 13:12, TMB)