Spiritual journey: A word

with thanks to Margaret Simon for hosting the Spiritual Journey writers on the first Thursday of the year

Perhaps you’re in the the habit of choosing a focus word at the outset of each year. A word like simplify or savor (these have been my “one little word” in the past). The general idea is that the word serves as a filter for viewing and processing daily life. It’s meant to enrich and inspire, to make you notice more, extract more.

A well-chosen word has power. Writers know this.

As I contemplate the power of a single word being a tool for the spiritual journey, two things come to mind: A story and a song.

Since childhood I’ve loved The Chronicles of Narnia. I reread the books every few years. In The Magician’s Nephew children from our world find their way (accidentally) into a dusky world that seems to be devoid of life. The sun, much bigger and older than ours, is weary and blood-red. Clearly there has been life, for the kids find a castle and eventually a gallery of people wearing royal finery, seated in chairs along the walls. They are like wax figures, a complete mystery to the children, who go on to have a disagreement and (unfortunately) set deep magic to work (after falling prey to a psychological enchantment. You must read the book for the full effect; in all best fantasies psychology and wisdom are more powerful than ‘magic’). The children inadvertently awaken the last figure in the great hall, who rises to meet them. Jadis (whose name appears to be a combination of long ago or there are days before and witch) is the last queen of Charn, this desolate place. She confesses to usurping the throne by overthrowing her sister at the end of a bloody civil war. Jadis didn’t win this war. Instead, she destroyed all living things in that world except herself by using the Deplorable Word, an ancient and feared secret for which she paid a “terrible price” to obtain.

One word.

Shall we move onto the song?

Martin Luther, the force behind the Reformation, composed the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” between 1527 and 1529. Consider his third verse:

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,—
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! His doom is sure,—
One little word shall fell him.

“One little word”… puts an end to Satan and evil. What might this all-powerful word be? Scholars say Luther’s hymn draws from Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.

There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.

The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.

He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Might the one little word be Truth? As in Luther’s words, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us? As in Be still and know the truth of God in Psalm 46? As in If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free, the words of Christ, John 8:31-32? Or one little word as in the Word, John 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…all things were made through him…in him was life and the life was the light of men…the darkness has not overcome it…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…?

I circle back to rest on this premise: There’s spiritual power in a single word.

The greatest battles of life are, after all, spiritual. We struggle with truth. Consider Pilate’s words to Jesus, awaiting judgment in the hall of his palace fortress: Quid est veritas…What is truth?

Truth is, evil abounds. It reigns in destruction, in violence, in hungry power-grabs (i.e., Jadis; in the end, is truth not the inherent value of fiction?). And we hardly need more proof that words matter, as we continue to witness the destructive consequences of bullying on society.

We desperately need an anti-Deplorable word, do we not. One that edifies, helps, and heals. If it is not Truth, then maybe Forgive. Or Bless. Would we be about destruction, if we are actively harnessing the power of these words?

I come at last to my one little word for the past two years, which has served me better than any other.

Awe.

It has several definitions and facets, some of which contrast. It encompasses wonder, reverence, and fear. I sense all of these in Luther’s words. In Psalm 46. Awe is rooted in the realization—the truth—that our existence is part of something far greater than ourselves. Psychologists say that sense of awe has a powerful effect on our well-being. When the idea of awe as my own “one little word” came to me in 2020, I wasn’t even looking for it. I was tired. My husband was still recovering from two heart surgeries following cardiac arrest and resuscitation; COVID-19 was spreading across the planet. I didn’t feel like playing with words.

The word came anyway.

In these two years, rolling into three, my husband lived to officiate our son’s marriage, to see the birth of our granddaughter, Micah, and to see our oldest graduate from seminary and enroll in a PhD program (our same boy who said he’d never marry, have children, or go in the ministry). The youngest has graduated, is flourishing in his funeral career of serving and comforting the bereaved (our same boy who, as a toddler, was fascinated by the wise men of the nativity narrative and especially myrrh…which is used in preparing the dead for burial). Our oldest granddaughter has skipped first grade and is thriving in second. Micah, now fifteen months old, picks up books and mimics the prosody of reading; she opens hymnals and sings in her own way. Everywhere I turn, awe abounds. It reaches out every single day from nature itself…this is why I write of birds and the stars so often.

It’s even in my dreams. Last night I dreamed of a bright-eyed bird burrowing in leaves and pine straw that had gathered at the edge of my door. While I am prone to researching such symbolism until I exhaust myself, I’d see it as awe coming to live at my portal, always waiting for me to open myself to it. This much I know: awe has been a very real entity, a Presence.

Most definitely my guide on the spiritual journey.

Spiritual Journey: Holy

Why is it that, as I began to think of a November theme for my Spiritual Journey writer-friends, that the word holy came to mind?

I suppose it was connected with the start of the holiday season…holiday, from the original Old English, hāligdæg, means holy day.

I am writing this on a holy day to many around the world, All Soul’s Day. Following All Saint’s Day. Following All Hallow’s Eve…a holy triduum for remembering the dead, collectively known as Allhallowtide. On Halloween morning I saw a mystical fiery rainbow in the clouds, a colorful band of light joining earth to heaven. Genesis 9:13 played in my mind: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. A promise from God. There’s also a rainbow around the throne of God (Revelation 4:3).

Holy. As in hallowed.

I think of votive candles lit in memory of deceased loved ones, the bright flames driving the dark away, the way that hope does in the despairing soul. So many holy-day observances involve the lighting of candles.

My little granddaughter had her first birthday at the end of October. A solitary candle burned on her cake, representing her one year of life.

Holy.

It also means blessed.

For me, holy is closely linked to my life-word, awe, in that they encompass the divine and a reverence for it. Even a shadowing of fear. When I was a small child attending church with my grandparents, I sensed all of this on entering the sanctuary, long before I had words to convey it. I did not know, then, about the ancient Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle where God’s presence dwelt, that only the High Priest could enter it once a year to make atonement for the Israelites, and that anyone else trying to do so would die. Even the High Priest had to prepare with great care.

Holy. It means sacred, consecrated, set apart.

The ancient Jews considered the Holy of Holies the spiritual junction of heaven and earth.

I looked at all the white-rail decor in that long-ago Methodist church and could not understand, describe, or convey…but I sensed holy and trembled.

My other granddaughter, age six, was baptized recently. I watched her, robed in white, descending into the baptismal pool where the preacher—her stepfather, my son—held out his hand to her. Her little face was aglow with the faith of a child (the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these), looking up at her dad with absolute trust. My son was overcome with emotion.

Holy. Pure.

My spirit clings to the word. Although it seems like life is often consumed by an ever-raging sea of unholiness, the holy is always there, like a luminous lifeline. It shines in faces of children. It swells in birdsong, in music so beautifully composed that it draws tears. It lives in extraordinary, self-sacrificial acts of love. It manifests itself in healing. In forgiveness. I see it often in nature, obeying its patterns, displaying such breathtaking glory and wonders that one forgets the brokenness of things. Yes, when the slant of light is just right, one gets a shot of awe, a glimpse above and beyond, a perceiving of holy. Of the presence of God. Like a fiery rainbow on Halloween morning.

In the end, it is all a matter of opening the soul to seeing.

Here’s to finding the holy in every day of the journey.

I wrote a poem about the rainbow on All Hallow’s Eve; people forget the Christian connections to the day.

Spiritual Journey Friends, please share your links in the comments below – blessings to you all!

Spiritual Journey: Revenants

with thanks to Chris Margocs for hosting October’s Spiritual Journey Thursday. Chris invites our group to write about those who have passed and left something behind in our hearts, in preparation for the upcoming holidays of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. She says: “As a person of Celtic heritage, the idea of the thinning of veil between here and the hereafter on these days intrigues me…”

—Me, too, Chris.

*******

The stirrings begin with the first breaths of cooler air.

As September gives way to October, while the trees and grass are still green, before any obvious turnings of yellow, orange, or fiery red, they appear.

I sense them most often at doorways. Portals.

There, on weatherworn sidewalks, a smattering of fragments from dead leaves surreptitiously dropped—I can never tell exactly from where—comes to life just as I approach. A soft rattling, a lifting, a sudden swirling… the upswept pieces begin dancing in a circle.

Fairies, I think.

And then I think, Children.

Small children delight in collecting such things, bits of leaves, tiny twigs, acorn caps, a butterfly’s bright-patterned wing, cicada shells. Nature’s cast-off scraps of life. In the hands of a child, they become treasures, magical objects, if only for a moment, in the mind of the child.

Watching the leaf-bits dancing in a circle, round and round and round again, I wonder if invisible children are at play. I almost want to linger long enough to hear them laughing…for there’s a stab of joy in it that I cannot explain, a piercing longing, a wild freedom…why should I perceive these things?

I wonder, then, about memories, so like the leaf fragments rising anew at the portals as I continue walking through the stations of my life, here to there, there to here…it is real, this revenant of my own childhood, the child that I was, holding onto the treasures that were given to me, reliving the precious bits that remain. As memories swirl round and round, I delight in them, in re-immersing for a moment in long-ago moments with people I loved, who loved me, who sheltered me, sustained me, prepared me…and who are gone but never far away. I see their faces before me, their eyes shining. I remember their stories. I hear their voices: I love you.

People die. Love does not.

Autumn comes with its fiery promises, its contrasts, its losses; trees will soon release their fragile organs in hopeful glory of surviving the winter. They shall sleep until spring, until the reawakening, life made new.

I walk on, remembering, wrapping gratitude round and round me like a hooded cloak, still sheltered, sustained, loved, awed by the beauty that deepens around me every passing year.

The stirrings begin with the first breath of cooler air.

Dancing revenants of what was, hinting at what is to be.

Perhaps they are whispering Allhallowtide.

Spiritual journey: Community

When I think of community
two words come to mind:
commune
and
unity.

To commune
implies awareness
listening
appreciating
expressing
from a wellspring
in one’s soul.
Sometimes with words
sometimes with actions
sometimes in just being
and being
deeply connected.

Unity implies a connection
so profound
that many become one
a whole made strong
because of its parts
because of the desire
to be together
seeking the good
of all.
Unity wears the cloak
of altruism
and walks with
amazing grace.

That brings
another word
to mind…
communion.

In the end
community is
infinitely more
than proximity.
It’s a true work
of heart.

*******

1 Corinthians 1:10, various translations:

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. —ESV

I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends, using the authority of Jesus, our Master. I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common. —The Message

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.—NIV

with thanks to Maureen Ingram for offering the prompt of “community” for our Spiritual Journey Thursday community of writers



Nurturing the summer soul: Spiritual journey

Peace

Last day at the beach
I wake far too early
but I make the coffee anyway
and take a cup to the top deck

I sit in the chair
facing east
drinking in
the deepness
of solitude
the blessedness
of silence

Earth stirs a little
and sighs
like a baby in its sleep

Just ahead, high over the sea
Venus glitters and winks

I am the bright and morning star
I know you are

My waiting soul
cannot think
of anything else it wants
or needs
as black silhouettes
of pelicans
fly soundlessly by
against the sky
pinkening with light

Sunrise
signifying the end
of night

My view this morning: Venus over the Atlantic just before sunrise

Pelicans, while not in this particular shot, are plentiful here. As the sky grew lighter they appeared in silhouette, gliding gracefully against it. The pelican is an ancient symbol for Christ, often depicted in Christian art.

Revelation 22, the last chapter of the Bible, references the River and Tree of Life, the healing of the nations, the end of night, and the return of Christ with the words “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last…I am the root and offspring of David, and the bright and morning star(13; 16).

The best I can do is to describe this morning scene. The sense of peace, so often fleeting or not to be found when Earth is wide awake and churning, was honestly too deep for words. I shall hold these moments in my mind for returning to when my soul needs more nurturing, long past summer.

—with thanks to Carol Varsalona for the theme and for hosting the Spiritual Journey writers on this first Thursday in August.

Be still: Spiritual Journey

with thanks to Chris Margocs for the “Be still” invitation and to Margaret Simon for the “Presence” offering on behalf of our Spiritual Journey writer’s group on this first Thursday in July

Back in March of 2020, four days into COVID-19 lockdown, I wrote a post entitled Be still. It was based on Psalm 46:10, a verse with special significance to me since I was about thirteen, when a youth group leader gave me a little decorative plaque bearing the first line: Be still and know that I am God. The plaque hung on the wall of my bedroom throughout my tumultuous teenage years until I married and left home at twenty. I had no inkling, then, that my young husband would go into the ministry two years later or that we would eventually have two sons, the older of whom would become a pastor and the younger, a music minister and worship leader.

Throughout the decades I’ve received numerous gifts which have borne those words: Be still and know that I am God. The verse keeps returning to me. A few weeks ago my Sunday School co-teacher brought a handful of cards printed with Bible verses, held them out to the class facedown, and had each of us draw one. I drew Psalm 46:10. Be still and know that I am God.

I could write a lot about those eight words, having to do with trusting God in times of trouble and God’s unfailing faithfulness. Overcoming fear and despair. Carving out time away from the demands, vitriol, and horrors of the world. Finding peace in the rhythms of nature surrounding my home in the countryside (I have written a lot about that, actually).

But those eight words are only the opening line.

“Be still and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”

—Psalm 46:10 (ESV)

The verse is a call to be in awe of the power of God, to be a people who carry forth the message of godly peace to the world, by which wars will cease (v. 9), and by which God will be exalted. It is a declarative, definitive statement. On the part of God: It shall be. On the part of humanity: Be awed.

Awe has been my guiding word for the past two years. It is likely to remain so as long as I live. In the context of inherent awe and Psalm 46:10, words of the song “Above All” by Michael J. Smith come to mind:

Above all powers, above all kings
Above all nature and all created things
Above all wisdom and all the ways of man
You were here before the world began

Above all kingdoms, above all thrones
Above all wonders the world has ever known
Above all wealth and treasures of the Earth
There’s no way to measure what You’re worth

Be still and know…God is above all.

My theologian son is studying the work of Eugene Peterson (1932-2018), minister, author, poet, and Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College, Vancouver. We have recently been discussing The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Peterson’s idiomatic paraphrase of Scriptures, apparently written out of frustration with people not reading their Bibles.

Here’s Peterson’s paraphrase of Psalm 46:10:

“Step out of the traffic! Take a long,
    loving look at me, your High God,
    above politics, above everything.”

I cannot think of a more timely message.

I return now to the original Be still post I wrote on March 17, 2020, during the early days of the pandemic. We thought school would be closed for two weeks. We had no idea of all that lay ahead. Extended isolation. Loss. Rampant fear. Exacerbated discord. Death, violence, rage, destruction. War. Rising inflation.

Consider the verses immediately preceding Psalm 46:10, from the ESV translation:

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah (6-7).

And then we are told Be still and know that I am God.

Who is above all.

I thought about linking Smith’s song here. Psalm 46 is, after all, a hymn.

I am linking another song instead, one of my longtime favorites for its plaintive beauty and quiet, meditative message—a little rest stop for the soul on the arduous spiritual journey through life in this world that God, incomprehensibly, still loves.

Be still my soul
the Lord is on your side…

Blessings of stillness, rest, and awe to you all.

Spiritual journey: Celebrating small things

Today’s spiritual journey theme is celebrating small things (thank you, Ramona, for hosting our group).

What’s been on my mind all week, however, is the brokenness of things.

I wrote a series of poem-posts on it.

In those posts on the brokenness of things I could have mentioned that the incalculable horror, loss, and grief in Uvalde still weigh heavy on my heart each day, that I mourn the state of humanity and the inability to spare children. I could have mentioned that this school year, another chapter in the continuing saga of COVID, has been the hardest yet on staff, students, and families. I could have mentioned my despair over diametrically opposed viewpoints about what’s best for students and how some educators cannot get beyond deficit thinking to see the wealth of creative and artistic gifts in the youngest among us…

I wrote instead about being a child. About breaking my arm on the school playground when I was nine. About fearing my father’s anger and being surprised by his gentleness. In an effort to comfort me he brought one of my dolls along to the orthopedic office. It embarrassed me. I felt too old for the doll. Maybe it was more a matter of not want anyone else to think I still played with dolls. Yet the gesture touched me, even then. To this day the memory of my father holding that doll, shouting at the orthopedist to stop when I screamed during the bone-setting, is one of the most indelible images of my life. There my father stood, unable to spare me more than a moment of the suffering I had to endure. I could see the intensity of his own suffering. It was written all over his pale, fierce-eyed face. His presence and the knowledge of his pain on my behalf somehow breathed a waft of courage into my terrified heart. This little stirring of courage would sustain me through a subsequent hospital stay when the bones in my arm slipped and had to be reset. It would prepare me to visit a five-year-old boy with a crushed foot across the hall as he screamed in pain and terror. It would beget empathy: me there in my wheelchair with a cast halfway to my shoulder and him in a hospital bed with crib rails, his poor damaged foot heavily bandaged and raised on a suspended sling. United in common suffering, we would find a glimmer of overcoming, in the very midst of our brokenness.

That is the thing about children. Before there are even words to express, there are keen understandings. Children are natural ambassadors of healing. They instinctively seek to comfort. Their native language is love.

I realize, now, what I was longing for when I went back to those childhood moments.

The spiritual journey is littered with broken things, broken people, broken self. I remember wondering how that little boy’s crushed foot would ever heal. At nine I imagined the bones in countless pieces and couldn’t conceive of how doctors could repair that much disconnectedness. I wondered if his foot would ever be okay…but I knew, somehow, he would be.

Which leads me, at last, to the Great Physician. Who, like my father, intervened on my behalf to alleviate my suffering, and who, unlike my father, is able to provide more than momentary relief.

I’m not sure yet if I’m done writing about the brokenness of things but here’s where I finally pick up the path of celebration. I celebrate the sustaining gift of faith. I celebrate the memory of my father, gone for twenty years now but so alive and active in my memory. I celebrate that the school year is now ending, that a desperately-awaited respite has arrived. I celebrate children.

It occurs to me that none of these are “small things.”

So, here is one: I celebrate the musicality of children.

For on the most hellish of days, when I hear them singing, I remember heaven.

For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these… Luke 18:16.

Salvador Dalí – Los niños cantores (Children singing) 1968. Cea. CC BY 2.0

Abundance: Spiritual journey

May. Newness. Longer days, more sunlight. Blossom-laden trees perfume the air, geese with goslings glide across glassy ponds. Along the backroads and byways, the fields have been plowed; John Deere tractors roll over the naked earth, freshly dotted with neat rows of little green plants.

I think of sowing and the harvest to come.

My illustrious daily planner seems to be a cross between almanac and oracle these days. It offers this quote:

Small seeds of gratitude will produce a harvest of hope.

I love it for its own merit, emphasizing gratitude, which I know to be as transformative a force as love, forgiveness, and possibly awe. I envision tiny seeds of gratitude planted in the furrows of the heart, eventually producing a harvest of hope to be stacked and stored for when it is most needed in the future.

And I remember Joseph.

Unlike the chief cupbearer in Genesis 40, who “did not remember Joseph, but forgot him,” after Joseph interpreted his dream, correctly and prophetically. At the time they were in prison with the chief baker, who would be hanged by Pharaoh (yet another accurate dream interpretation by Joseph). To this point, Joseph had endured quite a bit. His mother died just after having his baby brother. His older brothers detested him for being their father’s favorite and for being “this dreamer” (37:19)… perhaps Joseph shouldn’t have told them of his dreams in which they, and their father, Jacob, all bowed to him. His brothers discussed killing him until Reuben, the oldest, intervened. They threw Joseph in a pit instead and sold him as a slave. Joseph is purchased by Potiphar, the captain of the guard of Pharaoh. Joseph serves Potiphar with great efficacy and integrity, so much so that Potiphar “left all he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate” (38:6). Until Potiphar’s wife tried repeatedly to seduce him, that is, becoming so aggressive that Joseph wriggled out of his garment to get away from her… a garment she used to make the accusations which landed him in jail for thirteen years. (Note: This is the second garment that causes trouble for Joseph; the coat of many colors given to him long before by his father didn’t set so well with those brothers. Imagine their initial self-righteousness while tearing it, dipping it in goat’s blood, and presenting it to their father as evidence that Joseph was attacked and killed by wild animals…which, of course, they’d live to regret).

And Joseph is forgotten in prison until Pharaoh has a troubling dream and the restored cupbearer finally remembers him.

Here’s the thing: It was God’s plan all along for Joseph to stand before Pharaoh and interpret his dreams of coming famine, that Pharaoh should be so impressed he’d set Joseph up as prime minister of Egypt, that Joseph should execute his proposed plan for planting and harvesting:

During the seven plentiful years the earth produced abundantly, and he gathered up all the food of these seven years, which occurred in the land of Egypt, and put food in the cities. He put in every city the food from the fields around it. And Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured. -Genesis 41:47-49

It is this divine plan of action that eventually saves Joseph’s brothers when they come seeking food in Egypt.

Joseph weeps a lot through several chapters. When his brothers realize who he is, they bow before him (every dream having come true) in fear and trembling… and Joseph chooses reconciliation over retribution. His father is still alive; he brings the whole family to Egypt to survive the famine. The brothers again fear his wrath on the death of their father, but Joseph’s words ring with gratitude to God: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, that many people should be kept alive…” (50:20). And so the Twelve Tribes of Israel were preserved.

Seeds of gratitude, shall we say, protect against spiritual famine, yielding hope to be relied upon in times when faith is tested, as Joseph’s was. He never wavered; this is why I love him. He’s one of my favorite Biblical figures, exhibiting integrity and faith in abundance.

In the midst of our trials, God is at work. In times of bleakness, verdant lushness awaits.

Begin with seeds of gratitude… and expect a harvest of unimaginable abundance.

Joseph Storing Grain During the Seven Years of Plenty. Patrizio Cajés (1540-1612).

*******

with thanks to my Spiritual Journey friends who write on the first Thursday of each month, and to Susan Koehler for hosting today on a theme of “abundance.”

I bind unto myself

A Spiritual Journey Thursday offering for April.

Karen Eastlund beckons fellow SJT writers with the phrase “I bind unto myself today…”

It’s the beginning of many prayers compiled by the Northumbria Community in Celtic Daily Prayers. The phrase is also attributed to the Hymn of St. Patrick (see Cantica Sacra). Thank you, Karen, for the inspiration and blessing.

What prayer might I make, what claim might I stake, on these five words? What do I need to bind unto myself today, any day, every day? What do I hold most dear? What holds me?

It comes to me via pieces of Scripture—John 1:1-4, 6:63; Hebrews 12:2.

A pantoum:

I bind unto myself today
love of words
the Word, in the beginning
the Creator of all things    

Love of words
I bind unto myself today
the Creator of all things
speaking life

I bind unto myself today
the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us
speaking life
the Author and Finisher of my faith

The Word made flesh, who dwelt among us
the Word, in the beginning
the Author and Finisher of my faith
I bind unto myself today

Ashes

a combination Slice of Life & Spiritual Journey offering

I grew up hating ashes.

They were a part of my everyday life.

My parents were smokers. Salem menthols. When their friends came over or when some of my mother’s family gathered at our house, smoke hung in the air, thicker than fog, like some conjured ghost constantly materializing, encompassing, lingering…

Sometimes I was given the chore of cleaning out the ashtrays. A debasing job. Dirty. Ashes are pervasive. Everywhere and never really gone, no matter how hard you try. Even now, remembering, the stench is my nose, the metallic taste on my tongue…

It would be a long time before I’d learn the seeming incongruity of ashes as the main ingredient of an age-old cleansing agent. Lye. Which was also used to make hominy and that Southern staple, grits. In spite of my heritage, I never learned to like them.

It took me longer still to understand ashes as symbolizing something holy. Ash Wednesday and Lent weren’t part of my Protestant church or family tradition.

I got the humility part early on, however. From stories. First there was Cinderella, named for the soot that clung to her skin and her clothes from ashes that she (too!) was relegated to cleaning. Ashes are pervasive… then the Bible. Job, stricken with boils, scraping himself with broken pottery, sitting in the ashes. The repentant king of Nineveh mandating sackcloth and ashes after revival preached by the pouting prophet Jonah. Eventually, the vivid image of Tamar placing ashes on her head, sobbing, in utter humiliation and grief after the assault by her half-brother. Priests were commanded to change out of their sacred garments before disposing of burnt offering ashes.

Ashes are pervasive…

At fifteen I stood outside watching flakes falling from the sky in late May. Not snow at that time of year, in the southeastern United States. Ash. From the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s on the other side of the country. The volcano’s side exploded with such force that plumes of ash rocketed skyward for miles. The snowlike flakes settled across the nation and parts of Canada. I caught these curiosities in my hands. They didn’t melt. They looked to me like flakes of human skin.

I thought of war.

I think of war now. As I write, scenes are all over the TV. Bombs. Destruction. Death. What once was, now in ashes.

I think of the gorgeous churches of Kyiv.

I think of the dead.

My second son is a recently-certified crematory operator. Traditional burials are steadily giving way to cremations now. One day I went with him and watched while he placed someone’s ashes in an engraved box urn. These ashes are different from other kinds. Pale powder, fine as talcum. One of the most reverent acts I’ve ever witnessed, my boy tenderly packing that human dust.

The ancient Romans had a saying, Memento mori. Remember that you die. It is the same idea behind Ash Wednesday rites: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, echoing God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19, after the Fall.

I’ve never had a cross of ashes placed on my head by a priest, but I understand the call to repentance. It echoes deep in my bones. I know the desperate desire for holiness in the face of raging unholiness. The need for wholeness. I believe in repent and believe. I do. I repent. I believe.

I believe there’s an eventual reckoning.

Ashes are pervasive.

Volcano ash man. @Doug88888.CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March. This is my sixth year participating.

Thanks also to my Spiritual Journey writing friends and to Ruth Hersey in Paraguay for hosting on the first Thursday in March. Ruth chose the theme “ashes” in connection with Ash Wednesday (which is why my post is going up a day early this month).