Grasping Ash Wednesday

I asked my twelve-year-old son at dinner last night to explain to me his grasp of the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent.  It took him a while to stop asking if he was “right,” and just relax into explaining his understanding of it.

On Ash Wednesday we take the ashes from the burned palms from last year and wear them on our forehead.  We spend forty days fasting from something that is bad for us because Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness.

I quickly texted some friends and asked them to ask their children.  I was guessing that if I wanted to understand the tradition, I needed to ask the next generation of participants, those who embrace it with hearts wide open.

The ashes are from the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, and we put them on our head on the first day of lent to remind us that we came from dust.

To me, Lent is a time of preparedness as we prepare to remember the death of Jesus.

We also think about all Jesus has done for us, so we fast and give up things we love in the name of Jesus Christ.

Lent is the time where you get to focus on your spirituality and God, by listening and learning about Jesus’ suffering. If I give up Internet time or junk food I want to do so not just to say “I gave this up” but because I’m inspired to prepare for Easter and better appreciate His suffering not mine.

When I was growing up I heard nothing about Lent or Ash Wednesday and our church didn’t follow the centuries old liturgical calendar. I didn’t know any Catholics except my great-grandmother and she was housebound, so I didn’t witness her religious rituals. Now I understand that many Christian traditions follow the Church calendar.  In fact, my own church will be holding an Ash Wednesday service this evening, and one of my favorite Pastors posted a beautiful piece about the day and its meaning.

But my first encounter with Ash Wednesday came only eight years ago.  I was scheduled to speak at an elementary school on the topic of “Passing on Faith to your Children.”  A large group of mothers showed up, and just across the hall from our meeting room was a chapel where many of their sons would be celebrating a service for Ash Wednesday a little while after our own meeting had begun.  After a few minutes of warm up, I dove into my notes about the ultimate importance of modeling and connecting with our children with whatever faith we held.  As I spoke of the value our children receive from watching us, most of those moms flew out of their chairs and raced across the hall to join their boys in receiving ashes.  It was affirming to know that my words had inspired them, but I learned about double checking dates and conflicts before organizing an event like that!

Today, I have loads of friends who participate in Lent and for a few years I watched from afar.  We moved our lunch dates around so we they wouldn’t be tempted by a chicken burrito on Fridays and I supported their chocolate fasts.

Two years ago I began writing spiritual reflections on Scriptural passages as they were calendared in the Catholic Church liturgical calendar.  I learned that every day of the year all Catholic priests speak from the same set of scriptures. Each week I would read the passage designated for a particular Sunday and attempt to write a thoughtful response.  By living inside this organized rhythm of Scripture, I began to see how the cycle of the yearly calendar led me through many important stories and passages to see the Bible for what it can be: a narrative of God’s love for us.

In my role, I wrote only about the specific Gospel readings (ya know, the Scriptures that come from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and mostly tell stories about the life of Jesus), but there are actually four or five scriptures combined for each day that always include an Old Testament passage, a Psalm as well as something from the Epistles.  If a person attends Mass every day for three years straight she will likely hear a sermon from every piece of the Bible.  And if a person wanted to organize herself for daily reading, she could click here.

If you attend Catholic mass (or any other denomination that follows the liturgical reading schedule) on Sundays during Lent you will hear two familiar stories: Jesus fasting in the desert and winning the fight with temptation, and Jesus taking Peter, James and John up to the mountain top.  I wrote about those stories during Lent last year, and appreciate that the calendar has circled us back to them. This year you’ll also hear about Jesus cleansing the Temple, the famous John 3:16 that you’ve seen on posters at football games, the Kingdom principle of giving up your own life for Jesus and gaining it back, and finally on Palm Sunday you’ll hear about the woman with the alabaster box.  Temptation, Ecstasy, Righteous Anger, Love, Self-denial, and finally, Humility.  Seriously, the 2012 Lenten season is packed with good stuff!

Last year about this time, I was deep in pain in my mama’s heart. I was alienating people around me with my constant worry and stress and I was beginning to feel crazy.  I couldn’t sleep well and I certainly wasn’t thinking clearly.  Along came Ash Wednesday and I decided to participate.  I gave up worry and tried to replace it with trust.  It was the single biggest game changer of my 2011, although one friend encouraged me to pick something easier for my first try, like chewing gum.  Every time my stomach began to roll and the obsessive thoughts entered, I had a reason to ignore them.  I would close my eyes and take a deep breath and imagine trust flowing in through my nostrils and down into my lungs and flowing to every part of my body, pushing out the stress.  There simply was no room left for it.

So perhaps my son was right that Lent is about giving up something bad for us.  Or maybe the other kid is right that we must give up something we love.

I am reminded of the story of the blind men touching an elephant and trying to describe what it looks like.  Each was feeling a different part – the smooth tusk, the wrinkled skin, the rough and sharp toenail.  Each was right, but none was grasping the whole picture.

Maybe the whole picture is too big to see.  Perhaps some years I need to learn that in the end I am nothing but dust and other years I need to know that my celebrations from last year will end in ashes this year.  Sometimes I need to fast in a way that pains me and other times I need to fast in a way that saves me.  Some years it’s a stretch for me to get over my petty self and connect with His suffering.

But each year, I probably could use the forty-day reminder that redemption is on the horizon. Resurrection is bigger than differences in tradition, worries in my heart, grasps of understanding, chocolate and chewing gum.  Alleluia, He is Risen will ring in my ears soon.

Love’s Role in Suffering.

I’ve been struggling against a popular idea that suffering brings growth.  Last week, I wrote about my own experiences with tough times. Character building and lessons learned have only come to pass in the aftermath of difficulty when God has used others to love me.

It turns out that almost everyone disagrees with me and I’m trying to figure out if we are simply describing nuanced differences of the same idea. From my perspective, problems do not cause growth, but instead it’s the out-pouring of love and support that brings healing.

Last week I heard many renditions of this:  Had I never gone through ________________ (financial crisis, health scare, betrayal, rejection), I would never have known the depths of________________  (my own resourcefulness, God’s faithfulness, the presence of love in the world around me, the intimacy in a specific relationship)!   I agree with this idea and I have my own small lessons learned to show that this simple equation can hold true. My sweet bloggy friend Jen wrote about the suffering that comes with loss and how this opened a more intimate relationship in her life. Gayle said she knew God in a deeper way once her house was burned down.  I know friends who have lost family members to tragedy and have come to appreciate those who are still alive all the more.  So why do I fight against this concept so much?

My main problem with embracing the no pain – no gain, it’s good for him, difficulty builds character attitude is that it absolves me from reaching out and helping.

There is a snarky, sneaky little voice that whispers absolution to me: No need to lift a finger, this is one of life’s little lessons for her to learn.  Or, She made her bed, now she’ll need to lie in it.

If the hungry family is experiencing what is “good” for them, why should I offer food?   If the crying child at recess is building character, why would other kids need to be coached in how to show love?  If the betrayed wife crying into her pillow is drawing closer to God because of her pain, who am I to try to stop it?

Suffering happens:  Yes

We can grow from it: Yes

How do I grow from it? By experiencing love and support during it.

What is my responsibility when I see others suffer? Love them.

Why are there so many who seem to create a vacant space around fellow suffer-ers?  Why do women in divorce feel as if they’ve lost their husband and their best friends in one fell swoop?  Why does a mother grieving her baby’s death feel so alone in her pain?  Why do bullied helpless children see other parents and teachers awkwardly look the other way?  Why do out-of-work men feel as if they have a contagious disease?  These dark times could be lessened with a little love.

Through support during hardship, I learned about unconditional love, grace, mercy and forgiveness.  These were the lessons I needed to know.  When there was no safety net and the bottom appeared to be cold, lonely and with no outstretched hand to hold, all I learned was to expect suffering. There was never redemption in the heartache.

But each time love entered…now, that was another story ending altogether.  I guess it’s my job to look at my own difficulties and recovery to figure out what they can teach me – about God, myself and other people.  When others are suffering, my job is to extend myself and alleviate as much of it as possible.

Tough Love? None for me, thanks…

I spent some time this weekend with a dear friend and mentor.  Although he’s current on all parenting and educational research and trends, sometimes he seems to come from a different era.  While the rest of us are helicoptering and s-mothering, he’s relaxed about kids and has great faith in their future.  He constantly tells me not to worry and to take the long view with my own kids.

A few years ago, he and I were at the park with a pack of kids.  Two of them went exploring and were gone too long. I was trying to play it cool with him and disguise my rising panic, but I knew we were in real trouble when he turned to me and calmly said, “Seems like it’s time to call the police.”  When the most Zen dad around is worried, fear has already entered every cell of my body.  The police did come that day and an organic search party began to help us look.  Of course, within minutes those two prepubescent girls strolled in chitchatting and gesturing with each other, engrossed in their own stories with no awareness of my alarm.

Although he reacted that day, most of the time he doesn’t.  I call him crying about this or that and with as much respect and listening as he can muster, he gently blows me off. I am not throwing him under the bus!  He is a rare gift in that he offers empathy without joining in with my neurotic fear.

Last week, I confessed to readers that listening is not my strongest gift and I prefer to fix.  Pressing the publish button on that post appears to have unleashed an intention into the universe. My listening and not fixing pledge has been tested almost every day since, and I think I failed most of the opportunities. But these chances to practice have been great.  Here is what I’ve learned:

1) I don’t like suffering. 2) I see no upside to it. 3) If we’re honest, most of us deal with a large dose of it.

When I am exposed to another’s pain, I cannot always imagine the healing that will eventually come.  I feel the hurt right in the moment and it crushes me.  As I get better at the not fixing part, I want to stay good at the emphasizing and comforting. I struggle to embrace my friend’s casual approach to heartache, struggles, and pain and see them all as part of the process of growing up, building character and becoming stronger.  Although this notion helps me gain perspective, something about it doesn’t ring absolutely true.

This week I read Renee Alston’s memoir, Stumbling toward Faith.  Although her story offers some redemption, it’s mostly a story of great pain and loss. What she faced didn’t, in fact, make her stronger.  It just broke her.

I recently discovered my new favorite blogger, Glennon, who writes mostly about parenting and sometimes about recovery.    I had a little Aha! moment when I read her bio: My best guess is that I was born a little broken, with an extra dose of sensitivity. Growing up, I felt like I was missing the armor I needed to expose myself to life’s risks – rejection, friendship, tender love.

Growing up with an extra dose of sensitivity pretty much describes me. I could be wrong, and maybe the ultimate story of my life will prove different, but I don’t believe I gained much from pain. I think back on the adults who were around and served as positive guides along my path – professors, youth pastors, parents, grandparents, neighbors, aunts.  Guess what?  Every single person on my list was someone who was gentle, nurturing and kind to me.  No dogmatic, demanding teachers or anyone who made me work for their approval make my list. Only people who provided a safe, grace-filled space for me to feel loved ever motivated me on to greater heights.

When I hear coaches yelling at kids, teachers pitting kids against each other, parents criticizing B+ grades, husbands belittling wives at cocktail parties, or girlfriends competing with or betraying each other, I just cover my aching heart.  I never think, Oh goodie, this will make them stronger.

I know there is more than one way to skin a cat, so I am guessing that others are motivated by pain. And although I can agree that I have sometimes learned lessons from tough times, I think the place where growth-during-difficulty happened for me was in the space where loving people were holding me up.

So, that’s what I am going to keep offering in the face of unfair, mind-blowing difficulty.  Come to me for some old fashioned TLC, baby!

And while I am doing all that hugging and nurturing, I will also try to emulate my friend.  I will attempt to take the long view more often with my own children, keep the panic at bay and put more faith and trust in the God who holds them in the palm of His hand.