Reflections on ashes and dust: themes from Ash Wednesday & Lent

Ash Wednesday is the starting point of Lent. We are marked with ashes as we begin the season. We go from feasting to a season of fasting, praying, and giving.

Or perhaps we can think of Lent as a season of personal training, of discipline and preparation, to return to spiritual fitness. It’s a time when, through confession, we admit and wrestle with our issues, vulnerabilities and weaknesses … and get to know ourselves better. We seek healing and balance.

This is also an opportunity to understand that we are beloved for whom we are: messy and imperfect and broken. Just as we are beloved for whom we may become. Because the gift of this season, ultimately, is grace. We can prepare, we can focus … yet we cannot earn the boundless love toward which we are reaching. It is simply offered to us, regardless of how perfect or imperfect we are. Just because.

Ashes symbolize mortality, as well as humility and contrition. The proudest members of society, in many faith traditions, don sackcloth and wear ashes as signs of humility, to express sorrow, or to demonstrate a desire for reconciliation and forgiveness. Ashes represent, like “dust to dust”, our elemental origins and remind us that our bodies will return to the earth. Within our faith, we also believe that while our bodies are formed from organic materials, our living selves are filled up with and energized by Breath, Wind, or Holy Spirit, which animates life and connects all of us.

Traditionally, people receive ashes today, Ash Wednesday, as a smudge or cross on the forehead. We come to this season in a messy way, wearing our imperfection on our faces. Messy, sad, sorry, tired, angry, grateful, hopeful, happy, curious … we enter into this time of preparation, on the journey toward Easter.

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Meditations on themes from the Parable of the Sower & the Seed

Reflections on hard earth and fertile ground: sowing seeds, putting down roots, growing shoots … putting parables to work in current times.

The Sower by VanGogh

A Short Story of FallingAlice Oswald
It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

it is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

and every flower a tiny tributary
that from the ground flows green and momentary

is one of water’s wishes and this tale
hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail

if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience

water which is so raw so earthy-strong
and lurks in cast-iron tanks and leaks along

drawn under gravity towards my tongue
to cool and fill the pipe-work of this song

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again

On Parables & Seeds

Not every end is the goal. The end of a melody is not its goal, and yet if a melody has not reached its end, it has not reached its goal. A parable. — Frederick Nietzsche

To paraphrase Muggeridge: Everything is a parable that God is speaking to us, the art of life is to get the message. ― Chester Elijah Branch

Each day of my life I am sowing seeds that one day I will harvest. — Gautama Buddha

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant. — Robert Louis Stevenson

A lower power cannot compass the full understanding of a higher. But to limit one’s belief to the bounds of one’s own small powers, would be to tie oneself down to the foot of a tree, and deny the existence of its upper branches. ― Mrs. Alfred Gatty, ie, Margaret Scott

Every problem has in it the seeds of its own solution. — Norman Vincent Peale

If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then unto me. — William Shakespeare

Being an American is a state of mind, and to be in a family is to feel the power of belonging, the power of your roots. Family is a tree, the strength of a tree, the roots, the leaves, the past, the present, the future, the fruits, the seeds. — Esai Morales

He [Jesus] speaks in parables, and though we have approached these parables reverentially all these many years and have heard them expounded as grave and reverent vehicles of holy truth, I suspect that many if not all of them were originally not grave at all but were antic, comic, often more than just a little shocking. ― Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

Throughout the parables the paradoxical teachings continue: Give to receive. Die to live. Lose to win. ― Amos Smith, Healing the Divide: Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots

Maybe that’s why Jesus was so fond of parables: Nothing describes the indescribable like a good yarn. ― Cathleen Falsani, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace

A journey or pilgrimage also follows the parabolic curve of an arch: it swings out from a known point and returns symmetrically to a point on the same line or plane, but farther along. For this reason, ancient philosophers chose the arch as a symbol for the process of interpretation. That is why teaching stories, such as those of Jesus or Buddha, are known as parables. ― John Tallmadge, The Cincinnati Arch: Learning from Nature in the City

A ParableArthur Conan Doyle
The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there,
And warmly debated the matter;
The Orthodox said that it came from the air,
And the Heretics said from the platter.
They argued it long and they argued it strong,
And I hear they are arguing now;
But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese,
Not one of them thought of a cow.

Parable of the HostagesLouise Glück
The Greeks are sitting on the beach
wondering what to do when the war ends. No one
wants to go home, back
to that bony island; everyone wants a little more
of what there is in Troy, more
life on the edge, that sense of every day as being
packed with surprises. But how to explain this
to the ones at home to whom
fighting a war is a plausible
excuse for absence, whereas
exploring one’s capacity for diversion
is not. Well, this can be faced
later; these
are men of action, ready to leave
insight to the women and children.
Thinking things over in the hot sun, pleased
by a new strength in their forearms, which seem
more golden than they did at home, some
begin to miss their families a little,
to miss their wives, to want to see
if the war has aged them. And a few grow
slightly uneasy: what if war
is just a male version of dressing up,
a game devised to avoid
profound spiritual questions? Ah,
but it wasn’t only the war. The world had begun
calling them, an opera beginning with the war’s
loud chords and ending with the floating aria of the sirens.
There on the beach, discussing the various
timetables for getting home, no one believed
it could take ten years to get back to Ithaca;
no one foresaw that decade of insoluble dilemmas—oh unanswerable
affliction of the human heart: how to divide
the world’s beauty into acceptable
and unacceptable loves! On the shores of Troy,
how could the Greeks know
they were hostages already: who once
delays the journey is
already enthralled; how could they know
that of their small number
some would be held forever by the dreams of pleasure,
some by sleep, some by music?

Meditations on Psalm 23

Language of Hope
Reflecting on Psalm 23 — specifically through its verbs — there’s something for almost everyone. What speaks to you? — Rev. Gail

WANT

It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them. — George Eliot

Want (excerpt) by Gretchen Marquette
When I was twelve, I wanted a macaw
but they cost hundreds of dollars.
If we win the lottery? …
Yes, my mother said. If we win the lottery.
I was satisfied, so long as it wasn’t impossible …

LIE DOWN

A friend is someone who helps you up when you’re down, and if they can’t, they lay down beside you and listen. — Anonymous (proverb)

There is not a person alive who isn’t going to have some awfully bad days in their lives. I tell my players that what I mean by fighting is when … all the odds are against you. What are you going to do? Most people just lay down and quit. Well, I want my people to fight back. — Coach Paul Bryant

RESTORE

Look Out (excerpt) — Wendell Berry
Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,
go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods
and along the streams. Go together, go alone.
… saying yes to the air, to the earth, to the trees,
yes to the grasses, to the rivers, to the birds
and the animals and every living thing, yes
to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.

LEAD

To lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, We did it ourselves! ― Lao Tzu

Black and White (excerpt)
― Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun
I was born into a religion of Light,
But with so many other
Religions and Philosophies,
How do I know which ONE is right?
Is it not my birthright to seek out the light?
To find Truth after surveying all the proof,
Am I supposed to love or fight?
And why do all those who try to guide me,
Always start by dividing and multiplying me –
From what they consider wrong or right?

WALK

If Spirits Walk (excerpt) —  Sophie Jewett
If spirits walk, Love, when the night climbs slow
The slant footpath where we were wont to go,
Be sure that I shall take the self-same way …

FEAR

There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we … love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life. — John Lennon

Carrion Comfort (excerpt) — Gerard Manley Hopkins
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can …
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light. ― Plato

COMFORT

I am the breeze that nurtures all things green. I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits. I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life. — Hildegard of Bingen

I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long, I will stay with you. … There’s nothing you can ever do to lose my love. I will protect you until you die, and after your death I will still protect you. I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me. — Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Carrion Comfort (excerpt) — Gerard Manley Hopkins
… I can; Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be. … my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.

PREPARE

We should remember that good fortune often happens when opportunity meets with preparation. ― Thomas Edison

All things are ready, if our mind be so. ― William Shakespeare, Henry V

ANOINT

ode to coffee
          oda al café
(excerpt) — Urayoán Noel
… anoint the neural vessels we refill
al matorral neural en donde vive …

Killing Him (excerpt) — Yehuda Amichai
… The sound of warm running waters
Filling a white tub of foaming bubble bath
Spills happiness into the heart of the sorrowful listener.
Languidly stretching her body
She slowly, indulgently prepares to anoint herself in oils …

FOLLOW

Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray. ― Jalaluddin Rumi

If you want to govern the people, You must place yourself below them. If you want to lead people, You must learn how to follow them. ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

DWELL

I dwell in Possibility – (466) —  Emily Dickinson
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

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