Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

(From the Stations of the Cross by Brother Mickey McGrath, OSFS)

Fourth Station: Jesus Meets his Afflicted Mother

Leader: O holy Christ, we worship you, we adore you;
People: Your blessed Mother wept at the sight of your pain.

As your mother saw your bruised, bloody and scourged body, she thought of an angel that spoke to her over three decades ago. "Greetings, favored one!" the angel had told her. What favor was there in this? How could the crowds who cheered triumphantly upon her son's entry into Jerusalem now mock him? Her son had fulfilled the angel's words--he had lifted up the lowly, and he had filled the hungry with the hope of good things--love and trust in our eternal Maker.

"O Adonai!" she must have cried. "Come to the help of your servant Israel! Where is the promise--the promise you gave to Abraham and our fathers? Where is the promise you made to me, that my son would reign over the house of Jacob, and where is his kingdom that has no end? All I see is my beloved son, who suffers unspeakably. Why have you deserted him, O Lord, and why have you deserted me? My son will either die on the cross that he carries or die on the streets like a beaten stray dog. I beg you to come to the aid of my Son, my Lord, my rock, and my Redeemer."

Leader: Not only did the whips and spears pierce your Son
People: But each mark upon him wounded his mother's soul.

Leader: Let us pray.
(a brief period of silence is observed.)

Eternal God of power and might;
We so often think of you as "our Father."
But you are both Father and Mother.
As we think about how the Blessed Mother of Jesus
longed to cradle her hurting son in her arms,
and spare him his fate,
teach us in our most desperate moments
to be unafraid to cling to you
like a fearful child clinging to a mother's bosom.
May we always feel your nurturing love, O Lord,
even when the world seems turned upside down.

People: Amen.

Holy God,
Holy and Mighty,
Holy immortal one,
Have mercy on us.

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?" "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

From "The Velveteen Rabbit" by Margery Williams

I bumped into this quote via a Lenten devotional set using this book as the focus, written by Andrew Dotchin. It's being posted this Lent here.

Although I read it early this morning, in my "coffee and prayer" time, it has stuck in my head all day long today--probably because of where my focus is this Lent. Every Lent is different. Some years, I haven't felt like I had much cleaning up to do. Last year, I came to the realization that there were some parts of me that needed to be cleaned off down to the bare metal. I had decades of grime simply from the wear and tear , covered with layers of paint, that would need to be stripped down before re-painting, because I felt that if I didn't, the paint wouldn't "stick."

I've done a lot of that stripping--not as much as I had hoped, in some places--but enough that there's plenty bare metal showing. But here is where I ran into one of those twisty curves I blogged about in a previous post. My first big Lenten discovery this year is that I am probably not supposed to paint that bare metal, rather, my task is to shine it up and let it glimmer with the natural gloss that it is, and for it to develop its own patina, like fine antique metal work.

But what it means is I have to work with my barest, truest, most holy self, and it means giving up a large chunk of "who I thought I was." I got used to the color of the paint. I thought on occasion, others were touching it up with paint and in reality, they were putting tar on it, allowing more dirt and grime to stick. Still others painted with good intentions, or I painted it myself, but the colors didn't quite match, or the surface wasn't prepped enough for it to stick well.

All in all, these are not bad discoveries. But they can become a bit confusing at times. Some are literally hidden surprises. Here's another way to look at it. Imagine having a room in the house that for years, had bile green or baby poop yellow carpet. There's always enough furniture and ample enough throw rugs to hide the carpet you don't like. But now imagine stripping away all the coverings and finding a gleaming hardwood floor that got covered simply because at the time, it was the fad to have wall-to-wall carpet.

Others are rotten spots in the floor you didn't know exist, and you stare at them and think, "It's a wonder I didn't fall through here." Still others need minor repairs, and there are lots of places that aren't worth fixing, and their minor defects lend character.

So, in this sense, it's a different kind of Lent for me. It is a season of imagining what the room will look like for the great adventures of life yet to come. It's about making this room hospitable for company. It's about being real, in the way the Velveteen Rabbit yearned to be real, and about letting others love me until my hair is rubbed off. It's about looking at less "protecting" and more fanning the flames of the imaginations of others, and inviting everyone over for S'mores.

I really believe when we do that, the flames of our own imaginations thrive.

(From Chris Gollon's Stations of the Cross at St. John on Bethnal Green Church)

Third Station: Jesus Falls a First Time

Leader: O holy Christ, we worship you, we adore you;
People: You stumbled and fell while the unmoving crowd looked on, and soldiers jeered.

Although Jesus, Son of the Living God, had the power to summon angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven to deliver him, instead he consented to one of the emptiest moments in humanity--a condemned man walking to his death, carrying his cross. As he lay face down in the dust, the weight of the cross upon his weakening body, its rough wood splintering into his flesh, instead of holy adoration he heard mockery and scorn.

Come, let us bow down and bend the knee,
and kneel before the Lord our maker.
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.
Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!

Leader: God did not lift his Son from the dirty cobblestone street;
People: But left him in the loneliness of human suffering.

Leader: Let us pray.
(a brief period of silence is observed.)

Almighty God,
When we lie fallen in the midst of our own humiliation and doubt,
Remind us that you sent your own Son ahead of us
as a suffering servant to us all,
so that we may also rise in your glory.
When we feel alone and afraid
and our human frailties overtake us,
Place our hand upon the Cross of Christ,
So that we know he has been here before us
as we endure our weakest moments.
Strengthen us in the hope of the Resurrection of your Son,
and sustain us with your Holy Spirit.

People: Amen.

Holy God,
Holy and Mighty,
Holy immortal one,
Have mercy on us.

Make sure you watch the video before you read on. This was the object of our Theological Reflection in EFM last night.

Many things struck me about this video, but the big thing was all the "curvy roads," especially the one at the end. The last frames show a curving road through a rocky, barren desert, with a road sign showing curves ahead and a 20 mph speed limit.

This is going to sound strange, but to me, Advent seems "linear" and Lent seems "curvy." Maybe it is because the act of examining ourselves to prepare for a resurrection takes us down a lot of side streets, uncovers a lot of debris, and reveals rough spots in our finish in a different way, because the outcome of "resurrection" is less well defined. At the end of Advent, we're going to welcome a baby--and most folks are captivated by babies. We don't always know what lies ahead in resurrection, and resurrection can be a tad fearful.

Think about the stories in the Gospels of the resurrection of Jesus. He appears first to the "cultural nobodies of the day"--women. Thomas can't really buy it until he reaches in Christ's wounded side. Everyone has to look at the nail holes. Even then, they are not sure what they have--everyone's going, "What does this mean?" (Although I have this visual image of St. Peter, looking at the rest of the disciples, going, "See! I TOLD you he was the Christ and you all gave me funny looks! DUH!")

At Lent, we aren't even able to ask "What does this mean?" We're asking "What's this GONNA mean? What's the price I have to pay for this? I am not even sure what lies ahead."

But back to that final image in the video.

We see barren-ness...yet we see a road leading through it. We see blind curves ahead, yet we sense the road goes through it. In a place where our temptation would be to speed through it, putting it behind us as quickly as possible, the sign says, "Go slowly." To travel quickly, in fact, invites danger on those blind curves--we'd run the risk of smacking head on into another person on a similar journey--a journey to the place we know already and left behind us. What we leave behind could well be what someone else is looking FOR.

But, if we heed the speed limit, we might take the time to look around and see that shiny raw gemstone glinting among the barren rock, a flower blooming in the desert, a map that leads us to hidden treasure. Things to see, time to do it. Go slowly.

One of my most popular posts last year had to do with the discovery that the Episcopalian Facebook world seems to all do their laundry on Saturday. Many of you remember this post.

Last week my friend Robert reminded me that we can't do the opening hymn during Lent, because it has the liturgical "A" word (A@#$%uia) in it. So the pressure was on to create a new one.

Here it is, sung to the tune of "Rock of Ages":

Rock of Ages, clean for me,
Cheer and Tide I give to Thee;
Let the water and the suds,
Clean my grass stains, dirt and blood,
Give my laundry double cure;
Save from wrath and make it pure.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill my laundry's demands;
Could my shirts no respite know,
Clean my undies white as snow,
Tighty whities, Bali bras;
Lingerie, you save them all.

Dryer sheets my hands now bring,
To prevent the static cling;
Naked, 'cuz my clothes are spent;
If they weren't soiled, my clothes I'd rend;
Loads of laundry, by and by;
Wash them, Savior, or I die.

While I spend my Saturday,
Laundering my life away,
Watching ball games on TV,
Facebook friends, they comfort me,
Rock of Ages, clean for me,
Cheer and Tide I give to Thee.

(From the Stations of the Cross in Lodwar Cathedral, Kenya)

Leader: O holy Christ, we worship you, we adore you;
People: You carried the instrument of your death through the crowded streets.

Jesus left the place called "The Pavement," carrying his cross up to the hill of Golgotha, known as "The Skull," as if God's Son were a common criminal.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined this? Yet the Father allowed his own son to be crushed with pain, spat upon, mocked.

Leader: The Lord laid upon him the iniquity of the world;
People: For sins the people of the world committed in thought, word, and deed; things done, and things left undone.

Lord God, author of the universe;
your beloved Son carried a cross hewn of the wood of our iniquities;
grant us strength and courage to take up our crosses and follow him,
although the way is narrow, and the journey arduous.
We ask this in the name of your Son,
who lives and reigns in your heavenly kingdom.

People: Amen.

Holy God,
Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

That was the question posed of me by our Priest Associate, and I have to confess I had to ponder her question a while before thinking.

This year, since I was also acolyte and chalice bearer for our Ash Wednesday service, she also asked me to help impose ashes. As I thought about it, I realized the answer to her question is actually a three part answer, and it actually starts a day or so before Ash Wednesday. As with anything I ever do in serving at church in any capacity, thoughts about my role, whether it is serving as acolyte, lector, leader or Prayers of the People, has a "mechanical" component, a "projecting liturgically" component, and a "spiritual" component.

Any new task I am asked to do, inside or outside of church, you can bet that I think three-dimensionally about the actual physical task itself, and am very self-conscious that I do it smoothly and imperceptibly. At first, in preparation for the day, I thought about things like, "How much do I need to put on my thumb? How hard do I press? How big do I make the little crosses?"

I thought to myself, "I need practice doing this." So I practiced on the most available victims--my dogs. Boomer was very cooperative, and was very good at displaying the look of a penitent. Little Eddie, on the other hand, was fairly annoyed with the process. But at least it warmed me up to the possibility that the worst thing that could happen--jumping off the altar and rubbing one's head on the floor to rub the ashes off--probably wasn't going to happen.

Once freed from my obsessions and compulsions about "the mechanics," I could move on to the more serious stuff. In the Episcopal Church, anyone can impose ashes. It's not a job consigned solely to the ordained. But it IS a job that recognizes "the priesthood of all believers." I thought for a while about what the liturgy is trying to say to us. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. The first day of a 40 day preparation for 50 days of resurrection. A day to be most mindful of all the things that stand in our way of our own resurrections.

One day a year, the ashes become an outward and visible sign of the smudges on our own souls--the things we walk around and hide and hope no one sees. I thought about how there is a certain amount of discomfort with being out in public with a black, cross-shaped smudge on one's forehead. I thought about how everyone thinks a little differently about this, and the different ways people think about it. Some folks don't even go to Ash Wednesday services. I've heard people tell me, "I'm not going to go to church to have someone remind me I'm sinful." That's their right; I'm okay with that. Some folks wipe them off right after getting out of church because they simply don't want dirt on their face in public. That's okay too. Some folks have been taught not to wear them out in public because it is a little like being a Pharisee--showing your piety in public. There's some truth to that, and I can understand that. Some wear them the rest of the day, and the most common reason I've heard is, "Well, it's a tradition of the Church, and I'm not ashamed of it, so I just wear it." My own personal behavior is probably a variant of that one.

I do tend to wear my smudge. Oh, a couple of times I've removed it when I had to be in a public venue where I don't think it's proper to mix church and state. But mostly I wear mine. My thought process is to remind myself that every day of my life, I walk around with those invisible smudges on my soul anyway, and wearing one on my forehead makes me consider a new possibility--"Would I behave differently if I knew everyone could see my "smudges"? What are those things I'd rather not have people see? What ought I change about those things?"

The other thing I thought about was "What is the message I am conveying by being one of the "appliers" of the ashes?" Part of me said, "It's not my place to do it. It feels weird to be a lay person doing it. People associate it with a priestly thing. I'm not very priestly. It feels a little bit like I am telling others, "Here's what I've got to say to you about YOUR sins. So there." I have no right to tell people that."

But then I realized that, because our church does not make this a "priests only" sort of thing, this is about that business of "the priesthood of all believers." I am going to get them put on me same as I will be putting them on others. I have always allowed someone to impose ashes on me. It's no different than allowing the sins of others to impose upon me. All of humankind shares a commonality with sin, and it is, in a lot of ways like ashes--it's messy and we get it all over things we never intended to put it." I thought about how during "the mud season" in the country, I often track mud in places I never intended, show up to work with mud on my pants that I have no clue how it got there, or look at my own hand and think, "Where in the world did I stick my hand in mud? I don't remember."

But prior to the service, I felt a bit of self-conscious discomfort about this "Who am I to do this, who am I to send an unspoken message from God about the sins of others, when my sins are ever before ME?" But just as the liturgy sometimes creates spots of discomfort in me, it also took it away. At the point just prior to the prayer where the celebrant blesses the ashes, our priest associate and I had worked out what she wanted for the mechanics. I was to hold the two pyxes out in my palm, and she would put her hand over them and say the prayer.

Then something happened that caught me off guard. In my mind, I had expected her to hover her hand over them, much as how she hovers her hands over the bread and wine in the epiclesis. But she didn't. She PLACED her hand on the tops of the two pyxes and her fingers were brushing my palm. My mind is so prone to flashing instant messages when the Holy Spirit hits me in the head with the "holy 2x4," and this time was no exception. In big black letters, the whiteboard of my brain saw the message:

"This is not about the human hands that do this; this is about the ashes being the center of what is surrounded by human flesh, with no boundaries between priests and parishioners, and God speaks to us with whatever hands happen to be in the way."

Suddenly, I felt okay with the process. It totally switched my mode from one of "self-consciousness" to being just another unique piece in that grand and mysterious puzzle that is "The Liturgy."

I became aware of two things. One was that I consciously put my hand on each person's forehead to pull back their hair a little bit to apply the ashes with my thumb. I thought about how, when I'm sick, it's always so comforting for someone to simply feel my forehead to see if I have a fever. That simple little form of physical touch acknowledges my weakness, and shows love and care. In my mind, God cradles our heads in our hands, even when we are soul-sick. I realized I wanted others to feel "cradled," not "punished."

The other thing I became conscious of was to start the line "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," independent of when our priest associate started it. I didn't want to "ride her coattails." I didn't want there to be this "dual voice." I wanted it to become a single voice of all humanity, like singing a round or doing a monastic chant. It seemed right to me that the continuous sound of that line could become in itself a prayer of contemplation, and to keep it going like a round created "prayer space," so people didn't hear the words as spoken, but could go BEHIND the words and find God in their own spaces. I realized my own love of "creating" wanted to give room for others to create things in themselves, and I would just ride the wave and enjoy the view.

So the answer to her question was not what I expected. I wasn't "on the other side" of the ashes. I was in the middle of them.

(Victor Challendor, Challwood Studio, New York, "Jesus is Condemned to Death", 1998, from the Episcopal Church Visual Arts online collection)

As promised, my Lenten project is to write my own Stations of the Cross. I am essentially following what appears to be the rubric in Enriching our Worship's "Way of the Cross;" namely a short opening responsive prayer, a paraphrase of that portion of the Biblical account, a longer responsive concluding prayer, and the Trisagion.

So here we go...

Opening Prayers:

Leader: ✠In the name of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and redeemer,
People: Amen.

Leader: Lord, have mercy.
People: Christ, have mercy.
Leader: Lord, have mercy.

Leader and People:

Our Father, who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Leader: Pour your grace upon our hearts, O Lord, that the cross and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen us in all goodness and mercy.
People: Save us from the time of trial, O Lord, and bring us to the glory and resurrection of your blessed Son. Amen.

The First Station--Jesus is condemned to death

Leader: O holy Christ, we worship you, we adore you;
People: You stood in judgment without blemish as you were handed your fate.

In the early light of morning, the chief priests and scribes conferred in the waning darkness to bring about your death. You were bound, led away, and delivered to Pilate. As the sun rose higher in the sky, your blamelessness was revealed to the point Pilate could find no fault with you. When interrogated, you gave no answer. But the people clamored for darkness. They cried, "Give us Barabbas. Give us Barabbas and crucify this man." The voice of Pilate's wife whispered in his ear, "Have nothing to do with this man." As a riot began to build, Pilate took water and washed his hands. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he declared. "See to it yourselves," and he handed Jesus over to be crucified.

Leader: God did not spare the life of his own Son;
People: But handed Him to the mob for crucifixion.

Leader: Let us pray.
(a brief period of silence is observed.)

Holy and immortal God,
Your own Son was stripped, mocked, scourged and beaten
Before dying on the cross.
Grant that in your eternal mercy
That in his enduring humiliation and pain
We seek justice and peace in this world
When none seems to be had.
In the name of Jesus Christ we pray.

People: Amen.

Holy God,
Holy and Mighty,
Holy immortal one,
Have mercy on us.

(Photo from the Cleveland Yuppie)

This photo is from a bar in Cleveland, but it might as well be from the third shelf down on my refrigerator door.

As I've told you before, one of my Lenten disciplines is I give up hot sauce. I always do a "take away" discipline for Lent, and an "add" discipline. This year, my "add" discipline is I am going to write my own version of the Stations of the Cross, and post them here. (Stay tuned for that!)

What you may not realize about my hot sauce abstinence, though, is it creates moral dilemmas. In those moral dilemmas becomes a microcosm for a lot of moral dilemmas in my life--where, exactly do the boundaries reside in the gray areas?

Now, the initial boundary is easy. For 40 days, I will not pick up any bottle that looks like the one in the picture, open the cap, and shake it on my food. Now, that's not easy, since I put hot sauce on just about everything from eggs to oatmeal. (Yes, oatmeal. You might eat your oatmeal with milk and cinnamon and sugar, but I eat mine with hot sauce and garlic.) But that boundary is pretty well defined.

But then what always throws a monkey wrench in it for me is...salsa.

What do I do with salsa?

Now, technically, it's NOT "hot sauce." If I were in an ascetic sort of mood, I might say, "no salsa, either." If I were in a legalistic mood, I might say, "Well, it's not hot sauce proper, so it's okay." Salsa is tricky. It's close to hot sauce but actually isn't hot sauce. It has some of the same ingredients and properties of hot sauce but it is not created the same way as hot sauce.

I find I bend a little to peer pressure about salsa. If someone knows I gave up hot sauce for Lent, and I eat a chip with salsa, and they go, "Eh, eh eh! I thought you gave up hot sauce for Lent!" rather than sound legalistic and say it isn't hot sauce, I just go, "Oops. Oh, yeah." Even if I realize technically it isn't, I have just let them define MY boundaries. Or, if they don't know, and I'm in the mood for salsa, I might eat it. Or I might not. It kind of depends on whether I feel ascetic or legalistic that day.

I have another gray area when it comes to "knowing if hot sauce was put in it." If I know someone put hot sauce in it during Lent, I won't eat it. If I don't know, I will. If I eat it and suspect it's in there, I might ask if it is or surmise that it is and quit eating it. I don't make others NOT put it in there, though, if that is their custom. I simply deal with doing without it. But then sometimes I wonder..."If I don't ask, does that mean I am sort of allowing myself to 'cheat' on it?"

But like I said, this is a microcosm of all the things in our lives that constitute "boundaries." I have professional boundaries I maintain as carefully as I can. I have personal boundaries that I have to sort through every day. What I find, when I start thinking about the boundaries of my Lenten discipline, is I start thinking about other boundaries in my life where maybe I am "cutting it too close" or others where I've been "ridiculously rigid." I realize some of my ridiculously rigid ones, I have let others define them--things like feeling guilty I spent too much money on something, or my tendency to "hoard"--both things and emotions.

It is making me understand what I am doing is developing a Rule of Life without actually calling it a Rule of Life.

A lot of people don't "give up something for Lent" anymore. It's been kind of poo-pooed as "old fashioned," "punitive," or "doesn't make you consider the real meaning of Lent." I'd disagree. I think if one goes into the spirit of "giving up" in a way that offers opportunities to muse and ponder the things in our life that God would like to tell us, things where we might need to re-orient ourselves to His plan for us, I think giving things up works fine as a spiritual discipline. So pass the hot sauce...for a couple more days, anyway!

"Stop fretting. Come and eat."

That was my late grandmother's general cure for any difficult situation. Just drop it for now, come sit down at the table, and we'll all eat together. THEN we'll work through it.

Mind you, this was the advice from the person in my family "most likely to clash with you." No doubt, my granny was a fiery woman. She was a highly opinionated, not easily persuaded person. But she understood the need to call a truce at the dinner table.

The dinner table is an interesting place for me. It's my source of greatest comfort and the source of my greatest baggage. Growing up in an alcoholic family, it was the place most likely to erupt at my house. My parents' table was a far different place than my grandparents' table. It was like two different worlds. My parents' table was a battlefield; my grandparents' table was an oasis.

The magic of my grandparents' table was probably what drew me to the full meaning of the Eucharist. My grandparents' table had one rule: NO FIGHTING. I firmly belived that the main reason her generation survived the Depression was they sat together at the table and shared what they had.

Even living alone, I realize that a "shared meal" is important to me. Home alone, I share with my dogs. At the homes of others, I share good conversation, respectful debate, compliments to the chef. If you gave me the choice of sharing leftovers at your house, vs. a meal at the fanciest restaurant in town, I'd pick the leftovers at the homes of friends. My guess is that the level to which it touches my heart for someone to invite me to put my feet under their dinner table would surprise them. When I think about certain friends of mine, the images that often come into play in my mind are images of "sitting at their kitchen table." Likewise, my fondest memories of "good days at church" center around the altar and the sharing the Eucharistic table.

Now, that doesn't mean my entire experience has been happy happy joy joy. As I mentioned earlier, I have those fond memories DESPITE some very traumatic dinner table memories, and the Eucharistic table is no exception. There have been times I did NOT feel welcome at God's table, or made to feel less of a full participant in the process. Suffice it to say it had more to do with experiences in my past where I learned that there are people out there who use God's table as punishment, or a way to separate and classify, or a way to create guilt. There are times I might have felt so uncomfortable about myself that I did not feel worthy of God's table. But these are all feelings, that, the only way they are ever overcome is to keep coming to the table anyway.

As I alluded to in my previous post, Ash Wednesday is the time we go to the altar twice--one to get the ashes on our forehead, and once to share the sacramental meal. I think it's important to recognize we return that second time, "dirty." Our being holy and squeaky clean is NOT a requirement to share the body and blood of Christ. In fact, if that were the case, why would we need it at all? The truth of the matter is, every week, whether we recognize it or not, we ARE coming to the table with dirt under our fingernails, or with the tar of a weary world smeared on us, or with dog doo on our shoes. Ash Wednesday is the only day where we wear a visible and outward sign of that "dirt."

It's the time I feel the most unsure, the most separated, the most out of place that I have to remember my grandmother's voice--"Stop fretting. Come and eat."

(Photo from the author of Staying Awake)

For three years now, I've taken it upon myself to be "The Burner of the Palms" for Ash Wednesday. Tradition holds that the ashes for Ash Wednesday be the ashes from the previous year's Palm Sunday. Now, it doesn't matter that I end up each year making enough ashes to smear crosses on half of Kirksville--I like to make them every year simply because I like keeping with the ancient tradition. It doesn't matter that you can actually buy palm ashes from religious supply houses--I just like the notion of our parish getting smeared with "our" ashes.

I took on this ministry of sorts to make our late "queen of the Altar Guild's" wish come true. We had been using "store-bought ashes" until three years ago, and it sort of galled her. She would wrinkle up her nose at the little package of store-bought ashes and grunt, "These are not very good ashes. We really should be making our own." (Now, I don't really know what qualifies as "not very good ashes," but I took her at her word.) So the next Palm Sunday, I grabbed all the leftover palms and put them out in my garage.

The first year was kind of a comedy of errors. I didn't let them dry out long enough, and tried to burn them late that summer, experimenting with a few in a coffee can. After throwing lighter fluid and, eventually motor oil, I got them burned, but they didn't smell like anything anyone would want on their forehead. So I let them dry out a few more months and tried again. This time I got the bright idea to put them on the gas grill and let them start to smoke a little before lighting them. Success! The only problem was I had the fire under them too hot, and burned a hole in the cheap roasting pan, and lost about half the ashes. It was a very embarrassing display for someone who loves fire and "burning stuff" as much as I do!

The second year, however, I was ready. I knew enough to let the palms "smoke" on the higher rack in the gas grill. I suddenly appeared to be a "professional palm burner." This year went without a hitch.

This year, I pondered the therapeutic nature of my annual duty. Burning the palms carries a lot of positive symbolism for me. The palms slated for burning represent a year's worth of things in my life that were "not quite right." They are the old things, the dried out things, the dessicated things, the things I'd like to have a do-over. They are the things worth repenting, the things worth burying, the things worth dispersing. It's good to watch them burn.

After they are burned, the next step is to pulverize them to dust. I usually use something like the bottom of an old coffee cup to grind them down. It feels renewing, somehow, to take those burned leaves and crush them to a fine powder. I put my weight into my arm and put a little "oomph" to it. I think about the Second Law of Thermodynamics--that everything, over time, becomes more random. The things that mattered last year and got in my way, or hampered my faith journey in some way are becoming more random, more unrecognizable. Again, there's a sense of renewal with that, a feeling that we really can start over, if we so choose.

I remember the first year "my" ashes were used. Lots of people commented on how nice and black they were. The "store bought" ones of previous years were a little on the gray side. I got an odd satisfaction about that--that my work, even in a somber moment such as Ash Wednesday, made others feel that they got the "real deal", the full experience of the tradition.

But for me, burning and pulverizing the ashes gives me a fuller sense of what it means for our sins to be forgiven, for God to no longer remember them, for them to be flung as far as east is from west. I think about how everyone walks out of the service on Ash Wednesday with the "same dirt" on them. My sins are not so unique. They're the same as everyone else's. We bear the corporate burden of each other's sins. We're not so much our brother's keeper as we are our brother's sibling. All our sins are made up of the same DNA, so to speak.

What makes the Ash Wednesday service unique is it's the one time we go forward twice--the first time to accept our common sins, and the second time to receive a common meal. There's a tendency, I think, to think of the "sins" part, the "From dust you came and to dust you will return" part as a solo adventure, but in reality, it's just as common and corporate as the meal.

Stay tuned--I'll blog about the meal next.

He only carries a Bible, a rosary, and a toothbrush. He won't wear sandals or shoes. He walks everywhere, only accepting rides when he feels the Holy Spirit wants him to ride. He's the Jesus Guy.

Around 1999 or 2000 or so, an unusual stranger started showing up in coal mining towns in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. His real name is Carl J. Joseph, but he's mostly known as "The Jesus Guy," or "What's your name?" The latter moniker came from the man's penchant for answering in the way Jesus addressed the demoniac of the Gospels. Last anyone knew of him, he was seen in Alabama. He asked for no money, just a place to stay, or the most basic of physical needs. He's spoken to crowds as large as 2000 people. He's had teenaged boys taunt him with threats of crucifixion. Still, after 10 years of a road ministry as a "Jesus lookalike," he remains a rather enigmatic figure.

Now, obviously, folks know he's not Jesus. yet after roughly 20 years, The Jesus Guy still draws crowds, causes people to come to a dead stop on the highway, and people still claim their lives were changed by his presence. What causes people to see him as "for real," and not simply a variant of an Elvis impersonator?

My theory is a very simple one. I think that the reason the Jesus Guy is mostly well-received, is because many people have an inner desire to "have Jesus live among us." We simply want to hang with Him. The Jesus Guy becomes a living symbol that Jesus can, and does, live among us. He reminds us that we walk in the shadow of the Almighty.

Our desire to be like what The Jesus Guy represents make him bigger than Santa Claus, bigger than a Las Vegas Elvis. That is not only a "good" thing, it's an empowering thing. Thanks be to God!

(Photo from the author of Staying Awake)

Job 28:25-30:

Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, 26to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, 27to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass? 28“Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? 29From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven? 30The waters become hard like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.

If you're wondering what the photograph above is, it's a rather up close and personal view of the auger blades of the new snow blower our church recently purchased. This was something that we went back and forth on for years on whether it was "worth it" to purchase one. We would bring it up now and then at church, and rarely at vestry meetings, and then always talk ourselves out of it. "Oh, we could buy it, and end up only using it once or twice some winters. It's just another thing to break down."

Another problem is, I'm the person who normally shovels the snow, partially because I'm the junior warden, but partially because I have always enjoyed the quiet time doing it, in a "monastic work" sort of way. For most folks, the snow magically disappeared, so the need for a snow blower didn't seem apparent. Since I liked doing it, and I had the time, it was not a big deal.

Last year, however, things changed. I started having less time, as some things with my work schedule changed. Also, for some reason, we always seemed to have snow on Friday or Saturday, and last winter it was almost like every Saturday I was shoveling, to get church ready for Sunday. For a lot of reasons, it got to be something that started "owning me." I had created an expectation that was partly real, partly my own projections of others' expectations upon me, and partly a few real expectations that I get it done to a certain set of specifics. I started being in situations where I had been tied down at the last minute and had to hurry through the job, and was feeling certain levels of disapproval now and then. It made me feel caught in the middle, knowing what I needed but really uncomfortable to say so.

I realized a snow blower would make my life easier, but I had a lot of reasons why I felt "now's not the time to ask." So I didn't. I could have asked others to help, but I seldom did. My life (at least on the weekends) is more flexible than folks who are "householders." I didn't feel right asking others to change their plans on the weekends for something I used to have time to be solely responsible for. I also knew you can only cry "help" so many times before people get tired of it.

But you know the old saying..."better the devil you know, than the devil you don't know." So, like the ice that collects on the sidewalks, I was "frozen." Frozen as in that passage in Job. It wasn't a crisis, it wasn't even anything that I can put my finger on as good/bad/indifferent. It was just frozen. I was okay with the job (I like the exercise, frankly), but the time frames were freezing me in place and freezing my imagination. I could not bring myself to ask the church for a snow blower. I was afraid it would seem "all about me." After all, I would be the one to use it 95% of the time.

It took our interim priest to point it out. He was quite surprised that the church in the northernmost reaches of our diocesese, the place in the diocese "most likely to get snow", didn't own a snow blower. He simply said, "you all need to get one." So we did.

Take a look at that picture of the auger blades. That thing breaks up the ice like you would not believe! We got a good snow blower, a two stage one, that has a powerful auger and a blower driven by a powerful motor. What I discovered is, well, honestly, driving it is a blast! It has taken what used to be a two hour job and turned it into a 45 minute job for me.

But the truth was, "the face of my deep was frozen." It took an outside observer to see it, and to give me permission to ask for what I needed.

How many times in our own prayer lives are we afraid to ask for something for ourselves? How many times do we get ourselves in a life rut, and accept it, often even without complaint or an awareness that it IS a rut, until the rut becomes so deep it's hard to drive out of it? The heck of it is, so many times, we would do it gladly and willingly. We might not be a single bit resentful of the rut. But we freeze. We convince ourselves, "it's just not gonna happen, so why wish for what you know you can't have?" We are mostly content and occasionally unhappy. It's not "that bad," so we don't worry about it.

This, I believe, is the value of the prayers of others. It's the value of a community of faith. What we no longer see as us having a need for "deliverance," others see right away. It's easy to see the "major" things from which we need to be delivered. But the "minor" ones are more obscure, more veiled. We might not see them, but those who care for us and pray about us, do. In that "seeing the frozen parts of others," we deliver them...and they deliver us. Those "minor deliverances" add up, and our being relieved of them renews not just our souls, but the souls of those who care for us--thanks be to God!

We are in the middle of a snowstorm here in Kirksville, so I'm in a bit of a silly, giddy mood. Here is another bit of humor for my clergy friends!

If Clergy Could Bill for Weddings like Physicians
by Kirkepiscatoid

Recent studies show that the average wedding has increased not only in price, but complexity, in the last four decades; unfortunately, although weddings can now run in the tens of thousands of dollars, couples still seem to think that $25 or $50 slipped in the officiating clergy person's hand is sufficient payment for services rendered. This document is a more realistic breakdown of the complete gamut of services rendered by clergy in wedding participation. Clergy are encouraged to create a base fee for "unit of service" and in this billing sheet, consider the top item in each category as the "basic unit of service." As you work down the levels of each category in the Clergy Encounter Form for each category, we have provided a suggested increase in unit of service for each level of clergy encounter. Circle the units of service for each category as applicable. Then, simply add the units of service times your base fee for a single unit of service and present the bill to the happy couple, making checks payable to your discretionary fund.

Clergy Wedding Encounter Form

Part A. Pre-Nuptial Counseling

Units of Service and Description of Encounter

1 Unremarkable counseling experience for couple and clergy

2 Couple seems ignorant or unaware counseling required; thought they wanted to get married there "because it's a cute little church" or "they wanted to get married at the Cathedral," etc.

2 Unremarkable counseling experience for clergy; minor issues discovered by couple that were easily resolved in session(s)

2 Minor blow-up between couple with minimal clergy consternation

3 Unremarkable/minor issues for couple; clergy begins to get sick feeling tip of iceberg has been touched on major issue but couple seems to blow this issue off

3 Moderate issues between couple uncovered in counseling with no additional sessions required

4 Moderate or major issues uncovered in counseling requiring additional sessions or postponement of wedding date

5 One or both of couple bursts into tears, runs crying/screaming from rectory, squeals off in car, possibly leaving one of the couple crying in front of clergy

_____ Other counseling mishap, not otherwise specified (please document)

Note: If either "5" is circled, or a NOS mishap carries a value of "5" or greater, submit billing. Pray they do not suddenly make up and find a Justice of the Peace or take a trip to Las Vegas.

Part B: Pre-wedding Planning

B1: The Bride
Units of Service and Description of Encounter

1 Normal mature female

2 Naive, blushing, possibly virginal

2 Slightly immature in chronological and/or psychological age

2 Normal with somewhat annoying parent(s)

2 Slightly bossy

3 Pregnant

3 Normal with "helicopter" parents

3 Seems to think wedding is "all about me" but parents relatively normal

4 Spoiled with indulgent and/or "helicopter" parents

4 Seems to think wedding is "all about me"; parents indulgent; tend not to challenge bride

4 Unaware she is being grossly abused or manipulated by betrothed

5 Bridezilla

B2: The Groom
Units of Service and Description of Encounter

1 Normal mature male

2 Nerdy/geeky, possibly virginal

2 Slightly immature in chronological and/or psychological age

2 Normal with somewhat annoying parent(s)

2 Relatively normal but appears to be thinking with his "little head" rather than his "big head" about some issues

3 Normal with mother who does not think betrothed is "good enough for her son"

3 Seems somewhat absent, distant, or unwilling to challenge bride-to-be on plans

4 Parents running the show; groom-to-be just shrugs and looks sheepish

4 Combative with betrothed, parents from either side, or clergy

4 Unaware he is being grossly abused or manipulated by betrothed

4 Unaware bride-to-be is pregnant

5 Flaming southbound end of northbound horse

Part C: The rehearsal/rehearsal dinner
Units of Service and Description of Encounter

1 Goes off without a hitch

2 Minor last minute changes and/or issues

2 Issues with small children

3 Seating chart(s) definitely need to be changed, most likely due to "ex-es"

3 Issues with really poorly behaved small children

3 Clergy has to explain to couple that songs with vague or overt references to nookie are generally not appropriate for a wedding

4 Hazard pay for dealing with overly drunken/stoned members of wedding party or clergy required to break up verbal altercation

5 Full blown hissy fit by any member of wedding party or clergy required to break up physical altercation

6 Law enforcement personnel called, or relative offers clergy large sum of money to refuse to perform the service

Part D: The Wedding (NOTE: Unlike parts A-C, and E, circle ANY and ALL service levels that apply rather than "best level of service")
Units of Service and Description of Encounter

1 Beautiful, touching and/or meaningful

2 Beautiful and touching but someone committed minor flub or children in service got flustered

2 Annoying photographer

2 Bad Soloist

2 Annoying parents/relatives/members of wedding party except bride/groom

3 Annoying bride/groom

3 Annoying photographer who totally ignored clergy instructions about what parts of the service may not be photographed

4 Badly behaved small children

4 REALLY bad soloist

4 Clergy retreats to rectory shortly afterward to smoke or say, "My God, I'm glad that's over"

5 Bride's water breaks or delivers baby during service

5 Wedding from Hell

Part E: The Reception

1 Clergy only required to give short opening prayer, meet and greet

2 Clergy performs minor pastoral care/counseling for less than 4 relatives/friends

3 Clergy performs minor pastoral care/counseling for 4 or more relatives/friends

3 Clergy provides minor pastoral care/counseling to ex-flame who attended wedding to pretend he/she is "happy for them."

4 Attendee suddenly feels need to confess something to clergy

5 Drunken melee/food fight/law enforcement called


Dear Couple:

I provided ______ units of pastoral care at the base rate of $__________ per pastoral care unit. This totals up to $_________________ worth of pastoral and clergy services. Please make your check to _______________________and write "Discretionary Fund" in the memo line. Thank you for choosing me and my church for your wedding. I know you promised back in the counseling phase to be regular attendees of my church, but please remit in 30 days because I am pretty sure that's not going to happen, despite your good intentions. I was born in the dark, but it wasn't last night!

I got to visiting with our parish's Priest Associate via e-mail today, and we sort of got on the subject of "coding and billing," being as how her "paying job" is the local Hospice chaplain. Evidently Medicare pays a flat rate ($120.00, it appears) for "per diem" Hospice service. We got to talking about how it's too bad she doesn't get to bill like physicians. So in the spirit of a post I did a while back on "Eucharistic Coding and Billing," here's how I'd break up Hospice chaplain billing for Medicare!

Hospice Chaplain Coding and Billing
(by Kirkepiscatoid)

Here's how we could build in "Level of Service" if only the government would take the cue that hospice chaplains should get to bill more like physicians!

Hospice Chaplain Level of Service Billing

Instructions: For each patient encounter, choose the level of pastoral service, geographic modifier, and clinical demographic modifier that best represents the normal and customary level of service provided in the patient encounter. Remember: For proper reimbursement, level of service must be documented in hospice chaplain notes.

Pastoral Service codes:

_____P66601: Talked with patient but did not pray with patient
_____P66602: Prayed with patient (e.g., comatose, unresponsive) but did not talk with patient
_____P66603: Talked and prayed with patient
_____P66604: Provided Eucharistic services with liquid substance other than wine with at least 10% alcohol content
_____P66605: Provided Eucharistic services with wine containing at least 10% alcohol content
_____P66606: Patient died before arrival of chaplain; discussions/prayer with family
_____P66607: Funeral planning with input from not-quite-dead-yet patient
_____P66608: Funeral planning with patient already dead
_____PS6600: Level of pastoral service not otherwise specified (provide documentation)

Geographic Modifier Codes:

_____GPS001: Usual and customary ability to find patient's house
_____GPS002: Difficulty finding patient's house (e.g., faulty directions, missing road signs/street signs, very remote location)
_____GPS003: Got hopelessly lost finding patient's house, requiring use of cell phone
_____GPS004: Got hopelessly lost finding patient's house, requiring use of cell phone, in "dead cell phone" area
_____GPS005: Visit required extraordinary vehicular measures (e.g., studded snow tires, four wheel drive)
_____GPS006: Chaplain got stuck en route to visit
_____GPS000: Other geographic modifier not otherwise specified (provide documentation)

(NOTE: A 10% PENALTY exists on GPS code billing if chaplain is female and visit requires being chauffeured by a male. A 10% BONUS exists if chaplain is male and visit requires being chauffeured by a female, as most male chaplains would not admit this.)

Clinical Demographic Modifiers:

_____CH23001: Pastoral services provided to under 4 total family members in room, in addition to patient
_____CH23002: Pastoral services provided to 4 or more family members in room, in addition to patient
_____CH23003: Patient divulges deep dark family secret under the influence of narcotics during visit
_____CH23004: Chaplain breaks up verbal altercation between relatives
_____CH23005: Chaplain breaks up physical altercation between relatives
_____CH23006: Living arrangements for patient has worse than usual smells or sights associated with typical dying patient or typical home
_____CH23007: Family member "hits on" chaplain, desiring inappropriate psychological, financial, or physical relationship
_____CH23008: Chaplain visit occurs while patient, spouse/significant other and object of covert romantic relationship are all in the same room
_____CH23000: Other clinical history modifier not otherwise specified (provide documentation)

(Painting: After the Rainstorm, by Miri Peer)

"You are ever active, yet always quiet. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need. . . . You grieve for wrong, but suffer no pain. You can be angry and yet serene. Your works are varied, but your purpose is one and the same. . . . You welcome those who come to you, though you never lost them. You are never in need yet are glad to gain, never covetous yet you exact a return for your gifts. . . . You release us from our debts, but you lose nothing thereby. You are my God, my Life, my holy Delight, but is this enough to say of you? Can any man say enough when he speaks of you? Yet woe betide those who are silent about you!"--From The Confessions of St. Augustine

"Always active, always quiet."

Right around Lent, in these parts we often have "the monsoon season of NE Missouri." With Lent just around the corner, I was thinking a lot about how in this part of the world, the weather in those forty days tends to change drastically. We start the season in winter, and end in spring. We go from snow to flowers. It is the Passion and the Easter story as told by The Weather Channel.

In the middle of that season, we often have what I call "the monsoon season"--days and days of rain, followed by days and days of mud. It's not the lukewarm respite of summer rain; it's a cold rain--a rain that goes back and forth between brisk and drizzle, with occasionally a downpour and thunder in between. It might shut off a few hours and start back up. But it will carry on like that for 3 or four days. It's a fairly colorless landscape--the grass hasn't really started greening up, the trees are bare save for evolving buds, the sky is gray to an almost gray-brown. It comes at a time my pineal gland is desperately screaming for more light. Yes, the days are lengthening, but not fast enough!

I find that in this little short local season, the obsessive-compulsive side of me gloms on to the noise of the rain--hearing it all the time and getting tired of it. I hear it wax, wane, speed up, stop and start again. It seems the quieter my house is, the more the noise of that almost constant rain creeps into my brain. I can lie in bed in the wee hours of the morning and have it stop me from falling back asleep. Then suddenly, like a fever breaking, the rain stops--yet it had to have stopped a while for me to notice it!

But the fact remains that without that short season of cold, seemingly never-ending rain, the ground would not be prepared for the emergence of all that green grass and spring flowers.

I've discovered the NE Missouri landscape is not the only place where that short little cold rain monsoon occurs--I'm prone to spiritual monsoon seasons, too. I have little spells where it seems my prayer time and my pondering time becomes a never-ending stream of consciousness--always active, yet always quiet--much like a constant rain--where I hear it a little while, it fades in the background, comes forward again. Back and forth, back and forth--but the noise of the rain never stopping. Yet I still sense "quiet spots" despite the fact I know there is constant noise.

When I step out into that spiritual "rain," it's cold--I can feel it more than usual. It feels wetter, more piercing, more irritating than usual. But it's the "constancy" of this season that catches my attention. I'm either constantly feeling or hearing it, some moments almost imperceptibly, some noticeably, but "always there."

I've come to realize God doesn't always use the "holy 2x4," the thunderclap, the flash of light, to catch our attention and sense his presence, nor does he always emerge from the stillness, as prized as either method might be to some folks. Sometimes he uses the drizzle. Yet in that drizzle is the rain needed to prepare for the emergence of spring.

Zechariah 8:6:

"Thus says the LORD of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the LORD of hosts?"

I had to admit I burst out laughing tonight in my EFM class when this picture showed up for our Theological Reflection. You have to remember, I am often a one-person snow shoveling operation at Trinity in the winter, and I take a special pride in being able to outdo First Christian Church next door, who has a snow blower, and First Methodist Church down the street and around the corner, who often has more than one person shoveling, and a four-wheeler with a blade. Granted, we have a smaller amount to shovel, but all things being equal, I have been able to keep pace with them most weekends. So, in some ways, this picture has some laughable amounts of personal meaning.

So I was a bit of the odd person out when, the more I looked at this, the less daunting it became. Interestingly enough, I started imagining the sounds and feelings that went with this picture--dead quiet except for the wind and the movement within the tops of the trees--and the sound became more inviting the more my mind's ear could hear it. I had to ask myself, "Why does this picture not fill me with despair and resignation?"

One of the things that seems to be evolving within me is an increasing recognition of what is totally out of my realm of control. Mind you, I am far from perfect on this one, but I am sensing an increase of an ability to "let God handle what I immediately realize I can't control, yet have faith that things will work out somehow."

When I looked at this picture, I could instantly recognize that one person cannot remove that wall of snow. But neither was my immediate reaction that the snow NEEDED to be removed. Perhaps it is supposed to be tunneled through, climbed over, or circumvented--or maybe even left alone, and I was to turn around and go back to the place from whence I came. So my first thoughts were not, "What am I supposed to do?" but "What is supposed to be accomplished?"

Perhaps that thought is an inkling of recognition that these choices are not about my will, but God's.

The prophet Zechariah lived in strange times, about 500ish B.C.E. Israel was in exile in Babylon. His prophecies were more about having faith that things would be changed, and more about bringing hope in the center of exile, than it was "what to do about it." His prophesies gave vivid imagery of "what is to be the glory of Israel" but did not really put a time frame on it...merely, "Someday."

It's easy to look at the snowpile and immediately assume the job is for you to remove it, alone, without bothering to survey the situation. That may not always be the case.

I was so struck by the ease of which I started hearing the noises in this picture in class, I decided to meditate on it last night before bed, with myself as the person with the shovel. I realized "over" could suffocate me, if I hit a soft spot. "Remove" was not an option. "Cut a path" might be an option, but not before checking out "around."

Then I thought a little about "what was on the other side?" If it was "home," then it makes sense to find a way through or around the pile. But what if what lies on the other side is unknown? Perhaps it is not time for me to experience what is on the other side of the pile until the thaw. Perhaps there is something "frozen" within me that must slowly melt.

Then I imagined myself as a person on the other side of the pile. Do I even know there is a person with a shovel on the other side? Did I need rescuing of some sort? Is the pile someone in my past, in which a seemingly impossible wall lies between us? Or is it the person with the shovel who is "lost" and it is my job to find a way to go around and say, "Come with me?"

It brings me back to the prophet Zechariah. Imagine trying to sort out prophesy that is not meant for you or your generation, but to still use it to provide hope. How many times in our lives are we to be prophets to another generation, but not our own? Any of us who teach those younger than us, whether students or children or grandchildren, wonder that sometimes.

But I invite you to also spend some time with this image of the snow pile and see where it leads.



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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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