Lent

the forgotten days of holy week

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Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. How easily we pass over them, eyes set eagerly on Easter Sunday. Or anticipating Thursday’s opening of the Triduum.

Our first half of Holy Week probably looks a lot like yours. Work. School. Kids. Meetings. Chores. Bills. The lackluster pregame show before the big kickoff. The forgettable prelude before the fanfare. The ordinary before the extraordinary. 

But the church’s calendar claims these three are holy, too.

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The earliest days of the holiest week are in-between: not quite Lent, not quite Easter. It is a time of anticipating what is right around the corner, practically within reach. We are almost there.

The Main Event looms large on the horizon. All signs point toward its arrival, but the journey here has been so long – can it really be coming?

Ahead of us lies both pain and joy, suffering and peace. How can we possibly prepare for all that? How can we hold all this tension at once?

These are the last days. They matter.

Soon we will remember how everything changes.

. . .

The end of the third trimester is a strange part of pregnancy. The eagerness of almost, the frustration of not-yet.

Like Holy Week’s emotional extremes, this time swings wildly: something to celebrate, something to endure, something to savor, something to push through. Both quiet and flurry, both calm and storm. Each day adding to our anticipation.

My mental countdown clicks steadily. Five more midwife appointments. Five more prenatal yoga classes. Five more weeks to finish all those pressing work projects.

Each Saturday the nesting instinct kicks in with greater intensity. Scribbled To Do Before Baby! list in hand, I clean out closets and drawers, watch the boys build the crib with their father, wash baby blankets and fold diapers in neat stacks.

Ready and waiting.

Every friend and stranger I meet asks how much longer I have left. Around us bubble joy and anticipation. A growing readiness to be done. An impatience to discover what (and who!) comes next.

I wonder. Have I done enough? Yes. And no. Like Lent, this journey of expectation is always bigger than me, beyond my personal penances, my tries and fails, my awareness of my own limits. I am carried by forces greater than my own.

And a calendar that presses ever onward, oblivious to the emotions with which I fill the hours.

. . .

I wonder how to honor this time rather than race too fast towards the end goal. How to see the holiness of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in turn.

I love Thursday, I lean into Friday, I learn from Saturday, I leap into Sunday. But right now are the days before. The days that ask me to pause.

These neglected early days of Holy Week are a different kind of preparation from the Lent that preceded. More immediate. Here and not-here. Upon us, yet still beyond our grasp. The mystery of the middle time, when we think we know what awaits us (all the Easters have we been through before), when we remember that we can always be surprised (each year bringing its own gifts).

Do I remember to reverence these almost-days, these overlooked ordinaries?

The Celts spoke of thin places, spaces and moments when heaven and earth seem to touch, only the slightest trace separating their realities. Perhaps Holy Week is a small hole through which we peer into the deepest mysteries of the life of God. We could never understand all that it contains. But each year we might nudge a little closer, if we try, to imagine what its truth might mean for our lives.

I watch and wait in this almost-time. It could be long weeks till everything changes; it could be mere days. But God is here, too.

And it is not only Easter morning which makes it so. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. All the ordinary days matter, too.

on real-izing

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When I was playing around with titles for my book, I made a Wordle of the entire manuscript to see what words I used most often. I hoped inspiration might leap out at me from the word cloud. And here’s what I saw:

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The nouns leapt out at me first - God in the center (whew! at least I got that one right), work, love, time, church, mother, baby.

But I have a hunch that if I made a Wordle for this blog, it would be the verbs that would catch me: wonder, remember, imagine, realize.

Particularly that last one. Realize. I find that verb slipping into my posts more than any other. Sometimes I stop for a synonym. Sometimes I let it slide. Lately I’ve been embracing the abundance of realization.

Because this whole blog might be about precisely that.

. . .

Two things I try to do in this space: see truth and tell truth.

First, I try to notice. Good writing comes from open eyes and ears, heart and mind. I try to see the world around me through the lens that asks what is beautiful here? What is hard? Where is God? Being a mom affords plenty of interaction with all three questions.

So part of how I try to realize here is by witnessing and wondering about the everyday epiphanies. The moments that flash brightly with some slant I never saw before. The clearer view that lifts the veil from sluggish or selfish slouching through my day-to-day and invites me to hold my breath. The fresh light that glimmers on some flash of the holy I never expected to find.

To realize is to become fully aware. To understand more clearly. To learn. All of that is wrapped up in why I write, and – I hope – why you might read.

Second, I aim for honesty. For me, the emphasis in writing falls on the first syllable: real-ize. To speak my small truth, what I know of this one wild and precious life. And not to sugar-coat or to sour-puss, but to strike an honest balance between the hard and the beautiful.

Like every writer, I struggle with tone – is this piece too depressing? is this perspective too idealistic? Sometimes I second-guess whether I should tell the stories of the harder times and the darker days. But I always come back round to the idea of God being the Truth and God being the Word. The truer we try to make our words, the more they might reveal of where God can be found. I see this in so much of what I read, and I dare to hope I might try to find it in what I write.

To real-ize is to live fully within the life I am given. To not be afraid of the pain or ashamed of the joy.

. . .

This week I’ve been meditating on “realize” as I dove into Power of Moms’ latest book, Motherhood Realized: An Inspiring Anthology for the Hardest Job You’ll Ever Love.

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In the essay I’m honored to have included in their collection, I wrote about picking green beans from our garden as a practice of gratitude. The piece winds around from our time of infertility to the fullness of life with two little boys underfoot. And when I think of the sharp contrast between aching for motherhood and “realizing” it, I see the fulfillment of a dream, the granting of a hope, the answer to a prayer that someday this calling would be part of my journey.

But in truth my experience of becoming a parent feels like less of an achievement and more of an invitation - to revere the gift, to release the expectations, to respect the enormity of the challenge, to remember the cost of the sacrifice. Realization is wrapped up more in awe and gratitude than easy embrace.

So I see the need to keep gathering those ordinary insights and everyday epiphanies along the way, the hard-fought ones and the grace-filled ones. I love that this book does exactly that: draws together the voices of many women who have truths to tell and stories to share about how motherhood has shaped them, even as its joys and sorrows brought them to their knees.

That is the role I hope realization continues to play in my life – to keep me open to wonder and humbled by how I am changed when I open myself up to love.

And if you’re curious as I am about how others make sense of the deepest truths in their experience, I hope you’ll check out Motherhood Realized. This piece by Katrina Kenison (whose writing I have long loved) sums up so much of what makes this book a beautiful collection:

“Heading Home with Your Newborn” might ease a new mom through the drama of giving birth and surviving the first few sleepless nights. But Motherhood Realized is a book that will live on bedside tables for years to come — well-thumbed, underlined, bookmarked, shared. Here are the personal stories of mothers just like you and me, not experts who have everything figured out or agendas to promote, but ordinary women who have seized time from their daily lives to report from the trenches of firsthand experience and who have summoned the courage to write from their hearts – the ups, the downs, the hard lessons learned, the small moments savored, the tears shed, the priorities reordered, the humble revelations celebrated, the inevitable challenges confronted.

. . .

This week I also have a new post at Catholic Mom about my latest Lenten realization. That all those 40 bags for 40 days I’ve been faithfully collecting for Goodwill? They might be more about me and mine than God or good spiritual practice. Gulp.

I looked again at the bags I’d gathered. Every last one contained the extras, the excess, the unused and the unwanted. It certainly wasn’t the best I had to offer someone in need. All those prettier clothes were still hanging in closets. All those nicer plates and pans were still stacked in kitchen cabinets. All those well-made toys were still saved for my kids to enjoy.

Was my 40-day challenge really about giving to the least among us? Or about saving the best for me?

Read the rest at Catholic Mom…

I’m grateful for this uncomfortable realization, even if it doesn’t have a clean and tidy resolution. Good thing there’s still plenty of Lent left to ponder.

. . .

Sometimes realization is about remembering what you had known but forgotten. Sometimes it’s about discovering something entirely new and unexpected. I believe much of the spiritual journey is spent wandering back and forth between these two – the deepest truths we know and the mysterious realities we never suspected.

Maybe these two aspects of realize - the real and the realization – are the best of what blogging can bring. When someone shares from the particularities of their experiences to invite others to consider their own lives in a new light.

What do you think? Why do you blog, if you blog? Why do you read, if you read?

morbid? motherhood & mortality

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“Mommy, I don’t want to die.”

His big blue eyes stare up at me, full of – what? Worry? Seriousness? Wonder?

We’ve been revisiting this conversation for months, variations on a theme: Mommy, I don’t want to go to be with God. Mommy, I want to live to be 100. Mommy, I don’t want you to die.

He hasn’t yet brushed with death, not in the aching loss of one he loves. But he’s a curious child, and his love of numbers and wonder about God swirl together to stir up questions of how old God is and how old people can be.

All of which added up in his head to a budding realization of finitude in the face of the infinite.

What do I say? Blunder through the typical lines about how I hope he’ll have a long life, and then when his life is done, he’ll get to go be with God in a new way, and God loves him even more than any person ever could, so wouldn’t that be amazing?

Except, of course, it’s all strange and skeptical enough to make wise adults anxious.

So why would any precocious preschooler accept it at face value either?

. . .

Every year on my birthday, I find myself genuinely astonished to still be here.

I only realized in the past few years that most people don’t share this stark sense of mortality, not at the tender age of thirty-something anyway. And while I wouldn’t say that I wake each morning eager to stare my own death in the face, whenever I think about the length of my life I only see so far ahead of me.

So each March I honestly marvel at how I’ve been blessed to have these many years to my name.

You can analyze it easily as any armchair therapist. My older brother died of cancer when I was 10, so I grew up living with death and loss and grief in a way that many children do not. All of that made me who I am, shaped my faith and my worldview in unmistakable ways, here endeth the college admissions essay.

But now as a mother to young ones waking up to the strange and sad ways the world works, I wonder what I should pass on to them from my own sense of mortality and what I might need to set aside.

Keeping death daily before our eyes is St. Benedict’s healthy advice to his brothers, but how helpful is this for preschoolers?

Mystery is good. Morbidity is not.

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So we talk about not being afraid of death, because it is part of life. We talk about the love that is waiting for us in whatever comes next, because it is full of God who is love.

We talk about how some people might live to be almost 100 like Great-Grandpa, and how some people might only live to be 21 like Uncle Jay. We talk about how we can’t know everything that God knows or make everything happen in the way we would like. But we can trust that God will take care of us.

Is that enough? For now, perhaps. If my wee ones continue to be blessed with a childhood free from trauma or loss, unlike so many children in the world.

But if they are not – if death or sickness or suffering enter into this home as an unwelcome guest, the darkest thoughts that only the thin, lonely hours before dawn tempt me to imagine – will any of that make sense? Or sustain them?

Motherhood is supposed to be about life: its nurturing and nourishing. But is there a place for death in this daily work and love, too?

. . .

Lent is a grateful time to practice all this death-talk, all this suffering-preparation, of course.

In small ways we choose to die to our own whims and wants, setting our sights on the deeper growth that comes from drawing further from our fears and nearer to God.

As with our own short lives, we know that death lies at the end of this liturgical journey, too. There it is on the calendar, Good Friday in all its starkness: church stripped bare, silence echoing in an empty tabernacle.

But beyond this loss lies a truth equally baffling to comprehend: an Easter reversal of everything we thought we knew, a game-changer of existential expectation, a flip-side resurrection of death itself.

Every day we are walking towards Friday’s death-as-we-fear-it. But we also edge towards Sunday’s life-as-we-dare-to-dream-it.

And children are a part of this journey, too.

This is my favorite part of Ash Wednesday. That for once we don’t banish babies to the nursery or preschoolers to the Sunday School classroom. We all walk up together, regardless of age or status, and someone smears dark grey ash on every forehead and tells us that from dust we have come and to dust we will return.

Every tiny curl of a newborn, every wide-eyed toddler, every curious kindergartner – their mortality stares us smack in the face, too. Tiny crosses of truth on softest skin.

Maybe this is part of Lent’s gift. Reminding us that these beautiful beginnings of youth are part of our shared journey toward death.

Be not afraid.

. . .

I started this post several weeks ago and haven’t known how to finish it.

Because there isn’t an easy ending, of course. There are no pat answers when it comes to talking about death. So many of the rote responses and tired clichés we use to wrestle our arms around such a vast and thorny subject are just that – rote and tired.

Theologically unsound, pastorally maddening.

As in so many dark corners of this strange land called motherhood, I find myself flinging wide my arms and releasing my fears, partly in hope, partly in despair.

I do not have the answers, and the questions will only become more complicated.

All I am learning to do is letting my babies go, day by day, into the arms of God who is love.

how to live lent as a pregnant mother

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Lenten Approach #1 (aka The First-Time Mother):

Step 1: Read everything you can to prepare. Stock up on all the experts’ manuals. Consult all the conflicting schools of thought. Aim to stack at least five sizable books on your nightstand.

Step 2: Consult everyone you know for their advice. When in doubt, turn to the Internet. Start a Pinterest board for inspiration. Post Facebook statuses asking for suggestions. Email every trusted friend to find out what worked for them.

Step 3: Chart daily progress. Check off each to-do. Secretly compare your progress with others. Start to feel guilty. Worry that you’re doing this all wrong. Entertain temptations of giving up.

Lenten Approach #2 (aka The Second-Time-Around Mother):

Step 1: Check the calendar to confirm that weeks are indeed flying by. Resolve to do something to prepare.

Step 2: Dig out something that worked last time. Try to remember what you liked about it. Decide to use it again anyway.

Step 3: Marvel at how the same book/technique/discipline/philosophy that worked before now produces an entirely different result. Start to let go.

Lenten Approach #3 (aka The Too-Tired-Third-Time Mother):

Step 1: Find yourself shocked to be on the threshold and utterly unprepared.

Step 2: Sigh. Shrug. Sit back.

Step 3: Jump once again into the unknown. Trust that things will work out. Rejoice when they do. Forgive yourself when they don’t. Embrace the unexpected.

. . .

Throughout my life I’ve had all three of these Lents (regardless of gestational status). Maybe you have, too.

The Lents I swore I’d fast like a fanatic and pray like a pro and give like a saint. The Lents I scrambled to remember what worked so well in the past. The Lents when life was already complicated and I didn’t need to go searching for spiritual challenge.

Each one brings its own promises and pitfalls. Each one depends an awareness of the season’s gifts. Each one opens a door of invitation to draw closer to God.

What will this Lent be for you?

Six weeks start here. I still haven’t “decided what I’m doing,” as we say in our Catholic circles. What to fast from. What to pray for. What to give alms to.

Plenty of ideas swim round my mind; good intentions crowd my thoughts. But this year I’m feeling called towards the unknowing. It’s fine to have a Lent that clamors for no contest or competition.

Living as a pregnant mom brings plenty of opportunity for discipline and self-denial. Counting down the weeks till a new baby joins our family makes preparation a daily practice. And looking ahead to a time of great change means that I’m already turning inward to ask God where I will be led.

Lent feels like it’s been here for a while. The question is how I go deeper.

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By the time Easter Sunday arrives, I’ll be 4 short weeks from my due date.

I could choose to go Route #1: read a bunch of books to remember what birth and babies are like; email every friend I know with 3+ kids to ask how they do it; make a detailed to-do list of everything we have to finish before baby arrives.

Or I could choose to go Route #2: mentally nag myself to start getting ready; paw through boxes of baby books and gear to figure out what we did before; ignore my midwives’ advice that this time around will likely be completely different from the last.

Or I could choose to go Route #3. Remember that labor – and Lent – come whether we are ready or not. Remember that the more I wrestle, the harder both will be. Remember that the joy and peace and beauty that are God can never be contained by my own control.

How to live Lent as a pregnant mother? Probably the same way we’re all called to live it.

According to the ashes in our life this year. Towards our hope of what an empty tomb might mean.

how to let the fruit ripen

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Full confession: our kitchen fruit basket is where produce goes to die.

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Maybe you have this problem, too. Each trip to the grocery store finds the counter fully stocked with too-firm bananas, too-green avocados, the occasional treat of a peach or pear waiting to be savored.

Early in the week I find myself hovering over the bowl, waiting for the fruit to be ready. But before I know it, bananas become spotted and soft, avocados squishy and dark, the precious peach or pear ready to rot.

It seems to take so long for the fruit to ripen, but if I’m not careful I miss my chance to enjoy it.

There’s metaphor hidden here, heaped upon the privileged problem of having so much food that it can go to waste. But when I meditate on this Sunday’s Gospel - the parable of the barren fig tree – the deepest truth it speaks to my life right now is patience.

Patience towards ripening fruit.

I look at these little boys running around my house, knocking into my knees and climbing all over my couches. It can be so hard to stay present to them, not to pull forward to days when we’ll be able to have two-sided conversations or leave the house for a whole afternoon without needing naps. Sometimes I want them to ripen quickly so I can enjoy them fully.

But I know this season of green, of tenderness, of waiting to burst into bloom is a fleeting time. I know that too soon they will be more than ready to wrestle out of my reach and rush into a world ripe for their discovery.

I don’t want to hover over them too closely or hold them too tightly. But I do want to witness their maturing and unfolding, not miss it in the blur of my impatience, always straining to see what’s next around the corner.

I want to cultivate patience towards their slow but certain growth.

. . .

This week I’m posting over at Practicing Families - a wonderful new resource for parents interested in exploring faith with children – with ideas for a family liturgy based on this Sunday’s fig tree gospel.

Simple practices to break open a parable about patience and forgiveness and second chances. Lessons I need to learn and relearn each day of this parenting journey.

Each day that I sigh and wonder why the fruit hasn’t ripened yet.

God, be patient with us as we grow good fruit.
Open our eyes to see how we are growing each day.
God, be patient with us as we grow good fruit.
Help us to forgive one another when we fail.
God, be patient with us as we grow good fruit.
Let us offer each other second chances.
God, be patient with us as we grow good fruit.
Wait patiently with us as we work to bear fruit.
God, be patient with us as we grow good fruit.

(a prayer for the Third Week of Lent)

callings and temptations

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Today FaithND is running a reflection I wrote on this Sunday’s Gospel, about Jesus’ forty days in the desert and the words of Scripture that he falls back on in his hour of temptation. As I worked on this piece, I was captured by the idea that the devil preys on Jesus’ deepest callings and twists them just enough to pervert the true meaning of the Scripture he cites:

Jesus came to be bread for the world—why not zap stones into manna? Why not feed all the starving in one fell swoop, multiply the miracle by a million, transform every pebble of the earth into food for the hungry?

Jesus came to rule over the world with justice and compassion—why not become king in an instant? Why not seize the glory of all the nations, watch all the citizens of the world bow in honor to him in a single second?

Jesus came to model complete trust in God—why not hurl himself down into the arms of the angels? Why not prove exactly how it looks to fling oneself into the unfailing care of the divine?

I wonder how my own callings are confronted by temptations that look good on the surface, but deep down are distortions of the truth.

Take the calling to be a parent, for example. I find myself inundated by images and ideas and advice and assumptions about what it means to be a good mother. I’m still so new at this gig, just a few short years into a lifelong vocation, that I often find myself wrapped in doubts, worrying whether I’m doing this right, wondering if there’s another (or better or easier or righter) way.

I’ve never thought to consider these temptations as evil – I tend to reserve the term for large-scale horror, violence and destruction – but I wonder whether the weaseling of worry, the twisting of fears around my deepest loves, the perversions that prey on my keenest sense of calling, are nothing less than the power of darkness at work in my own mind.

We can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons, but can this be calling? My belief in a God of goodness, who calls us in love for love, who longs to bring about fullness of life for the world, whispers no.

Perhaps, like Jesus, I need the words of others to remind me, to strike at the heart of truth:

There is no real occasion for tumult, strain, conflict, anxiety, once we have reached the living conviction that God is All.

All takes place within God. God alone matters; God alone is.

Our spiritual life is God’s affair because whatever we may think to the contrary, it is really produced by God’s steady attraction and our humble and self-forgetful response to it.

It consists in being drawn, at God’s pace and in God’s way, to the place where God wants us to be.

- Evelyn Underhill, The Soul’s Delight

 

how i nurture my mothering spirit – mihee

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Despite the clean slate of the new year, it feels as if life is bursting at the seams with to-do lists and extra commitments. And in the midst of it all I long for convenience. I need and long for tools to help me make it through each hour, and help me juggle at least a minimum of three tasks, and make me get everything crossed off on the list for that day.

I will be the first to acknowledge the reality that life has a tendency to overflow one’s cup, especially during these kind of seasons, and convenience is almost necessary for survival. And that’s what I love about ordering online – for birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. I had heard someone on NPR bemoaning the lack of thought and sentimentality in online shopping but obviously this guy didn’t have twins crawling all over the place 24/7. Try to shop for something at the local store? Not happening. Try to organize the pantry? Nope. Try to sew a little handkerchief? Not a chance. So it just warms my heart to be able to get something last-minute – like from the beautiful monolith that is Amazon and have it shipped to the recipient, or to even just get a gift card and send that out.

But.

I was talking with a good friend from college last night. She came for a brief visit between interviews for her medical residency next summer, and happened to be interviewing up in Indy. We figured out she could have stayed an extra day, and rather than flying back home today and then flying out tomorrow somewhere else, she could have just flown directly there from here. But she said she didn’t want to be an inconvenience, to which I replied without really thinking about it – something to the effect of: “Our life is one big inconvenience these days. It wouldn’t have been a big deal at all.”

Our life is one big inconvenience.

The funny thing is that I didn’t mean this in a negative way at all, even though inconvenience is seen as incredibly annoying/frustrating and generally something to be avoided like the plague. I said it with a laugh, tongue planted firmly in my cheek.

Because I remember that the so-called inconveniences I’ve experienced in my life – all the interruptions, disruptions, obstructions – they end up being incredibly…good. When I let myself be open to them, they are opportunities to experience something unexpected and usually, strangely gracious.

. . .

I’m trying to carry some thoughts over from Advent because it feels pertinent in this season of Lent, on the way to Calvary:

You know that saying, you can really tell who somebody is in a crisis?
You can really tell at Christmas, too. That’s because Christmas,
more than any other day in the American year,
is a day when we’re all handed the same stage props.
The same tree, the presents, the meal, the relatives,
and all the same expectations.
And then we all try to create, more or less, the same kind of day.
It’s like hundreds of millions of people all set to work
doing exactly the same art project.
And not just any art project, but a very high stakes art project,
an art project everybody cares about getting right.

And in that setting, the choices people make never seem clearer.

- from Ira Glass, This American Life

All these seasons are a bit funny. For instance, Christmas is supposed to be meaningful somehow while spilling over with tradition and nostalgia but a time of heartache and grief for so many. There’s a lot of truth to what Ira Glass says about how who we are comes out even more during these holidays.

But rather than following the same script every year and succumbing to cultural pressure to buybuybuy, I think that it can be a good time to foster a spirit of flexibility and openness, and a different kind of mindfulness and posture towards the culture around us. All these seasons, especially in this new year, can be a chance to shift our hearts and spirits towards what is unexpectedly nurturing.

Especially in the midst of what seems outside of our plans and visions and lists for the day.

. . .

I wrote this at 5 am in the morning. D had been sleeping horribly and was up crying for about an hour. When I heard him finally hit the pillow and fall back asleep, I found myself completely awake. I got up. I showered. I unloaded the dishwasher and got ready for the day. And I blogged. Sometimes these kind of revelations and moments come at what seems like an inconvenient time…like in the middle of the night.

But even that’s ok. I’ll take it. I’ll take the forced stillness, and the imposed quiet, like the angel Gabriel touching my lips and silencing them in the manner of the encounter with Zechariah. Sometimes those inconveniences are God sending an angel to shut me up so I can listen and see the grace before me.

Lord, it is night.
The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done; let it be.
The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world
and of our own lives rest in you.
The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities.
In your name we pray.

Amen.

 -  from the Anglican Book of Prayer

Few things nurture my mothering spirit – cultivating patience, flexibility, and compassion – more than those inconveniences. Because, our life, after all, is one big inconvenience anyway.

. . .

Mihee is an ordained clergywoman in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and mom to twin babies with #3 on the way in Hoosier country, trying to keep up with college students in part-time ministry. Zealous about God and church, parenting, books, writing, snow, running, goldfish crackers (i.e. remnants from the babies’ meals), social justice, and fresh air.

She blogs regularly at First Day Walking and recently released her first book Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology published by Chalice Press. This reflection was originally modified from here.

a mother’s prayer for ash wednesday

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God of Ash Wednesday,
whose hands first gathered dust to create us,
whose Spirit breathed new life into brittle bones,
whose fingers traced the sand to save a sinner,
take the dirt of my life -
the tempers lost,
the doors slammed,
the complaints muttered,
the harsh words thrown,
the dark doubts seethed -
take all these flaws and failings
and burn them blazing
in the fire of forgiveness.

Gather the dust that lingers, 
the ashes streaked across your healing hands,
and trace the ancient cross
once again across my forehead.
Press its humbling love deep into my mind and heart,
let it sink into my soul
reminding me that life is fleeting as the dark grey dust.

And when I see the same stark sign of sin and death
marked on the soft faces of my children,
let me breathe in the beauty of now,
this present we have together,
this gift of a life shared
no matter how dark or dry it sometimes seems.

Let the touch of another's hand on my bowed head
remind me of resurrection,
of hope and promise
that we are mere dust
and yet more -
beloved in your eyes,
our chins cupped in your hands
with a parent's loving touch,
our faces traced by the same fingers
that forever bear the prints
of every ashen life they touch.

Amen.

on surprises: lenten and papal

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For over a week, half a post for Ash Wednesday sat waiting for me to finish it. And it started like this:

Anyone else feel like the gentle green of Ordinary Time just got yanked out from under their feet, and now they’re sitting plop in the purple of Lent, scratching their head and wondering how we got here so fast?

Is it even allowed to be Mardi Gras before Valentine’s Day?

Or am I the only anxious one who still has Christmas thank-yous on her to-do list?

From whence it wandered into ramblings about how maybe the fact that the dates for Easter and Lent change every year keeps us on our toes, on edge even, makes us more mindful or less likely to lull into complacency.

Which bumped into Scriptural allusions about how you know neither the day nor the hour.

(Which was apparently going to wrap back round to parenting or family life or something else that this blog claims to be about.)

But then we all woke up to the papal game-changer of the century (or rather, six centuries) and the looming start of Lent seemed even more surprising as we all sat around puzzling and pontificating (ha) about how we could possibly have a new pontiff by the time these forty days finished.

So now what are we supposed to do, I wondered. I thought about scrapping this post completely. But then it struck me that if this news is the Hayley’s Comet of ex cathedra announcements, I better scrape together two words about an all-points-bulletin Catholic news story that will surely never come again in my lifetime.

And that was precisely when it hit me:

Perhaps the early Ash Wednesday and the unexpected announcement from Benedict aren’t so far apart after all.

Both remind us of mortality, a sobering reminder that we are all dust and to dust we shall return.

Both mark the beginning of a time of great change, a season of renewal.

Both capture the popular imagination in surprising ways.

Ever try to find a parking spot at an Ash Wednesday service five minutes before it starts? Good luck. Catholic churches are crammed on this unofficial holy day. Every year I notice more and more people packed into the pews. Something about this simple penitential practice, this smear of ash on foreheads, touches us deeply.

Ditto Benedict’s decision. Sure, yesterday was full of ignorant chatter and conspiracy theories and snarky Catholic jokes. But it was also full of surprising resonance, of reporters and religion professors and regular church-goers agreeing that resignation could be wise, that retirement could be well-deserved, that respect was due to a powerful leader who knew when to step down, when to take leave of a calling that was ending.

It’s the eve of ashes, and it all feels surprising. But it’s always jarring when death interrupts life, isn’t it? When reminders of mortality upend our neatly planned calendars of The Way Things Are Supposed to Go?

Weren’t we were just waving our palms to welcome him in? Are they really so quickly burned to ash again?

lentissimo

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September 2012 021

The boys and I have been playing lots of piano lately. (Or I should say: I play while one bounces on my lap and the other bangs on the bass or slams on the treble, depending on his inspired accompaniment.)

During the day we play all the old favorites, the childhood standbys: This Old Man, The Itsy-Bitsy Spider, every tune Woody Guthrie ever dreamed up. The toe-tapping, hand-clapping, doesn’t-matter-if-mama-messes-up-that-key-change-we’re-rolling music that I always dreamed would come when we had a piano in the house.

But at night, after the winter sky sinks dark and the boys are wrapped in bed, I’ve been sneaking down to play alone.

Foot pressed down on the damper pedal so I don’t wake them, I settle into my own old favorites: the Beethoven and Mozart of high school, the Rachmaninoff and Chopin of college. A practice equal parts delightful and frustrating; nothing so humbling as seeing how quickly skill slips away without careful attention.

If I want to sit down and race through a piece without thinking, I’m stuck back around 9th grade for now. To tackle anything I touched in college, I have to take a deep breath and go slow, no matter the marking. Lentissimo.

And if I do slow my rhythm down, slow way down, painfully slower than my normal pace, then and only then do my fingers relax into what they can handle. My mind relaxes, too, slipping back into the deep memory of what these fingers still know: the tricky passages, the troublesome chords. My hands, my feet, my whole body can remember how to play, but only if I slow way down. Lentissimo.

What do I bring to Lent this time around? What do I crave, what do I need? Where is God’s call to go deeper, draw closer?

What might I find if I slow way down into the space set apart, step out of life’s ever-tempting swirls of more-more-more and remember how often I encounter God when I do less?

What would happen if I go lentissimo into Lent this year, simply slow down and let my mind, body, spirit and soul re-remember their way in this world?

It’s aggravating work, this deliberate halting, this restraint of a racing mind and antsy fingers. Lent is aggravating, too, when done right. Why not just binge on chocolate and gorge on Facebook and neglect prayer and forget about justice and ignore the nagging thought of millions of millions who will not settle into such a peaceful sleep as mine tonight?

Lent is humbling, hard work. I need to go slowly and deliberately into these forty days, if I go at all. Lentissimo.