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Posts Tagged ‘Lent’

There once was a man who thought love was war
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before…

I think of this song every year around this time, though I usually hear it in my friend Jenni’s voice instead of Tom Russell’s. Jenni is part of the folk trio JamisonPriest, and I heard her sing it long ago, at a few of their gigs in Abilene.

There once was a woman, a pretty young thing
She sold her soul for a diamond ring…

I love contemporary songs that somehow feel old: Russell released this one in the early 2000s, but his rough-edged voice and the plainspoken lyrics make it seem like a world-weary folk classic. It is not, perhaps, traditional Ash Wednesday music, neither a somber hymn nor a choral setting of a religious text. But it comes back to lodge in my heart every year, when we remember that we are dust.

They’re all lovesick, they’re love tired
They stood a little close to the edge of the fire…

I did not make it to an Ash Wednesday service this year. But on my way to the train after work, I walked by the Old South Church, where two clergy were standing outside in the cold, offering ashes to willing passersby. One of them, a woman I know slightly from our mutual connections to Harvard, greeted me and then marked my forehead with ashes. “Remember that you are dust,” she said, “and to dust you shall return. But today, you have life as a child of God.” My eyes filled with tears.

They’ve got holes in their pockets, holes in their minds
They’re holy people in an unholy time…

Like most folk songs, and like faith, those words and this song tell a story or two and then leave you with a few words and images you can’t quite explain. I don’t understand Russell’s lyrics in the strictly logical sense, but they resonate with me at a deep level. And there’s a reason we refer to “the holy mysteries”: I can’t fully grasp the story I have lived with all my life, but it still draws me in.

Headin’ for the church at the end of the line
Ash Wednesday…

We are right where we always seem to be, when Lent begins: still in the middle of winter, snow-edged sidewalks and bold blue skies, bare branches and biting winds. The green spears of daffodils and crocuses are poking through the earth, but there’s danger of frostbite a while yet. It’s almost Easter, a friend joked the other day, and I said, Oh, no. We’ve barely begun.

We’re all lovesick, and love tired, as Russell has it, or (to quote my singer-songwriter friend Rachel) “proud and aching and sore.” But we are also – I will keep saying it all my life – wholly, deeply, unbelievably loved.

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flowers lilies windowsill church tulips brookline easter 

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins…

Easter at Brookline: gold-foil-wrapped pots of flowers lining the deep windowsills, tulips and lilies and hyacinths, bright splashes of color against the white walls. When you pull back the glass-paned double doors at the rear of the church, the scent hits you like a wave. It smells like spring, like hope, like resurrection in the face of impossible odds.

We set up two long tables behind the back pews and pile them with food, a rough division of sweets and savories, plates of sandwiches and mini quiche and cookies galore. Sarah brings the traditional cake frosted to look like a lamb. Sierra makes her cherry-center cookies dusted with powdered sugar. Early on Easter morning, the hubs slices avocados in our kitchen, a sturdy apron tied over his pastel-striped church shirt. The guacamole is a reliable crowd pleaser, even if we eat a lot of it ourselves.

And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains…

I didn’t walk through Lent this year the way I sometimes do, with an urgent, pressing awareness of the story. After a blue-skied Ash Wednesday, which fell incongruously on Valentine’s Day, a thousand other things demanded my attention. Even Holy Week felt fragmented: we were on the West Coast seeing friends on Palm Sunday, then jet-lagged through the days leading up to Easter, busy with to-do lists and the demands of everyday life. I wasn’t quite able to quiet down and listen.

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power…

On Friday night, we pulled together the worship order for Sunday, sitting in our living room, discussing hymns and Scripture readings, updating the prayer list. J suggested we begin the service by singing an old hymn, just the two of us and his guitar. We sang and he strummed, and on Sunday morning, we stood up in front of the community we love, and did it for them.

Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more…

This was our eighth Easter in this place, with these people, and as I looked out over the pews, I saw faces I love deeply and faces I’d never seen before. I saw the couple with their toddler son in his seersucker blazer, who are days away from welcoming their second child. I saw our friends who moved up from Texas three summers ago, on little more than hope and a sense of adventure. I saw our church treasurer, Dale, with his tall Jewish wife and daughter, all of whom had prepared and hosted a Passover Seder for us at the church the night before. I saw the couple who moved here from California for a year back in 1967, who have never stopped serving this church.

I sang to all of them, for all of them, my voice rising over the lines I know so well, and I saw how so many of them smiled back at me, how they could not help but sing along.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day…

I’ve been humming this hymn on and off since I read the second Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mystery, which shares part of its title. In the book, Clare is unnerved by the song, but I’ve always loved it. It belongs to the canon of hymns we sang when I was a little girl, the ones that put the cross front and center, that remind us of the ways this story is visceral and real.

And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away…

You can’t have a resurrection without a physical death first; you can’t have a true redemption story without it getting very, very dark. A fountain filled with blood is a gruesome image, maybe, but in my mind it has always been linked to hope and grace.

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply…

We listened, that morning, to Amy reading from the gospel of Mark, recounting how Mary Magdalene was first baffled, then afraid and – at last – amazed. We listened to Dasha, age 12, reading the words of Psalm 118: This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. We listened to Colette, nine months old, adding her voice to the congregation’s chorus as we sang the familiar hymns.

christ the lord easter hymn sheet music

We listened to Landon reminding us of the hope of the resurrection, the fierce gladness that has endured for all these years. And when I got up to speak over the communion table, I said: today we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, of life over death, and the certainty that we are loved beyond what we can imagine.

Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die…

Those are my favorite lines from this hymn. Those of us who have believed, who have made this story our own, are called to tell it, to keep singing this song for our whole lives. We have witnessed redemption and joy, light beyond the clouds of the darkest, most bitter night. We have been rescued from grief, from loneliness, from pain: we do not get to dodge it or avoid it, but we are assured that there is something beyond it, that God is making all things new. This story, which at times baffles and confuses and even breaks our hearts, is the story we will wrestle with forever, and the story we will tell until we die.

If you celebrated, I hope you had a wonderful Easter.

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memorial church interior

Nearly two weeks ago, I walked across campus through the snow to the Ash Wednesday service at Memorial Church. It was brief: a couple of readings, the litany of repentance, and a slow procession up to the front to have our foreheads smeared with ash.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the minister said as he made the sign of the cross on my head. Then, softly, he added, “Glory be to God.”

We ended with a hymn I’d never heard before: “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days.” The title of this post comes from the end of the first verse: “Teach us with thee to mourn our sins, and close by thee to stay.”

I didn’t grow up observing Lent, but I’ve experimented with it on and off over the past decade, giving up chocolate or candy, or making an effort to add something in, like a reading or a practice of prayer. I decided this year, after eight feet of snow in three weeks, that giving anything (else) up would make me crazy. Getting through this winter, and reaching Easter, will be sacrifice and reward enough.

Since Ash Wednesday, that hymn has been playing in the back of my mind, its melody keeping me company, as the Magnificat did in December. Two lines have particularly struck me: the one quoted above, and this one at the end of the fourth verse: “Yea, evermore in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.”

Some years, for me, Lent has been about sacrifice: giving something up to see if I could, or because my church community was trying out this ancient but new-to-us practice. Some years, it has been about denial: wanting to skip over the whole dark season and rush forward to Easter and spring.

This year, I keep thinking about those two lines, and I have realized: this Lent, for me, is about abiding.

Lindsey noted last summer on her blog that marriage is about abiding, about remaining near. Several months later, she added that friendship is made of attention. I agree in both cases, and sometimes I also think this is the entire point of the spiritual life: to keep drawing near to God, to pay attention, to keep asking God to abide with us in our messy, walking-around lives.

My favorite hymns these days are the quiet ones, the ones that sidle up to God and ask him to draw near, because this world is dark and complicated and heavy and we can’t move through it on our own. There is a place for the unbridled joy of the praise songs I loved as a college student, but the phrases I keep returning to now are softer, gentler: Abide with me. Come, thou fount of every blessing. Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.

I still find Lent difficult: it is hard for me to look steadily at the darkness of this world, at least without flinching or wanting to run away. I’m already longing for Passion Week, where the darkness grows even darker for a while before the glory of Easter breaks in. I am ready to be there already, to step into the story of Jesus when I know the daylight is around the corner, when the pain and suffering will be worth it because they will finally make sense.

But we’re not there yet. We are here, in the middle of Lent, and the middle of winter (at least here in New England). We have four more weeks to Palm Sunday, five weeks until Easter, who knows how long until spring.

We are here. And it is our job to remain here, to live in this in-between place, and to keep praying the words of the hymn I’m growing to love: Yea, evermore, in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.

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church candlelight vienna

Come ye sinners, poor and needy, bruised and broken by the fall
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pardoning love for all
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more

I had grand plans for Lent this year: perhaps giving up Facebook, or even all social media as my friend Laura did for the month of March. I heard about friends giving up cheese, ice cream, alcohol. I finally decided to give up hitting the candy jar at work, because it seemed like a challenge I could handle.

I pulled out a book of Lenten readings, intending to read one piece each morning as I often do during Advent. Eight days in, I closed the book and never reopened it. The readings did not speak to my tired soul.

Come ye weary, heavy laden, weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love and power
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more

Every Thursday night, my husband and I sit down after dinner to plan Sunday’s worship service. We are half of a part-time ministry team that keeps things running for our small, scattered church body of 50 or so people. We organize potlucks, wash dishes and communion trays, send out weekly email messages, print service bulletins. It is important work, but it is also deeply mundane. By Thursday night we are often tired, frustrated, not particularly excited about shaping a coherent service out of this week’s lectionary readings or the emphasis of the current church season.

This Lent has reminded me of my own brokenness, not in dramatic fashion but in the small trials of each day. I hit the snooze button almost every morning, despite my attempts to kick the habit. I snap at my husband when he gets home late yet again, after another evening of the therapy work he loves. I sleep in and skip yoga; I neglect my long-distance friends. I resent being asked to do the same humdrum tasks, at home and at work, over and over again. I fail. I am weak and wounded, sick and sore.

We are still nearly two weeks away from Easter, and while joy is on the horizon, it hasn’t quite arrived yet. Even after Easter, the petty frustrations and the larger hurts will remain. We live in a flawed and beautiful world, caught between blessed assurance and the stark reality of a creation that groans. But we still sing the words of salvation and new life, not because they always reflect our present reality but because they embody the hope we are holding onto.

Saints and angels join in concert, sing the praises of the Lamb
While the blissful courts of heaven sweetly echo with His Name
Hallelujah, hallelujah – here we now His love proclaim
Hallelujah, hallelujah – here we now His love proclaim

We include different words in our order of service every week: Bible readings, poems, always the Lord’s Prayer. We do our best to vary the hymns, so people don’t get bored. But during this Lent, this song – especially the second verse – is the only song I have wanted to sing.

“Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” arranged by the ZOE Group, after Joseph Hart’s original hymn

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memorial church interior harvard yard

It is my Lent to break my Lent,
To eat when I would fast,
To know when slender strength is spent,
Take shelter from the blast
When I would run with wind and rain,
To sleep when I would watch.
It is my Lent to smile at pain
But not ignore its touch.
It is my Lent to listen well
When I would be alone,
To talk when I would rather dwell
In silence, turn from none
Who call on me, to try to see
That what is truly meant
Is not my choice. If Christ’s I’d be
It’s thus I’ll keep my Lent.

—Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine is one of my spiritual heroes; I love everything she writes, from memoir to semi-science-fiction to thoughts on faith and art. This poem was recommended by Kari.

A blessed Lent to you.

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Some of you may remember I gave up Twitter for Lent this year. I confess my motivations weren’t all high-mindedly spiritual. Far from it, in fact. I knew I wouldn’t, for example, spend the time I usually spent on Twitter praying, or reading the Bible – most of the time I spend on Twitter is at work. And I am under no illusions about Twitter’s importance in the grand scheme of things – the fact that I even had to worry about giving it up is a problem of privilege.

I mainly wanted to do two things: give up something for Lent that demanded a lot of my attention, however trivial it seems; and break the cycle I’d gotten into of hopping onto Twitter every few minutes during the workday, scrolling and clicking links ad infinitum. I wanted to use Twitter as more of a tearoom, as Marianne says, rather than a constant stream of distraction that left me feeling frazzled and guilty for wasting so much time.

Since Easter, I’ve been tweeting again – though I find I have less to say these days. And while I still sometimes fall into the scrolling trap, I’ve at least gotten better at catching myself when I start clicking multiple links or reading dozens upon dozens of tweets (as opposed to the freshest 20 tweets or so).

It’s not ideal, but it’s a step. Catching myself, and refocusing, sure beats mindlessly giving into the urge and letting my time-wasting go unchecked. I guess this is what they call self-discipline.

Anyone else struggle with the distractions of social media (or other distractions)? How do you catch yourself and refocus?

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I haven’t tweeted in two weeks. I kind of miss it, though not as much as I thought I would. Sometimes I think of sound bites or quips that I would normally tweet, and then I remember I’m not tweeting till Easter. The oh-so-clever (usually snarky, rarely brilliant) comments in my head drift away. (Occasionally I post them to Facebook instead.)

I’m sure I’m getting more actual work done at work, though a small part of my job does involve social media (coordinating more than participating). And I know I’m spending less time online in the evenings, with fewer links to click, fewer conversations to participate in. (And I’m spending more time listening to my husband play guitar, which is what he’s adding in for Lent. To each their own.)

I’m realizing how often I looked to Twitter as a distraction, a brain screen-saver, something to fill my day, a chance to consume instead of create. And I’m trying not to let my Google Reader take its place.

Madeleine L’Engle, my literary idol, points out in Two-Part Invention, “We have allowed the media to call us consumers – ugly. No! I don’t want to be a consumer. Anger consumes. Forest fires consume. Cancer consumes.” In her acceptance speech for the Margaret Edwards Award, she added, “I want us to be nourishers.” Yes. I want to be a nourisher, a creator, someone who brings life into the world instead of simply absorbing – or, worse, wrecking – what’s already there.

Lofty goals for a single Lenten period, I know. And when I go back to tweeting, I’m sure I will still be susceptible to distraction. But I want to remember what it feels like to have a little extra silence and space in my life. And to create more often, instead of consuming.

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