Category Archives: Baptist

“Removable” Ash

There’s a widely held opinion among my friends who are clergy that Ash Wednesday ashes should be removed rather promptly following imposition to avoid presenting oneself has haughty for being “more faithful” than those who do not have their ashes (at all or yet). While I certainly understand the sentiment, especially after hearing stories of those affected by such haughty stare-downs of the ashed faithful when their Ash Wednesday service was in the evening, I wonder if so quickly removing our ashes keeps us from recognizing, or focusing upon, their significance.

Today, a full 24 hours from our Ash Wednesday service, I happened to look down at my right hand and noticed a faint tinge of black under my right thumbnail. After probably 10-20 hand washes, this little bit of ash persisted in the deepest recesses of my nail bed. Annoyed, my first reaction was to grab the nail cleaner and attempt to remove the lingering evidence of my participation in the service, but right as I picked up the basket of nail supplies, I paused. Not more than a day before, my pastor and colleague Daniel Glaze had read part of a book to our Ash Wednesday congregants, reminding us that ashes are sticky things for a reason – they remind us of something important:

“In her book Traveling Mercies, the author Anne Lamott tells the story of scattering the ashes of a loved one. ‘When I opened the box of ashes, I thought they would be nice and soft and well, ashy, like the ones with which they anoint your forehead on Ash Wednesday. But they’re gritty, as if they’re bones or something.’

She continues … ‘I tossed a handful of my friend’s ashes into the water way out past the Golden Gate Bridge during the day. They’re impossible to let go of entirely. They stick to things, to your fingers, your sweater… And they blow every which way. We tried to strew them off the side of the boat romantically, with seals barking from the rocks on shore, under a true-blue sky, but the ashes would not cooperate.

‘They rarely do,’ she says. ‘It’s frustrating if you are hoping to have a happy ending, or at least a little closure, a made-for-tv moment when you toss them into the air and they flutter and disperse. They don’t. They cling, they haunt. They get in your hair, in your eyes, in your clothes.’ Reality is often grungy, isn’t it?

…Lent is anything but reverent and tidy. ”

I resolved to leave the black smudge under my nail until some future, final hand washing removed it. I cannot remove my humanity no matter how hard I try, and neither should I! Christ himself chose to don the ashes of humanity to come live among us. How much more should I appreciate my ashy existence in this world!

I figure there’s probably a happy medium to be struck between how long we wear our ashes to remember who we are, versus how long we wear them to remind others we’ve been to church. But, for the immediate washers of their ashes and those who wear their ashes from morning until their pillowcases are grimy, perhaps we shouldn’t worry about when we (or any one else) wipes it off. Instead, we should simply use those smudgy, ashy crosses (or nail grime) to remind ourselves in this season of Lent that we are indeed dust, ashes that stick around and are messy and imperfect – and that sometimes no matter how many washes we undertake, we’ll have it stuck under a nail for hours and hours. Yet God remains faithful to God’s children, mess, ash, and all.

I am eternally grateful for divine mercy for all of God’s ash-covered children, my dingy thumb and self included.

Living Through Powerlessness: Acceptance, Grace, and Hope

I spent more than two days this week without access to the internet at home. Now, for most folks, this is a mere annoyance. But for me, it was overwhelming. You see, my “day job” is working for a law firm as a paralegal – from home. Meaning, a day without internet at my house means searching out a WiFi signal on my laptop somewhere else so I can earn a living. It means transferring my phone extension to my cell phone, uprooting my laptop and a second computer monitor, and finding a place to perch that has reliable internet. (Thankfully, I do have a second job that does have reliable internet and an extra desk for me in Dan’s office!)

This whole process has made me feel powerless. I was working along, minding my own business, when the connection stopped working. Nothing was wrong with our “box” and no amount of restarting all the devices could make it work again. And no matter how many times we called the internet provider, they still had techs only available to come out two days later. They kept telling us there was nothing they could do.

And so, I sat, powerless to change my situation at home. But the thing about powerlessness over situations is that we are in fact empowered then to do something else.

I was empowered to shut down the laptop and take the night off. Empowered to go on an impromptu date night with my husband that turned out to be extremely fun. Empowered to find a new place to sit and work the following day, which turned out to be nice because I was able to work face-to-face more with my coworkers here at church. I got out of my work-at-home doldrums and got to dress up and say hi to other humans (and not just my happy, but non-human doggies).

We have all heard/read the serenity prayer at some point:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

My role this week was acceptance. I couldn’t convince others to do things on my schedule. I couldn’t change my internet connection situation. I had lots of courage to try, but the internet company had no appointments. And so, I had to accept my fate of being an internet nomad in search of a WiFi singal so I could work.

But where the serenity prayer stops, we should not. Acceptance doesn’t mean stopping. Once we accept, we can then do something with that knowledge. In my case, I could try something new, get out of my routine, and keep a positive attitude. I could find new ways to approach the unchangeable that were life-giving. I didn’t have to sit in pained, silent acceptance and do nothing in my disconnected apartment.

Life is a series of things we cannot change. No matter the amount of courage we have to change things we can, some are impossible to change (at least on the schedule we would like to). These could be nuisances like a lack of internet or a locked car door, or they could be major life circumstances like cancer, sudden death, the struggles of aging, or illness in innocent children.

We just cannot change things sometimes. No matter how much we try, these things simply are. And we are left with knowing that we cannot change them, and then finding ways to live in them, through them, and make the best of our lives as we accept them.

As we face life’s challenges, we are going to overcome many things by having courage to change them. But when we cannot change things, I pray that we instead find ways to integrate them into our lives in positive ways. For the “small stuff,” it can simply take a positive attitude and some ingenuity; for the bigger things, it may take days, months, or even years to find ways to live into God’s meaning in our lives as we face these hardships.

But we can experience the grace of God in our healing and acceptance of the unchangeable, and maybe change up our prayer a bit:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
The wisdom to know the difference,
And the grace to find new ways to live in spite of the things I cannot change.

[Cross-posted from River Road Church, Baptist Pastor’s Blog:]

Religious, But Not Spiritual

We’ve probably all had someone tell us they are a spiritual person, but not very religious. Oftentimes, for me, this is after the mention of my chosen profession. “Oh, you’re a minister – yeah, I used to go to church many years ago, but it just didn’t agree with me. It’s just so…[fill-in-the-blank: hypocritical, boring, etc.].  But I am still very spiritual. I believe in God. I’m just not very religious…” [awkward pause] “Oh, but I’m sure your church is really great!”

Why yes, it is. RRCB has one of the most beautiful and meaningful worship service structures I have ever attended or been a part of. It has the depth of meaning, the story-in-song, the aesthetics of a cathedral, all with a Baptist, soul- and Bible-affirming twist. And when we’re not worshiping, we’re doing the work of the Body of Christ. We are feeding the hungry, creating community, visiting the sick, affirming one another.

And yet – do you ever feel like you or someone you know involved in so many activities suddenly realizes that doing this, while it is philanthropic and good, no longer touches your soul in ways that God becomes more present?

Perhaps it is because you’re too busy to see Jesus (e.g., Martha). Perhaps you just never “got” the whole life-as-prayer or devotional time; it feels awkward. Perhaps there is still some doubt as to the veracity of God, but you definitely see good people and want to be a part of their good work in the name of this God you haven’t really gotten to know yet.

We are all somewhere on this faith journey.

I think it can be easy for us to fall into the trap of good works. Not in the self-righteous sense, but in the sense that we are doing a lot of good work with good hearts but never finding the “God moments,” missing the connection to the Divine in our work.

In his sermon this past Sunday, Mike Clingenpeel told us how very connected we are with technology and yet how very disconnected we can become from our Source, the Vine to our branches.

So, what are we busy Christians to do about this disconnect? How do we stop being religious but not spiritual?

I think the answer lies in our recognition that our spirit needs the same hard work as the missions we endeavor to pursue as a congregation.  One theologian, Baron von Hügel said that we have three dimensions: the intellectual, the institutional, and the mystical. We must nourish all three to be well-rounded People of the Book.

That mystical, or spiritual, part of us is often lost in our very logic-laden, post-Enlightenment, exuberantly busy world. We want neat, tidy ways of doing life. But mysticism seems to “waste time” and requires a lot of sitting alone and cultivating personal disciplines that will interfere with our daily lives, force us to face our deepest fears and longings, and drive us to see everything we do in a new Light.

Learning Spiritual Practices is a lot like learning to manage your time to study in school. It requires some persistence, some mess ups, and some ongoing changes of pace as we grow and learn. I would encourage you in the coming weeks to join me in a journey to beingreligious AND spiritual. Here are a few steps to help us get started (adapted from Thirsty for God by Bradley P. Holt):

  • Learn to sit attentively in silence. Sit up straight, spine perpendicular to the floor and with both feet on the floor. Close your eyes. Relax. Find a comfortable place for your arms and hands.  Let your muscles relax, moving from feet to head. Become aware of your breathing. Take deep breaths, in through the mouth, and our through the nose. Now you are in a state of relaxed alertness. As your mind wanders, it can be helpful to mentally move those thoughts away. If you have a candle, you may wish to symbolically view those distracting thoughts burning in the flame and disappearing. Silence is not easy and you should not blame yourself if it takes a while to settle into this kind of activity. Start small. Do 5 minutes of silence then 10, 15, 20 as you become more comfortable. You will likely find a kind of disruptive peace in these periods of still. You will find God’s still, small voice. [Note: if you cannot find quiet in your homes – I hear you moms and dads of young ones! – Remember that our chapel is open every day during business hours for meditation and prayer. It’s made for it – drop by on your way into work or whenever you have a break!]
  • Take a walk. Focus on your body’s rhythm – heartbeat, breathing, muscle tensions. Breathe in the freedom of being outside of a box (room). Imagine yourself on a walk with God. Look up at the sky or tall trees – see the vastness of creation.
  • Pray. Many of us are quick to offer a prayer of thanks for a meal or a request for something specific, but perhaps extend your “praying as talking to God” (mostly asking for things) to include praying in other ways that inform communication with God: Gratitude, Praise, Wonder, Confession, Complaint, and all the other ways we relate to other people. Prayer is not just one way of speaking, it is all communication we have with the Divine. It is our whole relation to God. Broaden your relationship with God but broadening your practice of prayer.
  • Write about your life. You could start by placing your date of birth and today’s date on far ends of a sheet of paper. Revisit places, time periods, events in your life (whether spiritual or ordinary, as both affect us). Which of these major events or places or people in your life have most affected how you view Creation, God, Church, and good works? Which of these moved your soul? As Denise Bennett told us on Wednesday night at Telling Our Faith Stories, the process of telling our faith stories begins with outlining those parts of our lives that have meaning. When did you receive or give a particularly meaningful gift? What place in your life holds sacred value? How does your family celebrate, mourn? Do you have unconventional family members or friends? Who has shaped you? After you have written these down, begin to share with trusted friends your journey. Ask them the same questions. Christian friends walking this same spiritual journey with you will provide space to be accountable for disciplines and to share, laugh, and have community together as you experience God in deeper, more profound ways in this walk of faith.

[cross-posted from the Pastor’s Blog at ]