Category Archives: Faith and Spirituality

On Ash Wednesday, From Darkness to Light

It’s a bitterly cold Ash Wednesday here in Northern Virginia, as in much of the country.  An icy breeze whips up from time to time.  But the sun is shining brightly, and at least for a brief while, nothing frozen is falling from the sky.  The weather seems appropriate.  It’s conducive to imagining the joy and beauty of an ideal Easter morning while experiencing the big chill of Ash Wednesday.  This is a day for a clear-eyed, head-on look at our mortality, a time to peer into the bleakness of what would have been, had it not been for God’s saving grace. It marks the start of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, during which prayer, repentance and self-denial are encouraged. Lent’s Biblical basis is Christ’s retreat to the wilderness to commune with the Father in preparation for his ministry.

Ash Wednesday dawns in Charlottesville.   

So what’s the deal with the ashes?  Why the messy smudges on foreheads of neatly dressed and otherwise well-scrubbed people?  It’s because of these words from Genesis 3:19, declared by God to Adam and Eve, just before He ushered them out of Eden, the paradise garden He had intended as their eternal, blissful home. 

You are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

Tough words from the Creator and Landlord.  What did the privileged First Couple do to make God so angry?  Incensed enough that He sent the two, created in His own image, out into desolation, to eke out a living through toil and pain? 

Many of you who didn’t grow up attending church and Sunday School, along with some of you who did, no doubt consider the saga of Adam and Eve just another myth for the simple-minded.  Whether you see it as God’s literal Truth, an interesting folk tale or something in between, it’s a powerful story worth contemplating.  Here’s my take on the Fall and its particular significance on Ash Wednesday.

Adam and Eve lived in a glorious garden created by God, suffused with His divine light, life and love.  They had full-time leisure, full-time luxury.  God walked with them there in the garden.  The trees dripped with delicious treats, theirs for the easy picking.  All except for the apples on one tree.  A tree with an impressive-sounding name:  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.   

Life was wonderful.  Life was beautiful.  

Among the friendly and fantastic creatures of the garden, there was a serpent.  He was wise and wily, and he knew about that whole free-will thing.  Indeed, he owed his very existence to what he saw as the weak link in God’s great plan.  The serpent looked with contempt upon the innocent contentment of the two humans.  He realized the fragility of the thread that kept them in their lovely home.  It wasn’t long before this scaly Con Guy Supreme made his move.  Appealing to Eve’s pride, he offered an opportunity for further greatness.  Knowledge equal to God’s was at her fingertips, but God selfishly chose to keep this power to Himself.  She deserved better, didn’t she?  So Eve ate from the tree.  Adam, who apparently needed no convincing, munched long complacently.

God found out.  He wasn’t happy.  Paradise was lost, for the taste of a forbidden fruit.  We may think we would have known better.  But probably not.  Like Eve, we might have been tripped up by pride.  Or maybe, like Adam, we might have given very little thought to the matter.  If Eve says it’s fine, it must be.  In simply thinking we would have known better, it’s evident that we would not have.  With free will comes the ability to make the wrong choice, a choice we tend to exercise repeatedly.  Like Adam and Eve, if left to our own devices, our fate would be to wander in the dust.

But we are not abandoned, without hope, in a barren land.  Paradise is still within our grasp, as these words from Mark 1:15 tell us:

Repent and believe the good news!

On Ash Wednesday, we confront the grim reality of our tendency toward pride, selfishness and petty meanness.  On our own, none of us will ever be good enough to work our way back to Eden.  But we don’t have to be.  The Christ that was already present within creation since God spoke the universe into existence, the very Word of God described in John 1: 1 – 5, came to earth in human form.  Jesus, fully divine yet fully human, took our sins upon Himself.  As the spotless Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice, He wiped our messy slates clean.

To accept Christ’s free gift of salvation, we merely need to acknowledge our wrongheadedness and to ask forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness is granted for our willingness to repent; it’s not contingent on our going forward without a misstep.  We are human; we will stumble and lose our way at times.  We cannot be perfect in this lifetime, but we can desire to achieve perfection.

The Ash Wednesday ashes are marked on the forehead in the shape of a cross, the instrument of death that became the tree of life.  Christ’s good news saves us from a future of ashy, dusty nothingness, replacing it with the promise of unimaginable joy in a paradise everlasting.  We can’t even comprehend unending joy; our flawed human nature prevents us.  But we will understand it fully, and magnificently, one day, I am convinced.

On this frigid Ash Wednesday, the sun’s rays fall on new green shoots and buds.  We are reminded of the new life that comes of death, of the new birth offered to us without price.  On this Ash Wednesday, look into the darkness of the ashes.  Then give thanks for the love that pulls us back into the light of love.   

Early morning Ash Wednesday sunshine begins to illuminate the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.  Thanks to my daughter for the Charlottesville photos. 

Merry Christmas 2018

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King;

let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing,

and heaven and nature sing,

and heaven, and heaven, and nature sing!

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May the light of God’s love dwell in you now and always.

May you share that sacred light with those around you in the darkness of our troubled world.

And may the joy of Christmas fill your heart all year long!

Ash Valentine’s Day

This year, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day both fall on February 14.  The two are unlikely bedfellows, so to speak.   

Ash Wednesday is a day for Christians to face our mortality head-on and clear-eyed, to gaze into the bleakness of what would have been, had it not been for God’s saving grace.  It marks the start of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, during which prayer, repentance and self-denial are encouraged.  Lent’s Biblical basis is Christ’s retreat to the wilderness to commune with the Father in preparation for his ministry. 

Valentine’s Day, on the other hand, needs no explanation.  For most of us, it involves the giving and getting of various treats.  It’s a day for indulgence, not denial. 

To Lenten sticklers for self-abnegation, the concurrence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day will likely pose a conundrum.  To deny or not to deny?  Chocolate or no chocolate?  Dessert or no dessert?  Wine or no wine with that special Valentine dinner?  Perhaps a compromise:  to begin the denial process on February 15? 

I’ve written several times about Ash Wednesday.  See: Looking into the Ashes (March 1, 2017), and Saved from the Ashes (February 10, 2016).  I’ve tried Lenten self-denial in the past, but I’ve been known to lose track of the larger purpose.  The season’s truly spiritual pursuits–prayer, Bible reading, penitential introspection–they sometimes were left in the dust of Ash Wednesday.  A couple of times, when I renounced all things sweet, my Lenten journey became little more than a period of dieting.  I wince when I recall certain instances of self-righteous forbearance that must have made me a most disagreeable companion.  See Mindful Eating, and a Mindful Lent (March 24, 2012). 

The purpose of Lent is to try to become more like Christ.  Instead, in our singular focus on denial, we become more like the Pharisees, those elite Jewish leaders who prided themselves on following every iota of the Mosaic Law.  They were probably among those Jesus denounced for ostentatious fasting:  “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting.  I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.” (Matthew 6: 16, New Living Translation)  Jesus called out the Pharisees for their empty, showy arrogance and for the stumbling blocks they set up for others:  “You shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces.  You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either” (Matthew 23: 13).  Overly zealous regarding trivial details, they missed the big picture:  “You are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law–justice, mercy and faith.  You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides!  You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23: 23-24).   

On this Ash Wednesday, I look into the dark ashes and contemplate Jesus’s supreme sacrifice.  I give thanks that his unimaginable love lifts me from the depths of destruction and despair. 

On this Valentine’s Day, If I know my husband, he’ll come home with a big box of Russell Stover’s candy.  

During Lent, I will try to take Jesus as my role model.  I will keep my Bible close at hand.  And I will eat some chocolates.  I may also swallow a few gnats.  But I hope to avoid the camels.  

Happy Ash Valentine’s Day!

Hold onto Your Hope (Happy New Year 2018)

 

On this first day of the new year, as I look back to 2017, I must say “Whew!”  Last year was packed to excess with major life changes for our family.  It felt like a Netflix series with too many unlikely, simultaneous subplots.  I’m hoping that in 2018 I’ll have time to appreciate the scenery and enjoy some quirky character development.     

The stressful process of selling and packing up my mother’s Atlanta home, buying the Virginia house, the complicated logistics of the relocation–that’s all behind us.  Now Mama is next door, mere steps away.  While the two weeks following her surgery were perhaps even more miserable than her surgeons had expected, she can now move without excruciating pain, sometimes without the aid of her walker.  She made the trek on Christmas day from her place to ours and back, as I had hoped. 

The anxiety surrounding my daughter’s college decision is fading into the mists of memory.  After a period of adjustment, she’s very happy at the University of Virginia.  We all appreciate the fact that she’s a pleasant two-hour drive away from home.  An additional plus is that when she’s here, she has a greater appreciation for her parents (and grandmother).  Those mundane, homely comforts–my cooking, her own room, Kiko sleeping sweetly–all 0nce taken for granted, are now recognized as the luxuries they are.  And time zips by.  The breaks–fall, winter, and soon, spring–are upon us before we know it.   

When I was searching for an appropriate New Year’s photo, this one of my daughter as Glinda the Good Witch in her last high school musical, The Wizard of Oz, came to mind.  Glinda looks into the distance towards a vision of the glowing Emerald City, which, with a little help from her white magic, has just been revealed.  She’s about to send Dorothy and friends off on the final leg of their journey to Oz.  So in a way, she’s looking into the future.  Toward a new year. 

Glinda sings this song as she points toward the bright horizon:   

You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark,

You’re out of the night.

Step into the sun, step into the light.

Keep straight ahead

For the most glorious place on the face of the earth or the sky.

Hold onto your breath, hold onto your heart,

Hold onto your hope. 

We all get lost from time to time in the metaphorical woods.  But may you start out this new year on a good path, heading toward a good place, in good company.  When you wander off track, may you find your way quickly back into the light.  And may hope and love go with you. 

Another Christmas Eve Among the Friendly Beasts

As has become our custom, our family spends the latter part of Christmas Eve afternoon at our church’s live nativity.  The day was chilly and gray, the ground muddy, as usual.  The friendly beasts were in attendance–the stocky little burro, the hump-backed ox with the coat of gray velvet, the fluffy, disheveled sheep, a variety of curious goats.  

Kiko was obstinately determined to sniff out every furry friend.

 

The sweet-tempered camel was there, of course.  A gracious celebrity, as well as a commanding and unexpected presence in the DC suburbs, he posed patiently for photos. 

He even gave out a few kisses.

Humans took turns in the roles of the Holy Family, angels, shepherds and kings.  Baby Jesus, to the disappointment of several young families, was played by a doll.  Sometimes Mary and Joseph were fourteen, sometimes forty.  Occasionally the costumes fit well, other times, not so much.  Hems tended toward the mud-stained.   Gender was fluid.  One of our shepherds, in his attempts to drum up even more attention from passers-by, appeared to be hitchhiking. 

It wasn’t a flawless performance piece, by far.  But it didn’t need to be.  Who else but ordinary, imperfect people does God use to do his extraordinary work?

The rushing Northern Virginia traffic was forced to slow down, if briefly, as it passed our live nativity.  Many people even put their Christmas Eve plans on hold, parked their cars and explored the scene first hand.  Most left with a camel selfie.  Some, we hope, caught a glimmer of a greater truth.   

He is born, the holy Child, play the oboe and bagpipes merrily! He is born, the holy Child, sing we all of the Savior mild.

Through long ages of the past, prophets have foretold His coming, through long ages of the past, now the time has come at last!

O how lovely, O how pure, is this perfect child of heaven, O how lovely, O how pure, gracious gift to human-kind!

Jesus, Lord of all the world, coming as  child among us, Jesus, Lord of all the world, grant to us thy heavenly peace.

Il est né, le divin Enfant, jouez haut-bois rèsonnez musettes! Il est né, le divin Enfant, chantons tous son avènement!

  –18th Century French carol

For previous Christmas Eve live nativity posts, see here, here, and here. 

Favorite Christmas Posts

Since I began Wild Trumpet Vine, I’ve written about forty Christmas-themed posts. Back in December of 2011, there was so much to cover, but now I run the risk of repeating myself.  And during this holiday season, time for writing will be limited.  My mother’s spinal surgery has been scheduled for early December.  Her doctors have emphasized that the recovery will likely be difficult and painful.  I’m grateful that Mama is here with us in Virginia as we face this challenge together.  I’m also very thankful I have no career or young children to neglect as I care for her. 

My mother and I certainly won’t be creating any handmade decorations this year, as we did during my childhood.  See Working Like Elves (December 8, 2011).  But I hope that as she heals, she’ll occasionally feel up to laughing about our shared adventures and misadventures of Christmases past.  Maybe we’ll revisit the question of the hideous tree we chose our first year in Atlanta (Oh, Eww, Christmas Tree, December 18, 2013). 

Around mid-month, our daughter will be home after finishing her first semester at the University of Virginia.  She’ll want my mother’s new home to be cheery for the season, so I expect we’ll unpack some of the old decorations we moved this summer from Mama’s Atlanta attic.  Maybe she’ll persuade her grandmother to reminisce about long-ago Christmases in central Kentucky.  See Unsilvered WWII-Era Ornaments on a Kentucky Cedar, and Uncle Edwin’s Silver Stocking, (December 23, 2015). 

I haven’t begun to think about Christmas gifts; I don’t know if I’ll even get around to shopping.  It’s reassuring to know that if I don’t, my family won’t hold it against me.  H and D will make sure there are presents for everyone under the tree.  Creative gifting and innovative packaging are among their talents.  See several posts on Exercises in Extreme GiftwrappingBy the time Christmas morning dawns, maybe Mama will be able to walk across the grass from her house to ours without the pain that assaults her now with each step.  That’s the only gift on my wish list this December.

From years past, a few more of my favorite Christmas posts:

We’re All Family Here (December 25, 2012)

Lighting up the Night for Christmas (December 7, 2012)

The Holiday Newsletter Quandary (December 16, 2011)

Little Old Christmas Treasures (December 23, 2011)

Cape Cod Shell Angels (December 20, 2011)

Just in Case . . . (December 4, 2016)

On This Mother’s Day 2017

If Mother’s Day is here, then Father’s Day can’t be far behind.  On both days, Daddy’s absence will be keenly felt, more so than usual.  If you lost a parent in the last few years, you know the feeling. 

I give thanks that I was born to my warm, loving, smart and funny mother, who is still very much with us.  Before long, she will be closer still, when she relocates from Atlanta to Virginia.  And I’m thankful that we had Daddy with us for so many years.  I’m immensely grateful for the happy, comfortable life my parents worked so hard to build together, primarily for my benefit. 

And on this first Mother’s Day without Daddy, I say a prayer for my mother, and for all the mothers, young and old, who are facing yet another day without their partner. 

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1965

On the steps of my parents’ married housing apartment at UNC

Paris, 2002

For so long, it was the three of us.  Now we’re two, but our hearts are fuller because we carry Daddy with us always. 

A Different Kind of Easter, 2017

The first year following the death of a loved one, every day brings a loss that must be faced anew.  Holidays, especially, those days of expected celebration, are tough going.  Absence becomes a heavy, all-suffusing presence, a thick cloud of anxious dismay. 

This would be the first Easter without my father.  

And it wouldn’t be only my father’s absence that would make this Easter different.  My daughter was, at long last, in the final stages of college choice.  She was in the process of comparing the  schools to which she’d been accepted.  Over spring break, she’d come with me to Atlanta and we’d tour Georgia Tech. On Good Friday, she’d fly to Rochester to meet my husband.  They’d spend Easter with his side of the family.  She’d take last looks at the University of Rochester and Union College in Schenectady, NY.  I’d stay in Atlanta.  It would be the first time I’d ever spend an Easter away from my husband and daughter.  But it was being present with my mother, in the face of Daddy’s glaring absence, that took priority. 

I didn’t like to think about what the day would bring.  The words of that hymn, God of Grace, and God of Glory, kept echoing in my head:  Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.  On Easter morning, around 10:25, Daddy wouldn’t be standing by the back door, jingling his keys, looking spiffy in his navy suit and perfectly knotted tie.  He wouldn’t be close beside me as we sang the beautiful resurrection hymns in church.  Mama and I would certainly need wisdom and courage to face that hour. 

We’d need our faith.  And with it, we’d find comfort in Charles Wesley’s words in that perhaps most frequently sung of all the classic resurrection hymns, Christ the Lord is Risen Today:

Where, O death, is now thy sting? 

Once he died, our souls to save,

Where’s thy victory, boasting grave?  . . .

Made like him, like him we rise,

Ours the cross, the grave, the skies. 

We’d envision my father, free from the chains of illness that had gripped him at the last.  His unique spirit more beautiful than his earthly presence in the prime of his life, he soars now where Christ has led.  The message of Easter would see us through.  It would give us strength for the living of these days. 

What, I wonder, would we do without our faith?