Sunday, Sunday: Some Thoughts About Lent

WARNING: This post is very disjointed. Sorry about the hop, skip, jumpiness of it. In the words of Nehemiah: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” Apparently, I can’t write today either. Ha!

I sat in church today thinking about the purpose of Lent. I noticed a couple of things that I’d like to find out more about. We didn’t do the confessional part of the liturgy, I suspect because Lent is supposed to be focused on being confessional. Our retired Rector, Fr. Charlie, unintentionally spilled the water that is hidden under the lectern for the speaker or preacher of the day, I suspect to remind us all in a hilariously accidental way of our baptisms and of our own humanity. I learned a new term: Ember Day. With a quick Internet search, I found that ember days are for prayer and fasting, and they are days that mark the quarters of the Christian calendar. I still would like to learn more about this new liturgical observation.

For me Lent has always been a time in the liturgical calendar to pray, fast, and re-find myself in the face of Christ. This year for me Lent is the most wilderness it has been for a long time. Mind you, I have been so far from Christ for a few years that I haven’t really paid any attention to Lent other than it being a season in the calendar. For a couple of years, we haven’t really regularly attended church, so Lent was just the thing that lead up to Easter. There’s this idea that the way we understand ideas or concepts is by gaining a better understanding of the opposite, and I am pretty sure I fully understand the beauty that is Christ because of my propensity to wallow in the opposite. I know the wilderness. I know the desert. At points in my life, I’ve known the barren lands so well that I never thought I’d find my way back, or want to.

But now I am here. In the symbolic wilderness of Lent. I feel the sadness. I feel the temptation. I feel the loneliness. I feel this in juxtaposition to the joy, the warmth, the holiness, and the grace I have felt in Christ since the first Sunday of Advent. I feel like I have been called home only to be cast back into the dark. The cross is covered. The baptismal font is gone. The confessions are removed form the liturgy. We are in utter theological darkness. This concept, as I tried (but poorly) to articulate in my post about the road trip, has never been so clear to me in my life as it is in this particular Lent season.

Because of our impending move, this Lent season brings for me lots of last moments. Yesterday when we were at the Mounds, I said to Bec, “Later this spring, I’ll bring you back and we can walk the route of the race I just ran, because it’s beautiful.” Only I won’t, because she’ll be in Minnesota. Later in the say I said to my brother, “Next year when we run this Shamrock Beer Run, we’ll know to get here really early or really late to avoid the horrible bottle neck at the start line.” He said back to me, “Only you won’t be here next year, you’ll be in Minnesota.” True. My parents brought Bec and me a few dozen eggs, and I thought to myself that pretty soon I’d not be getting delicious farm fresh eggs every week, nor would I be able to just call them up for a coffee or to see me run a race. So far this Lent I’ve had the intense pain and pleasure of having many lengthy conversations with both friends and family to help me discern my future.

Who am I? Who is God? Where do I find my worth? What makes me live? What is my calling? What brings me joy? What vexes me? How can I reconcile the various facets of my life? What the fuck am I doing? Why? Am I seeking God’s will? These are just a few of the questions I’ve wrestled with over the past few weeks.

At church this morning, the Eucharist had a different meaning for me, and I can assume for Bec, since we both shed a few tears when we went back to the pew to kneel and contemplate the mystery of Jesus’ body and blood. She carefully thread her arm through mine and held my hand tightly. I am not sure if it was for my benefit or hers. We both know this time of transition will be more difficult and longer than we’d like. At any rate, the Eucharist today gave me an intense hope in the future. The Eucharist has a beautiful of doing that: reminding me that God is bigger than the wilderness. No matter the darkness, no matter my lostness or helplessness, God is there. Christ is real and present in my friends and family. I am not alone in this journey. Jesus is there. With me. In the wilderness.

I love the season of Lent, because I allow myself time to think about the darker more mysterious parts of my Christian faith. And I hate the season of Lent for the same reasons. Perhaps this is why Easter brings such joy. I cling to this hope. I cling to the promise of a risen Christ.

Road Trip, the Best Kind of Interruption

Every time I take a road trip, I learn something more about our country and its beauty. I learn more about myself and who I am. And, I learn more about God and who God is. This road trip was a day-long drive to Florida to see my best friend Merideth. I was going to stop in Atlanta and camp at a state park, but then I remembered that Mer was off of work on Sunday, so why not just drive through and go to the beach with her instead of by myself. Sweet. So 16-hour drive. That was on Saturday, then on Wednesday, I left Florida at 4AM and drove through to Cincinnati to see my other best friend Amy. The trip culminated in lunch with my beautiful sister-in-law in Dayton before returning home to a going away party for my love. The week was excellent, contemplative, beautiful. I made new friends, was helped through the long hours of the drive, and experienced the beauty of this fine land. Here are some things I learned:

  1. If you listen to the radio for long enough, you’ll hear a song that reminds you of every person you’ve ever loved. Some of them will make you cry, some will make you laugh, and some will just piss you off. One was the Sarah Mclachlan song that reminded me of a convicted felon I once loved. Yeah, bad judgment. One was LaBamba, reminding me of a boyfriend I’d love to forget. One was a Mariah Carey song that Kristen and I used to sing to each other in our dorm room dance parties. One reminded me of the first crush I ever had on a woman (don’t have crushes on straight women, it never works out well). Finally, I listened to The Doors, which, of course, reminded me of Jaymes and the way he opened out my mind and my musical interests to bands I’d never heard before. And, finally, every cheesy country song reminded me of my beautiful wife. Thanks, Lady Antebellum and Jason Aldean. Really, music forces so many emotions, I’m not sure how people stand listening to it for long periods of time.
  2. White Castle can be the most delicious meal you’ve ever eaten when you’ve been in the car for ten hours. White Castle is not good for you, nor does it provide any kind of sustenance. White Castle gives you gas. White Castle serves Big Red soda. White Castle is a road-trip disaster, but the miniature cheeseburgers slide right down and taste good on the way.
  3. I shouldn’t spend 16 hours inside my own head. When I left Muncie, I had lots of things on my mind: the impending move, lots of grading, planning, wedding planning, Bec’s leaving next week, my spirituality, and political stuff. If you can’t tell by reading this blog, I always think about 80,000 things at a time, so this isn’t new, but I’m usually thinking about small things. This trip was sort of a trip of mourning the loss of comfort. I’m ready to move to Minnesota, but I have lived in East Central Indiana for 40 years. I needed to drive and mourn. I won’t drive down 75 to Florida to see Merideth again. I won’t be able to bop over to Ohio to see Amy or Susan. I won’t be within a stone’s throw of the Smoky Mountains. I won’t be within decent driving distance of Niagara Falls. I won’t be around my biggest support system. And, quite frankly, I am terrified about recreating all that at 40 years old. I know that’s not old, and I know I have no problem making friends, but Minnesota seems like a whole new world. What if people don’t make friendships in the same way there? What if my sense of humor doesn’t fit? What if I can’t find a job? What if we can’t find a house? Basically, I spent about 13 hours of the way down to Florida being freaked out about my future. On the way back, I spent my time dreaming about what an amazing future is in store for me and Bec, but I remain vexed about the move anyway.
  4. I shouldn’t listen to praise music while I drive. Ticket for me. I shouldn’t let 18-year-old drivers rear end my brand new car. Ticket(s) for her.
  5. No matter how clearly I lay out my plans, they’ll never work. They’ll always change, and I’ll never get everything finished that I intend to get finished. But life is for enjoyment, not for stress. Sorry, students, some things didn’t or won’t get done.
  6. I need to eat healthy food (refer back to 2). I feel like shit, and I have giant circles under my eyes. I know my body doesn’t tolerate gluten, corn, or soy very well, and yet, that’s mostly what I ate on my trip. I need to get back to the basics, and since it’s training season it shouldn’t be too hard. I got on the scale this morning, and I’m officially the fattest I’ve been in 3 years. Yay, me. I’ve officially gained 35 pounds since last July 13. Thirty-five mother fucking pounds. Thanks, stress eating. I might need a psychological intervention.
  7. I am in the right place in the Episcopal Church. I feel God’s presence there, but I can also think. I’m not asked to blindly follow along. I’m asked to have my own thoughtful consideration of who God is and who [Their] church should be. What is my role in God’s church? I still feel called to ordained ministry, but I’m not sure how that will look. I don’t want to move all over God’s green creation, so I am prayerfully considering something like chaplaincy or the like. Amy is a handy resource in this regard, since that’s what she does and where her passion lies. If I did follow this vocation, I’m leaning toward prison or juvenile detention chaplaincy. My heart always lies with those people who seem unlovable. Or, as a friend pointed out, is my ministry precisely what I do now? Teaching feels like ministry, but I’m not sure that it fulfills what I believe is a different kind of call. I am keeping my options open in this regard.
  8. When I walk on the beach with my Merideth, people look at her like she is a hero and they look at me with pity, like she’s a great person for taking her cancer-ridden friend for a last walk on the beach or something. We just kept laughing. Seriously, I just have no hair. Save your compassion, or empathy but not pity, for folks who really have cancer. And your praise for folks who really take a last walk on the beach with the friend with cancer. I don’t look at all like a person who’s undergone chemo. Not a bit.
  9. The ocean heals everything. The mountains heal too.
  10. Nothing feels quite like coming home to your one true love.

I thought there were other things I learned, but I don’t remember them right now. I do know I feel more settled now than I did before. I do feel like I learned more about myself. I do feel like I learned more about God. I’m trying to find myself inside the confines of my relationship with God, rather than just willy-nilly looking for myself. I don’t know. Maybe when I think about this a week from now, I’ll have more insight.

What I Ate Wednesday: Ash Wednesday

Today instead of providing you pictures of my food, I am simply going to tell you what I ate and then discuss a bit about Ash Wednesday, which seems a wee bit more important than food.

Breakfast: Greek yogurt with oats, a banana, some blackberries, raw honey, and some cinnamon

Lunch: an orange and a snickers bar

Snack: some Cowboy bark from Trader Joe’s

Dinner: chicken bacon bites, broccoli, and a Wee Mac

As you can tell it was a very healthy way to welcome the Lenten season. Ha! Not really, but I am focusing on clean eating for the duration of Lent.

Today was the first time I have ever been to an actual Ash Wednesday service at a church that actually marked people’s foreheads with ashes, and I must say that the liturgy for Ash Wednesday is beautiful. Tragic and sad and penitential, but beautiful. For today, not realizing it was Ash Wednesday, I had assigned my Bible as literature students the story of David and Bathsheba and Psalm 51. I also didn’t realize when I assigned those texts that Psalm 51 would be used in today’s liturgy. I bring this forward simply because I love Psalm 51 and I pray it whenever I need a moment of recentering or reconnection with God, so it is especially meaningful for me. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Those words, spoken by the priest before preparing the wine and the bread every Sunday and spoken by the tiny congregation today in penitence, are especially meaningful in my life. I’ve had so many moments when I just want a redo. I just want to go back and go over those things I didn’t do right the first time. I want to offer a broken and contrite heart, because I know that is the offering that my Lord seeks. Today,  I was pleasantly surprised when we made it through the liturgy to the Psalm reading and there it was after I had just read and prepared to discuss it with my students. And, as a special bonus, my students had the best discussion about that Psalm and the David story. They truly did an excellent job.

I was moved by the Eucharist today, as I usually am. I don’t know if it’s my oversensitivity right now, or if I have finally reconnected with my faith, but I nearly cried at the presence of Jesus in the wine and bread today. If that is my response to Ash Wednesday, I can’t wait for Holy Friday this year. I’ll be a blubbering mess! I never know what God is up to in my life, but I always just take for granted that it’s something good. I’m just resting in the fact that God brought me to the Episcopal Church at this time in my life for a reason, because I feel comfortably challenged there. And I feel God’s presence, most importantly.

I do have to say that it was a little awkward walking around with an ash cross on my forehead, considering that I had never done it before. While I don’t mind evangelizing or discussing faith or theology, obviously, I was a bit concerned about doing it at school. Everything worked out fine, but one student thought I had gotten a new tattoo. Odd.

Mystic Monday on Shrove Tuesday: Richard of St. Victor

Today is Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras or the day before Ash Wednesday. If you know anything about me, you know that Lent is the most important Christian season to me and Easter is my favorite holiday. I have been drawn to the penitence of Lent since a young age, because it gives me a chance to contemplate my shortcomings while also focusing on the grace that will come through Holy Week, Jesus’ death and resurrection.

This morning I asked Bec if she was going to go to Ash Wednesday service with me, and she said,”I know that’s important to you some years, but I don’t really need to go.” There’s a lot of truth in the first part of that statement, but it correlates to my closeness or desire for Christ and my ability to feel God’s presence in my church. Since the first Sunday of Advent when I stepped into Grace Episcopal, I have felt at home, more at home than I’ve felt in a church setting a good long while. The theology is right, the service is perfectly liturgical and monastic feeling, Fr. Tom is intelligent and challenges us, and the people are friendly and open to all folks. So, of course, this year I feel a draw to celebrate Lent in all of its capacities, starting with Ash Wednesday tomorrow. I’m not entirely sure how fasting and contemplation will look for the course of Lent this year, but I will do as led during the service tomorrow.

During my morning contemplation this morning I read a bit from The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism and I came across this quote by Richard of St. Victor a 12th century monastic who wrote The Four Degrees of Violent Charity: “So, we now have the four degrees of violence in burning love that I have set forth above. The first degree of violence is when the mind cannot resist its desire; the second degree is when the mind cannot forget it; the third degree is when it cannot taste anything else; the fourth and last degree is when that desire cannot satisfy it. Therefore, the first degree love is insuperable, in the second inseparable, in the third singular, in the fourth insatiable. Insuperable love is what does not allow other attractions; inseparable love is what cannot be forgotten; singular love is what admits no companion; insatiable love is what cannot be satisfied.” Richard applies this same set of four degrees to romantic love (which will create a deity of a lover), Christian love (which creates the most perfect union between a person and God), and familial love (which culminates in the parents’ love for the child).

What I am drawn to is the idea that perfect love is violent, charity is violent. With some quick refreshment of my biblical languages, I find that charity (caritas) is frequently the way that love (agape) is translated in the vulgate, so the idea of love being violent fits right in with the idea that we should simultaneously love and fear God. The idea of violence never really appeals to me, and yet, when I look at the biblical text, I see repeated examples of God being violent and God’s followers being violent. In fact, that violence looks a lot like the four stages or degrees of love outlines above.

1) Insuperable love: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.” —Deuteronomy 4:24

2) Inseparable love: “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” —Deuteronomy 6:7-9

3) Singular love: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” —Song of Solomon 6:3

4) Insatiable love: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,  as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” —Psalm 63:1

While contemplating this ideas of violent caritas/agape, I began thinking of the ways in which each level is presented in the biblical text. I am convinced that every biblical concept can come back to a new testament woman, and this one comes back to the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Here’s the story

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Maybe it’s whimsical thinking, but this woman seems to exhibit all four degrees of love for Jesus in a way that humbles me and makes me wish I could put aside my self-consciousness and worldly concerns and fall at the feet of Jesus, only Jesus, and pour myself out until I can only be filled up with him. Total love, total grace, total peace, and total beauty. Four degrees of caritas/agape: insuperable, inseparable, singular, and insatiable.

Sunday, Sunday: Full Report, Each First Sunday of the Month

So, here’s an update for My 20 Before 40:

1. Run a marathon. I signed up for the Twin Cities Medtronic Marathon on October 5, so I have 230 days to get myself to be able to run a 6 hour or less marathon. Still working on this, and it’s going better. I’ve run or walked at least one mile every day for 14 days in a row. Woot.
2. Finish the Racine 70.3 on July 21 in under 8 hours. I have signed up for this, and it’s 153 days away. My goal is to finish the 13.1 mile run in under 3 hours. I’m planning to get on the bike this week on Tuesday and Friday.
3. Swim a 500 in 7:30 minutes. This needs some work. I will get back in the pool on Monday, March 17 for two workouts each week, so this is in progress. I’m hoping to make it to Florida to swim at the beach before I move north as well.
4. Do yoga every morning. I’ve been doing balancing exercises, using poses from yoga, because I’ve read that balance can have a lot to do with injuries and plantar fasciitis, as well as just not looking cool when I fall over while standing still sometimes.
5. Do a 30 burpees in 30 days challenge. I am going to start this on the day after Bec moves to MN. I figure it’s a good way to work off anxiety. I’m also adding in, slowly but surely, other body weight exercises, so I can build a bit of muscle to try to burn off some of this fat.
6. Ride a century ride on the bicycle. As soon as the registration is up, I am going to sign up for the Headwaters 100, which rides around the headwaters of the Mississippi, something I’ve wanted to to do for a long time anyway.
7. Meditate for at least 15 minutes each day. I’ve started walking a 1.6 mile loop and then meditating for 15 minutes every day during my 9AM prep period.
8. Eat mindfully and with joy.
9. Try foods that aren’t the usual things I eat. I am eating Greek yogurt for breakfast and trying new ciders and beers.
10. Visit Indiana state parks and Indiana breweries with my brother. This weekend we visited Black Acre brewery with his friend Jenn and Becky. We had sampler flights, and they were pretty tasty.
11. Learn to cook one new thing each month. We’ve had oxtail stew and shark. I was going to try to make haggis, but all the recipes I find require a sheep’s stomach, so I am going to make marrow bones one day instead.
12. Do not drink alcohol and be paleo the 30 days prior to any major sporting event.
13. Read the whole Bible. Working on it.
14. Draw every night before bed. This will become much easier once I cancel the cable and internet.
15. Finish my master’s degree in creative writing. Publish. Yeah. This. Class.
16. Post a blog post every Sunday. I’m posting on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Two weeks in a row now!
17. Get a new tattoo. I’m going to do this after Racine 70.3.
18. Lose 60 pounds. I’ve resorted back to the panopticon called My Fitness Pal. Ick.
19. Find a job doing something I love. This may be a pipe dream, but I hope it works out.
20. Read a new book each week. I am slowly making my way through books… Slowly.