Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

I’ve had a nursery rhyme in my head for the past few weeks.

I’d been browsing Pinterest (while I’ll probably never craft anything I pin, some of the other images there are lovely enough to feed my soul), and up popped an image of a woman having tea in the middle of bombed out London, WWII. I’m a fan of tea, being British, and the image haunted me enough to stay with me for a few days. While the “keep calm and carry on” pamphlets weren’t actually widely used during the war, that soldier-on spirit is part of both my history and my family system.

The woman having tea raised questions in my heart.

Was this an act of life in the midst of death? Or was she simply resigned, finding the nearest flat space for a cuppa without regard to her circumstances? Brave persistence and resigned numbness exist along a spectrum, as any victim of trauma can tell you.

What did I see in her? What was she showing me about myself?

As I sat with those questions, letting them rattle around in my soul, they seemed to coalesce into the tinny rhythm of that children’s rhyme, Ring Around the Roses (or Rosies, depending on how you learned it.) I could hear the high voices of children singing and laughing, but superimposed on my woman with a tea cup, they were eery, rather than inspiring.

Children’s songs, verses and rhymes are laden with meaning and embedded with memory. I admire those who write children’s stories, because they must be both deeply plausible and accessibly simple. To convey the complex without condescending is horribly hard, and those authors who have done so live in the halls of literary ingenuity (think L’Engle, Lewis, Williams or Potter).

Thus, the origins of our children’s stories have fascinated me for some time. Where do these simple, poignant things come from? Why do they stay with us for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, informing and forming the world views of children throughout the ages. I’d been told that Ring Around The Roses originated during the first Great Plague, a children’s way of making sense of the pain and death around them:

Ring-a-round a rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down

I can be forgiven this interpretation, I suppose, because the explanation was so straightforward. The first line referred to symptoms of the plague—red rashes that were round in shape. The second signified the bunches of herbs carried by those who hope to ward off the illness, and the third and forth made references to the ubiquity of death from the disease in those times. A woman drinking tea in the midst of devastation. Children making games out of the horrors around them. Hope and despair. Bravery and resignation.

In truth, ring-a-round a rosie has more to do with play than plague. The first print version of the rhyme appeared in 1881, well after the black death decimated Europe in 1665. While we adults shifted it’s meaning over time to make sense of it, the rhyme is more a rehearsal for life than a warding off of death. The skipping, dancing and falling are all ways that children make sense of their world in play.

This year, I feel like I could pack all of the meanings, nuances, struggles and hopes of Lent into those two lines.

Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.

Lent, with its sometimes elaborate, sometimes simple acts of contrition. Lent, with its imposed remembrance of death, our dusty dimensions marked in the sign of the Cross. Lent, with its recognition of our common humanity, fragility, ephemerality.

By this time in the season, most of us have tripped up in our discipline in one way or another. My commitment to the Daily Office wiggled itself loose during the second week, when I missed a day, then two more, and then a week went by without matins, lauds or vespers. Dislocated, I held that intention in my hands like a lost tooth. I knew I couldn’t put it back in, but I wasn’t really sure what to do with it now.

We all fall down.

What’s the difference between persistence and resignation? Is she drinking tea because she’s insisting on life or because it’s all that’s left to do?

It would be easy to beat myself up for my failure in prayer. It’s so very tempting to believe that I’m a Lent loser, a drop out who just didn’t try hard enough.

And it would be easy to take pride in the part that I have persisted in—my fast from contact lenses—which has been, by far, the most effortless fast I’ve ever participated in. Effortless, yes, but not fruitless.

My glasses remind me, day by day, almost minute by minute, how weak I really am. In the mornings, I can’t see my face as I dry my hair. I lean into the mirror to brush my teeth (though what I’m looking at or for I don’t know.) Looking up or down requires intentionality, a turn of my head rather than a simple flick of my eyes. I’m confronted by my limits, confounded by them.

Ashes! Ashes!

It’s here, though, that it all takes a turn. Because, in the same way I can’t take pride in the discipline of not putting my contacts in, I can’t indulge in self-loathing around my inability to recite the Office. I can’t insist on clarity without my glasses—it just won’t happen. And I can’t insiste on muscular prayer without the help and empowerment of God.

I can, though, embrace my limits. I can laugh at them, amused by my insistence on my own power in the face of my obvious deficiency. Because Lent isn’t about somehow making amends, as if a few missed meals, a few extra prayers, could add up to our own private stairway to Heaven. I can confuse it with that, impressed or despondent by how “successfully” I’ve been fasting. Or I can embrace with joy my own limitations, knowing that the God of the Universe came for me as I am, not as I want to be. The Passover didn’t happen because the people of Israel were somehow more holy, more together, more deserving than those around them. They were passed over because they were marked as God’s, marked by a sacrifice.

And that’s the same Passover Lamb whose mark I bore on Ash Wednesday when this journey toward Easter began. Whose mark I bear even now. I am His fumbling, fitful, falling disciple. I can laugh at the days ahead, because it’s not by my power and might that the Kingdom will come. And I can drink tea in what feels like impossible rubble, not because the act is somehow redemptive, but because the one who rebuilds ruined gates is able.

If I fall prey to resignation, He will still come for my heart. If I dance in circles in the face of death, laughing at its lack of power, He will still be with those who are dying.

And that’s the Mystery, the paradox, of our great God, isn’t it? He suffers with us, and He is still triumphant. He seeks us in our failure, and runs to us even as the excuses are still on our lips. Lent reminds me that when I’m weak, I’m strong. And weak is what I am 100% of the time.

Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

Catch Me In My Scurrying

Catch me in my scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my feet to the fire of your grace
and make me attentive to my mortality
that I may begin to die now
to those things that keep me
from living with you
and with my neighbors on this earth;
to grudges and indifference,
to certainties that smother possibilities,
to my fascination with false securities,
to my addiction to sweatless dreams,
to my arrogant insistence on how it has to be;
to my corrosive fear of dying someday
which eats away the wonder of living this day,
and the adventure of losing my life
in order to find it in you.

Catch me in my aimless scurrying, Lord
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my heart to the beat of your grace
and create in me a resting place,
a kneeling place,
a tip-toe place
where I can recover from the dis-ease of my grandiosities
which fill my mind and calendar with busy self-importance,
that I may become vulnerable enough
to dare intimacy with the familiar,
to listen cup-eared for your summons,
and to watch squint-eyed for your crooked finger
in the crying of a child,
in the hunger of the street people,
in the fear of the contagion of terrorism in all people,
in the rage of those oppressed because of sex or race,
in the smoldering resentments of exploited third world nations,
in the sullen apathy of the poor and ghetto-strangled people,
in my lonely doubt and limping ambivalence;

and somehow,
during this season of sacrifice,
enable me to sacrifice time
and possessions
and securities,
to do something…
something about what I see,
something to turn the water of my words
into the wine of will and risk,
into the bread of blood and blisters,
into the blessedness of deed,
of a cross picked up,
a saviour followed.

Catch me in my mindless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my spirit to the beacon of your grace
and grant me light enough to walk boldly,
to feel passionately,
to love aggressively;
grant me peace enough to want more,
to work for more
and to submit to nothing less,
and to fear only you…
only you!
Bequeath me not becalmed seas,
slack sails and premature benedictions,
but breathe into me a torment,
storm enough to make within myself,
and from myself,

something new,
something saving,
something true,
a gladness of heart,
a pitch for a song in the storm,
a word of praise lived,
a gratitude shared,
a cross dared,
a joy received.

by Ted Loder, from Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, Augsburg Books, 1981.

A Picture of Ash Wednesday

Maybe it’s the way the sun is shining today. Maybe it’s the tired ache in me, the ache that longs for life and restoration. But when I saw this video, just after returning from an Ash Wednesday service that reminded me repentance is not about getting things right for God, but allowing God to come and rescue me, I saw Christ all over it.

Yes, there are loving men and women in these stories, and I don’t want to minimize them, either. Because when we become people who have been restored to who we truly are, when we are rescued and loved and held and know our worth to the One, we become people who rescue and restore and love. That’s what Lent is all about, and this is a beautiful picture of Ash Wednesday.


13 Things To Give Up For Lent

Today is Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Mardi Gras (translated as Fat Tuesday). Generally, today is the day where Christians are meant to consider their lives prayerfully and decide on what the shape of their Lenten fast will be—whether it’s a giving up of a vice or addiction, or taking up of a devotional activity. Lent is the 40 day period between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, when the Passion of Christ is remembered. Depending on the tradition, fasting takes place Monday through Friday (Orthodox) or Monday through Saturday (Catholic and other Protestant denominations), with Sunday being a feast day.

While I’ve been thinking about what God is calling me to this Lenten season for at least a month, my heart hasn’t quite landed on anything particular yet. The penintenial time of Lent is meant to be a response to God’s longing call in Joel 2, “Return to me with your whole heart!”

In those words, I hear the ache of a father whose son has rejected him (Luke 15:11-32), the cry of a lover who longs for the beloved (Song of Songs 2), the agony of Christ on the Cross (Mark 15:25-37).

In those words, I hear the invitation of God to look at my own heart, and consider the things that keep me from deeper intimacy with a God who loves me beyond anything I could ask or imagine. Why do I choose Facebook over time communing with Him? What is it about food that I go to the pantry to numb myself instead of the comfort of His arms? How is it that my heart would rather repeat nasty things about myself than choose to engage in the very practices of writing and speaking that He has annointed me for? He calls me His beloved, do I believe it?

Contrary to popular culture, Lent isn’t about giving something up just to prove that you have control of your addictions, or that you’re better than the chocoholic next door. Instead, it’s about making space to receive more of God’s love, His tenderness and your true identity in Him.

I’m still not sure what Lenten practices God is calling me into this season but if, like me, you’re still considering, here are a few ideas that might spark something for you:

1. Facebook

In our world of social connectedness, Facebook is the new chocolate for the season of Lent. There have been studies done and articles written about the fact that our interactions on social networks like Facebook produce in our brains the same chemical reactions as when we are hugged or touched. Much like the phenylethylamine in chocolate, time on Facebook spikes our “feel good” hormones with a rush of oxytocin. This, in turn, fuels our desire to get another “hit” of the chemical, and we find ourselves refreshing our News Feed every 30 seconds instead of tending to our crying child. While I don’t think Facebook addiction is going to cause the kind of dystopian social meltdowns that some doomsdayers say, it might be worth your while to see how much control you have over your social network use—or how much control it has over you. If you find yourself checking Facebook before you get out of bed in the morning, it might be time to call it quits for 40 days. If that makes you feel panicky, don’t worry, Sundays are feast days.

2. Saying “Yes”

Ever find yourself committed to something that you didn’t really want to do? Like bringing over that casserole to a new mom you hardly know, or getting that extra project done at work despite the fact that you’re going to have to miss your daughter’s soccer game—again?

Some of us say “yes” so often that we don’t even realize that it’s our addiction to being “useful” or “necessary” that is driving us to overcommit, which leads to being completely overwhelmed.

Perhaps this Lenten season you might be led to a season of hiddenness and humility, where instead of saying “yes” to babysitting your friend’s children one more time, you make room for yourself, your family and your heart by saying “no” to every extra request that comes your way. This may be a tough one for those of us who get our self-worth from how much we can do, instead of how beloved of God we are. It may be tougher for those who have great opportunities come their way during this season (and, believe me, if you’re led to take up this fast, they probably will), but saying “no” can produce the kind of incredible freedom that says that your reputation, career, self-worth are determined not by how much you do for others, but by a God who will care for you, if you only give Him the chance.

3. Reading

In her book, Girl Meets God, Lauren Winner talks about giving up reading for Lent. While this may not seem like much to you, for this self-avowed bibliophile, giving up books was like giving up eating for 40 days. Books soothed her, told her she wasn’t alone, and kept her occupied in a way that allowed her to avoid her feelings.

While you may not be led to give up reading for Lent, is there an activity that you go to when you’re sad, alone, or scared? Something that you do that allows you to numb out or avoid sitting with what’s going on in your own soul?

If so, consider stepping away from that practice for the duration of Lent. Invite God into those lonely, sad, frightened places. You may find He fills them with something you would have otherwise missed.

4. Eating Out

It’s late, and you’re hungry. What could be easier than picking up some Chick-Fil-A on the way home, or driving through Sonic to get some tots?

Sometimes the conveniences of Western living leave us blind and insensitive to the economic realities of the majority of the world’s population. For a lot of people, there’s not such thing as fast food, and convenience eating is a thing of day dreams. When others live on one meal or less a day, choosing to let go of eating out (in restaurants, fast food chains or even your work cafeteria) can begin the process of opening your heart not just to your own needs, but the needs and sufferings of those around the world. It helps you remember that you’re not the center of the universe, and that God suffers for and with those in poverty—His heart breaks for them.

If simply giving up eating out doesn’t feel like it will soften your heart, perhaps consider eating only rice, beans and water for this season. In your body’s needs, you’ll be feeling the needs of the world. And that is guaranteed to change you, to open you, and to allow God’s compassion to flow through you.

5. Chocolate

While we’re on the subject of food, you could consider giving up chocolate for Lent. This is a slightly different form of fasting than the food fast mentioned in #4. Giving up chocolate, or those foods that offer you comfort, you’re choosing to turn to God when your psyche and your stomach would rather you turn to Lindt Truffles. While this seems a simple fast, it usually reveals how quickly and how often we use another source to offer us life (Scripture calls this idolatry). If chocolate isn’t your go-to, consider coffee, or something else that offers comfort and distraction, whether that’s carbs, meat or anything else.

6. Sarcasm

Sarcasm, judgement, criticism. More often than not, I use these tools to defend myself against other people, to categorize them rather than really listen to them. The root of the word sarcasm derives from a Greek word that literally means to rend flesh. Giving up sarcasm for Lent means that I choose to look at people through God’s eyes, and to spend energy noticing when I’m choosing my own interpretation of their actions or words instead. Some people call this fasting from critical words. I just call it choosing to love.

7. Anxiety

At the risk of quoting too many of Lauren Winner’s books in one blog post, I’m nonetheless going to share what Winner describe giving up for Lent in her most recent book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. This time, instead of reading, she was charged with giving up her addiction to anxious thoughts (which manifested themselves in obsessing about whether or not she’d turned off the tea kettle to checking her bank account multiple times a day). Instead, when wracked with anxious thoughts, Winner took a few deep breaths, and allowed God to hold her still for 15 minutes. During that Lenten season, she admitted to living by those 15 minute incriments.

You may not struggle with anxiety over your bank account, but what about your kids? Do you choose to indulge in worry rather than trust on a regular basis? Instead of resting in the provision of God, are you thinking about how to control your 401(k), your retirement, your future?

What mental habit might God be inviting Himself into, asking you to let Him handle that part of your soul for the next 40 days? Can you screw up your courage and say ‘yes’ to life lived without obsessing over what tomorrow may bring?

8. Television

With a full seasons of my favorite shows on Netflix to catch up on, this might be a tough one for me. But how often do I chose television as a way of numbing out instead of interacting with my husband at the end of the day? As someone who works at home, I sometimes turn the TV on just to have voices in the house. What would it be like if I asked God to speak instead?

What might you do with 40 TV-less days? Perhaps you might take more walks, and discover a coffee shop in your neighborhood that you never knew existed. Perhaps you might read more, immersing yourself in stories that catch your imagination on fire. Maybe you’ll take up a new hobby, or choose to read through the Gospels (a traditional Lenten undertaking) instead of catching up on Cupcake Wars. And maybe, just maybe, God will sneak up on you and transform your relationship with Him into something way more interesting than reality TV.

9. Cruelty

Doesn’t sound too hard, does it? Giving up on being cruel probably appears, on the face of it, to be a sacrifice already accomplished. You don’t kick your dog or hit your spouse. You’re not apt to road rage or deliberately sabotaging your coworkers.

But how about how cruel you are to yourself? What is it that you tell yourself when you’ve failed, missed a deadline, broken a glass? What names do you call yourself by? What kinds of things do you say to yourself? Stupid idiot! What a failure! You’re worth less than nothing!

These words we would never say to our child or our friend, but we say them to ourselves, often hundreds of times a day.

What if, during Lent, you began to let God speak in those times of self-cruelty, instead of berating yourself. What might you be surprised to find He says over you?

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”, Harper Collins, 1992. From Chapter 7, Section 3])

10. Busyness

How are you doing?, we ask one another. Oh, fine, we laugh breezily. Busy!

Busyness is the plague of our time. It is so easy to be busy, so easy to be full of things to do, people to see, work to accomplish. What if Lent this year is an invitation to spaciousness? What if it is a call to let go of social obligation and a schedule full of activities and instead choose for leisure, rest, renewal? Lent doesn’t have to be a muscular grasping for spiritual strength. What if, instead, it is a relaxation into the arms of the One who holds us all.

What if you gave up being busy for Lent? What if at Easter someone asked you how you are doing, and you were able to answer, Not busy at all!

11. Avoiding

I suspect I’m not the only one among us who has a junk drawer in her kitchen. It’s the drawer where all the odds and ends go, the place where loose paper clips, dead batteries and bits of ribbon end up. It’s full of things that I’m going to organize one day. But you know and I know that I’m avoiding looking at the things that I don’t know what to do with—I’m tucking them away so that I don’t have to deal with my own helpless questions about whether or not I actually need that third tube of super glue, or whether I’m ever going to become the kind of woman that sews lost buttons onto shirts.

What if, for Lent, we gave up avoiding those questions? What if together, God and I tackled some of those places of clutter and avoidance—in my kitchen drawer, or in my own heart? What if I gave up avoiding having that hard conversation with my friend, or avoiding the fact that I’m not going to ever be the type of person who knits? What if, instead, I called her up and told her what was going on, what if I just threw away that unused ball of yarn and gave up the pretense of being anything other than who I am?

What kind of Lenten freedom might that be?

12. Prayerlessness

Perhaps this is a bit more of a taking up than a putting down. Or perhaps you are putting down the habit of relying on yourself and your own strengths.

Giving up prayerlessness for Lent could involve picking up a practice of prayer that brings joy or expectation to your day. What if that’s praying by doodling? (See Sybil MacBeth’s Praying in Color.) Or maybe it’s praying a fixed hour prayer, using a psalter or prayer book (I recommend The Paraclete Psalter or Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours Pocket Edition or J. Philip Newell’s Celtic Prayers from Iona.) Or maybe it’s picking up a practice of journaling, dialoguing with God about your day, inviting Him into all of its nooks and crannies. Or maybe it’s walking prayer, letting your steps be the imprecation that brings you deeper into His heart. Or maybe it’s song, or silence, or lighting a candle. Maybe it’s praying the Psalms.

Whatever it is, let it be joy. Which isn’t to say that each moment of prayer will be divine bliss—or any moment for that matter. What it is to say is that prayer doesn’t need to be a grinding, painful process. Giving up prayerlessness means showing up to a relationship.

I promise that God will show up, too.

13. Self-Righteousness

And here’s the last suggestion. It may be the hardest. Give up yourself. For Lent, let go of wanting to be right, needing to be right, believing that you are right. For 40 days (you can be right again after that!), give up winning arguments by running over top of people (heck, give up arguing). Give up needing to be noticing when you walk into a room, or needing other people to agree with your . In an election year, that could be giving up needing people to agree with your position on an economic policy, or (*braces for the angry emails*) your position on abortion.

Letting go of self-righteousness means giving up the burden of having to be holy. It means accepting the free gift that God gives us in Christ, and choosing instead to turn toward the holiness that He gives us. It means letting go of striving and rule-keeping, abandoning our ability to define ourselves by what group we belong to or accolades that we’ve earned. You could even give up needing to pick the right practice for Lent.

Giving up self-righteouness means giving up being right, and picking up being God’s.

So, what about you? Have you decided on a Lenten practice that brings light and whole-heartenedness? Where are you in the journey?


It is my Lent to break my Lent

“For Lent, 1966”

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

Six Weird Things To Give Up For Lent

If the more regular things (Facebook, chocolate, alcohol or meat) just aren’t floating your boat as you prepare for the Lenten season, here’s a list of some stranger things that you might consider fasting from this year.



Okay, so salt itself isn’t that weird, but giving it up for Lent probably is. Fact is, we’re a society addicted to our own tastes, and being able to change the way food hits our palate any time we want to. With almost half of the world’s population living on less than $2.50 a day, that’s a luxury most people don’t have. Consider giving salt up for 40 days. Every time you think of reaching for that shaker, say a prayer instead.


The Pet Name For Your Spouse or Partner

Yup, this one’s definitely a little bit weird. Why give up a term of endearment? Perhaps because the last time you used your partner’s first name was when you were angry at her, or when you had to call to him from across a crowded room. Psychologists have proved that everyone’s favorite word is their name. Consider how much more loved your spouse will feel if you spend 40 days addressing them with their given name. In addition, it may sound like a small thing, but pet names sometimes allow us to depersonalize under the guise of endearing ourselves. It’s a lot easier to ask “love” to do the dishes or let the dog out than to ask the person that lives with you day in and day out.


Opening Doors

Again, this is a list of weird things to give up (not normal things like alcohol or chocolate or Facebook). There are millions of disabled folks around the world who are not able to open doors for themselves. In general, our world doesn’t make much space for them, and only a small fraction of doors actually have handicapped access. Consider giving up being able to open any doors for yourself that don’t have handicap access. That means you have to wait for someone to open them for you if there isn’t an automatic opener of some kind (you can cheat and use your kids if you want.) You may need to make it a little easier by exempting yourself from car doors or doors in the house, but consider fasting from doors as a way of entering into solidarity with the more invisible among us.


Your Pillow (Or Your Bed)

Of the 1.9 billion children in the developing world, 1 in 3 of those kids live in housing situations that are inadequate for their needs, while we sleep on California Kings and complain about thread count. Give up your pillow for 40 days (or to be more extreme, your bed) and live in the knowledge that the privilege of a pillow is not given to everyone. It’s also a choice to live in communion with Christ, as He described Himself in Matthew 8 and Luke 9: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”



Didn’t see that one coming, did you? So many of us live with a vague feeling that we’re not doing prayer “right” or that we’re some how not spiritual enough. Lent can up the ante even higher, making us feel like we’ve got to do something extreme (see the above pillow example, even) in order to be “worthy” or doing Lent “well”. How about tossing all of that aside and trusting that God really is on your side for 40 days? That means that if someone asks for prayer, you have to say no. It means that you’re released from the guilt of missing a “quiet time” or needing to pray for those suffering in your city. It doesn’t mean you don’t care, and it doesn’t mean you fail at this fast if you find yourself spontaneously praying one day. It just means that you’ve gotten off the guilt cycle and chosen to believe that Christ really did mean to set us free for freedom, not for more guilt and condemnation. Alternately, you could give up a particular form of prayer for Lent. If you’re always an extemporaneous pray-er, try taking up liturgical prayer for the season, such as the Divine Hours, the Jesus Prayer or prayer using the Book of Common Prayer. If you’re more liturgical in bent, consider spontaneous or even one word prayers (thanks, grace, gratitude).



The advent of social media and the advances in technology have put tiny little cameras in almost everyone’s pocket. It’s actually difficult to get a phone WITHOUT picture-taking capabilities these days. Our lives are increasingly documented, and all too often we’re thinking about how to photograph a great meal, experience or encounter in order to post it on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Foursquare. Perhaps instead you might give up taking pictures of your life during Lent, and instead choose to be immediately present to the things that you’re in the middle of. If that causes you some mild panic (like you might miss out on something by not capturing it in pixels instead of memories), then this fast might just be for you.


There are lots and lots of things that you can give up for Lent, from the mundane (chocolate) to the more, seemingly, ridiculous (shoes). Ultimately, the purpose of giving something up for Lent is not to be spiritually muscular, but to let God gently challenge your own assumptions and idols. In the course of Lent’s desert time, the hunger for those things that you’ve relinquished will lessen, replaced by a fulfilling relationship with the One who loves you and gave His life for you. And that’s the real reason to give up anything at all for Lent.

The Wisdom of Pass the Pigs

I was already well into my day—bed made, breakfast prepared, email beaten back—when my fingers hit the small plastic figures in my pocket. I was reaching for a tube of lip balm at the time, mentally somewhere else, preparing for the next event on my schedule. As a mother, it’s not unusual for me to be surprised by the variety of items that end up in my purse or other places for quick storage and easy retrieval. But the pigs gave me pause.

My daughter, who was two at the time, started carrying around the case for these little creatures a few months ago. The animals themselves are just the right size for small hands to manipulate and enjoy, and I often find them wedged into the cracks of her car seat or dropped from drooping palms once she finally, finally falls asleep at night. I’m fairly sure that’s how they ended up in my pants that day, rescued from the nether regions underneath her bed in an attempt to keep the favored toy/object of delight safe. Unlike other items around the house, we don’t have a backup for these tiny porcine figures.

We were gifted with these little guys nearly a decade ago now, sometime during our engagement period, in the surreal and whirlwind time between “yes” and “I will.” We were in pre-marital counseling, a common thing, and were working with our pastor and his wife to dig through and acknowledge before God and our community any major issues that needed to be addressed before we stepped forward to vow our lives to each other before God.

My husband and I, I must confess, are overthinkers. We love things contemplative, we watch challenging movies for entertainment, we like to engage with the issues of the day. We are continually talking to each other about our relationship with God, our experiences with Scripture, our sense of our calling in the world. Ken and Sallie, who were walking us through all the common unexamined issues in a romantic relationship, continually came up against the reality that we’d already prayed and talked about the big, hard things.

Which was why we had one standing piece of homework to work on before each session with them: Have more fun.

† † †

“A Christian should be an Alleluia from head to foot”

― Augustine of Hippo

I have a confession to make, and it is a big one. It is easier for me to see God in the mundane and repetitive realities of my everyday life—making the bed, taking a shower, cleaning the dishes—than it is for me to experience God in the moments of ordinary play or quotidian delight that may come my way in the midst of my days. Perhaps I’ve read Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God too many times, or maybe I’m such a naturally melancholy personality that I’m more easily drawn to suffering than to festivity. Either way, I’m woefully deficient in something both Richard Foster and Dallas Willard call the discipline of celebration.

In his book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Foster writes, “The carefree spirit of joyous festivity is absent in contemporary society. Apathy, even melancholy, dominates the times.” To be clear, Foster’s book was originally published nearly 40 year ago. And yet our lack of joy is still pervasive.

“Celebration is central to all the spiritual disciplines,” Foster continues. “Without a joyful spirit of festivity the disciplines becomes dull, death-breathing tools in the hands of modern Pharisees. Every discipline should be characterized by a carefree gaiety and a sense of thanksgiving.”

Death-breathing tools in the hands of modern Pharisees.

While the phrase cuts me deeply, it is also deeply true. When I live my life—my every day getting up, brushing my teeth, doing the dishes life—with a sense that every thing, which sacred, is also a somber act of devotion, I am living under a heavy burden of expectation and piety. It’s important, revolutionary even, to see our small daily acts of living as acts of worship and communion with God. But when engage in making my bed wearing a spirit of seriousness, or live under the pressure of making prayer a part of my child’s life out of duty instead of desire, I’m taking up the heavy yoke of discipline without delight. And that’s a yoke I was never meant to carry.

† † †

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matthew 11:28-30, The Message

“For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by all her children.”

Luke 7:33-35, NKJV


Throughout the day I find myself fiddling absent-mindedly with the little pigs in my pocket. The game from which they come is deceptively simple and completely silly. Pass the Pigs is essentially a dice game, except the dice you play with are the pigs. Whatever position they land in determines the points you receive: more common positions like one called “Sider”—where a pig lands on its side—are worth less points, more complex positions like one called “Double Razorback” are worth more. There’s even a reset position (racily named “Makin’ Bacon”) that clears everyone’s points back to zero.

During those months of pre-marital counseling, it was not uncommon for my (now) husband and me to realize in contrition the night before our next appointment that we hadn’t actually done anything fun during the intervening weeks. Our fall back was a movie night, but our friends started inviting us for game nights as a way of helping us with our homework. Still, we gravitated toward strategy games—we seriously own a game called Mystery of the Abbey which is a marvelously weird combination of Clue and a practice of the Divine Hours—instead of pure, pointless playfulness.

Hence the present of Pass the Pigs. Which was more intervention that gift, really.

In the passage above in Luke, Jesus is reminding his followers that the religious people of his day both discounted the ascetics of John (he has a demon!) and the ordinary celebrations of Jesus (he’s a foodie and an alcoholic!) as over the top, unnecessary, uncomfortably commonplace.

But wisdom is justified by all her children, he concludes. In other words, when we seek holiness, we seek wisdom. Wisdom, in turn, may look like locusts and honey for John, and wine at wedding feasts for Jesus. It may look like embracing a daily practice of doing the dishes cheerfully for you, and a daily practice of engaging in play for me. These are wisdom’s children.

† † †

This isn’t a story of victory and celebration, however. Wisdom’s children are still growing in our house.

We started out with good intentions, definitely. After getting our gift of Pass the Pigs, we played it at least three times before it ended up in one of the drawers in our kitchen that collects stray things. We even wrote a thank you card to the giver, full of words about how we would dedicate ourselves to the daily practice of play.

Days rolled into weeks rolled into months rolled into years before my daughter fished the game out from wherever it had ended up. And a few more months rolled by before I found the pigs in my pocket, and spend the rest of the day rolling them around in my palm—both a meditation and a prayer of repentance.

I will tell you, though, that the thing that has surprised me most about the past five years of parenthood has been all the laughter. The gracious hand of God, which gave us the gift of our daughter, also crafted into this child of wisdom a voracious sense of play. From making faces at us across the room to noticing the way the birds gather on our feeder outside to repeated requests to “chase me, Mama!”, the invitation to wonder, to celebrate, to revel in the delightful ordinariness of day to day realities is nearly constant.

The plastic pigs in my pocket are only one of many, many small reminders to practice play each day, to experience God not in the melancholy, the silent or the contemplative, but in the silly, simple, and child-like. In God’s upside down, ordinary extraordinary kingdom, I’m finally learning the formation of celebration from my very own child.

7 Books for Lent

This year, Lent begins on February 26. While it feels so close on the heels of Valentine’s Day, I nonetheless thought I’d give you some of my favorite suggestions for readings for this journey with the Church universal. This year, I’ll personally be leaning in with Wild Hope: Stories for Lent from the Vanishing by Gayle Boss (a new for me one—her Advent resource was my favorite this year), as well my standard and rich resource God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter. That said, here are a few more resources that I highly recommend.

Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit by Paula Huston

I used Huston’s book as my devotional for Lent in 2012, and I will tell you that it is both a rigorous and freeing journey through the season. Each week has a theme, and each day a reflection. I will say that I didn’t make it all the way through every reading, every practice, but the ones that I did transformed my over-scheduled life in to a place of rest and openness. (And my oven got really clean. You’ll have to read the book to understand why.)



Lent for Everyone: A Daily Devotional by N. T. Wright

Frankly, I’ll read just about anything N. T. Wright writes. This is a slight, straightforward devotional with a Scripture reading from the Lectionary (make sure you get the Year C version of this book) and a short meditation by Wright. Challenging, but simple. And it comes in Kindle version, if that’s your thing.



Show Me the Way: Daily Lenten Readings by Henri J. M. Nouwen

“…true joy comes from letting God love me the way God wants, whether it is through illness or health, failure or success, poverty or wealth, rejection or praise. It is hard for me to say, ‘I shall gratefully accept everything, Lord, that pleases you. Let your will be done.’ But I know when I believe my Father is pure love, it will become increasingly possible to say these words from the heart.” This devotional is a compilation of Nouwen’s work, so it may read to you as a little disjointed. However, as with any dip into the writings of this wonderful teacher, you will come away with an appreciation of the downward journey and a sense that you are held by a Father who loves you.


Sacred Space for Lent by The Irish Jesuits

Sacred Space, a website maintained by a Jesuit community in Ireland, provides a place for guided prayer and meditation for thousands online. Sacred Space for Lent is a compilation of those prayers and reflections, all in the tradition of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, that will guide you through the season. If you particularly crave mental stimulation and prayer exercises for a Lenten practice, this one will be for you.

Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter by Orbis Books Lewis, Chesterton, Yancey, L’Engle, Beuchner… how could you go wrong? One of the things that I like about this daily devotional is that it moves all the way through the Easter season, not stopping on Easter Sunday as many devotionals do. The readings are meaty and good, although I will say that the lack of continuity that multiple voices bring irritated this J type when I used it three or four years ago. If you like variety, and you love any of the authors mentioned above, I highly recommend this.



Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent by Richard Rohr O.F.M.

Father Rohr has been rocking my world ever since I got to interview him in 2009. This set of readings encourages the reader to encounter Scripture in often new and unexpected ways. If you’re struggling with Church in general, Rohr’s words are often refreshing and freeing. His perspective is a fresh one, and will sometimes challenge or disrupt you—which I think is one of the main themes of Lent for me: challenging the ways that I’ve let my relationship with Jesus and the Word go stale and routine.


Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton: Daily Scripture and Prayers, Together with Thomas Merton’s Own Words by Thomas Merton and Jonathan Montaldo

If you are someone who journals, this series of daily meditations, Scripture passages and questions for reflection will most likely be a great resource for you. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who wrote in profound ways about the necessity of the contemplative life as a movement toward wholeness in this world. And, if you’d like a voice other than Merton’s, with journaling questions, this series also has Lenten guides from the writings of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, as well as Henri Nouwen. One of the wonderful gifts of this book is it’s permissive and open approach to journal keeping: “However you write in your Lent and Easter journal, be truthful to your own experience. The question proposed for each day is only suggestive. Give your heart and mind free range… (p.3).”


So what about you? Do you have any favorite Lenten resources that I haven’t mentioned here?

Recovering from Soul Sag

No matter how open-handed we were, no matter how still we became, no matter how we tempered our expectations into expectancy, a majority of us have been feeling (or will feel) a let down after December 25. Our longings have been whetted by Advent, our desires help openly before God, and whatever of those were met in Him on Christmas, there are some longings still there, some aches still present.

Before you begin (or for most of us, continue) berating yourself for how you should have experienced December 25, I encourage you to remember we all—you, me, our children and grandchildren—are soaked in an atmosphere contrary to the Kingdom. On December 26 the radio station our family has listened to since early December switched abruptly from constant Christmas tunes back to “regularly scheduled programming.” Christmas trees have already made their migration curbside in our neighborhood, and people arch a puzzled eyebrow at me when I wish them a “merry Christmastide”. No matter how well-prepared, how “holy” we feel our Christmas Day may have been, the world we live in still refuses to take the long journey to the manger, preferring instead the quick fixes of glitter and gifts, buying our way into what we hope is acceptance, what we want to be love.

The longing and letdown are part of the Christmas story, believe it or not.

Think about it.

The shepherds in the fields were told in a display of great glory so overwhelming that they were terrified. A host of angels sang the good news of Messiah over them, and they were told that they would find a baby in a manger as “a sign to you”. Although it’s wild speculation, some of those shepherds might not even be expecting this baby to be anything more than a sign—maybe Messiah was here in more glory and pomp than that, and they only had to see this sign-child to be let in on the secret. For them, Messiah meant physical and political liberation from their oppressors (exile in general, Rome in particular). Messiah meant real, immediate deliverance, unquestionable victory, all hopes fulfilled. Sounds a little like our expectations of a perfect family Christmas, in a way.

To those still hoping in the promises of the Old Testament, rescue was assumed to look a certain way. And this over-the-top explosion of angel-glory might just have reinforced that assumption.

It would be easy for them to be let down by a regular baby in a regular manger.

It’s easy enough for us, thousands of years later and much more in the know, to feel that same sort of spiritual disappointment.

We’re leaning toward the Second Coming, the fulfillment of all promises, all longings, all hopes of the kingdom to come. And, really, God? It’s a baby? In a manger? Again?

It’s why we miss it so easily, the stunning reality of the rescue in front of us. We’re waiting for the fireworks—or at least for Uncle John to not show up drunk to the family Christmas celebration, or even for your mother to remember that you really don’t like the cookies she makes every year. Into our imperfect celebrations, our broken hallelujahs, our fumbling attempts at adoration slips the infant Christ.

This is the upside down kingdom, the Messiah as a helpless child, redemption not as a single point in time but a journey. What would it take to believe that the Messiah is really here, in this small boy nursing at His mother’s breast? What would the shepherds have to let go of in order for their entire experience of the redemption of all mankind not to feel like a let down?

That’s part of what this journey to the manger—the one that lasts all of Christmastide—is and does for us. It helps us learn to see what we know we cannot see. Messiah as child. God as man. The cross as victory.

I would hazard a guess that we don’t live into the fullness of the Christmas season for lots of reasons, but chief among them would be the fact that there are not enough teachers who help us know what it is to live in the Promised Land, to truly enter into the journey of fulfillment of God’s Word to us.

Sure, we have a lot of teachers who tell us to hope in the future kingdom (a good and valuable discipline), and a lot of teachers who help us live into the holiness of the sacrifice and discipline of the With God life. We even have some leaders who insist that God’s promise for us is material prosperity in the here and now (something Scripture contradicts). We don’t have a lot of people who are willing to lead us courageously, whole-heartedly, into the Promised Land, even if it is full of giants.

Why bring up the Promised Land when there’s a child in a manger? We’re close enough to the Advent readings that you might have an inkling of why, John the Baptist’s exhortations still echoing behind us. Although it will be years before either John or Jesus arrive at that point in the story, John’s choice of the Jordan River wasn’t just that it was a convenient body of water. The Jordan was the exact river that the people of Israel had to cross over in order to enter into the Promised Land. And John stood baptizing there as a message to the people that another crossing over was about to happen—that the days of wilderness living were about to end, that One was coming who would lead not just Israel but us all into a place of milk and honey (provision and sweetness), where we can live out the words that God has spoken to us.

Which brings us all the way back to the book of Joshua, and a mixed multitude of people perplexedly entering into a space that they’d never been before—a space where manna didn’t appear every day, but provision came from a different source. Things were changing, and God wasn’t providing in the ways that they had come to expect. No more manna could possibly feel like abandonment, when in fact it was God moving into the neighborhood. A crying infant might feel like a cruel joke, when in fact it was God made flesh.

(As a small aside, it’s helpful to know that the Greek translation of Joshua is Yeshua which, yes, is the same word as Jesus. And do you know what Jesus—and Yeshua and Joshua—means? It means salvation. So the Book of Joshua could also be translated as the Book of Salvation.)

What does it take to enter into the Promised Land in fullness, when all that you’ve experienced is the wilderness? What does it take to begin to see the smallness of the Kingdom of God as rescue and beauty, when the world around us screams for bigger, newer, better, more?

If we look at Joshua 5, what happens right before the manna stops and they begin to eat off of the provision of the land that they have been given (inhabiting the Promise) is sacrifice. The people celebrate the Passover, but not only in remembrance of God’s liberation of them from Egypt. This time, the Passover represents a celebration of God’s faithful work of bringing them out of the wilderness and into the promise that had been given to Abraham.

The sacrifice the people make here is not just a lamb, but a sacrifice of the ways of the wilderness. It’s a letting go of all that has been, in order to make space for what will be.

It’s something that we all have to do, at some point, in order to begin to actually inhabit the Promised Land, to inhabit the Kingdom of God here and now. We have to let go of those things (often good things) that have sustained us in the wilderness. We have to let them go, because if we don’t, we’ll go straight back into those places of deprivation and longing, and not realize that we’re actually standing on the very ground of fulfillment that we’ve been longing for (sadly, this is Judas’s very story, and why Christ aches so much over him).

So, beloveds, here are my Christmastide questions for you:

What is the way of the wilderness that you need to lay down (and let burn, to use the imagery of Monday’s video) in order to be ready to enter the Promise?

What has your manna been, the gift from God that sustained you, that needs to be let go of in order to see the abundance of the land you’re standing on?

What does it mean to let go of the let down of Christmas and instead see and learn something altogether new?

What does the child in the manger really mean to you—can you see Him as fulfillment, even when there’s more journey ahead?

Can you begin to believe that you’ve crossed over into God’s Kingdom, even when the world still seems so broken?

Sometimes, dear ones, let down is a good thing. Sometimes it’s a release of all that was so that a new, more glorious future can unfold.

Merry Christmastide. Christ is born!

Grace & peace,




 On reading 1 & 2 Kings

Like the ancients, we know about ashes,
and smoldering ruins,
and collapse of dreams,
and loss of treasure,
and failed faith,
and dislocation,
and anxiety, and anger, and self-pity.
For we have watched the certitudes and
of our world evaporate.

Like the ancients, we are a
mix of perpetrators,
knowing that we have brought this on
ourselves, and a
mix of victims,
assaulted by others who rage against us.

Like the ancients, we weep in honesty
at a world lost
and the dread silence of your absence.
We know and keep busy in denial,
but we know.

Like the ancients, we refuse the ashes,
and watch for newness.
Like them, we ask,
“Can these bones live?”

Like the ancients, we ask,
“Is the hand of the Lord shortened,
that the Lord cannot save?”

Like the ancients, we ask,
“Will you at this time restore what was?”

And then we wait:
We wait through the crackling of fire,
and the smash of buildings,
and the mounting body count,
and the failed fabrice of
medicine and justice and education.
We wait in a land of strangeness,
but there we sing, songs of sadness,
songs of absence,
belatedly songs of praise,
acts of hope,
gestures of Easter,
gifts you have yet to give.

by Walter Brueggemann
from Prayers for a Privileged People, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008.