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.


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.

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?

Synchroblog: My Body, My Jerusalem

On March 13, my first book, Embracing the Body: Finding God In Our Flesh & Bone, officially launched.

The day before, March 12, marked six months of life for my daughter, and a huge milestone for my own body in terms of continued health and well-being.

But I haven’t written much about that, have I?

Continue reading “Synchroblog: My Body, My Jerusalem”

Don’t Tell Me Sunday’s Coming

The Cross is confusing.

This is what I think as I leave our church’s Maundy Thursday service, the ending abrupt, the people unsure of what to do, when to leave, wondering if they should stand or kneel or stay and pray. Everyone shuffles off quietly, in clumps, embarrassed and unsure.

But don’t we want to be confused?

In a world of easily Googled answers, of the kind of information in our pockets that would have made us super heroes one hundred years ago, don’t we need a little bit of tension? In a world that has lost its wonder, don’t we crave things we don’t understand, things we have no explanation for?


It’s hard to live in the confusion when we’ve been conditioned to seek answers instead of mystery. It’s painful to sit here, on Good Friday, and be present, when we know the end of the story. It’s easy—oh, so easy—to leapfrog over Friday to the triumph of Sunday.

But that isn’t the story that we live in. It isn’t the world we live in.

With hundreds of South Korean teenagers dead in waters that were supposed to bare them to a paradise vacation, with the ache of families being unable to put food on the table, with the empty clanging of our need for attention and approval (quick, post another Instagram picture of my dinner!), with the searing, pit-of-the-stomach feeling that the world isn’t as it should be, with the gnawing doubts that our faith might not sustain, that what we’ve believed might just be false, we find ourselves confused, hurting, wounded and wondering.

It’s no surprise we want to flip to the end, to find out if it will all work out, if our doubts were worth it, our groaned prayers answered, our tears wiped away. We want resolution now, because the now we live in bleeds and moans and drives us, literally, to distraction.

But here’s the thing—I won’t go to a movie if I know the ending. I won’t pick up a book if someone’s already told me the way the story wraps up. There’s nothing in it for me any more, no hope of being surprised, no sense to movement toward something unknown, no journey to go on. Instead it’s just an excruciating turning of pages, a lifeless waiting until the inevitable has happened. I hate spoilers.

Does that hold true for the larger stories of our culture, our world, the stories we know the ending to, the historical realities that get remade into big picture narratives? Sometimes, and depends—because in those cases I’m looking for something other than a retelling of a tale I already know, a hackneyed remake without imagination that doesn’t change what I know about the story in any way. Instead, I’ll engage in those stories when I know the storyteller wants something more for me, her audience, wants to show me a way that the spoilers get redeemed, remade into something that surprises or startles me awake.

And, really, I’m wanting to see the way the climax, not the ending, changes everything.

It’s the climax that moves us. We hold our breath when the ship hits the iceberg, watching wide-eyed as each person reacts differently, each from their own fears and hopes moving toward life or toward death. It’s the way that Lincoln looks, moments before giving that iconic speech, his face haggard, his life’s work gripped tightly in his hands, that makes us ask the question of what we’d do in the same situation—would we give in to the pressures around us or stand for what we believe to be right? It’s the climax that makes us turn toward ourselves, to make the story our own, to test the substance of our own hearts and choose, when faced with the story told from a slightly different angle, to live differently, more compassionately, more fully as the image-bearers we were made to be.

And that is the story that we’re living, too.

The story we’re living, whether we believe in God or not, is a story of history split in two by the events of Good Friday. In most of the world today, time is marked by the Cross, whether we know it or not. If you, without thinking, tell me that the year we’re living in is 2014, you are being shaped by the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. The whole of time pivoting on these crucial days, why, oh why would we rush through them? Why would we rush through Peter’s betrayal, when we find in it our own willingness to choose ourselves over Christ? Why would we rush through the pain of the thorns, when we feel in that agony the love of the One who chooses us in the midst of mind-boggling torture?

Perhaps we rush through it because we don’t want to see ourselves, to make that turn toward our own hearts, to recognize the doubts and fears and self-rejection lurking there. Perhaps we rush through because we’ve been conditioned to seek the quick answers, to plaster the story we already know over the story we’re actually living.

Because we are living a different story than we were last year. I know I am. I’m a year older, yes, and in that year I’ve lived through longing and fulfillment, questions and grief, a book written and a baby conceived. During this past year I’ve changed in ways I know, and in ways I don’t. I come to the story of Holy Week as one who has never walked through this story ever before. I may have the same bone structure, but I have new cells, new hair, and a new set of experiences that have shaped my soul into something new.

We have a great Storyteller, and that Storyteller isn’t apt to give us all the answers right away. I live through the narrative of Holy Week each year not because I’m simply reliving a story I already know, but because I’m seeing it from a different angle, living the climax differently, coming awake to new things within myself, seeing Christ anew, feeling the contours of my doubts and confusions in a new way, learning myself and my God more intimately, more truly, more immediately to where I am today. I know the end of the story, yes, and it is glorious, but here and now is where I need to be as God molds me, changes me, awakes me more fully.

So here’s my request, for myself and perhaps for you, this Good Friday, this dark day when we come to the Great Story anew, when we see the nails and feel the pain, when there is darkness over the land and mothers weep for their sons. When hope seems lost and my doubts grow large. Let me sit in this tension, let me feel the story again for the first time. No spoilers, please. Don’t tell me Sunday’s coming.


(Image Source: Jan Richardson Images, “According to the Burial Custom”, all rights reserved,

On The Night He Was Betrayed – From The Archives

On this Holy Thursday, this day of love, of service, of betrayal, I thought I’d repost this reflection from the blog archives. It was on a night such as this…

• • •

My jaw spasmed, clenching tight. Pain rippled through me.

Maundy Thursday. My favorite day of the year.

I had taken the driver’s seat on the way to service. We were late. I drove aggressively. Careless enough of the cares of others on the road that my jet-lagged husband mentioned it. I hate being late.

And so I speed walked my way to the chapel, trying to control the pace, refusing to reach out for my husband’s hand, he who I had been without for nearly two weeks, who I professed to missing more than anything in the world. I needed to be on time. I need to be in the right.

But we weren’t late. Not really. I had read the time wrong, and we were half an hour early, there for rehearsals, instead. It was then the first pain shot through my jaw. I rubbed at it absently and went to help fill the tubs for the foot washing with hot, hot water. Hot was we could stand. It would cool as the service progressed.

Continue reading “On The Night He Was Betrayed – From The Archives”

For The Last Minute Lentens

Still struggling about what to do for Lent? Not sure that you’re up for this whole ashes-and-fasting thing? I’ve got a few suggestions for those of us who aren’t sure we’re into Lent this year, and if we are, we just aren’t sure what to do.


This is an eCourse by Jan Richardson, who is one of the most lovely, grace-filled and beautiful artists I know. The course will be low-demand, but high-reward, and I recommend it.


Do you need a little more rest this Lent? Today is the last day to sign up for the Be Course, which is a Lent-long exploration of what it means to rest, and to fast from things like shame, self-loathing or rejection. Each week has a recipe and a new teacher.

Daily Lectionary

Do you have a complicated relationship with Scripture? Read it anew with the Daily Lectionary delivered to your inbox. This project by Preston Yancey will go year-long, but starts on Ash Wednesday, and is completely free. Sometimes our struggles with Scripture come because we’ve been reading it through the scrim we’ve been given, and coming to the Word fresh, letting Scripture speak to Scripture, makes everything new.

A Lenten Check In

If you’d like to talk through what might be right for you this Lent, I’m offering a limited number of pay-what-you-can 30-minute slots of prayer and discernment. You could use this to decide what you want to fast from or pick up for Lent, or as a check-in midway through the season to talk about how things are going, and what God might be up to. Email me here to sign up. Regular sessions are $75, but the pay-what-you-can offer stands.