a l i v e

Every day is a mortal day, and on this day among all mortal days, I return to a poem by a medieval rabbi named Yehuda Halevi:

            ‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.
            A fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream, to be ––

            to be!–– And oh, to lose.
            A thing for fools, this, 

            And a holy thing: a holy thing to love.
            For your life has lived in me,

            your laugh once lifted me, your word was gift to me. 

            To remember this brings painful joy.
            Tis a human thing: love, 

            a holy thing, to love what death has touched.

God calls us daily to love what death can touch, what death has already touched, and will touch. And today we remember we are dust. We are dust. And we are often afraid of what that means. 

About a year ago, as headlines were beginning to name a deadly virus potentially threatening the world as we knew it, I was in my car heading toward a meeting in the hope of learning there how to let go, how to cease setting the agenda, how to surrender my influence over others, most especially over those I love. 

I was thinking about the many crazy ways I try to control other people believing I know how to keep them safe: how to hold onto them just as they are: under my influence, of course, directed by my encouragement, my endless preaching and teaching, my chastising care and control.

I was thinking about the necessity of letting go of all that when I realized I was almost out of gas. So I pulled into a BP station, and then, while filling up the tank, from out of who knows where, likely some rumor on the radio, I started worrying about the coronavirus, and began to wonder what I could do to stop it.  I sat there holding the gun of that cold nozzle and began bobbing my worried head like I just might shake some miracle out of it.

Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.

Over the last year, so many nurses, physicians, and other essential workers in the medical field have been the hands that daily tended what death can touch. They have done this almost out of sight and out of mind. And done it sacrificially at risk to their own lives. 

I think Ash Wednesday aims us not only to name what death can touch, but also to love what death can touch. I think it marks our mortality, yes: the fact that we will all die, and yet it also marks the lovely gift of this mortal life we share. 

The sign of ashes grounds us in the dust, in our limitations and longing for God, while also marking the holiness of all life crying out to be loved, cared for, known.  

I’m reminded of a story I cherish about St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a story I often revisit on his feast day but have never connected to the imposition of ashes, which is odd because it’s a story about ashes.

Apparently, one day Francis met up with one of his followers, and the man asked if he could have a copy of the psalms for his own personal use. And Blessed Francis said something like this, When you get a psalter, you’ll want a prayer book; and when you get a prayer book, you’ll want to act like a big-shot priest and command your brother to bring you your prayer book. And then working himself up even further, Francis took ashes from a nearby hearth and rubbed them onto his body, and said, I’m a prayer book! I’m a prayer book!  

It’s a gesture that marked both his mortality (made of ash) and the living prayers of his Creator. Francis, you may remember, thought of death as a sister. Sister Death, he called her, naming her as a companion in life. 

I speak to each of you now, when I say this: 

Every day of your life, God places a living prayer book before you. You are in it. You are alive in it. 

Every person is mysteriously made of ashes, dust, earth, yet by God also alive: a living prayer.

There will always be hurtful forces — small and private, global and communal — forces we cannot thwart or stop or control or manipulate. But there will also be – as there is now – plenty within our reach to love and tend and overcome.

I close with a prayer: Gracious God, you sent your Son to share our dust and to know our fears; for his sake, open our eyes to see the living prayer book you set before us. Give us courage to love and bless, heal and bind, anoint and repair, what you daily give into our care.  Amen.

e x i l e: Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Though Christmas comes with tidings of comfort and joy, it also comes with tidings of discomfort and trouble, where love finds its deepest measure not at home with family and friends, but out on the open road on your way to who knows where. 

It’s how St. Matthew tells it anyway, recalling the holy family’s flight into Egypt, a story told against the urgent backdrop of another story: the story of the massacre of innocents, a story recalling not the one child who survived but the many who didn’t. It’s an abysmal world St. Matthew dares to hold onto lest we decorate our understanding of Christmas with too many lights: a story from hell set firmly within the nativity narrative itself.

According to the late Leonard Cohen, “Every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.” It’s an old Jewish idea: the notion that you learn to put your whole trust in the promises of God by way of exile and heartbreak because when you’re on your own, separated from kin and country, it’s all you have. 

By way of a dream that came to him unguarded and asleep, St. Joseph got up and took the child and his mother into Egypt as if tracking with the life of Moses. Joseph did this because it wasn’t safe to go home, and because God mysteriously called his son into exile. Though biblical scholars mostly doubt the historicity of this story, what I notice in it is how it lands the holy family in a place where nothing made sense to them. 

Read more

and the angel left

We are those people the angel spoke of:  the people who long for good news, who need good news to come to all people. If we’ve learned anything this last year, it’s how helplessly related we are to all people — how other lives have consequence in our own. Always have, always will.

If only the angels would come again to light our way. If only some heavenly illumination would renew our way of looking at each other — at all people — every hour of every day. But the angels never stay, do they? They always vanish into heaven and leave us in the dark. 

It’s what happened to Mary: the angel came and left her. And it’s what happened to the shepherds, too: the angel left them as well. They must have been amazed, though, by the angel’s sudden appearance: must have shuttered their eyes from the blazing glory of it all, only to open them and find the vision gone. 

What happened next, though, means to take you by surprise. You see, the shepherds didn’t wait on the angel’s return. Instead, they ran off toward Bethlehem on foot in search of that thing the angel spoke of.

Read more

g r a s s

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

For most of a year now, we’ve all been withering under the force of pandemic and division. Yet through it all, the Church has done her best to hold before us the Word of God that stands forever. 

For this reason, I think, the season of Advent comes with particular sorrows as we look to Christmas. And yet, in truth, they are the same old sorrows, the perpetual sorrows of a world in need of a savior beyond our making. 

Today Advent asks us to remember we are grass, the same way Lent asks us to remember we are dust. Advent means to ground us all in the humble truth of our own lives, there to look for the miracles of God. 

To admit we are grass is to accept that other people are also grass — the plans we make: grass — made of stuff that falls apart or doesn’t turn out like we planned. And the more desperate we are to deny this truth about being human, the more damage we do to others — to the world and to the earth. 

Richard Rohr has it we can measure how alienated we are from the grace of God and the communion of others by how often we’re offended, whether by other people or by the world itself. When things don’t go our way, we often forget we are grass.  

Read more

a story at the intersection of Eastertide and COVID-19

Story note: I wrote and illustrated this story at the unexpected intersection of COVID-19 and the feasts of Passover and Easter. I was inspired by the gospel accounts of an empty tomb marking the Resurrection, by St. Mary Magdalene not seeing what she came looking for in the Gospel according to John, by a second coming hidden away in the resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, and by a rabbinic story about forgetting and sufficiency in The Poetry of Kabbalah, translated by Peter Cole, Yale University Press, 2012, 241. LFB