Our dusty selves

 

dusty selves

 

Today is Ash Wednesday.

And I have no idea what is going on in my life.

And I wonder, sometimes, if maybe that is the point. I read a lenten devotional today, since today marks the first day of Lent. The author said that Lent was about stopping where we are. It’s about stopping, in the middle of where we were and where we think we need to be and being here. It’s about stopping and remembering our dusty selves – from dust, and to dust we shall return – remembering the two things we so desperately try to forget at every other buzzing, busy time: our sin and our humanity.

I read those words and they stopped me; they made me pause and stare and think – and I didn’t like it. Because it is exactly where I’m at right now. I might be here, but in my head, I am in a thousand different places. I have this personality that sometimes seems allergic to the present, forever lingering in what was and, lately, setting up camp in all the places I think I need to be running toward.

Believe me when I say it – there are so many places that I think I need to be right now. And if I am being honest with you, dear reader (which I am), then you must know this: I am so weary of all the places I think I need to be going to.

I am in this weird paradox: so intimately aware of my humanity and all the ways I fall short because of it, but so insistent on ignoring my humanity and just plowing through like I can do everything. It’s like I’m in an action film, and I’m the stubborn heroine who just got shot in the leg but insists it’s just a graze as I fling myself into battle once more. There. That makes it sound heroic. That makes it sound epic. Special. Like I care more about the people I’m battling for than my own single, solitary, bloody leg.

But I don’t think that’s how it goes. I’m not convinced that when Jesus stops us, when he slides in before us, as we run into the fray or shuffle into work or open up a new job application – that he only does it to cheer us on, to egg us forward, to commend our heroic and courageous deed.

I think maybe he’s trying to get us to stop.

Stop. Enough charging into this battle of your life. Enough seeing this life as your battle. You are dust, and to dust you will return. But in the meantime, you may rest.

And there, in the midst of it, his ashy thumb caresses my forehead and there is the cross.

Oh, it is so hard to stop. It is so hard even to pause, for the moments of daily communion, for the knowledge of the truth to sink into my bones: I do not have to win today. I don’t have to make a thousand decisions about my life, I don’t have to know what is happening and where I’m headed.

I’m weary of going places. I’m tired of battling. I’m tired of anxiety. I am tired of heroics.

Stop. Enough going places. Enough believing that you must always be going places and doing things and justifying your life for everyone around you. You are dust, and to dust you will return. But in the meantime, you may rest.

And there, in the midst of it, another ashy thumbprint swipes across my forehead and I am staring at my humanity and my failings and my fear and my worry and my spinning head and unknowable life.

It is here that I remember those Garden promises – the goodness of it all. The Way Things are Supposed to Be. I see the humanity – all the guilt and shame and baggage that comes along with it – and I remember that it was once Good. And this ashy cross, this paused Wednesday, everything it signifies is the way it’s all becoming Good Again.

Stop. Enough remembering the cross as the end. Enough wondering if this night will last forever. You are Good. You are becoming Good again. You are running toward the Garden – not a job or a marriage or a new city or an apartment or the fulfillment of some ideal life you’ve created. You are running through the ash and through the palms and through the open tomb and

You are running toward the Garden.

So breathe.

And there, in the midst of it, because that is where Jesus finds us, because that is where he is, because that is where our lives take us, because that is where it hurts, because that is where we’ve been shot, because that is where the battle rages, because that is where the sea is rising, because that is where your resume gets forgotten, because that is where your breath becomes erratic, because that is where you sink to the ground, because that is where we need him – one more ashy thumbprint cross to smooth out our furrowed brow.

Today is Ash Wednesday.

 

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A God to Expect

There are places that should be filled.  Places that need people in them to fully be what they are.  I first experienced the ghost-town sensation at camp, when I arrived three weeks early to work some rental groups and prepare for summer. Before then, camp had always been a place full of delightful squeals, shouted repeat-after-me songs, golf cart tires on gravel.  But that summer, when I arrived early, camp was silent.  The assistant director lived on the edge of camp, and he and the director were in the office with me during the day, but at night, they left.  And I would make myself dinner, traipse down to the cottage I was staying in, and sit with the quiet. It was the most alone I had ever felt.  There was no internet, no cell service, and no television – it was just me, and the music I had installed in my computer.  I tried to read, I remember, but the silence became heavy as the sun sank away.  I tried to write, but my thoughts would run away with themselves – I thought too much for a girl who had no one with whom to think aloud.  I would call my mom on the land line from the office, crying, not because I was afraid or because I missed home, but because camp finally looked and felt empty.  My place – the one place where I had always been guarenteed company – was a giant wooded prison.

One night, alone in a cabin that I had just opened for the season, tucked into my sleeping bag, I spoke to God out loud.  I told Him that if there ever was a time for me to have a mystic moment, a time for Jesus to appear – literally, bodily, with His standard arms-wide-open posture and knowing-smile face – now was that time.  I told God that I had no one – that every night for what seemed like years (but was really only a few weeks) I had been alone, in the dark, empty.  Really, looking back, I see now that I allowed the loneliness to cripple me; I allowed the dark to seep into my mind.  It’s amazing, and kind of terrifying, how easy it is to be overcome by that which really can’t hurt you on its own.

That night, in the cabin, was the first time I remember being completely dependent on God to come through.  As silly as it seems – I mean, there are prisoners of war, religious captives, refugees and over 200 girls being sold as child brides in Africa right now, and my most desperate moment was sitting alone in a bunk at a church camp that I basically grew up at, in a wood I knew like the back of my hand, a three-minute walk away from an office with internet, phones, and food – I know it sounds ridiculous, but in that moment, I felt my need for God more than I had ever felt it before.

I prayed for a long time that night.  It was one of those prayers that drifts in and out, that wanes in intensity until it’s just you, your head on the pillow, staring into the space in front of you, desperate hope and exhaustion clashing within you.

In the silence, a bat fluttered from one rafter to the other.  I sat up, not because I was afraid, but because in that moment, I was completely certain that I had just seen the Spirit.

Track with me here: I don’t come anywhere close to charismatic.  I’m Methodist, and as progressive as I tend to be as of late, I still stand firmly in my pew, arms (usually) clasped in front of me.  The Holy Spirit is, to me, the most intriguing and the most confusing member of the Trinity, a juxtaposition of beauty and mystery.  If we were to get technical, we would technically label me a semi-cessationist with a fairly open mind but a little bit of hidden fear that if I let Him, God will use me in ways I don’t understand (which seems to be the way He usually uses people anyway, but…).  In short, the last thing I expected that night was for God to actually answer my prayer.

Why don’t we pray like God will actually answer our prayer?

Why do we doubt the One who made promises?

That bat didn’t scare me that night.  I didn’t run screaming, I didn’t turn on the lights or set a trap for it.  Instead, the bat was comfort.  It was that peace-surpassing-all-understanding feeling.  It was the most unromantic revelation, but that’s how God tends to work, isn’t it?  Maybe we’ve hyped up the miracles so much that we see them through Hollywood glasses, as these flashing heroics complete with background orchestration.  But the ways Jesus worked were generally without fanfare.  He had a conversation with a woman drawing water.  He told the servant to have the wine skins filled with water.  He told the man to pick up his mat and walk.  As earth-shattering and life-changing and power-shifting as His works were, there were no fireworks.  He spoke in parables, with no flashing arrows.  He did things differently, but not in ways anyone expected.  He was not yet the warrior king on a white horse, riding into Jerusalem to defeat the Romans.  This is a God who uses bats in camp cabins.  This is a God who answers prayers but asks us to pay attention.  He is a God who asks us to expect Him, but not always in the most expected ways.

I’ve met with the ghost-town sensation a few times since then.  I found it this week at school – I’m living with a family outside of town and working on campus during the day.  It’s desolate – finals have ended, students have left, and the small, sleepy town has slipped quietly into the slow pace of summer.  Thankfully, I have plenty of friends around, which keeps the loneliness far away, and I’ve grown up quite a bit in the past few years anyway.  I know, now, how to better be alone.  But I’ve been reminded, in this new quiet, of my need for my God.  I’ve been reminded of His faithfulness, even in my wandering, even in my doubt, even in my fear.  He continues to sit closely, constantly, and I can rest in that.

Rest, He whispered that night, after the bat flew by – the bat that reminded me that I have never been fully alone.

Rest, because you can expect Me.

Supporting.

My friends recently had a baby. And when I say recently, I mean a couple weeks ago, they had a baby.  She is a brand new infant: soft and light, with wisps of dark hair and chubby cheeks and deep blue eyes that haven’t learned to focus quite yet.  Last night, my boyfriend and I went over for dinner and stayed late into the evening, talking and laughing and watching Casino Royale.  I held the baby for over an hour after dinner.  We were still sitting around the table, and her mom held her out to me – it was like time froze for a moment. I mean, I’d held an infant before, but they were infants I was related to, infants placed in my arms as I sat securely in a cushioned chair in a hospital room. Holding other newborns had been a big deal: the holding itself was the event, and people stared at me the whole time. My mom would stare. The baby’s parents would stare. The baby would stare at me. My arms would be tense, my jaw set – because in my arms was the world. This newly-born world, this delicate, soft, terribly fragile world.

Those were the thoughts that crashed down on me last night as my friend, this young, beautiful mother, held her twenty-day-old child out to me, this twenty-one-year-old adult who still feels so childish.  The baby’s dark eyes gazed in my general direction, and everything about her was perfect. I wanted to hold her. A voice that sounded vaguely like my own mother’s ran through my head, a steady mantra: Support the head, support the head, support the head. When I took her from her mother, I realized that my middle fingers were as long as the space between her neck and the crown of her brunette head.

I nestled her in the crook of my right arm, muttering something like, “I don’t really know exactly how to do this…” as people went on talking around me. No one stared at me. The baby’s eyes fluttered closed – I couldn’t get over how dark babies’ eyes are – and I exhaled. Then she started screaming.

I looked up at my friends, my eyes wide, poised to return the screaming child to a parent who knew how to fix whatever I’d just messed up. But no one moved to take her. “It’s okay,” they said. “You’re not doing anything wrong.”

How could I not be doing something wrong? Of course I was doing something wrong; the baby in my arms was screaming. Her face contorted, red and furrowed and blatantly unhappy. I took a quick inventory: yes, I was supporting her head; no, I wasn’t crushing her arm; yes, she was, in fact, breathing. I started drawing gentle circles on her back, swaying in my chair, praying for her to stop screaming, to fall asleep, for me to look like I was somewhat competent. I whispered to her, “Shh. You’re okay. You’re okay.” And to myself: You’re okay, too.

Gradually, her dark baby eyes opened again, her face un-crumpled.  She stopped screaming, just looking at me for a while. Then, she slept. She woke up a few more times to scream, but this time I held onto her, prayed again, drew more circles on her back. Eventually, she slept deeply, making small baby noises, slipping neatly into the space between my ribs and my arm.  I held her and talked, laughed, listened to stories.  We stayed that way for a while, four friends and two children, one waddling around the kitchen pointing and asking for names – “That’s a table. That’s a pan. That’s part of the pan – well, it’s the handle. That’s still the table.” – the other in my arms. Sometimes I tuned out of the conversation just to look at the miracle I was holding: the magic that was this baby, knit together the way God said He would, an unspoiled combination of millions of atoms, strands of DNA, a personality and a heart that already beat for Him. I looked at her and I knew in my head that humans were fallen, that sin was real and that this child, too, would screw up during her life. But I didn’t feel it in my heart – all I felt was peace, that this: this cradling, this nestling, this keeping-safe – this was right. This was some tiny remnant of Eden that maybe God had left un-cursed.

Maybe I should have seen more Jesus in it – maybe I should’ve seen that in the same way, He holds me; that in the same way, I am safe. He holds me as I scream, and He does not look for someone else to pass me off to.  A blogger I like said it a few weeks ago: if I got to the Jesus part of this quicker, I’d be a better blogger, a better writer, a better Courtney. But I am selfish, so I had to go by another path to even get close to the Jesus part.  You see, when the baby had screamed, all I could think was that I’d done something wrong. It shouldn’t be a surprise, really: lately, I’m quite prone to thinking I’m doing something wrong. I think my feelings are wrong, my ideas are wrong, my hopes and goals and prayers are wrong. There isn’t really a rational explanation for most of my fear. I’m coming to think that perhaps it’s just a place God has me right now. I’m being challenged and shaken and tilted, maybe not because I’m altogether weak, but because it’s time for me to be stronger.

All this time, even in the midst of my ups and downs, there’s God, and He’s whispering to me shhhhh. Shhhhh.

You’re not doing anything wrong. It’s okay. You’re okay. You know what you’re doing. Support the head, but release that tension in your neck.

We were talking later that night about what it was like holding the baby while she cried, and worrying for a moment about what you were doing wrong. And I don’t remember who said it, or even if it was a conclusive statement that was said, but it was what I left with, and what I’ve been thinking about in the hours since then. Maybe we’re worried about something we already know how to do. Maybe the key isn’t in figuring out why the baby is crying, what we’re doing to cause the pain or the fear or the discomfort. Maybe it’s in realizing that there isn’t anything happening that we need to fix. It’s in realizing that we know how to hold a baby. Finding that quiet confidence, releasing the tension, and drawing circles on her back while waiting for the cries to end. Trusting our God to hear our prayers. Trusting ourselves to listen for Him. Trusting Him to speak.

I am wrong about a lot of things. But I know how to hold a baby.

 

Coming to life

I used to think that death extinguished life.
I thought it was a weed,
creeping over the breathing things,
crippling the moving things.
I thought it dragged us into the desert,
slowly –
slowly for a long time,
until it sped,
until it tore and ripped us.
I thought dying was a savage thing –
overpowering.
I used to think that death was a taker
and that it took what was dear
and hid it in the thorns and underbrush.

And then I watched it at work.
And it was a weed,
and it crept over what I loved
what we loved
loved
And it crippled what once sprang and shuffled.
Death was not slow,
though I imagine it had been slower for 67 years
(we just didn’t notice then).
But in it’s speed and unforgiveness,
despite the taking –
I saw no savagery.
And though I was lost,
I was not lost alone.

So then I began to think that maybe there was more life in death than I thought.
There was laughter
defying the dimness and the silence
of sickness.
Tears and smiles and sighs of relief
from nestled-together family.
Whispered prayer.
A Healer who long ago cast out the fear.

We are found people
He found us in our grief
and mourning.
He found us tearing our clothes
and rolling in ash
and He
lifted us up
and draped us in white
and fed us clean water
and returned us our joy.

Restoration

I feel useless here.  I know I’m not useless – I know.  But I saw him in the hospital – small and weak and sleepy.  My grandfather was fine in August.  He was young in August.  I left for school the same way I always left: with a hug, and an “I love you.”  If I would’ve known that he would be so small and weak and sleepy in November, I would like to say that I would’ve said something more, in August.  But how could I have known?  How does something take over an entire person in just a few months?  I have never seen my grandfather look old.  And now, he looks old enough to make him like a child again, frail.  Breakable.  But all I am doing is sitting in a classroom, staring a computer, putting together hypothetical projects and trying not to complain too much (and failing, I think).  I could be at the hospital, keeping him company.  I could be at home, making dinners and doing laundry and putting up Christmas decorations.  I could be doing so much more.

But I am giving presentations, rehearsing scenes, making up fake nonprofits, and studying for gen-ed exams.  For the first time in my life, I don’t understand how school makes a difference.  I can’t see how this matters.

I am such a Martha, always moving, always busy – and I think in my mind I am convinced that if only I could just be done with this semester, then I would be less Martha and more Mary, doing what really matters.  I could take care of my family.  I could be present and helpful.  Surely, Martha is concerned with things that do not last, but Mary is content with the meaningful, busy with the important details.  If only I weren’t so busy, if only I weren’t so stuck in a place where I feel useless, then perhaps I could be a better daughter, a better granddaughter, a better servant of the Lord.  I could be more like Mary, if only.

Mary was busy with important things, like family and Christmas decorating and laundry and hospitals and –

Oh.

“Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what He taught.”

Even if I thought I could be like Mary, I think I would be an awful Mary.  Because all I’d be doing is trading one busy-ness for another.  One stress for another.  One I-can-do-this-on-my-own mindset for another.  It’s not to say that being with my family isn’t important.  It is.  And yes, maybe school is rightfully on the back-burner.  But something is broken inside of me, and being in another place, even if I would be better off there for now, isn’t going to fix me.

Martha was stressed.  She was concerned with the world: with fixing dinner and tidying the house because oh my word the Lord was in her home.

The Lord was in her home.  But her mind was in a thousand other places besides.  So is mine.  I feel useless because unless I am sitting at the feet of Christ, I am.

So what do I do?  I listen when he tells me that I need to glorify God in my schoolwork.  I trust God to have perfect timing.  I believe my mom, who reminds me that next week will come quickly.  I whisper it to myself over and over: The Lord is with you.  You are going to be okay.  You are going to be taken care of. 

And I pray, with fervor from some dusty corner of my heart, for healing and miracles and peace if miracles do not come.  I pray for my hurting friends, by busy friends, my patient, loving, beautiful friends.  I am loved in different ways, and I do not understand how I deserved any of it.  And I am allowed to love, too.  I am selfish and broken, but I am loved and I love.  As death and stillness hang over me, abundant joy surrounds me, engulfs me.  Nativities appear around me, delicate porcelain babies placed in tiny mangers meant to remind me of the One who vanquished death and stillness.

It doesn’t feel vanquished.  Right now, it feels powerful.

“But the Lord said to her, ‘My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details!  There is only one thing worth being concerned about.  Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.'”

So until I find the feet of my Lord, setting aside the projects and the exams and the hospitals and the laundry, I will find purpose in none of it.  The desert is getting tiresome now.  I have been here for too long, dancing on the edge of the mirage and convincing myself that I spend enough time in the oasis to justify my wanderings.  Lead me to the well, draw up a bucket of the good stuff, the living stuff, and pull me into the living room.  I will pull up a patch of floor, and I will listen to Him here.  This will not be taken away from me.