Lent: Dies Cinerum

Today is dies cinerum (day of ashes), which we now refer to as Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of a forty-day Lenten season (also known as Lent) leading up to Easter Sunday. Typically, this is known as a somber tradition in which individuals have ashes placed upon their head as a sign of repentance of sins. As Christians, we know there is nothing magical with the ashes themselves — rather, they are a representation of a decision we have made in our hearts to become pure before the Lord.

Something we ought to focus on is how this is relevant in light of the beautiful cross! If you choose to fast during Lent, it should be based on a deep desire to understand the suffering of Christ, and what He has done for us to atone for our sins once and for all. Christ did what He did to make us free from the bondage of sin and death, and pure adopted sons and daughters. He gave us an inheritance we could never merit on our own. The Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, foretold of the amazing new covenant in Isaiah 58:5-7:

Is such the fast that I choose,

a day for a person to humble himself?

Is it to bow down his head like a reed,

and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?

Will you call this a fast,

and a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Let us not lose sight of the “kind of fast” we are called to!

As you begin your fast, here is a Lenten Prayer by Henri Nouwen from his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey. It’s a genuine prayer, not with fancy words, but a real plea for grace from God during this Lenten season. Whatever it is that you are giving up in order to make more space for Him, we pray that you will find strength and hope!

A Lenten Prayer

The Lenten season begins. It is a time to be with you, Lord, in a special way, a time to pray, to fast, and thus to follow you on your way to Jerusalem, to Golgotha, and to the final victory over death.

I am still so divided. I truly want to follow you, but I also want to follow my own desires and lend an ear to the voices that speak about prestige, success, pleasure, power, and influence. Help me to become deaf to these voices and more attentive to your voice, which calls me to choose the narrow road to life.

I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me. The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life.  I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions. There are not times or places without choices. And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.

Please, Lord, be with me at every moment and in every place. Give me the strength and the courage to live this season faithfully, so that, when Easter comes, I will be able to taste with joy the new life that you have prepared for me. Amen.

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Learning to Mourn with Those Who Mourn

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15 (ESV).  

This scripture is pretty straightforward: be happy with/for those who have a reason to be happy; be sad with/for those who have a reason to be sad. Validate their feelings and what they are going through. That’s what they need from you. But so often one or both of these are difficult to follow through with. In my experience, rejoicing with those who rejoice can be robbed by feelings of jealousy/envy. Mourning with those who mourn can be robbed by calloused hearts, being afraid of the pain of mourning, or simply having no experience with which to relate.

This was me, at one point. Understanding mourning was beyond my comprehension, so all I knew to do was to offer “encouragement” in the form of: “Don’t worry, God has a plan,” or something along those lines. What I would say would be true, but it would be inadvertently dismissive of the pain my loved one was going through. It wasn’t until I experienced seasons of mourning myself that I began to grasp not only what mourning was, but how important it was to have people mourn with you.

A sweet friend recently came to me and said she had a story of loss and grief to tell. She wanted people to know not only her story, but that through it she has learned about mourning, and has excellent advice on how to walk with people through their seasons of grief.

Here is her story, by Martha Gunderson.

When I was thirty-two years old, my father passed away. He was an alcoholic and smoked two packs a day. He served in WWII and Korea, which took a significant toll on his body. My father had many unresolved issues in his life, including abuse by his dad and stepdad who both died due to drinking. Unfortunately, Dad was unable to give up cigarettes and alcohol, even after his physician told him the damage could be cured if he would stop drinking.

I came to Jesus at age sixteen. One day I was in intercession regarding my dad and my prayer was that God would save him. As I poured out my heart I heard very clearly: “He, (Dad) would hear it,” which I understood to mean my dad would hear the gospel on his death bed. I thought to myself that perhaps a nurse or clergy person would share the love of God with Dad when that day came.

Years later, on a beautiful Easter day, I knew that my dad’s health was failing. I went to see him in the hospital, aware that it might be the last time that I would see him. I told him, “Dad, Jesus loves you, and Jesus died for you,” and I asked him what he had decided to do about putting his trust in Jesus. After several moments in silent thought, he said that he was going to put his trust in Jesus. Dad passed away a few weeks later.

Six months later, God gave me a dream where I saw my dad in heaven. He was sitting in a big chair like the one he had always sat in, with little children happily climbing all over him. You see, we as children were afraid of my dad. He was an angry person and we would hide when he came home. I knew that the desire of my dad’s heart would be that we would run to him when he came home each day. Instead, we made ourselves scarce. During that dream, I saw and felt the pure joy that my dad was experiencing in heaven.

Ten years after my dad passed, my mom died. She had cancer of the larynx and lungs, emphysema and COPD. She had been a smoker too. Treatment required that she have the infamous hole in her throat. She refused to learn how to use a tool that would enable her to talk, so it was all reading lips and notes – a miserable thing to have happen to you. I had a full time job, children in their teens, and lived three hours away, but I was there for as much as I could be, helping her through some of the most gritty parts of her last years. I did not feel I was the best person to help her.

Since then, I have lost half of my family of origin: my father and mother and my youngest brother JP, who died five years ago from laryngeal cancer, leaving his wife and two young girls. This has been the saddest loss of all.

After my mom passed away I took a class on grief. The pain was so locked up, and I knew that somehow, it needed to come out. In the church that my husband and I were going to at the time, very few friends had ever experienced the loss of a close loved one. Most had never lost anyone. I found that I needed a certain kind of support that most of our friends were simply unequipped to give.

When you find out that a friend has lost a family member or a loved one, there are some practical ways to walk with them through their grief. They need you. I know from experience.

  • Do call, do bring food, or send a thoughtful card or letter. These will be read, re-read, and saved – trust me.
  • Do attend the memorial if you can, and/or send flowers.
  • Do listen to your friend’s story about their loved one. This is incredibly valuable.
  • Do check in with them and see if they are okay. You may have to probe a little.
  • Just listen to them. You don’t have to fill the silences.
  • Understand that they may say they are okay when actually they are not.
  • Don’t be afraid of their tears. Maybe you can cry with them.
  • You don’t have to fix it for them, just be there for them.

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Posted in Adversity, Grief & Loss, Relationships | Leave a comment

Morning People Muffins

Chris and I are morning people. If you call us close friends, you most definitely know this. And now you all know! We’re all besties now!

I love a tasty muffin. I love a tasty, healthy muffin even more! I found this recipe on Feed Me Seymour. She calls them Sunburst Muffins, and they really are a bit of sunshine — morning sunshine! The start-your-day-off-right kind. I loved all the breakfast food INSIDE these muffins. Fruit, oats, yogurt, egg whites! Sign me up! I love breakfast, don’t you?

Morning People Muffins

1 ½ cups old-fashioned oats

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ cup brown sugar

1 tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

8 ounces Greek yogurt

2 mashed bananas

2 egg whites

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

Zest of one orange

Click here for baking instructions and food photos that will make these irresistible.

I made these for our very own Stephanie Krier and hubby Bobby (visiting from Boston).  What a treat to have these two over for breakfast!  They gobbled them right up!

Photo by Noelle

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The End of Slavery

Last Friday we celebrated National Freedom Day. On that day we commemorated the events of February 1, 1865, on which President Abraham Lincoln signed a joint House and Senate resolution that would later become the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, declaring that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude would exist in the United States of America.

If only it were true.

It is 2013, almost 150 years since that historic day, yet slavery persists in America. It persists where abusive spouses control their families through emotional, physical and psychological coercion, forcing them to live in fear, in subjugation and in submission. It persists where domestic workers and factory laborers are forced to work in inhumane conditions—subjected to long hours, little-to-no pay, abuse, dangerous working environments, and threats to involve immigration or other authorities. And it persists where women and children are bought and sold for sex every day as commodities rather than as human beings.

The 13th Amendment was a remarkable accomplishment. Unlike the rest of the Constitution, which only places restrictions on what the government can do, the 13th Amendment placed restrictions on everyone. It said that nobody—neither the government nor anybody else—was allowed to own another human being.

The problem, however, is that the 13th Amendment only said what could NOT be done, and not what the government was required TO DO, and any law is only as good as its enforcement. Thus, while we live in a society in which we are supposedly free, that freedom has its limits—confined by our own depravity and the myriad ways we continue to oppress one another.

In Galatians 5:1 Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. . . .”  This means that in Christ, we are free. This also means that there is something about the essential quality of freedom that made it worth freedom for Christ to set us free. Dwell on that for a moment. What was it about freedom that made it worth Jesus’ pain, suffering, and time separated from His Father to set us free?

In the freedom we have in Jesus, we are no longer under the law, we are beholden to no one, and we are slaves to no master, not even our own demons, our own pasts or our own sins. Of course, we are called to use our freedom to serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13), but this is not within the confines of the Law, but rather out of the freedom of choosing to serve and to love God.

My husband and I have the privilege of working for Agape International Missions, and we leave on Sunday to go work in Cambodia for the next three months to work with young women and girls who have been abused in sex trafficking. This horrendous tragedy persists not only in Cambodia, but also around the world, including the United States. In our work, it is devastating to know about the countless women and children who are coerced by pimps and traffickers to sell their bodies for sex. Yet we continue this work because we have also been blessed to see young women abused in sexual slavery find freedom, not only in the physical and tangible sense, but also freedom from the psychological, emotional and spiritual trauma to which they have been subjected.

While the former may come from the work of law enforcement and the government–and that work is important–the latter comes only when they are freed from the demons and the lies from their past, which tell them they are dirty, unlovable, and only good for one thing. Those lies must gradually be replaced by a new identity and new truths about who they are, about their value, and about their potential and capacity for real love.

The 13th Amendment didn’t mark the end of slavery, though it was certainly a landmark victory in the fight to end involuntary servitude and abuse in the United States. Even were it perfectly enforced, however, it still would not be enough. No, true freedom comes only through the work of Christ—that makes us new creations, whereby the old passes away and the new takes its place (2 Corinthians 5:17).

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Backstage at the Pageant

My little lambs at last year’s pageant (I have NO photos from this year!)

This Christmas, I directed our church’s annual Christmas pageant.

Notice that I don’t say, “I volunteered to direct our church’s annual Christmas pageant,” because I didn’t. How I came to head up this massive production is still unclear to me. Say you’re standing on a dock, looking up at an enormous cruise ship, and you turn to a nearby crew member to inquire where the ship is going. The crew member whisks you inside, dresses you in the captain’s uniform, sits you behind the controls, and says, “Anchors away!”

THAT’S how I became the director of the Christmas pageant.

Not that I was unwilling to direct. This year, probably because we have three (almost four) children in Sunday School, I was asked to sit on the Board of Christian Education.  So, when December arrived and I started asking around about the Christmas pageant, it shouldn’t have surprised me to end up at the helm.

But once it became clear that I was in charge, I was terrified. I had no idea what I was even supposed to be doing, because we’ve only attended this church for a year. I’d watched the Christmas pageant the previous December, but I had no memory of it because the entire time I was silently willing my four-year-old and two-year-old (making their debut as sheep) not to do anything too humiliating.

A few facts about our church’s Christmas pageant:

-There is a preexisting script, so I wasn’t starting from scratch. However, the students are in charge of running the ENTIRE 90-minute service. If we wanted anybody else involved, like the worship team or the pastor, it was up to me to request their participation.

-There are preexisting costumes (although nobody was quite sure where they were).

-Rehearsal takes place for 30 minutes during the usual Sunday School time, one week before the actual pageant. Just enough time for things to feel completely out of control.

-Everybody has a role: high school and middle school students do the Bible readings, elementary school students act out the Christmas story, and preschoolers are the animals around the manger. That’s about 25 young people, aged three to sixteen.

-NOBODY wants to be Mary or Joseph. I convinced last year’s Mary to repeat her role, on the condition that she could use her own doll for Jesus. My original Joseph bribed another boy to take his place.

Driving home from church after the first — and only — rehearsal, I said to my husband, “I can’t wait for it all to be over next week.”

Driving home from church after the pageant, I said, “I’d definitely do it again next year!”

What happened? Sometime during the course of that week, I decided to embrace the uncomfortable feeling of free-fall, my total lack of control. This is hard for me; I think it’s hard for all of us. (Wasn’t the original sin based on our desire to control, to be our own bosses, to hog the glory?)

Here’s what helped:

First, it became very clear in the days before the pageant that I had lots of help. I didn’t ask for help (as I should have), but help came anyway. It came in the form of Sunday School teachers who, although they were “off duty,” showed up to help with the kid-wrangling. It came in the form of a young woman home from college, who turned up to coordinate costumes and get everyone dressed. It came in the form of one couple who went to church the afternoon before the pageant and set the stage. It came in the form of members of the worship team who offered to share music. And it came in the form of a 14-year-old girl, who turned to me midway through the pageant and asked, “Do we have anybody to take the offering?”, and when I looked at her in panic — because I hadn’t thought of that — quickly grabbed three friends to handle things.

Then there were the kids themselves. As you’d expect, some  were enthusiastic, and some were…draggy. But this pageant was by them, and for them, so I thought about how they’d experience it. I didn’t expect them all to have a mystical revelation about the true meaning of Christmas, like in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (although that’s a GREAT book); even with all the control in the world, I couldn’t force that kind of thing to happen. But what I could control was my own behavior. I thought:

The most important thing is that these kids have FUN; that they not come away from this experience hating church (i.e. God). I can be an example of an anxious control freak who wants everything to be perfect, or I can be an example of somebody who’s relaxed and joyful despite the chaos. And church (i.e. God) is not about perfection; it’s about having joy despite the chaos.

So my pre-pageant inspirational speech went something like this: “Just have fun, and it’ll be great. It doesn’t have to be perfect, because God’s love is gonna shine through anyway.”

It was fun, it was great, it wasn’t perfect, but God’s love shone through anyway. All of this despite — or because of — the fact that I wasn’t really in control at all.

Preschoolers in animal hoods didn’t hurt, either.

Posted in Adversity, Being a Woman, Parenting, Theology & Philosophy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment