a fire on a beach: Acts 28

There is a strange contradiction written into the Christian Ash Wednesday service.  The service begins with Jesus warning us to beware of “practicing our piety before men” – and then we kneel while the priest smears an ENORMOUS black cross on our foreheads.  We’re supposed to leave that cross on all day.  It makes every person on the subways and streets stare at us.  For some reason those ashes are oily – they stick – they smudge.  As the day progresses they go from shape of a cross to being just a big black mark.

So is that the very kind of false piety Jesus warns against?

Yes.  But as long as we know that, there’s no reason not to do it anyway.  Here’s what I mean.

Imposing ashes on our foreheads is a manmade tradition.  Therefore it’s inherently suspect.  Yes, I know.  It’s been around a long time.  Since the fourth century, I’m told.  But in the very “first” century, Jesus railed against people who imposed manmade rules.  He said those people weighed down others with “religious” rules that crushed them, and didn’t lift a finger to help them.  Luke 11:46.  So the first thing to note is that no one should EVER feel they have to get that ashy cross on their foreheads.  Anyone who says otherwise is just plain wrong.  And they can be – politely – ignored.

So once we know we’re free of any requirement to get that Ash Wednesday cross, we arrive at a different question.  Should we?  Could we?  To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: do we dare?

The litmus test for whether something is helpful in our quest toward living a life of sacrificial love is to look at the fruit it bears.  So here’s my short answer, born of personal experience yesterday.  I went to an 8 a.m. service.  I got my cross.  It was big.  It was bold.  It wasn’t beautiful.  I felt self-conscious.  And it wasn’t until I recognized that there was NO WAY false piety hadn’t crept into my heart in that I was free of false piety.

Here’s what I mean.

The moment I wrote in this blog that false piety will ALWAYS creep up on us if we walk around with a black cross on our foreheads – then I forgot all about the cross. The moment I realized that on SOME LEVEL that cross was making me proud, the pride melted away.

It’s kind of how grace works.  When we pretend to ourselves that we’re perfect, we become proud.  The moment we admit our imperfection, boom.  There’s finally room for God to humble us.

The interesting thing was that the moment I forgot about the cross, about 20 people struck up conversations with me because of it.  They were talking to me in the Writer’s Room (where, trust me, no one talks).  They were pulling homilies out of their knapsacks.  They were talking to me on the streets.  Two women were chatting with me in Alice’s Tea Cup (yes, with their mismatched china).  The doormen were asking about it at the club where I swim.  “I should have gone to church,” a lot of them said.

“Oh, I only go because I NEED to go,” I replied.

“Who doesn’t,” they said back.

In other words – the moment that cross came to symbolize my pride, rather than my perfection, it became the very thing the cross is supposed to be:  a sign of God’s love for we fallen hopeless hapless lovable humans, who long to connect to each other but are never very sure how.  Apparently the key to connecting lies in admitting our pride to ourselves.

Which brings me to the Scripture for the day – it’s the very last chapter of Acts.  As usual with the book of Acts, I read it and was at somewhat of a loss.  It meanders around between Paul’s shipwrecks to his imprisonment in Rome and his lecturing people for being deaf and blind to God’s love and his availability to anyone who wants to hear of God’s love.  What is one to do with all that?  How do we summarize it?  What’s the takeaway?  How do we relate it to Ash Wednesday, a Pope resigning for the first time since the Great Schism, civil war in Syria, school bombings, trade partnership between the U.S. and the EU, civilians being bombed in Afghanistan, Iran’s new centrifuges, and six more people being hauled away for hacking into cellphones in Rupert Murdoch’s empire?

Well, humbly yours, I have no idea.  But here’s my takeaway.

When Paul is shipwrecked off the island of Malta, the locals kindle a fire for him in the rain and cold.

There it is.  It’s that simple.  Kindness is to build a fire for someone who is cold and wet.  That’s the kind of kindness we can feel with our eyes shut and our ears stopped.  A fire melts away the coldness in us.  A fire makes us thankful.  We draw close with all the other wet cold people.  We stretch out our hands to the warmth.

And that’s exactly how we feel God’s love.

God’s fire burns on every beach. His lighthouses are visible from every shore, every ship and every piece of driftwood.  There is no place that His light doesn’t shine.  There is no dark so dark that His light can’t reach it.  There are no chains He can’t break.  There is no beach He won’t walk onto to warm us.   His love and forgiveness and acceptance warm us from false piety to grateful humility, where we are reminded that dust we are and unto dust we shall return – except we won’t return to it, because He breathes life into us.  Why?  Because we put a cross on our foreheads?  No – because He bore the real cross, the blackest oiliest cross of all, out of total humility – which is another word for love.  That’s why we wear the cross.  It’s a sign we belong to Him – in all our humanity, in all our pride, in all our beauty.

posted by Caroline Coleman in a Chapter a Day on Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013… and totally rewritten the day after Ash Wednesday, on Valentine’s Day…

how can we be more present with others: Acts 27

Acts 27.  I once biked for hours on a long white cliff road in Crete until I reached a monastery.  I peered through the grates in the door.  In the garden stood an old bearded man in a long black robe.  He was gazing at a flower with his hands behind his back.  He didn’t look at me.  A few minutes passed.  He turned his gaze to a tree.  After a few more minutes, he looked at some blades of grass.

I thought I’d never seen anything more boring in my life.

I biked back to civilization as fast as I could.

But here is the thing I want to know 27 years later – and asking it makes me remember that quiet Cretan monk.  How do we become more present with other people?  Do we have to still ourselves down to the intensity of a blade of grass?  Because we all know we can’t connect with other people if we’re full of ourselves or anxiety or an obsessive agenda.  And if stillness is the way to be more present, how do we get that still?  Do we just LOOK at still things?  Or is there a way to make still waters run so deep inside us that the stillness rises naturally from the inside out?

Comedy Central’s Holly Mandel once told my improv class: “don’t worry about what anyone is thinking of you.  They’re not thinking of you.  They’re thinking of themselves.”

It’s pretty funny.  It’s also liberating if you’re suffering from stage fright.  But it’s backwards when you consider the setting.  Improv, like all interactive relationships, only works if you’re present with the people around you.  In improv, you have to be able to adjust when your fellow actor takes the story somewhere crazy.  They make a leap to something that doesn’t make any sense, and you’re supposed to “yes, and” them.  Whatever you do, you can’t “no, but” them.  That’s the juice of improv – just as it’s the spark that fuels relationships.  We need to go where other people go, even if it makes no sense to us.  The actors, as well as the audience, needs to stop thinking about themselves.

So how do we do that?  How do we get out of our own heads?  How do we stop thinking of ourselves and really let relationships just flow like a river?

“Sit on the floor with your child for 20 minutes a day,” Cheryl Kelly, then headmistress of the preschool Episcopal, told us anxious parents.  She gave us her lovely smile.   “Allow the children to direct the play.”

Oh.  You mean don’t use those 20 minutes to let slip some useful SAT — I mean ERB — words?  Don’t echo their Lego buildings with our Lincoln Logs to increase their pattern recognition skills?  Don’t draw letters in the palms of their hands to fire up their pre-reading synapses?  How about handing them scissors to sharpen their fine motor skills?  Or crawling in circles to incite them to power up their gross motor abilities?

How do we just “be” with someone?

I’ve always loved that moment in the movie “Bill Durham” when Susan Sarandon’s character Annie is talking about 3,000 words a minute and Kevin Costner’s character Crash slowly gazes at her and asks if she can just “be”.

“I can do that, too,” she squeaks, the words spilling out of her as fast as before:

Crash: Think I could make it to The Show as a manager?
Annie: You’d be great, just great. (rattling quickly) ‘Cause you understand non-linear thinking even though it seems like baseball is a linear game ’cause of the lines and the box scores an’ all–but the fact is that there’s a spacious-”non-time kind of time” to it…
Crash (interrupting): Annie—
Annie: What?
Crash: I got a lotta time to hear your theories and I wanta hear every damn one of ‘em…but right now I’m tired and I don’t wanta think about baseball and I don’t wanta think about Quantum Physics… I don’t wanta think about nothing… (beat) I just wanta be.
Annie: I can do that, too.”

Of course, she can’t.  But we love her for wanting to.  And we love her for not being able to.

Paul in this passage in Acts 27 seems to have reached the place where he can just “be” with others. He can deal with what seems like a supernatural calm to a northeaster off Crete; being shipwrecked; giving up all hope of being saved; almost being murdered; and not being listened to when he warns of the shipwreck.

How did Paul get to that place?

We could say that Paul was just lucky.  After all, God sent an angel to give Paul a direct message that no one on the ship would die.

But look.  Even if an angel came to us right now this very second, and told us we would be fine, would we really have peace?  And if so, how long would that peace last?  There are many beautiful prophesies in the Bible that speak directly to each of us, but that doesn’t mean we believe them.  How do we take them in?  How do we own them?  How do we believe that God has a good plan for us?  How do we find such supernatural peace that life’s storms don’t toss us hither and thither?

I have to believe that Paul’s pathway to being present with others lay through his being shipwrecked.  I don’t mean the shipwreck of Acts 27.  I mean earlier metaphorical shipwrecks.   Paul gave up all of his dreams to follow God, and he kept getting beaten, rejected and thrown in prison.  Here we are almost at the end of the book of Acts, and Paul’s journey has been one of almost constant suffering.

Is that the secret?  Do we all have to suffer to reach a place of peace?

I think so.  I think maybe the only way God can show most of us the beauty He wants us is to allow our dreams to be shipwrecked.  Because when our own dreams shatter, it makes room in our hearts.  It makes room for God to give us new dreams.  God, being God, gives us better dreams.  But we literally can’t even see the beauty of what God offers us until we’re willing to give Him a chance.

Suffering forces us to rely on God – and we discover it’s the very relationship we were created for.  The bridge God offers us looks dark, desperate and too rickety to bear our weight when we’re determined to rely on ourselves.  But when all other avenues close, we’re willing to try the only bridge that remains.  And we discover that even the most tentative step on the slenderest of its slats opens up to us a connection to God, ourselves and every person who has ever walked this earth.  It’s the way of letting go of what the Bible calls our “selfish ambitions” and accepting instead the plans of God.  If we let go of the things we cling to – or have them wrestled out of our grips – we can grasp instead the hand of the One who offers us His strength and His light.

Two days ago, I was wondering if something was wrong with me.  I used to want so many things.  Okay, scratch that.  I wanted everything.  And now I found myself seemingly ambitionless. I did an internal inventory.  Was I depressed?  Nope.  Had disappointment forced me to abandon hope?  Don’t think so.  Had I reached some sort of middle aged inertia?  Definitely not.  Was I boring?  I’m sure many might think so.  But not to me.  Did I already have everything I ever wanted?   Well, yes, in a way, but don’t we humans always want more?  Since when was having it all ever enough?  So I asked God what I wanted.  I didn’t hear any words in response, but I felt supernatural joy and peace flood me.  I felt the sweetness of God’s presence and it stilled me.  It supplanted my restlessness.  I found that what I wanted, what I REALLY wanted, was just to “be” with God.

Being with God is the thing we’ve always wanted without knowing it.   As Eugene Peterson puts it in the Message:  “One day spent in your house, this beautiful place of worship, beats thousands spent on Greek island beaches.”

Don’t get me wrong.  When you love God, you’re no better than anyone else.  But that’s the point.  Loving God means you start to realize the truth of that.  You’re really no better than anyone else.  You don’t have to try to be.  That’s the secret that unlocks the pathway to just being.

Paradoxically, realizing how very un-present we are to ourselves, God and other people is the way we invite God in to give us His ability to love.

We give up on trying harder.  We ask for God’s help.  And we get far more than we bargained for.  We get Him.  That’s the secret.  It’s the mystery.  And it’s the Way to being.

God’s love enables us to see others.  It enables us to listen for the silent cries that rise up out of their laughter.  It enables us to comfort them with the same comfort we have received.  God’s peace bridges every gap in our lives.  We find to our shock that our deepest joys come from the very things we once despised.  We find that even observing a blade of grass  – or in my case some scraggy bare branches outside my kitchen window – can bring greater joy than we could have imagined.  It’s not the blades of grass that have changed or even we who have changed.  It’s that when God comes to live inside us, everything becomes alive to us – nature, ourselves and other people.

Perhaps that’s because God is love, and love is alive.  His love quickens us and stills us down all at the same time.  His love gives us a joy that enables us to be more present with others because we can go to them needing nothing at all.  Until we run dry and get hungry for God all over again.  And we discover God is there waiting for us with the patience of a tree, the beauty of a flower and the stillness of a blade of grass on a cliff on the island of Crete.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on January 29, 2013