Ashes and Mercy

Lovely Maya Love,

You’ve been with me now just as long in my arms as in my womb.

This morning as I shuffled forward to receive the sign of ashes on my head for the first time as a Catholic, I noticed it was also the first time in a decade to make that pilgrimage alone without my kids. I remember Joshua’s first ashen cross six years ago and the stark and painful reality I allowed my maternal mind to submit to: this tiny babe too—dust, and to dust we shall return. This morning I am consoling myself with the beauty that daddy gets to carry you to the altar today even though I’m not there. There is goodness in my occasional separation from motherhood, and I am thankful for God’s leading me into my vocation these past few years. But I miss you. I feel a sense of horror at being separate from you as your forehead is first marked with ashes. I feel a sense of horror at allowing again the reality that we are so fragile. My heart is wrestling.

The whole world is wrestling. Russia invaded Ukraine last week and all our weariness as the pandemic wanes is braced yet longer for whatever comes of this. At home, I cook three meals a day from dried grains and legumes, doing my best to stretch our grocery budget as inflation presses on us even before we’ve recovered from last year’s house-buying. It’s a tired time to be alive and it’s a tired time to be a Powell.

There’s more than tired and wrestling though. I want to claim more, believe more, practice more. You are our more—our Ebenezer: magic is real too, and love. You’ve brought us there, and not just to magic but to redemption specifically. I slipped Zoë’s ring onto my right middle finger this morning before I left home, and as I drove to work I thought how the gift of Zoë made the soil of our hearts fertile to receive you, to receive the love God wants for us. The winter of death we experienced in that loss is somehow bearing fruit in the spring you’ve brought.

But today the change of seasons feels like mud, like stubborn ice, like tender shoots so susceptible to being crushed. I remember when we were given Zoë my meditations were full of the wonder of life’s fierceness: resurrection and resilience. Grass sprouting through concrete sidewalks. Lately I think of life’s tenderness: dust to dust.

Maybe Lent is just what I’ve been waiting for as I ache for a respite from the wrestling. Our family’s happiness feels rusted over and for the life of me I can’t restore it. We’re stressed and weary and short tempered, all of us. It’s been this way for so many months that it’s years now. It was only a couple nights ago that you heard me lose my temper (again) and scream ugly words at precious, disobedient children. Again. Your sweet new ears, already exposed to this dark world. It crushes me every time. I’ve brooded in my more anxious moments that the reason you love Daddy so much is that you don’t feel safe with me. Ridiculous, I realize. For one thing, he’s not all sunshine either.

We ache over our dark parts, cowering sometimes in the full view of what ruin we humans are capable of. And yet we are promised not only life but redemption. Reconciliation. We come broken and Christ heals us. Ruin gives way to restoration. Often it’s such a powerful phenomenon that we shudder to realize we wouldn’t have wanted it another way in retrospect.

So here I am today at the outset Lent—our first Lent since its practices have become a matter of corporate submission for us instead of only private choice. I’ve been feeling desperate week after week and month after month for our brokenness to be cast and mended while at the same time feeling conflicted and uncomfortable with the grace of confession, so tangled in the web of toxic and abusive spirituality that I want to leave behind. I don’t know how to confess. Or what.

Home is a reflection for a later date, but it is a factor here too, or actually the whole solution. So here’s a preface. We’ve been meditating on John O’Donohue’s Blessing for a New Home this winter: “May it be a house of welcome for the broken and diminished.” That final line resonates most with me right now, making room for me to embrace the rest of the poem, too, in hopefulness and faith.

As the Mass ends we have sung “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.” In the line “Oh for the wonderful love he has promised” I recall the sacred moment of sight I had two weeks ago in Chicago. A choir of inner city youth sang a composite anthem that gave my soul words. “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.” “Put one foot in front of the other and lead with love.” “I’ve Got a Robe.” I realized so viscerally and with such newness that it felt like a birth: I belong. Immediately, my mind is brought back to the present moment, here with ashes on my head, as I sing the second line of this old gospel tune. “Though we have sinned he has mercy upon us, mercy for you and for me.”

“Oh sinner, come home.”

It took us months to move from Bloomington to Indianapolis and we’re all still feeling stunned and drained. I’ve tried time after time to create space and open our hearts for the life we want, the way of being in the world that is love. But all my intentions and attempts feel too ambitious, premature. Always I am left just more aware that we are broken and diminished.

I enter this season of Lent mostly cynical and incredibly tired of wrestling. This morning I find I’m curious, too, even hopeful. Perhaps these Lenten disciplines could be a path of restoration for us. Mostly, I’m grateful for the invitation to come home. To mark dust on my brow and yours. To enter this liminal time between winter and spring—the tender, fragile, messy time when life awakens. To take the penitential path. To let redemption do its work. To receive mercy.

Perhaps next time I write to you you’ll be turning one and we’ll have come to Easter. Come through penitence, confessing our nature, confessing our brokenness, to find mercy. Mercy for you and for me. Mercy, yes, but belonging too. Home for us sinners.

Baptismal Identity

There are times when my human inclinations and my Christian identity come into conflict with each other. All my spirituality cannot carry me unscathed through the fires of hurt or anger, disappointment or discomfort, loss or loneliness.

Yet a Christian is one who has been marked with the cross of Christ, gathered into his identity as the beloved Son of God. With this identity comes a mission, and it is a simple one: love, grace, peace – words that are so ubiquitous as to be easily overlooked. But hidden underneath their surface is an inexhaustible treasury of the very nature of God. It is this treasury that I am called into; that I am literally immersed in as I go through the waters of baptism.

Christ’s prophetic call to those who would follow him that they must die makes sense to me this winter. It has been a season of tears. I am faced with a task that is so opposed to my human nature that it feels like dying to confront it. It is, in fact, a death of sorts: a death of ego and a death (at least for a time) of some of my deepest desires. But it is a situation outside my control. As in all things, my approach to it is determined by my Christian identity, a reality that I believe supremely transcends all things.

I bring myself to worship each week because I am never immersed enough in this identity. Sunday after Sunday I mark myself with the baptismal water. Sunday after Sunday I hear the proclamation of forgiveness and the call of discipleship; I revel in the unity of all the saints near and far who gather to receive Christ’s body and blood; I open my hands to receive a divine blessing: to re-claim my identity: to remember that God dwells in me. When all has been said and done I am sent out. I enter into the Church’s mission again of living out of the treasury of God’s love, grace, and peace.

Today is observed as “The Baptism of Our Lord” for many Christian traditions. This morning our preacher asked us to catalog for ourselves all our different hats: the roles we fill from one day to another. The imagery was beautiful, made vivid for me as I had just shown my three-year-old son the picture on the cover of the bulletin of a dove descending on Jesus’ head at his baptism. The reality of the Christian gospel is this: that Dove is the hat over all hats. Unlike the roles I move in and out of, my baptism into Christ is an unalterable identity.

I came to worship this morning feeling the weight of my humanity. I came because I needed to hear the story again. Here and nowhere else I knew I would find the strength to approach my mission, which my grandpa articulated for me so many times when I was a kid: “Susan,” he would say, affection lighting up his eyes, “Always let God’s love flow through you to others.”

As we gathered around the Table the most familiar words struck me in a new way. “On the night when he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread.” What could be a fiercer fire of humanity than the experience of betrayal? With what strength did Christ’s humanity wrestle in that moment against his mission to bring divine love to the world? And yet he stayed. I wonder if he thought of that Dove again – rehearsed for his human self his true identity. I wonder if he felt what I’ve been feeling: the relief of centering myself here.

This morning I don’t know how to better characterize the life I’m participating in than to say it is a relief. It is certainly hard, too. Hard because my human inclinations are in conflict with it. A relief because the gospel is just that: gospel. Good news! I am a beloved child of God. I am, and so are you. Nothing could be better. Nothing could be truer.

While I am wrestling through my human experience and even doing my best to honor it (It is I, after all, and not some ethereal abstraction, who am a beloved child of God), I am taking up my mission with courage and joy, charting my course according to the very nature of God, strengthened with the knowledge that it is not my love, but God’s love flowing through me, as my grandpa said; comforted with the recognition that what my baptism brings me, along with a share in Christ’s death, is a share in his Spirit of power, peace, freedom, wholeness, and joy.

Come, Holy Spirit, aid us to keep the vows we make;
this very day invade us, and every bondage break.
Come, give our lives direction, the gift we covet most:
to share the resurrection that leads to Pentecost.
–Fred Pratt Green, 1903-2000

Baptize us with your Spirit, Lord; your cross on us be signed,
that likewise in God’s service we may perfect freedom find.
–F. Bland Tucker, 1895-1984

“Go, my children, with my blessing, never alone.
Waking, sleeping, I am with you, you are my own.
In my love’s baptismal river I have made you mine forever.
Go, my children, with my blessing, you are my own.

Go, my children, sins forgiven, at peace and pure.
Here you learned how much I love you, what I can cure.
Here you heard my dear Son’s story, here you touched him, saw his glory.
Go, my children, sins forgiven, at peace and pure.

“Go, my children, fed and nourished, closer to me.
Grow in love and love by serving, joyful and free.
Here my Spirit’s power filled you, here my tender comfort stilled you.
Go, my children, fed and nourished, joyful and free.”
    –Jaroslav J. Vajda, b. 1919


Christ’s Companionship: Lenten Thoughts on Transfiguration Sunday

I remember a professor in seminary impressing on us over and over again “Heaven is wherever Jesus is.”

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration. How desperately we need that story! Nor do we want to come down the mountain at the end. If only we could secure ourselves in Jesus’ divine presence permanently!

Here is a glad wonder, though: our access to Christ is not, in a way, as limited as Peter, James, and John’s. We have the whole story unfolded. And yet they were allowed his earthly body, a fellowship of human friendship not so easily conjured up from our vantage point. We would not be wrong to crave what they had.

As Lent approaches this year, the need for healing has been foremost in my mind. Every one of us needs healing of some kind. But more than that, isn’t our greatest need simply Christ’s companionship? In fact, is it possible Christ’s companionship is the essence of healing? We need to be in his company.

In this posture of desire and dependence we are ready for the journey of Lent. We call on Christ to come and take up his throne in our hearts; we seek for him to be our teacher so that we might learn how our hearts can be a place he may more easily belong; so that we may more steadily apprehend his presence; so that we may offer him true hospitality–the kind that makes its guest comfortable. This is the project of Lenten discipline.

We do not presume that Christ is in need of this hospitality. But we are, because in that comfort–in that apprehension–every Lenten day of this earthly journey may be its own Transfiguration. And I suspect Christ will not answer us as he answered Peter if, in this transfiguration, we were to say, like Peter did on that mountain, that it is good for us to be here.

It is in Christ’s companionship that we may make our pilgrimage without being overwhelmed by the things which grieve or shake us. Indeed, this companionship is the only thing we need. Christ’s company is enough. To have his presence is life and health and peace.

It is strength, too; we can in fact journey through anything if Christ is our companion, no less surely than Peter could walk on water. Perhaps this is what Paul was trying to convey by his claim: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”