A heart-filled Catholic Mennonite Ash Wednesday reflection

By Nikki Pauls

Ash Wednesday always sneaks up on me. Always. No matter what, it’s always like “shoot, THIS week is Ash Wednesday? Really? You sure?” And now this year messed me up even more with the ever popular Valentine’s Day overshadowing it. So once I figured out that we were going to have a Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday duel, I’m not going to lie about my first reaction being disappointment because it messed up my usual Valentine’s Day dinner plan (which always includes toasted meat raviolis). But I only lamented a moment. Meat raviolis can be subbed out easily for the ricotta ones. And of course, Ash Wednesday is the big guy. I love it, I really do.

Although my parents were never much into going to church in the middle of the week, once I was able to make my own faith decisions (and drive), I can’t recall missing an Ash Wednesday service. When I was in college, often times this meant going to church in the middle of the day, and having to deal with “you’ve got something on your head” for the rest of the day. As a full-time working married adult person, the schedule became even more complicated and I didn’t love the idea of going to Catholic Church for my ashes alone. So we found something at Rainbow Mennonite that was perfect for both of us. I got my ashes and somber music, Brian got his Mennonite service, and we were both happy.

Enter Yiyi. A child not raised in the church. A child who had no idea who the Easter Bunny was, let alone the Lenten season.

So we took her to her first Ash Wednesday Taizé service, thinking she may hate it. We enticed her by allowing her to wear a princess dress. But, turns out, she didn’t hate it. So when the next year arrived, we all went with a good attitude. And in the middle of it, I looked over to her and saw that she was crying. I’m still not sure she understood the words, and even if she did, I’m not sure they resonated with her. When we asked her about it on the way home, she just kept repeating how beautiful it all was – the singing, the lighting, the mood, everything. And so, then it occurred to me that if a child, with limited English and who hadn’t yet accepted Christ, was becoming emotional about the beauty of it, perhaps that’s what it is all about. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always loved it. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always made it a priority in my adult life. For a season wrought with sacrifice and sad reflection on what these 40 days were for Jesus, and therefore what they should mean for us, it is really beautiful.

And so, today I will rush around between work and making a heart shaped cake and taking teenagers where they need to be for after school activities. And Valentine’s Day will be all up in my face. But I will take some time to sit and think about the majesty that is the Lenten season and remember how incredible this all is.

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Ashes to ashes

What are you grilling on this snowy day?” asked my neighbor yesterday, as I stood on our deck monitoring the smoke spilling out of our Weber grill. “Smells interesting.”

“Yeah, it’s just something for work,” I said (and immediately regretted). When he looked puzzled I decided to come clean: “I’m making some ash for an upcoming church service.” “Don’t worry,” I added. “No one was harmed in the making of this ash.” (As is often the case when I start explaining my role as a pastor, my neighbor had no additional questions, smiled nervously and went inside.)

I went back to stirring and then straining the ash, thinking about the strange job and life I lead as a Mennonite pastor. And how humor isn’t always my forte.

 

Burning last year’s palm branches felt particularly important to me this year. That’s because last year as we waved the palm branches jubilantly while singing, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” I was not feeling feel jubilant. Some difficult things were happening, which in turn was creating a lot of anxiety, grief and fear. Easter did not bring relief, nor did the weeks and months to follow. Holy Week last year felt far from holy.

So watching the palm branches catch fire, quickly lilt, and then suddenly, just like that, be reduced to ash, I couldn’t help but think about the abrupt endings, injuries, and concerns that this year brought not just for me, but for so many people in our churches and around the world. So much, so many people seem prematurely reduced to ash, and often there doesn’t seem to be anything holy about these violent, abrupt endings, these ruined remains.

While stirring the ash to allow it time to cool, I found myself thinking about The Spirit rattling the bones to life in Ezekiel. I found myself calling forth the four winds from east, south, north and west to breathe new life into me and into these remains, praying that I will once again be able to shout Hosanna in the midst of the congregation and in the midst of this ash-strewn world, believing in new beginnings, new possibilities even in the midst of death and pain.

And as we will soon mix in a bit of olive oil with the ash for our upcoming Ash Wednesday service, I will imagine the tears that Jesus shed over Jerusalem, mixed in with the ash. And we will pray, as we do each year, that this year something of Jesus’ vision of peace will actually stick to us, as the ash sticks to our foreheads.

Come, four winds. Come, Spirit of God.

 

Note: We will hold a Rainbow Ash Wednesday service at 6:30 pm on Wednesday, February 14. The ashes will not be rainbow-colored, however.

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Ashes on my soul

Rosi Penner Kaufman is on a roll! Here is a beautiful Ash Wednesday reflection I have heard her share, then asked her to write. Remember that we will meet next Wednesday, February 14, at 6:30 pm to receive ashes on our souls (or foreheads), if you are so inclined. 

By Rosi Penner Kaufman

My poor mother. I was (am?) an inquisitive child, and I know she was sometimes frustrated by my incessant questions. When I was about five years old, I remember one conversation in particular that went on for several days. It started when I asked her, “Where is my soul?” I’m sure I had heard something at church about taking care of one’s soul, and well, I was someone who followed the rules so I wanted to know how to do that. Of course her first answer was, “On the bottom of your feet,” which really confused me. Then I explained that no, I was talking about the “other” soul. She was stumped. Her first answer was, “It’s inside you, but it’s bigger than you are.” That kept me quiet for about two days. “But where? Is it inside my head? Around my heart? Somewhere in my stomach? What happens to it after I die? Does it float away somewhere? How am I supposed to take care of it if I don’t know what or where it is?

My mother’s final answer was something like, “It’s between your head and your heart. You decide.”

So, I did. For a while, I imagined my soul at home in that soft place at the base of my neck. But somehow that seemed too vulnerable, so I moved it under my left collarbone. It seemed more protected there, but still between my head and my heart. For a long time, I fell asleep with my hand on my shoulder so my soul wouldn’t leave as I slept.

I had forgotten about that until a few years ago, at an Ash Wednesday service. The leader said something about “the soul in ashes,” and my old posture came to mind. At the first Ash Wednesday service Ruth led at Rainbow, when I approached her for ashes, I pulled back my collar and asked her to put the ashes on my collarbone. I made up some excuse about not wanting a cross on my forehead for choir rehearsal, but it was more than that. There’s a part of me that feels that every now and then, my soul should remember the ashes. When I pray, I often find myself with my hand on my shoulder, trying to be in touch with my soul.

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Moment of zen

Every Tuesday we begin our staff meeting with a moment of zen, which we define as a time to take a deep breath, praying that the Divine would somehow breathe in or through all that we do and say. Today Rosi Penner Kaufman offered the following moment of zen, paired with photos I took today, January 30, in our Rainbow Remembrance Garden.

Thank you, Rosi!

Maybe a bit sappy, but sunshine does that to me.

We used to have a sugar maple tree in front of our house. It was never a very robust tree, and an ice storm a few years ago damaged it to the point that we had to take it out. Before that, however, for several years we tapped the tree for maple syrup. Mitch and I took a trip to Vermont one year and our souvenir was a tree tap, so we figured we’d put it to use and it would be a good project to show the kids where syrup comes from. This is the time of year and the sort of weather that reminds me that it would be time to tap the tree: the days are getting incrementally longer and are above freezing, but the nights are still cold.

Sap rising in trees is a wonder of nature. Somehow, beneath the surface, the tree roots collect nutrients from the frozen ground and turn them into liquid that the tree pushes UPWARDS to the branches. How amazing is that? And the liquid doesn’t freeze. And it produces enough extra that we borrow some of  the tree’s life force so we can put it on pancakes (after a bit of work – one gallon of sap produced about a cup of rather green tasting maple syrup).

Ruth’s comments about trees on Sunday brought this to my mind. I like to think of the wonder of that life force flowing upwards, especially when I sit in the Remembrance Garden and think of the saints remembered there. So take two minutes, close your eyes, put your feet on the ground, and consider the hidden strength, wonders, and memories held in the earth.

remembrance

 

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We are loved, so love

I had the great joy and honor of officiating at a wedding on December 30th. What follows is what I shared with the happy couple.

Joy knows sorrow and yet leans toward the light.

IMG_9072Erik and Chris, you wanted the message and experience of JOY to take central place in this marriage ceremony and in your married life. And I will tell you that seeing you walk up these steps hand in hand together was for me and hopefully for all of us, a moment of deep and profound joy. Trying to describe or talk about joy will always fall short of witnessing it or experiencing it. Nothing I say here will match or even come close to the look of joy on your faces this day.

But I’m a pastor and I still want to say a few words nonetheless 🙂 Joy, just like love, hope, and peace can be one of those words or sentiments that can quickly sound pollyanna-ish–too fickle and fragile, too shallow to meet or address the magnitude of pain experienced by so many. We might wonder whether it is responsible, or naive,  even selfish to seek and experience joy when so many people are despairing, when so many aren’t allowed to love who or what they love.

I agree with one spiritual writer who wrestles with this question in this way:

“I have little patience for the blind joy of those who fail to see the sufferings of the world. I am skeptical of those whose joy seems forced, happy no matter what befalls them. But there is another joy—deeper than the good times and bad times life metes out, stronger than our best attempts and sorest failings—a joy that lifts us when we cannot lift ourselves, a peace that grasps us and returns us renewed. To know the joy that comes from God is not to be carried away in blissful happiness, but to be strengthened and deepened in our love for others and for the world.” -Barbara Gerlach

In other words, the joy that the Biblical writers try to describe and the joy Jesus embodied is the kind of joy that will motivate us toward substantial change, working to make life more beautiful not just for ourselves, but for others.

Another writer puts it this way: “True joy moves us from the cramped world of self-preoccupation into a more expansive place of connection and kinship.”

Chris and Erik, you will most definitely have days of cramped self-preoccupation. Days when it is difficult to look up from your work, days when conflict will restrict you, days when you will doubt your worth or confidence, days when someone or some church will delegitimize your marriage, days when joy and happiness will fade. If and when this happens, may you dig deep and remember that you are loved in and through it all. I believe the more you can be attuned to that truth, the more love you will have to offer others.

In just a moment, we will hear a piece of music by Hans Bridger Heruth called Joy. I found a lovely description of this piece of music which I would like to share with you.

For readers you can listen to it here:  https://soundcloud.com/heruthhb/joy

“The exposition of this composition is warm and bouncy and characterizes someone that is young and full of hope and joy.

The liveliness subsides into a middle section that is hollow and ethereal, possessing a feeling of distress.

The voices echo each other’s words in a haunting ostinato while other voices sing variations of the phrase, “I am loved, I will sing,” in such a way that seems as if they are reassuring themselves of the statement.

After the climactic end of this section, the choir enters with the phrase: “I am loved, I will love”.

It’s sung in unison and is accompanied by the hopeful piano motif from the beginning of the piece. The music revvs back up into the first choral melody, yet once the piece reaches the height of this phrase, the listener can hear that our “character” now sings these melodic lines with a tinge of pain in their heart; pain, however, that they’ve overcome.

This pain is represented by drawn out melodic lines and harmonic dissonances within otherwise major chords.

As the choir begins to hum, two soprano soloists begin to sing their own line. I’d like to think that the first soloist represents the young, innocent character from the beginning, while the second soloist that joins the first represents the character’s older self who has triumphed through the hard lessons life has to offer.

The piece comes to a gentle close with the same line of: “I am loved, I will love”. It is a powerful line of text, with an even more powerful message to carry. Whether or not you agree with this sentiment, you must agree with the fact that our world is suffering, and only the power of love and the music that we share with people can heal it. We must love others, and we must share with them our hope.

And so I say to you Chris, you are loved, so love.
Eric, you are loved, so love.

To everyone here, we are loved, so for goodness sake, let’s love.

 

 

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Opening a channel

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” -James 5:13-14

IMG_1914This jar of anointing oil sometimes sits behind the Rainbow pulpit, sometimes in my car, and sometimes in the Rainbow pastor’s office. It was gifted to me by a good friend after I anointed her and her stillborn son in a time of anguished, sorrowful prayer I won’t soon forget. That time together and this jar continues to be a gift that keeps on giving. Not only have I anointed others using this jar of oil, when I’m feeling particularly anxious or sad, I dab a little of the lavender scented oil on the palm of my hand. I don’t know why exactly, although I can relate to a Rainbow member who recently said that for her, anointing with oil, “opens a channel.” Beautiful.

The Church of the Brethren folks know a thing or two about the power of anointing, having kept that biblical tradition alive in so many beautiful ways. In the Church of the Brethren Minister’s Manual, anointing is described as a ritual that helps us consider the interdependence of the mind, soul and body. It is written: “Certain possibilities for health open up when a biblical teaching and healing rite with historical roots are lived out in a congregational setting…Anointing with oil for healing is a means of God’s grace and blessing intended to bring restoration and wholeness.”

I share this because I plan to have this jar of lavender oil with me at the Rainbow Longest Night/Winter Solstice Service on Thursday, December 21. During the time of candle lighting, when people will be invited to come forward to light candles, I will stand off to the side and offer a dab of oil on the palm for those who long to “open a channel” toward greater wholeness. (Olive oil is so often used in anointing because the olive branch has long symbolized reconciliation and wholeness.)

Anointing of course is not the only way one can open a channel to God. Acts of charity and hospitality, singing, silent contemplation, studying scripture—these all can be described as channel openers.

The anointing words I will share tomorrow night are simple: “May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, my prayer is that as we seek to open channels to God, we will become channels of God’s mercy and compassion in the world.

I end this post with one of many blessings that will be shared during the Longest Night Service at 7 pm on Thursday. Hope you can join us.

Blessing for a Whole Heart by Jan Richardson

You think
if you could just
imagine it,
that would be a beginning;
that if you could envision
what it would look like,
that would be a step
toward a heart
made whole.

This blessing
is for when
you cannot imagine.
This is for when
it is difficult to dream
of what could lie beyond
the fracture, the rupture,
the cleaving through which
has come a life
you do not recognize
as your own.

When all that inhabits you
feels foreign,
your heart made strange
and beating a broken
and unfamiliar cadence,
let there come
a word of solace,
a voice that speaks
into the shattering,

reminding you
that who you are
is here,
every shard
somehow holding
the whole of you
that you cannot see
but is taking shape
even now,
piece joining to piece
in an ancient,
remembered rhythm

that bears you
not toward restoration,
not toward return—
as if you could somehow
become unchanged—
but steadily deeper
into the heart of the one
who has already dreamed you
complete.

 

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Singly none

This gallery contains 4 photos.

Originally posted on over and around the rainbow:
This post was originally published in November of 2016. Today I re-post it in honor of Pablo who died unexpectedly this week. Many will remember him for his jovial, mischievous spirit and…

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