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The Focus of Desire

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THE FOCUS OF DESIRE

One of the good things about being a cocaine addict is that it gives you focus. You’re never unclear about what you want or how to get it. You get your paycheck, you go to your dealer’s house, and you get what you desire. If you need more cocaine than you can pay for, you sell some to your friends at an inflated price and then they become better friends because you have what they want. And need. **

Later, you give up cocaine when the fact that it kills young and otherwise healthy people is made painfully clear to you. Then you have to rely on alcohol to give you what you want. It’s cheaper, but the clarity is missing. What you desire isn’t as obvious. You settle for laughing uproariously with other friends who drink too much, and you occasionally get drunk enough to have a heartfelt conversation that feels like intimacy only it’s not. You make mistakes.

Sex is always good for a quick shot of dopamine, but in my case it usually made the emptiness worse because although it satisfied for a time, it could not give me what I was really seeking. I didn’t know precisely what that was, but I was becoming dimly aware that I was a bottomless pit of desire, craving love and acceptance and belonging and meaning.

It wasn’t until I started sniffing around spirituality that I identified the deep desire that lay beneath all of my clambering needs: peace. I distinctly remember writing that in my journal, lo these thirty years ago. “What I really want is peace.”

Finding Peace

Peace is not a familiar feeling when you’ve grown up in an alcoholic household, or any other kind of dysfunctional home — which probably describes most of us! Many “adult children” of imperfect parents don’t really know who they are or what they want because they’re too busy worrying about what other people think of them. We are people-pleasers, afraid of rejection. We often don’t like ourselves; we have this chronic feeling of not being good enough. Out of fear, we work tirelessly to manage everything and everyone so that nothing feels “out of control.”

Peace is hard to come by under these circumstances, which is why so many of us numb out with sex, drugs, carbs, alcohol, social media, TV, etc., etc., etc. Oh, there’s the occasional pearly pink sunset or lazy Sunday afternoon with your lover. But I’m not talking about a peaceful feeling, I’m talking about a deep-down peaceful spirit. Being OK with the world, OK with yourself, and OK with everybody else.

beauty and darkness

I have found this deep and lasting peace through my growing belief and trust in a loving Higher Power, which I call God but I don’t call “He.” My God is Love. My God is not bound by time and assures me that my spirit is not bound by time either. My God is crazy-powerful, but often subtle, so I have to pay attention and be on the lookout for Her fingerprints.

And they are there. I’ve seen them often enough now to know for certain. I am intimately known; I am being cared for and upheld; I am part of a divine plan to bring goodness and reconciliation to the world.

I know this. But I forget. And that’s why I love Lent. It’s a time to intentionally re-enter the house of peace and linger here, not needing to rush off.

“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” — Isaiah 26:3

** I apologize to nice Christians who think they are signed up to read a nice pastor-lady’s blog. This pastor has a past. And I especially apologize to my grand nieces who sometimes read this blog and who don’t know about Great Auntie Mel’s mixed up past. I am more than happy to tell you all about it if you ask, and especially to tell you why you should not emulate my journey.

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Ash Wednesday — Evicting Monsters and Embracing Glitter

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Lent has begun. As is often the case, I am over-reaching, counting on these forty days to miraculously transform me into a new creation all at once, free from all the parts of myself I don’t want anymore, leaping out of bed at 6  every morning and exclaiming “This is a day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it!” and then making a healthy breakfast with no saturated fat or sugar before heading off to the gym and then coming home to meditate and read my Bible before mindfully munching a lunch of sprouts and legumes and walnuts (rich in healthy omega 3 fatty acids).

I doubt it.

It’s not quite that bad this year. My plan is this: I will do my centering prayer meditation every day. I don’t know why this should be such a challenge – I did it daily for five or six years, but I’ve lost the hunger for it. Then I will read twelve pages of The Message Bible in contemporary language. At that rate, I will get through the New Testament in forty days.

In addition — and here is the kicker — I will spend only an hour a day on social media.

Facebook and Twitter flood my being with the lies, vitriol, and bigotry spewing from the White House, and even when the filth is accompanied by witty or wise or motivating commentary from my friends, it is bad for me.

Social media releases brain chemicals that numb my pain and anger, which is nice but not healthy. It allows me to feel as if I’m doing something useful when all I’m doing is losing sleep. But you know that quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one?” That is the real danger of social media for me. It taps into my hatred and contempt, and it makes me mean-spirited and rude.

And that, I do not need. I am sacrificing it for Lent.

I’m not shutting down, I’ll still be marching and organizing and calling Congress — I just need to survive and not become a monster, is all.

I’ll keep you posted on my efforts.

Beginning the Journey: Ash Wednesday

photo (38)

 

Today I want to share this excerpt from an Ash Wednesday poem by my friend Robin Gorsline. Food for thought. To read the full poem and others, please visit his blog .

“I saw an Ash Wednesday drive-by yesterday, a church advertising getting
ashes on your forehead when you drive into their parking lot—
no need to come to service, no need to join in community
prayer. At first, I was repelled, maybe still am, but also I
know that it might help some, who would not otherwise bother,
to pause to consider their lives, even for just a few moments.

And glitter. I like glitter, and am glad that some churches
are combining ash and glitter,
acknowledging that I, and everyone else,
is a complex mixture of saint and sinner.
I remember the year I gave up Lent for Lent.
I was tired of beating myself up for my failings
and decided to spend forty days focusing
on my good qualities. I wanted to put my best foot
forward for Jesus, to be all I could be with him
on the journey to the cross. I did that only once,
but I am glad I did, because it has helped me
ever since have a fuller view of me and my relationship
with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, with God the Parent.

So, here I am, here we are, another Ash Wednesday,
another Lent—again invited to walk
the often dusty and bumpy, sometimes crowded and busy,
at other times quiet and lonely,
even on occasion beautiful and merry, roads of life.
I’m a pilgrim, maybe you, too, with few if any answers,
and I’m here for more than sightseeing.”
writing+poetryAbout this poem . . . I generally approach Ash Wednesday with mixed feelings, aware certainly of my shortcomings, but also not sure how much it helps to focus on them without also seeing my positive qualities, indeed doing that with everyone I encounter and/or care about. I decided that I would not pore over this poem with revision after revision as I often do but let it stand pretty much as it came out—a way of exposing myself for the still being formed person I am.
©Robin Gorsline 2017 FaithfulPoetics.net

Shrove Tuesday: Pagans, Priests, and Pancakes

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SHROVE TUESDAY: PAGANS, PRIESTS, AND PANCAKES

Known as “pancake day” in Britain, Shrove Tuesday is historically a Catholic Church thing, but since most of us like pancakes, why not crash the Catholic party?

Shrove Tuesday was traditionally a day of repentance when believers would “shrive,” or confess their sins to a priest and receive absolution before Lent began on Ash Wednesday, thus cleansing themselves and supposedly bringing their appetites under control. Then sometime in the Middle Ages, Shrove Tuesday morphed into a time of feasting and celebration, which makes good sense to me. Why spend the last day before a forty-day period of soul searching and sacrificial fasting trying to bring your appetites under control? As Scarlett O’Hara said, “I’ll think about that tomorrow!”

Practically speaking, families wanted to use up all the fats, meats, milk, and fish that would go bad over a forty-day period of food restrictions, so they all got together and stuffed themselves.

In France, the consumption of all this fat led to the day being called “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras. And we know where *that* led. Actually, the rowdy partying at Mardi Gras time harkens back to the Pagan spring equinox festivals that sometimes coincided with the early Christian observances. Carnival!

088.mask.crop

Down to the real point of Shrove Tuesday for the likes of non-Catholics like me: it’s all about the pancakes. The English started the tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday as a way of emptying their cabinets of tempting indulgences like milk, butter, and eggs.

My church is big on community, getting together whenever we can, and I happen to live in a neighborhood inhabited by lots of my church friends. What’s not to like? So tonight, about fifteen of us will gather, say grace, and chow down. It’s also possible that if enough wine is drunk, we might start confessing our sins to one another. But it’s not required.

Tasty homemade pancakes with strawberries,blueberries and maple

Lenten Question: What Does it Mean to Be You?

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LENTEN QUESTION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE YOU?

Today I’ll share some thoughts about Lent from one of my favorite authors. Even if you’re not a Jesus-person and you’ve never given Lent a second thought, this could be a useful exercise for you. Lent — which begins the day after tomorrow — is a traditional time for self reflection and re-centering, and Frederick Buechner gives us food for thought and prayer in his book, Whistling in the Dark.

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“In many cultures there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year’s income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe forty days of Lent is to do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year’s days. After being baptized by John in the River Jordan, Jesus  went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.

  If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?

  When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?

  If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?

  Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?

  Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?

  If this were your last day of your life, what would you do with it?

To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”

flowers and Dayspring 039

Approaching Lent

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APPROACHING LENT

Lent starts this week, which I know is very exciting news to you. OK, maybe not.

I’m probably one of the few people who actually likes Lent. After all, it’s still so dark this time of year, and Christians insist on saying things like, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Really? We *know* that, thank you very much, and we expend plenty of effort trying to forget it. And then to add insult to injury, they smear ashes on your face!

Those Jesus people also talk about Lenten “repentance and sacrifice” and — ACK! — SIN. That whispered word and the shame with which it’s been imbued by some church traditions is probably the reason a lot of people reject religion altogether. I know it was the reason my mother did.

“No man who doesn’t even know me is going to stand up there and tell me I’m a sinner. I’m a perfectly nice person,” she would say. And so she was.

But the word “sin” — despite being used as a weapon to manipulate people and strike fear into their hearts — really only means “to miss the mark.” That’s not so bad, right? It means we’re not all we could be, and even my Mom could have owned that truth.

For me, Lent is a time of great hope and expectation, because we get to press the re-set button. It’s a time to intentionally step back and take stock of our lives and decide how we want to change. It can be humbling to admit how much we “miss the mark,” yet it’s empowering to know that we have the power to change, if we have the will.

So I look forward to Lent, beginning with Lenten “eve” on Shrove Tuesday, when I’ll gather with a group of friends for an overly large pancake dinner and bid farewell to my usual state of denial as I begin to “return to the Lord to examine and probe my ways.” (Lamentations 3:40)

Who am I, that you are mindful of me?

Who am I, that you are mindful of me?

Hope Rising From the Ashes

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Hope Rising From the Ashes

It’s Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season in the western church. Tonight I’ll receive a cross of ashes on my forehead, along with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

ashes

Some friends told me the other night that they aren’t coming to Ash Wednesday service because it’s too depressing and sad.

“What?? What are you talking about ?!?!?” I responded gently. (I still have a few things to learn as a pastor.) “Good Friday, yeah, that’s supposed to be somber, but Ash Wednesday is all about hope.”

This did not seem to persuade my friends.

Pressing the Re-set Button

For me, Lent is a time of hope – it’s a forty-day period where we intentionally contemplate our distance from God: What separates us, how would we like to change in order to live more joyfully and become who we are meant to be?

Lent is a great “do-over” time. Press the reset button and try again. Where am I missing the mark?

“Missing the mark” is my favorite translation of the word “sin” in the Bible, from the Greek word hamartia; other translations mean “to go astray” or “to transgress.” (The word “sin” has gone out of fashion in many circles, thank God — it has been used for centuries to shame and frighten people, instead of to encourage and hearten them.)

Lent reminds us that God can get us back on track. God transforms us, and gives us the power to change the parts of ourselves we would otherwise be powerless over, including our thoughts, our motivations, and our attitudes. This is good news, not a reason to be sad! Of course, we can push the re-set button any time we pray, but I love the concept of millions of Jesus-people opening themselves to serious transformation at the same time.

Turning Around

Lent mirrors the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the devil. (Google Luke 4: 1-13 if you’re not familiar with the story.) Ego, power, control, greed, security, esteem — all the temptations common to humanity were thrown at him, but he resisted and instead chose to be the beautiful person that he was created to be. He hit the mark.

So when I adopt challenging spiritual practices for Lent (more on that in a future post), I’m purposely tempting myself, building my spiritual muscle. I am practicing new habits that will help me live life to the full, as Jesus promised, rather than be burdened by parts of myself I don’t like.

Lent is about focus (on my shortcomings and on God’s graciousness and power) and intent (to accept God’s power to change my shortcomings) and repentance (another scary Bibley word which simply means “being willing to change” or “to turn around.”)

Being Remade

So OK, yeah, the ashes thing, the death reminder. I see how that could be depressing. But look at it this way: It’s just a reality check. Life is short. Live it to the full. Drop your crap and choose to be free of it!

I also welcome the ashes as a healthy dose of humility, a tap on the shoulder — “Hey, there was a lot going on before you got here, and there will be a lot going on when you are gone. You are not in charge.” That’s kind of a relief. My job is not to change the world or to change anyone else. My job is to work on myself, co-creating with God the very best Melanie I can be. I’m of no help to the world when I’m operating out of brokenness.

Pastor, heal thyself.

humility star

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.”  — Mahatma Gandhi

Giving Up Christmas for Lent

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I have broken my personal record for leaving up the Christmas decorations. Well, they were never actually “up” in a technical sense. I dragged everything out of the closet, but didn’t get around to unpacking the cheerful red and green boxes that are still strewn around the living room. Garlands and nativity scenes and wooden reindeer remain safely wrapped in tissue paper, right where they were when my brother Biff went into the hospital.

On Christmas day, two days after Biff passed away, I put up the little artificial tree that he got for Mom right before she died in the nursing home six years ago. I don’t remember putting it up, but I remember telling my friends Christmas night that I had done so.

A Comfort

A Comfort

I still plug it in most days. I find it comforting. As long as the tree’s up, maybe . . . what? He’ll come back? It won’t be over? We can have a do-over of the season? I don’t know. I just know I haven’t been ready to take it down.

The only other hint of festivity that escaped its box this year is a red satin runner draped over the back of the piano — Biff gave it to me. How he loved Christmas and all things red! He played Christmas music all year long. Drove me nuts. Anyway, on the red runner are my sympathy cards, some dried roses from the funeral, a candle, a picture of Mom, a picture of Biff, and a lock of his hair.

Flowers from Biff's best friend Ralph

Roses from Biff’s best friend Ralph

My previous record for leaving the Christmas tree up – that one was a real tree – was Valentine’s Day. My roommate had a date and she didn’t want him to see how lazy we were, so just before his arrival we hastily dragged the dead tree down to the dumpster behind our apartment. When we came back inside, we followed the very obvious trail of dried needles up two flights of stairs and right to our door. That relationship didn’t work out anyway.

Moving Forward

Since giving up fear for Lent, I’ve been working on becoming aware of my fears. I’ve noticed that I have a fear of moving forward on a number of things right now, which I understand is normal during grief. The Christmas tree has become a symbol of that fear: I guess I need to give up Christmas for Lent.

I have an idea. Spring equinox is less than two weeks away. I will get myself mentally prepared and aim to take down the tree on March 20th. I’ll have a little ritual, maybe play Biff’s favorite carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

It truly has been a bleak winter, but the days are getting longer, and it’s time.

Here’s a poem I wrote about moving forward:

Now that you’re free,

I am learning to look at the world through my own eyes.

I know you are watching me,

A whole and healed you, loving me,

Not judging me.

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There is fear about moving forward,

Fear about leaving you behind,

Even though I’m the one left behind.

Here, today, you are so present in my heart.

What if I go somewhere else, do something else?

Will you come with me?

Will I come with me?

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