and The Earth Opens

Ash Wednesday Homily on Numbers 16 and Psalm 88

Psalm 103:1-2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

In the book of Numbers there’s a story about a man named Korah of the tribe of Levi who, with a couple of his Levite friends, gathered about 250 chiefs of the congregation of Israel and rose up against Moses challenging his authority and presence as Israel’s leader. Korah spoke to Moses, “‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’” (Num 16:3). The accusation from Korah dropped Moses to his knees, so the story goes. Moses saw the accusation from this son of Levi not as one against him but against God. And so, Moses tells Korah that God will tend to and deal with this situation in the morning. So, morning dawns. Moses instructs the bulk of the congregation of Israel to move away from Korah and his two friends. Once the majority of Israel is safe, Moses says to everyone,

‘This is how you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.’

Numbers 16:28-30

Moses stopped talking. And then:

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, ‘The earth will swallow us too!’ And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense.

Numbers 16:31-35

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they returned.

In the Psalter, Psalm 88 picks up this story. Korah is remembered in Israel’s hymns; the psalmist giving voice to the one who dropped to the bottom of the pit when the earth opened up underneath his feet:

You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
    I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?

Psalm 88:6-14

Psalm 88 has no happy and uplifting ending. The psalmist is not rescued from the pit and darkness is the only thing that accompanies them day and night. God seems absent and distant. And maybe even more than that, God appears to be gone. Not for lack of trying, the one stuck at the bottom of the pit cries out day and night, pleading with an entity that might have left them there to rot. Here enclosed in walls of dirt they suffer, here in the dust they are in agony, and here in the darkness they cry out and….silence.

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they are returned.

These are the mournful, sorrowful, anxious filled, agonizing, words of Ash Wednesday. Today is our reckoning with God—each of us embarks on our own journey into divine encounter. Today we each come into close proximity with the divine and the holy and are exposed as stuck and sick. Today we each recall how fragile our lives are—vulnerable to virus and infection, to breaks and fractures, to mental breakdown and heartbreak. Today we each are reminded of how often we have failed ourselves and others, broken promises, played the charlatan with her act together, opted for self-gain over self-gift. Today we each clearly hear all the voices and see the faces we turned deaf ears and blind eyes toward as they asked for help, for acknowledgment, for dignity. Today we each are brought to our knees in our humanity remembering that our time here is finite. Today we each collide with the ruse of free will and autonomy. Today the ground opens underneath us and swallows each of us. Today we each drop all the way down to the bottom of the pit, landing on hard ground and are consumed by darkness. Today we each echo the psalmist, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (Ps 88:18).

There is no way to bypass Ash Wednesday and proceed straight to Easter. For those of us sitting here in 2021, the new life of Easter is hinged on our encounter with God in the event of faith that is the death of Ash Wednesday. We must each walk this long and arduous path of self-reckoning and self-exposure spanning the time from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. I cannot protect you from it; in fact, I must lead you into it. Today they weight of my stole feels more like the heavy of a millstone than the light of fabric; today I anoint you not with oil but with ashes and dirt.

From dirt you were taken and to dirt you will return.

Don’t lose heart, beloved; hold tight to the mercy of God. There is no end of the earth so far, no pit so deep, no darkness so dark, no dirt and dust so thick where you, the beloved, are out of the reach of the love and mercy of God, from where God cannot call you back unto God. Not even death itself can separate you from love and mercy of God.

He forgives all your sins
and heals all your infirmities;
He redeems your life from the grave
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
He satisfies you with good things,
and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.

Psalm 103:3-5

Dostoevsky and Dialectical Theology

Theological Examination of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Hi! I decided to talk about one of my favorite books because I was inspired by a group of students and my academic research. I had fun working on this video. I hope you enjoy it.(It’s a bit longer than I had hoped it would be, but I definitely said the things I wanted to…and could have said a lot more!).

 

Confessions of a Social Media Junky

Or a budding “Social Media Junky.” I’m sure, in the grand scheme of things, there are people more addicted than I am or was. But, nonetheless, this is my story full of everything average and nothing over-the-top. Mostly, this is the story of the power of conviction–wrought by the presence of the Holy Spirit–in my life. These words that comprise this confession, if you will, are words that are the fruit of the gentle, loving, nudging, calling God that gave himself for us; these are not words of condemnation…not for me and especially not for you. I’m sharing my experience, my conviction, not telling you what to do. This type of post is never easy to write because it can strike a chord (or many) in people internally wrestling with their own budding junkiness. So, I’ll be up front about it: none of these words, none of this confession is meant or intended to be the law to you; read it if you are intrigued, skip it if you are too sensitive to any law–trust me, I’ve been there, you’re free to react in any way you want. Despite the words here and their possible lack of life for you, you are dearly and clearly loved by God apart from you’re relationship with social media (bad or good).

So, here goes…

There are things that are ok with us and other things that are just poisons. I had a friend once who couldn’t read Stephen King novels because they caused her too much fear; they’ve never bothered me. I’ve known some people who can’t listen to secular music; I do, I’m fine with it…in fact, I enjoy it, listening to the under current of human desire gone unmet or the base obsession with self/human-promotion present in so many songs. But then there’s social media, my technological Achilles heal. Ooph. Any pride I had for not being addicted to anything else was quickly eclipsed in light of my addiction to social media.

And, the sad part? I wouldn’t have called it an addiction because I could put my phone down (well, mostly), and I could ignore the notifications (well, sometimes), and I could walk away from it when others needed me (oh, well, yeah…sort of…I mean only after I got that last tweet out or put the finishing touches on a comment…).  I never would have classified social media as something that disturbed the general flow of my life and real-time and real-place relationships because nothing bad had happened (yet). It was just a thing…that I did…almost all the time.

I never would have noticed how entangled I was in Social Media had it not been for the accidental leaving my phone at home one morning as I walked to our mailbox with my (then 18 month old) daughter. It was a slow 45 minute lap around our small neighborhood, but it was a sweet 45 minutes and it changed my life.

I remember the brief panic I felt when I realized I didn’t have my phone on me as we headed down our road. Following the voice of my panicky conscience (What if you miss something? What if they don’t miss you?  How will anyone know you are being an awesome mom right now?)  came that still, small, gentle voice of conviction from the Holy Spirit (Do you see her? That’s your daughter. She is more important than any number of followers or friends you could ever have or interact with. Twitter and Facebook will be there when you get back; she’ll only be this old now.) My heart broke. But it was a good break. The break of breaking into life out of death.

That’s the difference between conviction and condemnation. The fruit of conviction is always life, and the result of condemnation is death.  The feeling of and initial reaction to both can be the same but the difference is always in the aftermath of hearing the word. I didn’t run and hide (condemnation). I didn’t try to rationalize away anything (condemnation). I embraced that I’d been going about this whole thing all wrong (conviction) and I grabbed her chubby hand and walked at her pace, I stopped at and stomped in puddles, and stooped low every time she squatted down to examine something (conviction).

What did I embrace during that small moment of life-changing conviction? I embraced my justification. Knowing full well that I’m justified by faith in Christ apart from works (good and bad), I heard not condemnation from the Spirit but conviction. I was free to be wrong and to confess that my priorities were out of  whack.  I was free to confess that I’d been putting her, my sons, my husband, and (essentially) my life second to my relationship with social media. I was free to confess that I was substituting the virtual for what was real. I was free to confess that I was putting a greater value on my twitter followers and Facebook friends than on my own real-life flesh and blood. I was free to confess that as far as serving my neighbor was going, I was failing because I was pretty much neglecting my closest neighbors: my husband and my children. I was free to confess that, at the end of the day, my mood was governed by the interactions on social media.

When we got back from our walk, I felt different. I felt like the word of conviction was still working it’s resuscitating touch in the dead portions of my conscience.  I saw my phone and my computer on the counter, but I wasn’t ready to enter back in to Twitter or Facebook.  The moment I was in was still too powerful.  I grabbed my daughter’s hand, “Hey, Chicken, wanna go play with chalk?” I swooped her up and quickly carried her out back.  By the time we had exhausted both chalk and bubbles, it was lunch time and then nap time.

I closed the door to her room and took a deep, satisfying breath. You know what I’m talking about, the type of breath that reaches to the bottom of your lungs, the type of breath that demands you stand up straight in order for it to get to the bottom of your lungs, the type of breath that is intentional and reminds you that you are very much alive and that’s a pretty amazing thing.  But this breath I took had something else attached to it: freedom. The brief morning break (all in all being about 3 hours) from social media had left me with a lack of stress, frustration, preoccupation, and anxiety, and my mood had been barely altered. my mind was wonderfully present in the here and now and not in the past and future. And in that moment i became a different type of addict (let’s admit it, as far as humans go, we’re all addicted to something); in that moment I became addicted to that lack…it was the first time that lacking something brought me so much life and I wasn’t going back, it was just too damn good.

Does any of this mean that my life is now perfect because I’ve broken with constant interaction via Twitter or Facebook? No. Hell no. I’m just less burdened with self-caused anxiety and stress–my kids still do crappy things and I still respond crappily to those things. Does any of this mean I dislike social media? No. Hell no. This post just went out via twitter and I still love tweeting stuff that I’m reading or things I’ve read. I still enjoy my Facebook friends. I still love posting my pictures via Instagram. Does any of this mean that I’ve some how become more righteous. No. Just: Hell no.

What does this mean? It means that I do have more time for those who are very important to me (that includes myself). It also means (and this is the bigger point) that social media, for me, is a poison and I just can’t engage it with health. Some people can. But I can’t. A good friend said to me, when I shared this with him, “For me, social media is a poison; I just can’t do it.” I couldn’t have agreed more with how he put it. Some people can’t drink, I can’t do social media socially. Even when I’m on it now for a brief second, I can feel that beast of burden reclaiming it’s seat on my back and driving it’s tentacles deep into my conscience; I just can’t participate in it.

So, that’s my story, my confession. Nothing earth shattering. Nothing very deep. Just some words that I’ve wanted to share for a long time.  Just some words that come from a heart under conviction, steeped in gratitude toward a God who loves me so much that not one part of me goes unnoticed, and wonderfully burdened by the human condition.