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

Revelation upon Revelation

A Birthday Reflection

I know this is a week late, but, nonetheless, it appears. My Birthday revelation. 

There is no real coherence to this post; the only common ground is that over the past year I’ve learned a lot as I am wont to do. But, last year was hard. Very. Hard. I had revelation upon revelation about people: they aren’t always who they say they are. I know that this seems like quite the kindergarten thing to learn, but sometimes, even as “wise” adults…we must learn this lesson again. 

You see, there’s a longing I have: to fit in. I have never. I just don’t. I still don’t. And the irony is that I care but don’t care because I’m a 5 who idealizes belonging but then when I get it, I hate it. I guess here I say: lolz. I think sometimes I fear my own individuality. It’s quite fierce and not even I can wrestle it to submission. It’s an alligator, and I’m not one to wrestle alligators. I think this year I’ve learned through some very traumatic mediums: That I’m okay; that I’m enough. 

And I am enough. I know, a protestant priest preaching such drivel…but I believe this. I am content in me–trust me, this has been put to the test this past year…and even so: I am content. It took some great loss, some great trial, and some great self reflection: I am enough. I’m okay. Even if I have “original” sin, it doesn’t mean that I’m inherently “bad,” that all I do is crave wicked. I don’t. You don’t. It’s not a sin to be okay on your own, or to feel one inside of your own skin. That’s not “sin.” It’s not a sin to feel whole and entire in your flesh; it’s not a sin to like yourself. (By the way, there’s no real righteousness in consistently hating yourself or debasing yourself through your own self-criticism; you don’t get the gospel more than me because you think you’re shit. B-t-dubs, that narrative your listening to is not the gospel at work but your broken-ass script you use to keep yourself insulated from prospects of confession and new life.) You can like yourself, and you can like the idea of self-change without it becoming a self-righteous thing. Sin is better defined as that law you use to discern who is “in” and who is “out”; sin is better defined not as individuality but as a “bird” flipped to the rest of humanity–just me!. Sin is better defined as a hatred of self that devolves into a selfish self-non-awareness that steals from the rest of the community your very presence. To love yourself is not pride; to love yourself is an acknowledgement that the One who made you knew exactly what the One was doing. To think you are better than everyone else is bad; to love yourself is not to think that you are above everyone else but that you are worthy of the love that you have received and will receive and will give.  

But aside from that here are some of the things I’ve come to learn this past year:

  1. Everyone reveals themselves; you just have to wait. Doesn’t matter who they say they are, actions speak louder than words. I get tired of people lying to me and speaking crap to me and putting the table cloth of “encouragement” on top of it. Doesn’t matter. That shit stinks to high heaven. Substantiate your words or don’t; just, please, don’t waste them. Our world is so full of useless words, there should be a global call to all who care to use words that have meaning…meaning that incorporates their own being. I tell my students: substantiate your words with yourself. It’s why I like for them to use the first person singular pronoun…I think thisI feel that… If you put yourself behind your words you can’t hide from the attack that may come, and maybe you’ll think about what you say before you say it. What if we reclaimed words, used fewer, and let ourselves be in more of our words…   ….   …. what if?
  2. Speaking of words…Let others tell you who they are. This concept coincides with the first: everyone reveals themselves, and so we should let others tell us who they are rather than determining who they are especially when they protest that you have them wrong. One friendship that went very south was one where I could not speak for myself or convince the person that their perception of me was based on a few poorly developed ideas of me. There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling like you have to yell and shout at deaf ears to be heard. That type of relationship is not a friendship of equals; that is a situation of some sort of domination. You know who you are–even at your worst–no one gets to tell you who you are…especially someone who has known you for only a few months. Experiencing this, I’ve become more adamant about holding back judgment about other people. Let them tell you who they are–even the hardest to get along with–everyone has a story. Think: Gabby Gabby from Toy Story 4. She seems so evil but she has a desire, a story that drives her: to be loved, to be some kid’s comfort. We could brush her off as evil; but she’s not. She has a story. But if we turn the movie off midway she remains evil…but if we let her tell her story…she resonates with us on a human level. I hope we all listen to others. (Also included here is anyone who needs to control you to make their world more calm…this is also a means to dominate and tell you who you are and determine who you should be.)
  3. People who love you aren’t stupid for loving you. I think we struggle with this sometimes…At least I know I do. I was bullied in middle-school. I was fat and ugly and there wasn’t one person there who wouldn’t let me forget it. Except for a small table of other “outsiders”. A table at the cafeteria where I found refuge but where I also found discontent. I found myself looking down on those who liked me because they weren’t the ones who were of status…what’s love if it can’t get you somewhere? What’s love if you do nothing but hate yourself? While I know now that I radically misconceived love, I find that I (we?) still struggle with those who love us. If we have that self-contempt that is so extolled in some theological circles, we will perpetually question those who love us…they’ll always be mistaken. But they’re not.  Now, bear with me: I’m a mom, I know unconditional love and I love…like LOVE my kids. I’d go to fist-a-cuffs over any one of them. There is unconditional love; I’ve felt it. But it’s hard to believe that anyone else would ever unconditionally love us that doesn’t *have to*. But there are people like that who also do not share the same or similar genetic code as you do. There are people who love you just because and do not have to. I won’t name mine because they should know who they are (if not, text me, I’ll send flowers or chocolates….) Don’t forsake these people who love you just because; don’t forsake them just because you don’t love yourself. Let these people tell you a different love-story with you. I guarantee that love-story is better than your hate-story. I cannot guarantee that that story will be a happy ending…but that right now that love is real…don’t let it go. 
  4. and last…Don’t hide your story. I’m famous for this. Well…this sounds hypocritical after an exhortation to be yourself, to let others tell you about themselves, to substantiate your words, and to receive love as is… I promise that I substantiate my words to the best of my ability, that I try to love those who love me and let them love me in return, and that I am myself. But there are somethings or (rathter) something that I still wrestle with: anger over years lost. I’m writing this portion because I think it’s important to my story and because I think I’m not alone. I’ve had years stolen from me; and I hate it. I want those 7 years back more than anything. 7 years of catastrophic self-destruction. I was so angry; I was so lost. I hated me and the world for nearly a decade. I wanted to self-destruct, to implode, to cease to exist.  I wanted to go supernova leaving only a destructive black hole in my wake. My anger coursed through my veins and around me. I was destruction. Everything I touched was dirt and not gold. I hated myself in a visceral way for nearly a decade. And then Christ. And then I encountered God in Christ by the Spirit in the event of faith and I was yanked out of my self-de-struction and oriented toward the world in others-con-struction. But there is still part of me that wants those 7 years back. Those 7 years of anger and self-destruction. I feel that I’ve lost those 7 years. But then recently I realized…those 7 years (and the ones preceding that time) are the reason I am who I am. I know…I know pain; I know turmoil; I know (deeply) existential crisis that brings you the brink; I know darkness; I know trouble; I know that surge of guilt and resentment that courses through your veins where you think you won’t survive before it moves from the warmth of you inner elbow to the pulse of your ankle. I know. And while I wrestle with my age in light of this loss, I realize…that I am who I am because of it. So I cannot resent it fully. I can’t hat it fully because I’d never change who I am, I’d never change my story, I’d never change the fact that I can sit in the deep, deep darkness and those “lost years” are part of my story. Not many of us can say that…but I can. I can sit with you…I promise. I’ve a decade of pain so deep that allows me to be with you not matter what. I’m here with you, in the darkness, no matter what; I mean that with all my person; and I have no problem showing you. Just ask….

So I say this to conclude: I’m 44 and unashamed after many years of feeling regret for having “lost” those years. I’m 44 and don’t want those 7 years back because they’ve deeply formed me. I’m 44 and a whole person, content with herself and who she is now. In my 20s, I never thought I’d make it this far; I’m proud that I have. I’m here, I’m present, I’m active, and I’m not going away anytime soon. And I just don’t quit. #ThatsAPromise #ThatsAThreat

These are my birthday reflections. And to reflect on a question from last year: Am I happy with who and where I am? I have to echo last year’s response: Yes. I am very happy with who I am and where I am. 100%, yes.