I overslept this morning. I’d set an alarm for 5:15 am so I could make the 7am Ash Wednesday service at my church in the city. But I woke up at my usual time instead.

Sometimes waking up is the hardest thing for me, especially when my day-to-day life is in upheaval and so much is uncertain.

Someone died today, jumping in front of a train on the metro. Our conductor announced it and delays on the other lines. Death is close to us.

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

Ash Wednesday is a new thing to me. I’ve appreciated it from a distance more years than I’ve observed it. The ashes, the reminders of mortality, the abstinence for promise of greater celebration at Easter — all these things speak deeply to me.

I am fragile. I am scattered. I feel overwhelmed by everyday stuff right now. Things like dinner plans are just too much to figure out sometimes. I feel tense and weary. I’ve never been so aware of the fragility of life, promises, health, love.

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

There are some things I’m just trying to remember. Slippery new things that I keep bumping into in the dark ways of habits not yet unlearned. The prayers on Sunday mean so much to me, their lines and boundaries hold me together.

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

On Sundays I go to church for the children I teach before the service. The commitment and the simplicity of that world is a gap of light through which I can turn and return to the sanctuary. To kneeling and prayers, to stillness, to vulnerability and blessings, to receive and be told again of wholeness, of love that doesn’t change.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Ashes and oil, reality and promises. Bread and wine. “Put your hand in my side.” 

I keep hearing Eliot’s other poem in my head. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We fuss and fluster and make plans and deadlines and listen to our music and talk and Tweet and stalk each other on Facebook.

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

I’ve been living a personal sort of Lent since Advent. Sara’s stuck in my head again. “Everything in me is tightening.”

So I think I’m going to be trying some more positive disciplines this time around, instead of abstaining. I’m learning about boundaries and trying to live in a way that’s healthy. I’m working on being aware of my limits and creating a balance that is not burdensome. Things like rising promptly when my alarm goes off, practicing mandolin, writing every day, doing yoga every day, drinking enough water, giving myself mental space to breathe.

These are my small attempts at creating wholeness and accepting limits.

I am just dust. I have breath in me. I need to care about that.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover

I read Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” twice a year. It’s slowly sinking into my bones.

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

This, today, me. This is my reality. It’s what I can do. Here is my limit. That’s okay.

I’m learning to breathe more slowly and remembering to walk with less frenzy. This is okay.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.


I’m terrible about reading my Bible regularly. Reading the ESV or NASB still gives me flashbacks to sermons from my spiritually abusive church, or to high-stress mornings with my family during our years at that church.

But my relationship to Jesus hasn’t been stunted. It’s grown stronger, and I’ve stopped being afraid like I used to be.

Talking with a friend today, I realized that one thing that helped me to see God as a caring Father and allowed me to respond to Jesus without fear was when I chose deliberately to change the words I used in my thought and discussions of God and religion.

In Sovereign Grace Ministries, it’s common to say “God,” “Christ,” “the Father,” and in other circles I interacted with, people used “the LORD” (in writing) or “the Lord” (spoken), and even that phrase so often repeated like a verbal tic in oral prayer: “Father God.”

When I left SGM and spiritually abusive environments behind, I had to find a way to stand the idea of God, to reassure myself that I hadn’t believed falsely, and that God was kind, intimately caring, patient, loving, forgiving.

I left fighting panic every time I opened my Bible.  I found myself unsure if I could ever pray sincerely again.

And then I started reading the Gospel of John in The Message, and I realized: God is a useful word, but it’s an abstraction. Abstractions are hard to connect with if you’ve been hurt.  So I did an experiment. I would use the name Jesus instead of all those other names. If I could bring myself to pray, I would pray to Jesus. If I talked about my faith or lack thereof, I would use his name. If I was journaling, I would write about Jesus, not God, not the Father. Jesus.

As I did that and as I kept reading in John, my anxiety eased up, just a little. Seeing Jesus as the man who loved women, loved the broken and hurting, who understood and was patient with those without strong faith–this is the same God I intellectually knew I worshiped. But just seeing him as Jesus, instead of Christ or God, helped me feel just a little bit safer, a little closer to healing.

If you’re hurting, if your Bible is terrifying, if prayer is deafeningly silent: take a step back and reintroduce yourself to Jesus.