Seeing our belovedness in sanitized ashes

On the first Sunday of Lent, we discussed the story of Jesus hearing God’s voice calling him beloved before going off by himself to make choices based on that belovedness.

Then, everyone was invited to come forward for ashes.

I know – in most churches, those got distributed the previous Wednesday. It’s not practical for our church, which meets in a YMCA that is busy on Wednesday nights just like many of our church members.

So, this year we reverted to the original practice of starting our Lent on a Sunday. We called it Ash Sunday.

The palm branches from our virtual, pandemic service a year earlier were burned into a gritty, ashy pile. Instead of blending in a few drops of oil for lubrication, we use hand sanitizer to make the ashes stick and avoid germs.

Folks in our church come from different denominational backgrounds. Some are familiar with Lent and ashes; others have never experienced the centuries-old practice.

On this day, everyone is invited to come forward and choose where Lent’s message will be traced. If they leave their arms down, the ashes will go on their forehead. Or they can present the back of a hand to be marked with a cross.

Made from the same ashes and love

I sink my right thumb into the wooden bowl holding the ashes and scrape out a small load. I make eye contact with the person in front of me and greet them by name as I reach my ash-blackened thumb for their forehead or hand.

“Remember you are God’s beloved,” I say, “made from the same ashes and love as everyone and everything else. Keep living your precious life in this love.”

Remember your belovedness. Relax into it. Embrace it. Let it transform how you look at yourself, at others, and at all creation. Live in this connective love.

The ashes remind us of two defining truths that need to be revisited not only during Lent but throughout our lives daily.

First, they remind us that life and love are unlimited – how could they be otherwise? — but this phase of unending life comes with a shelf life. It’s the most precious gift we receive. What are we doing with this part our precious life?

Second, the ashes remind us of our connection to everyone else and everything else that God has made. The beautiful, poetic creation story describes God scooping ashes and dust from the earth – our umbilical cord to the rest of creation — and breathing divine life into us.

Then God makes us one from the other, locating our precious lives within a sacred and universal mutuality. All is done out of love. Everything pulsates with this eternal breath of life.

Remember you are God’s beloved … and so is everyone else. You have sacred life within you … and so does everything else. Now, go live in that love. Try to live gratefully, graciously, generously, lovingly, sacrificially, joyfully. Go and nurture the breath of God in all.

Remember …

Some members of my church had other commitments on the first Sunday of Lent. When they expressed disappointment at missing out on the ashes, I was tempted to respond: Well, maybe next year.

Then I thought: Why not next week, too?

So, for the second Sunday of Lent, we shared ashy blessings again. Those who couldn’t be there the previous week were invited to come forward. Those who had already received ashes were invited to come up for seconds and another blessing – there is no limit!

They came forward to hear their name and receive Lent’s everlasting reminder:

You are God’s beloved, made from the same ashes and love as everyone else and everything else …

We need one another

One Lisa Fotios at Pexels

What do you miss during social distancing?

I miss hugs. Concerts. Attending church. Sharing a birthday cake. Being there in person to feel someone’s joy or pain or struggle.

I miss Singo, a sing-along version of bingo. During Singo, nobody cares about political labels, age groups or religious affiliation. Everyone sings familiar lyrics together, and strangers get up and dance with one another.

Everyone just enjoys each other’s company.

All those activities are on hold as we try to contain the spread of a virus that leaves death and battered bodies in its wake. When the time comes that we can safely be social again, I hope we’ll do it with a renewed appreciation for each other.

I hope the pandemic has taught us how much we need one another.

We needed that lesson. We’ve become so divided that we’ve forgotten we’re intimately bound to one another.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, we’re all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Mother Teresa said that “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”

How did we forget that? How did we lose the pleasure and peace of each other’s loving company?

Perhaps a confluence of factors is responsible for fraying our common fabric.

Our culture worships individuality, the myth of the self-made man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps without anyone’s assistance at all. It’s all about me and my rights.

The Americanized version of Christianity promotes this self-centeredness, too. The prosperity gospel preaches self-absorption. Pad your personal accounts – financial as well as spiritual – while telling those bleeding by the side of the road to work harder.

We’ve got political, social and religious leaders trying to sell us the bitter pill of division as well. They want us to quarantine within political, social and theological bubbles, pushing away everyone who is different.

They frame it as us-against-them and promote nonstop political, cultural and religious wars against anyone not inside our bubble.

No! They’re selling a lie. The last three months have reminded us how much we need to stop the fighting and start reconnecting with one another.

Those connections are what we miss.

God made us as social beings. We’re hard-wired to be together and have relationship with God, with all God’s children, and with all God’s creation. Those artificial divisions deprive us of what we need most.

Hopefully that’s the pandemic’s lesson for when the time comes that we can safely come together again as extended human family.

We need one another.

(photo by Lisa Fotios




Faith in our broken society

values burrows.nichole28 CC

The pandemic has shown us that we need to change not only our individual lives but our collective ones as well. There’s a lot in our society that’s deeply broken and needs fixed.

Our spending priorities are askew. Our health system is a mess. Our leadership is lacking. Our decisions favor some lives and render others expendable.

In times like these, prophetic voices challenge systems and shape discussions. We need to be those voices.

We can’t hide inside places of worship. We must get involved in what’s happening outside our doors.

Faith and values apply not only to our personal lives, but to our collective lives as well. If they don’t, our faith is only half-hearted and our values null and void.

Our religious tradition urges us to love God with all our hearts in all areas of our lives, not just the convenient parts. We’re to love our neighbors – all of them, in all situations – the same way we love ourselves.

Real faith is an all-or-nothing proposition.

Throughout history, many religiously observant people have endorsed superficial faith. Some Christians peddle the notion that Jesus’ values — love, compassion, forgiveness, healing, inclusion, caring for the needy, promoting peace — should apply to personal lives but can be excluded from our collective choices.

They say our society should be run by conflicting values – wealth, greed, privilege, self-interest, domination.

The same mentality created slavery and Jim Crow. White Christians insisted that their oppressive systems were exempt from Jesus’ commands to treat everyone as an equally beloved child of God.

We can’t limit faith to a few areas of our lives. We can’t ignore what’s being done by the various social systems that need our support or our inattention to continue.

That’s the real test of faith.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. … Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”

One form of religion mustn’t gain privilege or supremacy; rather, faith compels us to ground our collective decisions in the loving values that are the foundation of all true religion.

Our conversations about the many challenges confronting us must begin by acknowledging our shared responsibility to care for all God’s children and all God’s creation in all circumstances.

It’s all-or-nothing.

We’ll sometimes disagree about how best to accomplish goals, but we must always be in accord on the underlying intention for all we do. Love alone must be our motivation.

If we choose a different starting point for our collective decisions, then we’ve not only lost our way but any semblance of faith as well.

(Photo illustration courtesy of burrows.nichole28

Tomorrow: Healers in a broken system



No going back

Personal Transformation

Several of my friends were cured of cancer. They describe how every part of their lives was turned inside-out during treatment. They asked God to help them through it. They longed for everything to return to normal.

Once healed, their lives were never the same. The experience changed them significantly. What once seemed so important was now unsatisfying. They experienced life differently.

When they realized there was no going back to how things were before cancer, they went through depression and grieved the loss of their former lives. Some of them got angry at God.

Eventually, they made peace with their circumstances and set about transforming their lives into something new and better – more real, more alive, more Spirit-filled.

Although not thankful for the illness, they recognized that it interrupted their lives in needed ways. They felt more peace and joy. Their relationships – including with God – grew richer and deeper and more satisfying.

I’ve thought about those friends as we navigate the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways, our lives also have been turned inside-out. We yearn for things to go back to how they were a few months ago.

They can’t. Nor should they.

The interruptions provide a chance to examine at our lives and make needed changes. This applies not only to our individual lives, but to our faith communities and our societies as well.

The pandemic can teach us necessary lessons and become an impetus for changes that make us better.

Our challenge is to take a clear-eyed look at how our lives need to be refocused, how our faith communities need to adapt, and how the systems and values of our society must be significantly reformed.

For the next week, we’ll consider some of those areas to spark thoughts that lead us to transformation.

We can’t go back to the way things were three months ago – it’s not possible. Nor should we try.

Instead, we can embrace this opportunity to grow into people and societies that do a better job of caring for ourselves and all God’s children. We have an opportunity to grow closer to one another and to God, who yearns for us to experience the gift of life and the joy of love more deeply.

Let us make the journey together.

Tomorrow: Learning from our restlessness

(Image “Personal Transformation” courtesy of GroggyFroggy

Burning rivers and God’s garden

Cuyahoga pollution

The Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, blazing for two hours and focusing attention on my hometown. That moment became a flashpoint in the environmental movement.

Since the 1800s, industries had set up along the river and used it as a dumping ground for hazardous waste. The river turned orange and caught fire more than a dozen times. Many other polluted rivers in the Midwest caught fire as well.

Burning rivers weren’t the only issue. Steel mills released chemicals into the air that stung the eyes and left an acrid taste in mouths – I remember it well.

And it wasn’t just a Midwest problem. Cities around the world were trapped in a brown, deadly haze of smog. Rural areas had groundwater contaminated by dumped chemicals.

We’d made a mess of the world.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a good time to remember our connection to each other and all creation and to recommit ourselves to doing the job God has given us.

What is that job? Our faith traditions are clear. We’re tasked with caring for all creation and each other.

Genesis reminds us that diversity and relationship are expressions of the divine nature itself.

One parabolic story reminds that we’re created from the same stuff as the earth and each other, so we must never think of ourselves as separate from anyone or anything else.

Creation is seamless.

The Eden story depicts God putting humans in the garden and giving us the responsibility “to cultivate and care for it.” The garden isn’t ours; we’re just the gardeners.

As the story also reminds us, when we refuse to accept our role and we instead act as though we own everything, we commit the foundational sin and everything goes to hell.

The story of Noah’s ark reminds us that we’re responsible for caring for the animals, which are part of God’s all-inclusive covenant that endures today.

Fast-forward to Jesus, who clearly loved creation. He went into nature to hear God’s voice. His stories compared God’s kingdom to seeds and plants. He marveled at the flowers and birds.

We experience God through creation, so long as we recognize its innate holiness and treat it with the required reverence.

Sadly, we’ve often done the opposite. Self-absorption leads us to monetize everything. People are treated as commodities to be manipulated for gain or sold as slaves. The earth is parceled and plundered and used up, then discarded.

Everything becomes disposable, including the garden we’re meant to tend and the animals we’re meant to protect and the people we’re meant to love.

No! Those who hear God’s invitation to be gardeners must respond.

After the Cuyahoga caught fire in 1969, people responded. The EPA was formed a year later with strong bipartisan support, and laws were passed to provide clean air and water.

Some people want to turn our rivers orange again, make the air brown, and pollute the ground with toxic substances. They’re willfully ignorant of global warming’s damage.

Our faith requires us to act. This month, we not only celebrate creation, we also recommit ourselves to working with God to nurture it and protect it from further harm. It’s our assigned job.

As Pete Seeger puts it: “God’s counting on me. God’s counting on you.”

(photo from Cleveland Museum of Natural History)

Our fixed points

Starry sky

Last night gave us a gloriously warm spring evening. We lit a fire as the sun set and poured a glass of wine. One by one, the stars and planets began to dot the deepening sky.

Saturn appeared first, a bright point in the southwest sky hanging above the treetops. Soon, Orion made its appearance. Eventually, the sky was filled with all these dots of light.

It was very soothing to do something that we humans have done as long as we’ve been around – light a fire for warmth, look up at the sky for inspiration and wonder and a sense of connectedness to our vast and amazing universe.

People have done the same thing since our earliest times. We’ve gathered and gazed up during the most horrific times in human history – wars, natural disasters, pandemics.

We’ve looked up at the stars from all regions of Earth, including the vast oceans and lakes, where stars are necessary to navigate — fixed points in the darkness that lead us where we need to go in unsettling times.

Times like now.

May we be reminded to look for the fixed points in our lives – the people who love us, the faith that directs us, the miracle all around us and within us that inspires and reassures us that we belong.

Let’s also aspire to be fixed points for one another, helping each other get through the times, just as we always have.

As Alexis Castle put it in her graduation speech: “There’s some people who are so much a part of us, they’ll be with us no matter what. They are our solid ground. Our North Star. And the small clear voices in our hearts that will be with us always.”

Through their voices we experience another Voice, the One who creates fixed points to guide us. Our role is to look for the light and listen for the voice.

(photo courtesy of

Just one normal day, please?


A friend messaged me Thursday evening after she finished some annual prep work on her garden – clearing debris, preparing the soil for planting.

She was sitting on her front porch watching rain clouds move in. She wanted to share with several of her friends how good it felt in that moment – outside getting fresh air, tending the garden that is her passion, and reconnecting with folks.

She said it felt so good to be doing normal things.

A few hours later, a storm moved in and sirens went off – a tornado warning had been issued. Of course! That’s how things are going these days, right?

Doesn’t it seem like we can’t get through a day without some curveball thrown our way? Fortunately, the storm rumbled through without major incident, and we all went back to living in the moment.

Don’t you long for just one day of normalcy?

Yesterday, temperatures in southwest Ohio reached near 70 degrees, our warmest day yet this year. I jogged in the afternoon and passed young people zooming down the street on skateboards – one had a freshly scraped nose, presumably from a fall.

Families were walking together, keeping a distance – I don’t know if it was to maintain a safe space or the result of being cooped up together for a week. People were jogging or walking their dogs.

Everyone smiled and waved, even the scratch-nosed teenager.

The Bradford pear trees were unveiling their white petals. Purple, yellow and white crocuses were sunning themselves. The daffodils’ trumpet-shaped flowers kept their own beat in the wind.

It all felt so refreshing, so familiar, so … normal.

As we struggle with our new circumstances and wonder what “normal” will be in the future, it’s comforting to be reminded that there’s familiarity all around us and within us.

Nature is doing its long-anticipated, seasonal thing. People are still showing kindness and love, if from a distance.

It’s a reminder that we, like God, are in the business of constantly weaving together the old and the new into something that will be filled with grace in its own ways.

And it will be very good. Challenging? For sure! But also good.

_ Joe

(photo courtesy of Pixabay)

Being scared … and courageous, too

cowardly lion

When I was young, my mom turned our annual visit to Santa into a big day. She, my younger brother and I would take a bus to downtown Cleveland and visit the Sterling Lindner department store. We’d sit on Santa’s lap and then eat at the lunch counter.

One year, I remember standing in a long line to see Santa. “The Little Drummer Boy” was playing on the sound system. When it was my turn to sit on Santa’s lap, I got scared for some reason.

I remember my mom saying, “It’s OK. I’m right here.”

Hearing her voice made everything OK.

That memory came to mind today as I read about the upheaval in our world because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s scary stuff. The virus is dangerous. People are losing jobs. Events we’ve eagerly awaited are being canceled. Every aspect of our daily lives is in flux.

We don’t know how long it will last, or what the new normal will be when we emerge.

At times like this, everyone’s scared in different ways, to varying degrees. They should be! It’s our natural reaction, though it’s important to avoid getting trapped and frozen in our fear.

We need to be courageous, even when our legs are wobbly.

Courage isn’t an absence of fear – the two usually coexist. The question is which one we’ll choose to guide our response to whatever’s going on.

The cowardly lion in “The Wizard of Oz” was a scaredy cat, literally afraid of his own tail. Yet when Dorothy needed him, he tucked that twitching tail into his outfit and went to help, in spite of his fear.

We can acknowledge our fear without letting it hold us back from doing what’s important.

And when we feel frozen in place, when we get that shaky feeling, we can remind ourselves to listen for our loving Parent’s voice reminding us: “I know this is scary. It’s going to be OK. I’m right here with you. Always.”

Artwork by Michael Scott Murphy

Tending the garden

hand with leaf

We wrap up our visit to the garden of Eden by noting the most neglected part of the story, which comes very early. We’re placed in this beautiful garden and given an important role in God’s ongoing act of creation.

As the text says, it’s our responsibility to “cultivate and care for it.”

God could have done all the cultivating, of course. But God enlists us as full partners in nurturing her precious creation.

God provides parental guidelines to help us do our part properly. We’re told that we’re free to enjoy the garden and share its fruits, but not all of them.

We don’t have a blank check to do anything we want. There are limits.

It’s not our garden, after all. We’re beloved guests extended a divine invitation to enjoy it, take what we truly need from it, and roll up our sleeves and care for it.

This is one of several powerful and poetic stories early in scriptures that tell us we’re made from the same stuff as everyone and everything else, and we must live accordingly. We’ll all interconnected. What affects one part of creation affects all of it.

When we lose sight of this truth, we go off the rails.

When we think we’re God and can do whatever we wish, everything breaks down at the fundamental level. We withdraw from each other and from God. We damage our relationships. We destroy the garden we were meant to tend.

We fight over land and water and air, which should never be divvied up possessively. We hoard things that were meant to be shared.

We monetize beaches and forests and other natural resources for personal gain. We ignore the destruction caused by our policies.

Instead of protecting God’s creation, we desecrate it for profit.

The Eden story is a cautionary tale from centuries ago that applies to us today. It’s a reminder that we have a role to play, but it’s not the role of God.

It’s not our garden. We’re only the gardeners. And God’s counting on you and me together to do a good job.

(photo courtesy of Daria Shevtsova)

A couple of songs that remind us that we’re living in God’s world:




Remembering who we are … and aren’t

apple in hand

(Note: While services are canceled because of the virus, my church is sharing a daily reflection. I’m passing it along in case someone might benefit from it. Today’s is the beginning of a reflection I’d prepared for Sunday. Be well! And if you need a smile, watch the video linked at the end.)

 Don’t you love a good story? Science fiction, comics, fairy tales – we love a gripping yarn with surprise twists and unexpected endings and themes that apply to our actual lives.

The book of Genesis is full of clever, creative stories that show how ancient people wrestled with the same questions that we do today.

For instance, the different creation stories explore why God made things as they are – with so much diversity! – and how we’re intimately bound to everything else and to each other.

And then there’s that familiar story involving two naked humans, a talking snake and some fruit. It’s a fanciful story that that tries to answer the same question we ask ourselves today: How did things get so messed up?

The story in the third chapter of Genesis was written an estimated 1,000 years before Jesus. It starts by describing how the world is meant to be.

Imagine what things would be like if they weren’t so, well, screwed up.

John Lennon’s “Imagine” asks us to envision how much better the world would be if we didn’t fight over religion or argue over who gets to go to heaven or clash over borders and possessions.

The Eden story provides a similar vision, with the man and woman living in intimate relationship with God and one another and everything in the garden. Nothing is hidden – no clothes required – and there’s no need for shame or fear.

We can be exactly who we are. We don’t need to cover up anything. Nothing is withheld from each other or from God.

Enter the talking snake, and the story gets really interesting.

Some people characterize the snake as evil or devilish, but it’s described in the story simply as crafty or clever. And it knows the temptation that none of us can refuse: We all like to play God.

The snake tempts the humans by convincing them a bite of fruit will make them like God – or, like gods, in some translations.

And this is where everything falls off the tracks and all hell breaks loose, so to speak. Things go awry when we lose sight of our place in relationship and creation.

We’re not the parent in this family, but the children. To put it in a more modern term, we’re not the pilot of this ship, we’re the passengers. When we pretend otherwise, things get badly messed up.

It’s an insight that was relevant thousands of years ago, and for today as well with our ability to impact our world in so many ways. It’s a lesson on the importance of loving, balanced relationships and embracing our intended place in creation.

And it’s a reminder that, as Anne Lamott puts it, “A good name for God is: Not me.”

— Joe

Tomorrow: Hiding from each other, then and now

If you need a smile, check out this wonderful cover version of “Imagine” from American’s Got Talent. And imagine all the people, sharing all the world.