Let The Ashes Remind Us Of The Flame

Don’t let the ashes deceive you. They are not a sign of death. On the contrary, they are evidence—absolute proof—of life.

So let the ashes remind us of the flame.

Just as the empty tree limbs of winter somehow testify to the budding leaves of spring. Ashes are evidence of life in the same way that the moon reflects the light of a sun we cannot see. The way starlight travels billions of miles to reach our eyes even though the star itself ceased to exist so long ago that our mind cannot grasp the timeline of its demise. The star is gone but its light remains, moving toward whomever might be standing in the darkness looking skyward to see what parable the night might whisper in their ears.

So let the ashes remind us of the flame.

Ashes are signs of life in the same way that rain is able to tattoo sidewalks with the perfect outline of leaves that once lay there but have been blown away by the wind.

The way ripples sweep out across the surface of a pond when the small child skips the smooth pebble across the water after his grandfather shows him how.

A final splash and the stone is gone, but its ripples go on and on.

The same way the ripples of those we love and who have loved us continue widening out to every corner of our heart and soul after they have gone from this world.

They are gone, like Jesus is gone. But they remain, like Jesus remains.

So let the ashes remind us of the flame.

In the course of our lifetime we will be like that sidewalk, with only the rain-soaked imprint of someone we dearly miss left behind. We will be like the moon, reflecting the light of a loved one we can no longer see. We will be like the water’s surface, someone’s voice and smile still skipping and rippling through our lives even though they are gone.

But, in time, we will also become the image of a leaf the wind has swept away, the reflection of a light no longer seen and the stone that has disappeared beneath the surface.

We will become that trail of smoke in the sky that others will believe they cannot follow. A trail of smoke that leaves them standing alone, just as we have been left standing alone. But they, too, will follow that trail one day. A trail through the sky that Jesus blazed for us, marking the way with his life. Marking the way with his death. Marking the way with his resurrection.

Footsteps in the sand are washed away by the tides. Footprints in the snow melt in the sun. Indentations of bare feet in green grass are seen but for a short while. Nevertheless, they tell the truth. Like ashes, they are signs of life. Signs of soul marks no tide can wash away, no sun can melt and no wind can sweep out of sight.

Life’s rain will fall, its winds will blow. But that is all they can do.

Let us go out into the world with the proof of everlasting life marked upon our forehead.

Let the ashes remind us of the flame.

Bears In The Woods, And Around The Corner

If I had a dime for every time I’ve thought a squirrel scampering through dry leaves in the woods was a bear, my pockets would sound like a tambourine.

The leaves of long gone autumns amplify the sound of a squirrel until it takes on Jurassic Park-like qualities. Especially if you’re deep in the woods, alone with your thoughts and the sound of birds tuning their violins and violas. The sudden “eruption” of a happy squirrel hoping to hide a nut from its friends can cause whiplash.

Eventually, however, one learns to smile, or perhaps even chortle. Nope, not falling for the old squirrel-in-the-leaves again. That’s no bear. Hahahaha.

Until, one day, it is.

That happened to me last summer. There I was, coming to the end of a hike. There was the highly-traveled two-lane highway going past Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park. I could see it through the trees. There was the parking lot. I could see it through the trees. There was my car in the parking lot. I could see it through the trees. And there was the bear. I could see it, skidded to a halt 40 feet away from me, through the trees.

We stood staring at each other. I’m not sure which one of us was more surprised.

I’d read in a newspaper once that if you don’t project fear and panic and, instead, make yourself loud and large, a bear will leave you alone.

Loud and large? My fear was loud and large. Don’t project panic? I was almost projectile vomiting panic.

There was only one thing to do and I admit, on the purely musical level, it wasn’t the best choice: I began singing “Jimmy Crack Corn And I Don’t Care” and waving my hiking stick in the air as I walked away. (To this day, I have no idea why that song came into my head).

As I emerged from the trees, two people were just getting out of a car. They must have thought me insane. There I was almost screaming “Jimmy Crack Corn And I Don’t Care” and waving a large stick around as if I was being attacked by bees. Or was John the Baptist on a particularly “Oh-you-brood-of-vipers” day.

They backed away, dread showing in their eyes. The man reached for his wallet and I think the woman was about to dial 9-1-1. I tried explaining the whole bear situation. I am certain they did not believe me.

I share this story because we all encounter “bears” from time to time throughout our lives. And I am not speaking of the animals with four legs. Things happen to us that can provoke an initial reaction of fear, perhaps even panic—whether it’s a health issue, job related or a personal relationship. Have faith. Let your soul be loud and large—even if that means singing “Jimmy Crack Corn And I Don’t Care” at the top of your lungs. When we do, we realize that, whatever song we choose to help us journey through our fear, God is singing harmony.

And sometimes—not always, but occasionally—we discover that it was only a squirrel scampering through the leaves.

In The Distance

“The Distance”

The distance

is someone else’s

frontyard

where children

play with a dog and a ball

and their parents

sit on the front porch

gazing off into the distance

which is someone else’s

frontyard

where children

play with a dog and ball

and their parents

sit on the front porch

gazing off into the distance.
A husband and wife emerged from the SUV in the grocery store parking lot. They were deeply engaged in conversation. Not, however, with each other. Both were on the phone. I was hoping they’d at least called each other to have a chat, but they had not.

There may have been a very good reason both were talking to people who weren’t in the vehicle with them, heading into the store still speaking to someone who wasn’t there, rather than to each other. But the situation seemed emblematic, and symptomatic, of the age in which we live.

We are often connected via phone, text, email, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—etc.—to everyone we cannot see and disconnected to those sharing life by our side.

The poem “The Distance” was written years ago, long before the digital age (yes, I am very thankful the internet allows us to share these words). One of the points the poem tries to make is that sometimes we are so distracted wishing for how things might be that we do not see the blessings within arm’s reach. And so we lose them. Forever.

But there is another side to disconnection. If we’re not careful, we can become detached from our deepest self. Life’s myriad distractions—or some deep life wound—can separate us from a soul connection to our child of God selves. We then run the risk of losing our way, getting tangled up in life’s weeds and thorns.

That can happen to anyone. None of us is immune. And we may not even recognize what’s going on. One minute we’re in the green pasture beside the still waters. The next second we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death and there’s not a green pasture in sight. Only the distance.

But there is a way out. There is always a way out. However much we may distance ourselves from our Good Shepherd, intentionally or not, Jesus never distances himself from us.

Goodness and love will always follow, wherever life takes us, guiding us out from the weeds and thorns. Then, amazingly, we find ourselves back on the front porch—just like that—getting up from our chairs, joining our children, our spouse or a friend, as they—as we—play with a dog and a ball.

The distance is gone. If not forever then, at least and at last, for one moment in a day.

A Valentine From The Sky

Here I stand, silently and still, watching a sunrise, seeing the night slowly and surely—head over heels, eventually—fall in love with the day.

Dawn goes beyond the sense of sight. A glorious sunrise is something one feels. We can wrap our souls around them. They are a wordless prayer in the sky—and its wordless answer.

Wintertime reveals them at their most transcendent. So much of the horizon is visible through the limbs of the leafless trees. The dark maple and oak silhouettes actually enhance the painting that is being brush-stroked before our eyes. The contrast makes the blossoming colors really “pop.”

The experience is very much like watching a painter produce a masterpiece. The rising sun and the breeze-blown clouds and jet trails provide constant movement. The colors continuously journey through the spectrum, an ebb and flow of blues, pinks, purples, violets, oranges and everything in between. Then, finally, that day’s painting is done.

Interestingly, no sunrise is ever finished until it is gone, which makes it a little bit like our own lives. A single day left in our life becomes, in effect, a lifetime and anything is still possible. Even a new thought or a deeper understanding of one’s life. No sunrise is without meaning.

Clouds are essential to any truly spectacular sunrise. They provide a canvas upon which the rising light can fully express itself. That also resembles our own lives. The “clouds” that cross our path may block out the “sunshine” entirely—for a time. If looked at philosophically, however, they make life’s sun and blue sky really “pop” when we see them next. We appreciate far more deeply the joys—the people and things—that illuminate our lives.

Sunsets offer transcendent moments, too. They are the perfect mate for sunrise. Later today I will stand, silently and still, watching the sunset tell the dawn, “Yeah, it was love at first sight for me, too.”

There is no better way to begin or end a day. In both the rising and the setting of the sun we can sense the presence of a loving God. An all-embracing love that is given without conditions or limits. A love that neither rises nor sets. A love that is simply always here for us. Right now.

Any Travel Ban Should Include Me, Too

If the Trump administration really seeks to protect this nation from terrorists, the executive order should include me, too.

I am not proud to admit it but these are just a few of the countless things I have done to terrorize millions:

I burned people at the stake.

I devised and used instruments of torture.

I engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.

I bought and sold human beings into slavery—sold husbands into slavery away from their wives, wives into slavery away from their husbands and children into slavery away from their parents.

I persecuted the Jews for centuries and then carried out the Holocaust.

I dropped the Atomic Bomb and annihilated two cities filled with innocent men, women and children. Yes, it was war but….

I lynched African Americans and bombed their churches. I closed their schools rather than let my children go to class with them.

The electoral system that made Mr. Trump president—despite his 2.5-million-plus loss in the popular vote—continues to be based on a formula that declares African Americans to be three-fifths of a person.

So, I lied when I signed on to the words “all men are created equal.” I don’t believe that at all.

I persistently refuse to support equal rights, justice and the pursuit of happiness for anyone who doesn’t look, believe, speak, worship, and make love the same way I do.

I call myself “pro-life” but once a child is born I banish their needs—and that of their parents—from my mind. Entirely. I am, in reality, pro-birth; after the first breath, I don’t care whether they keep breathing or not.

And I call myself a Christian.

Clearly, no Muslim nation would want me within a thousand miles of its borders. I don’t blame them (and I haven’t even mentioned the Crusades).

No, I have never personally done any of those things—I abhor them all—but the crucifix around my neck condemns me because….

….Every Christian is a terrorist.

Right?

Styrofoam Miracles

I couldn’t resist. The tennis “gods” had worked a miracle down under. The men’s final of the Australian Open would feature Rafa Nadal against Roger Federer. Out of nowhere. Perhaps the two greatest male tennis champions of all time, both had been recovering from injuries and, furthermore, hadn’t faced each other in a major final in six years. Those glory days, the tennis world supposed, were long past.

So, I just had to watch. The problem was, however, I would have to miss church to tune in. That nagged at me. I felt a literal hunger for communion. As each hour ticked away on Saturday the call became stronger and stronger. The Holy Spirit was tugging my spiritual sleeve, tapping me on the shoulder: “You need to follow me. You really do.”

I followed, driving to church in the afternoon to observe an improvised communion by myself. I chose a pew and sat down. Darn! I’d left my reading glasses in the car. But something told me not to go get them, that I would see all that I needed to see without them. I stayed put, squinting to read an Order of Worship for the Evening in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer—my favorite service.

The words “Light and peace, in Jesus Christ” always still my troubled waters. I let my soul steep in them for a few moments. Then communion began. Or, more accurately, continued. I’d been in “communion” since I followed the nudging call. After eating the bread, I began to raise the small styrofoam cup into which I had poured a communion swallow’s worth of wine.

The church’s sanctuary was unlit and my eyes were closed. So the sudden, brilliant light seemed to come from nowhere. As my lips touched the cup it was as if I’d suddenly become surrounded by incandescence. It seemed then, and still does, like a miracle.

There was, I quickly realized, a perfectly simple explanation. I had been sitting at just the right spot at just the right moment of the afternoon, drinking from just the right kind of cup. In that instant, the white styrofoam literally “cupped” the late afternoon sun—which had just peeked through the upper corner of one of the windows at the back of the church—reflecting and pouring it directly into my eyes. And my soul.

My cup had overflowed with light. A communion of light. It was the most moving observance of Holy Communion that I’d ever had. Or, I suspect, I ever shall.

The experience reminded me of this truth: There are miracles all around us. Big ones and little ones. But none of them are small. Even if they are made of styrofoam. They are waiting there for all of us. God’s Holy Spirit is tugging everyone by the sleeve, tapping us on the shoulder, saying, “Come, follow me.”

Answering, “I will” is never a response we’ll regret.

The Nadal-Federer match was, of course, a classic. Five sets. Every game began with the score love-all, but amazing points then flew all over the court. Love-all became 15-all, 30-all, 40-all, or deuce.

But sitting in a pew alone the day before had shown me—yet again—with God, the final score is always love all.

Don’t Be Afraid Of Your Shadow

We don’t have four legs but we certainly do have shadows and they are with us now on Groundhog’s Day. As they are by our side every day. In sickness and in health. For richer or for poorer. Tagging along until death do we part from our shadows. I’m typing with my shadow right now. But that’s okay. It’s the only way I could find these words:

Our shadows are, in their own way, a simple reflection of the light, the place where the light makes it clear that it is with us, unmistakably telling us that we are not alone. Even when there is nobody else in sight, the light is always there. Always. Standing right there in our shadow.

Don’t be fooled—our shadows are not darkness. From our shadows we have nothing to fear. Our shadows are a product of our experiences throughout a lifetime. Their interplay with the light makes us who we are. Each of our shadows is entirely unique. Like a fingerprint. Or snowflake.

Darkness is something else entirely.

But do not be afraid. The light surrounds our shadows in its protective embrace. Warms them—even on the coldest of winter’s most bitter days.

Darkness would prefer that we absolutely did believe our shadows to be darkness, but our shadows belong entirely to the light. How do we know that? Simple: darkness cannot cast a shadow. Only light can.

And our shadows have the ability to do what darkness never can: make us smile.

Hiking Flat Top Mountain outside Bedford, Virginia on a December afternoon, my wife, Kim, and I watched the sun, which was immediately behind us, cast our shadows nearly 100 yards further down the descending trail. Our shadows made us look like giants. I waved my hiking stick in the air like a sky-scraping Gandalf. Had we been in Middle Earth, all of the orcs would have fled.

There is so much light in two shadows walking side by side, two shadows embracing, two shadows saying, “I love you.” There is an abundance of light, too, in one shadow walking alone—but not alone—feeling God say, “I love you always. Keep walking. I am here.”

Darkness is afraid of the light. Like the groundhog, darkness fears its own shadow. If darkness were to see its shadow, it would mean that it has seen the light. Darkness fears that most of all. Why? Because even darkness could not remain dark amid such a light. The “wintering” of the world would fade away. Something much more than spring would come right there and then because darkness would surely see no alternative but surrender.

Some day, perhaps, it shall.