Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.


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On Ashes and Boats: The Comfort I Find in Lent

Lent is not exactly supposed to be the most uplifting season of the church year – confronting my brokenness, remembering that I am dust and to dust I will return, preparing for the darkness on Good Friday … it could be a bit of a downer. Pile that resume on top my recent descent back into the quicksand of depression, and you might assume that I would be staying as far away as I could from church these days.

Actually, I have been bathing my soul in Lent at every opportunity and finding it very healing.

I want to share just two of the ways in which this season of reflection in the darkness has been a balm to my soul.

10983401_10152846484564635_5061977917613180810_nThe first came two weeks ago at the Ash Wednesday service. At the service my wonderful pastor spoke about the words that come with the ashes as a gift. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” Seeing this denigrating statement as a gift might seem counter-intuitive. But my ears, re-tuned as they have been by depression, heard this like the sweet exhale of release. “You are dust” – yes, I feel like dust, and the struggle of trying to not be dust is almost unbearable. But to be affirmed in this, to know that dust is how I was created, and that my dust is blessed and loved and used as an anointing… that is an incredible gift. That is an absolution from the strain of needing to be gold. I am so, so glad to be told I am dust.

The second source of healing was an invitation to share my reflection at the mid-week Lenten service last week. The suggested text was familiar – the story of when Peter walks on water and doesn’t quite make it. I’ve heard countless sermons on this text, but yet again I saw a different story from the perspective of the quicksand.  Rather than explaining exactly how, I will instead use the rest of this post to share that reflection:


“Fear in the Water”

Matthew 14:22-33

 2 Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. 23 When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. 24 Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. 25 Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.

27 Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

28 Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”

29 And Jesus said, “Come.”

Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. 30 But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”

31 Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind settled down. 33 Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!”

The thing about fear is that it feeds itself. Fear alters our perspective so that what we see – the facts or perceptions that stand out in bold relief to our wide, staring eyes – are the threats, the dangers, the horrifying possibilities. When we are in that state of fight or flight heightened awareness, somehow that awareness filters out the light of hope and all we can observe are the surroundings that reinforce our fear.

When I read this story of the disciples in the boat, in the storm, already far from the security of land, I can feel their fear. I curl in on the awful tightening in my chest as my pulse quickens and my breath becomes shallow. I taste the salt spray on my lips and try to strip its clinging chill from my skin. I fight the tearing tug of the wind on my hair and clothes – pulling me toward that black, roiling, angry, suffocating water.

This is the terror of the night – the sense of helplessness as I am tossed about like a despised and battered toy by the forces of the Darkness.

And then a light appears – moving smoothly –undisturbed by wind and wave – a beam of hope if I had eyes to see.

But I don’t see hope. I see only fear. I, with the disciples, see a ghost – a further terror to exceed even the fury of nature with a supernatural threat. “They were so frightened they screamed.” Me too. When in the grip of fear there is sometimes nothing else that I can do, but scream.

Jesus answers that scream. “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

Don’t be afraid. That’s a hard one. Maybe the sight and voice of Jesus could reach me through the crashing waves and howling wind. Maybe I, with Peter, could step out in faith just moments after I had cowered in fear. Maybe I could walk upon the raging waters and bring myself within the saving reach of Jesus’ arm. Maybe… but I kind of doubt it.

I think I am still clinging to the boat. I think fear still has me in its grip. I think the best that I can do is turn my eyes toward the crazy bravery of Peter, and hold my breath in terrified prayer that he will make it.

And when he almost does. When he comes so close, only to fail at the last instant, I gasp to hear the Lord’s reproof. “man of weak faith?” “why did you begin to doubt?” This is the worst fear of all. If even Peter has fallen short… if even walking out upon the storm-tossed sea cannot earn approval, then I am lost. My only hope is to cling to my battered boat, the tangible but fragile protections that I can build for myself … my only choice is to cling to this inadequate security… and scream.

But here is the hope in this story. Because Jesus does not let Peter sink beneath the waves. Nor does he turn with Peter and walk away, leaving the terrified others, leaving me, in the heaving, creaking boat that can’t keep out the waves of fear.

Instead, Jesus brings Peter back to the boat and steps in himself with all of us. He gets into the boat – the weak, inadequate, human construction to which I cling. He gets in with me. And he calms the storm. He doesn’t magic me away. That is not the hope he offers. He climbs into the center of the fear with me. And then, and only then can I finally understand.

“You MUST be God’s Son.”


I am not quite out of the quicksand, but I am dust, and I am in the boat, and I am not alone.

Thank God for Lent.


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I Never…

Esselunga

Even saying goodbye to “my grocery store” brings a tear to my eyes.

I have been playing a dysfunctional game of “I never” with myself the last few weeks. It goes a little something like this. I will be hurrying down the sidewalk, huddled up in my puffy, black coat to ward off the frigid winter air, mind swirling with the hundred and one tasks still to complete before our looming move date, when my eye is caught and my steps halt. The object of my distraction is a cute little coffee bar, or boutique, or family restaurant that I have noticed in the neighborhood before and about which I have always thought: “that looks like a fun place. I should check it out one of these days.”

Only now, the internal dialogue has changed. Propelled by a longing sigh, my now-heavy feet move off as my stress-fatigued heart laments: “Now I’ll never get the chance to go there.” Technically, I still have just over a week in my beloved Milano, but that week is so crammed full of errands, and movers, and goodbye meetings that there is no practical way to schedule in these little side-trip. Particularly because it’s not just a local coffee shop that I am bemoaning, it’s also all the destinations we never visited. I never spent a weekend in Sienna, or Torino, or the Cinque Terra. I never got to visit Germany, or Austria, or Istanbul, or Normandy. I never even took many of the easy day trips from Milano, like Pavia, or Bellagio, or Lago di Garda.

Then there are the experiential I nevers. I never went to a concert on the roof of the Duomo. I never booked a make-up lesson with the fashion professional who advertises in the English newsletter. I never took the kids to do a “test drive” on the children’s level of the Ferrari store. I never took an Italian cooking class. I never even learned how to make homemade focaccia! Even my lovely twice-a-month cleaning lady, maestra of all things domestic and Italian, failed to teach me this art. I shuffle through the endless, frenetic tasks that are my unwanted responsibility in the process of ending my Italian residence and my mind meditates on the “I nevers.” It is not a wonderful way to experience a goodbye.

I shared some of this pain in an e-mail to my patient, long-suffering husband yesterday. With understated wisdom he acknowledged my sorrow, and then subtly shifted my perspective with the suggestion that we “try to enjoy the time we have left.” Zing!

Once I ventured a foot outside my little pity party I felt a bit embarrassed. It wasn’t really fair for Tyler to be the one to have to remind me how much I have to be grateful for in this whole experience. After all, he has a few big “I nevers” himself, that I was able to check off my list. He never saw the original of DaVinci’s Last Supper. He never saw a performance at the historic La Scala Opera House. He never had the tremendous privilege of staying home with our children for the precious years of their early childhood, and exploring the amazing city of Milan with them into the bargain. Perhaps I am feeling more pain about the departure than Tyler not because of all the things I never got to do, but because of all the things I got to do: all the experiences of daily living that have been so precious and that I do not want to give up.

But, perhaps it is possible to think about these experiences not as things I am losing, but in things that I have had. “Better to have loved and lost….” There is a much better I never list that I could be rehearsing in my mind while I fill out endless paperwork, or stand at the post office waiting to mail yet another contract-cancelling disdetta. I never thought I would live in Italy. I never expected my children would visit seven countries before the age of seven, and talk casually about how cold it is on top of the Eiffel Tower. I never anticipated that I would be able to gain conversational competence in a foreign language (even if I wish I spoke more fluently). I never imagined that I would discover in my soul a love for travel, or in my taste buds a love for spicy salad greens. I never dreamed that three years in a country known for nominal Catholicism and opulent cathedrals could awaken in me the greatest spiritual revitalization I have experienced in my adult life. Plus… I never thought I’d live in Milan forever, so why am I complaining?

Therefore, in my last week in Milan I have a new goal. I will drink in every last luscious drop of joy that this city has to offer. I will look at the beautiful architecture of random apartment buildings as I scurry down the streets. I will relish the flavors of our favorite restaurants when the movers kick us out of our apartment for our last few nights. I will giggle with Princess Imagination as she experiments with the Italian phrases that she is only now absorbing. And, when I feel the pangs of sadness and loss washing over my heart, I will turn instead to face the future. And I will hold my breath for whatever new adventure lies just around the corner, cherishing the realization that I never knew I wanted it.