Notes From Ash Valentine’s Day

For Lent the staff at my church are reading Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. This is how my first reading on Ash Valentine’s Day went:

I wake slowly. Even when the day demands I rally quickly—when my kids leap on top of me with sharp elbows or my alarm blares—I lie still for the first few seconds of the day, stunned, orienting, thoughts dulled. Then comes, slowly, the dawning of plans to make and goals for the day. But in those first delicate seconds, the bleary-eyed pause of waking, before the tasks begin, before I get on my game, I’m greeted again with the truth of who I am in my most basic self.

Whether we’re children or heads of state, we sit in our pajamas for a moment, yawning with messy hair and bad breath, unproductive, groping toward the day. Soon we’ll get buttoned up into our identities: mothers, business people, students, friends, citizens. We’ll spend our day conservative or liberal, rich or poor, earnest or cynical, fun-loving or serious. But as we first emerge from sleep, we are nothing but human, unimpressive, vulnerable, newly born into the day, blinking as our pupils adjust to the light and our brains emerge into consciousness.

I always try to stay in bed longer. My body is greedy for sleep—‘Just a few more minutes!’

But it’s not just sleep I’m greedy for—it’s that in between place, liminal consciousness, where I’m cozy, not quite alert to the demands that await me. I don’t want to face the warring, big and small, that lies ahead of me today. I don’t want to don an identity yet. I want to stay in the womb of my covers a little longer.

The day I read this I didn’t want to get out of bed at all. The next day I actually rescheduled my day so I wouldn’t have to get out of bed until I wanted to. I was just overwhelmed with the pain that comes from loving vulnerably.

Happy Valentine’s Day to me?! Or better yet Happy Ash Valentine’s Day to me.

“Coincidentally” the same author of my book, Tish Harrison Warren, wrote this great article, God’s Message on ‘Ash Valentine’s Day’: True Love Dies.  She wrote:

With its declaration of human finitude and mortality, Ash Wednesday is always counter-cultural, but when it falls on the very day that chalky candy hearts proclaim “Be Mine,” “Wink Wink,” and (my favorite) “U R A 10,” the contrast is particularly stark.

…Themes of love and death are entwined chronologically in this “Ash Valentine’s Day,” and they’re deeply connected in the story of Christianity, as well—particularly in the person of Jesus.

The church is not a morbidity-obsessed death cult that wants to extinguish the warm glow of romantic love, but we reject the idea that what really makes a life complete is finding an erotic partner. We also reject the sentimental idea that anyone could really love another without it costing something—and something far more than the “Cost of Loving” index could ever track. The true contrast on display in this year’s “Ash Valentine’s Day” is not the contrast between erotic love and agape love—because Christians can and do celebrate both—but instead the contrast of what I’ll call sentimental love and sacrificial love.

Stanley Hauerwas famously said, “The great enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality.” In his view, there’s no deeper sentimentality than the presumption that we (or our children) can hold convictions without suffering for them. To have true convictions is to love something bigger than the self, and we cannot love God or others without suffering. The true roots of Valentine’s Day remind us that holding to our convictions might mean suffering unto death.

Besides the more dramatic example of martyrdom, there is, of course, the plain fact that all loving relationships will end in death. My mother will spend this Valentine’s Day mourning the recent loss of my dad, her husband of nearly 50 years. Is her grief worth every minute they had together? Surely it is. And yet, the actual reality of losing a loved one is a messy and dark business. Even in the best of love stories, death leaves us in deep grief.

This is me on those days. My grief over broken loss is worth every minute of the great love we share. To help me feel better I want to fix my sons’ pains but that is not for me to do. So I grieve separately from them because that is what I have to do.

Then my boss pastor at my church (as in he is my boss though he can also be “boss”) sent me this about his experiences of doing “ashes-to-go” at our local Panera Bread:

Today of all days Christians are set apart as we say in the face of this Hallmark holiday we are going to die and we deserve that death. Thanks be to God that our hope in life is found not through cheesy notions of love, but in the love God has for us made real in Jesus!

Love and death. Love and grief. Love and pain. And as we start to observe Lent we get the strangest pairing of all—love and execution. Jesus is in the center of all of that. How could I ever handle my life without my dependency on a Savior?

Note: This was the first time in 45 years that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fell together.

Note 2: So grateful for my husband who let’s me crash emotionally and stays goofily supportive. People think he is so cool but he really is a mushy goofball. So grateful for my rocks and their rock-encouragement words to me—again and again. So grateful for the few I trusted those prayer requests those days to pray for me. When you get this text—“I will be praying. Do you want company or anything practical?”—you know that your emotional crash is in good hands…and not in my hands. (I wrote a book about these people two years later, I Wish I Could Take Away Your Pain.)

Note 3: I am not able to pray when I have shutdown days like that. Prayer is too vulnerable for me. Which is why I must ask others to pray.

Note 4:  I’ve been reading this every day to help me remember the truth – Brokeness is the Door to Our Father’s Heart.

Note 5: The good days do return when you lean into the holy tension and endure. So I keep saying to myself, “I can endure. I can endure. I can endure. I can endure.” I need to repeat this a lot.

Note 6: My creativity has been off the hook. Just ask that boss pastor who has an inbox full of ideas I have for our church. And I’ve still been restraining myself from all the emails I could send (I can be a lot at times). This is so true about the middle stage of transition. The stages of transition again are The Ending, The Neutral Zone, and the New Beginning. In the Neutral Zone there are three basic parts:

A. full of confusion–which you feel is a sign that something is wrong with you
B. want to circumvent out of The Neutral Zone because of the anxiety that comes with transition
C. it is one of the most creative times in your life

Bingo! May I not be too much with my creative juices. May I stay in the holy tension of these overwhelmed days (and endure!) so the holy New Beginning can happen.

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