Greet the ashes

Here’s a Lent practice that might be in direct opposition to your ad algorithms:

Look in the mirror each day.
Greet the ashes.

Whether or not you will have them smeared across your face to mark the start of Lent, the signs the ashes point to are already there: The fine lines the latest creams claim to erase. The neck folds that are less elastic than they used to be. The dark spots from your last pregnancy.

My Instagram ads and yours may see these as flaws to be corrected (face yoga, anyone?). But what if these reminders of the passage of time — rather than something simply to be erased — are meant to actually remind? What if they exist to tell us something true about ourselves (we are limited) and something true about God (he is not)?

Every day of Lent, every day of the year, your wrinkles and mine whisper of a dawning reality. This skin we are wearing is wearing out. As the preacher soberly says in Ecclesiastes, “All are from the dust, and to dust all return” (Ecc. 3:20).

Dust reminds us of our humble beginnings and our humble end. But there is good news, even here: It also speaks a better word. Our Creator began to redeem this lowly substance the moment he chose to make us from it, and it is very much like him to use what is humble for his glory.

Elsewhere in the psalms we see this word for dust (dakka) used as an adjective for a contrite spirit. Psalm 34:18 says “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Literally, he saves those who are “dust in spirit.”

Isaiah 57:15 says of God, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite (or dust-like) and lowly spirit.”

In the kingdom of God, it is good to remember that we were made from dust, that our bodies are temporary. It is good to rightly remember ourselves as lowly in the presence of a God who is holy. But it is also good to remember that this Creator God stooped down and made life where there was only dust.

When you are crushed in spirit, consider this: God makes new life from the dust. And God dwells with us in the dustiness of our desert seasons.


Not the Final Supper

Lord teach me to live well in light of death
In the shadows, rather, of its reality
To build theology around this dark scaffolding.

As reminders of death abound.
As I ruminate on the recent death of my mother,
As I witness the ever-nearing death of my dog,
As I receive the daily rhythms,
Submitting to rest,
Submitting to sickness,
Submitting to the slow-and-steady process
Of a body that will wear out,
Teach me here.

Remind me, here, of the tragedy of death.
That it was not meant to be, and yet it is.
That, from the first drop of bloodshed, it was a grace,
Covering the sins of those first sinners,
Shortening their days and ours on a sin-stricken earth,
Making a way for them to be covered,
To stand again in the very presence of God.

Remind me, here, that death is an enemy.
That it steals and destroys,
That it stains and shadows every beauty this world puts forth,  
That the Savior who would conquer death
wept over it first.

And then, remind me again that death does not win.
That the seed of Eve both has and will crush the head of the serpent,
That death itself has an expiration date,
That death has lost its very sting,
That death is swallowed up in victory,
That death is not a dead-end, but a door.

The Savior said at the Last Supper,
That there would be another meal.
That — though he would soon submit to the full and bodily
brokenness of death,
Though he would soon pour out his very life —
He would also take it back up.
He would drink again of this fruit of the vine
He would eat again at another supper
In the kingdom to come.
On the other side of his death, he whispers,
Is Resurrection.

Death itself now whispers of it, too.
For those who believe,
Every glimpse of death is an arrow
Through darkness, to light
Pointing to the drink-again, eat-again moment to come
When we will sit at the table of the lamb who was slain
In wholeness,
In the presence,
Of the one who is our door through death,
To everlasting life.

Matthew 26: 26-29
“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

On Maundy Thursday
April 1, 2021

God is enough (so I don’t have to be)

What happens when you come to the end of yourself? What happens when you’re forced to confront the limitations of your body, of your patience, of your ability to get up and to do the thing you want so very badly to do?

If you’re like me, you’ve had plenty of chances in recent months to witness your response. As the coronavirus swept the globe earlier this year, it not only stole lives but also any lingering notion of autonomy or immortality. It turns out, we are in control of very little. We always have been. But these rediscovered boundary lines can actually be our arrows back to a God who is unlimited by all that limits us. He is self-sufficient — and this is very good news for us who are not.

We are utterly needy. God is needful of nothing. Instead, he is the source of all that his creation and created beings require. From his abundant supply, he provides all that is essential for life and godliness. (2 Pet. 1:3) Therefore, we do not need to be sufficient without him, only reliant upon him.

He is abundant, even in simple beauties.

God does not need anything.

This integral aspect of God’s character is part of the good news Paul wanted to get across to the men in Athens, who were worshipping an “unknown” god rather than the Creator of all. So, Paul tells them: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything.” Rather, Paul continues, “he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25)

Our three-in-one God does not need us to build temples — or ministries or platforms — for him. He does not need our companionship or worship. If he did, he would not be self-satisfied. Worse, he would be a god that we could manipulate.

Yet how often do our prayers, our worship and our service imply otherwise? We pray with just enough fervor to think God might owe us an answer. We scurry madly from one ministry to another as though it were up to our two hands to uphold the very glory of God. But Colossians 1:17 says that it is the Lord Jesus Christ who holds all things together, not us. 

“Were there another from whom God could receive the gift of life, or indeed any gift whatever, that other would be God,” writes A.W. Tozer in The Knowledge of the Holy. God is “the one who contains all, who gives all that is given, but who Himself can receive nothing that He has not first given.”

There was no me-shaped hole in the heart of God, writes Jen Wilkin in None Like Him. Jesus did not put on flesh because he had a compelling desire for our company. No, our God has been fully self-satisfied since eternity past and into eternity future with the fellowship inherent in the Trinity. The love that flows to us — and even that which flows back to God from us — is His.

We cannot make more complete the one who is complete in himself.

God provides all we need.

Oh, how we long to be self-sufficient like God. How we wish to throw off our incessant needs — for food, for rest, for one another — which often seem to keep us from doing the good work we desire to do, even for God.

We try to outwit these limits, out-caffeinate them, outrun them. Often, we assume that our limitations are merely the result of sin. If we miss a deadline, we are more likely to blame procrastination than the pride that led us to take on more than we could accomplish in the first place. We are more likely to despise our boundary lines than to rest within them.

But the neediness of humanity is not in itself a result of the fall; Adam and Eve required food even before they plucked it from the wrong tree. Their needs and God’s constant provision for them, their lack and his supply, were gracious reminders that they were the created, not the Creator. And that is true for us, too.

The good news about our human limitations is what we find when we come to the end of ourselves: A God who never ends. His lack of limits, his abundance, is a great comfort to those of us who almost always come up short.

When it comes to God’s incommunicable attributes — the ones we do not share — such as self-sufficiency, the process of becoming more like him takes an unexpected form. As we meditate on God’s perfect self-sufficiency, we see that the only wise choice is for us to become less self-sufficient. Our only hope is in becoming dependent, instead, on the one who owns the Earth, “and the fullness thereof.” (1 Cor. 10:26)

There, we find that even our limitations can be redeemed. The Son who willingly put on the confines of our flesh did so to meet, once and for all, our greatest need. His provision allows us to be made right with a perfect God, who, from his fullness, becomes, our “very present help” (Ps. 46:1).

How can it be good?

Good Friday
What a name
For a day when
Darkness seemed to reign.

Good Friday
Daring hope
In a God who
Took our shame and pain.

Good Friday
Yes it is.
For our God did
Not stay dead.

Good Friday
For we know
That our Savior
Reigns. He rose instead.

If there were ever a phrase that reminds us how hard and necessary it is to hold two contrary ideas at the same time, it is the words: Good. Friday.

How can a day filled with violence toward the innocent be rendered good? How can a day that left Jesus’ followers scattered, lonely and confused be good? For those who lived through it, it wasn’t yet good. And it is good for us to sit for a while in that reality with them. “Step into the shoes of the disciples,” my little liturgy book encourages today, “who did not know Jesus would rise from the dead. Imagine your world without the resurrection.”

Read through John 18 and 19 — and read no further. Stop, abruptly, at the words, “they laid Jesus there.”

We were reading the familiar story to our children this morning as they ate their eggs. They asked why I wept at the “crown of thorns” and “purple robe.” Because, dear ones, he is our King, and the people did not see it. They tried to mock him with these trappings of Lordship, but he was their Lord all along. A servant king who washed feet the night before. An all-powerful God who permitted a crown and robe of pain. He wore those things for us. He was humbled and shamed before he was exalted. In the ultimate irony of an upside-down kingdom, he turned the cross into a coronation.

I remember feeling the weight of Good Friday as if for the first time on an April day in 2010. I was a reporter at a small newspaper in Anacortes, Washington, where tragedy had struck the night before. Across a little bay from our house, a heat exchanger at a local oil refinery exploded, killing three people that night and another four in the coming weeks, seven in all. I woke to the rush of reporting on it, and also to the weight of it.

I lived closest to the scene, so I reported from a nearby coffee shop, talking to others who had felt the ground shake in the middle of the night. I remember sending in my contribution to the breaking news story and then sitting in my car for a while, weeping. It was Good Friday, the day that we remember Jesus’ death on the cross, and it felt like it. The rain was coming down heavier than usual. Gray smoke from the explosion lingered in the midday sky. And I asked God, “How can you call this day good?”

A man whose family member died in the explosion. I got to know him over the next year as we walked the same trail across from the refinery, near our homes.

Many might be asking that today, a decade later, as the coronavirus seems to take over more and more lives. Where I live near Washington, D.C., no one is unaffected. We’re all homebound but for grocery runs and essential work. The fortunate ones, like us, still have work they can do, even if it feels impossible with kids at home, too.

Outside, most days are sunny and spring-like lately. Sometimes, on a long enough walk, taking in the tulips and dogwoods and redbuds, you can almost forget the tragedy that’s taking hold of the world. Your soul sinks into the rhythms of God’s creation, remembering, without a word, that he is still making all things new. That he brings life — surprises us with it — where, a day or two ago, there was only death.

Last night, we tuned into our church’s online Maundy Thursday service. We served ourselves grape juice and Tam Tam crackers and ached for the communal part of communion. We heard again just how off-key we can be when our singing isn’t drowned out by the rest of the saints. We took in the pastor’s reminder, once again, that this is not how it will always be. As Sandra McCracken sings:

“We will feast in the house of Zion
We will sing with our hearts restored
He has done great things, we will say together
We will feast and weep no more.”

It’s OK that we weep today. In fact, it’s good. As Andrew Peterson sings, “This is the dark before the dawn.”

And I believe it will be brighter for it.

Winter’s last sunrise

I can’t peel myself away from the window over the kitchen sink. The vermillion sun is climbing over the horizon, just beyond the stand of trees that makes up our backyard, and I am mesmerized.

For all my longing for spring—for vibrant green to fill my field of view—I am realizing just now that it will ruin this particular scene. The branches, now spindly and bare, have been dutifully serving as a wintry backdrop to the dramatic dives of birds of prey and the patriotic parades of cardinals and blue jays. They are a man leading a ballet dancer across the floor, a set of arms to frame the season’s true beauty. And I am regretful now that I haven’t appreciated them more.

Today, as the sun continues to crest their branches, up and up, I see their beauty in the new light. The tree limbs’ gnarly knots and turns offset the brilliant blue sky, making it more beautiful by contrast. They are a hundred picture frames, needless of the woodworker’s help.

The cast of winter wonders is lusher than I realized before, as I take it in now. There is the towering tulip poplar with a bulbous shape sprouting where its trunk splits into two branches at the top. For months this winter, I mistook that bulge for a wise owl staring back at me until, one day, I grabbed binoculars for a closer look. It was just my imagination, shaping Christopher-Robbins tales out of the bare branches.

This backyard forest is primarily a playground, not for me, but created by and for the squirrels that sprint unencumbered across its limbs. Many of the shorter oaks began their upward journeys when one of the bushy-tailed hoarders plunged an acorn or three into the still workable soils. Come summer, I will shake my fist at the 6-inch oak sprouts that will be near-impossible to uproot before they ruin the ivy-covered look of that backyard slope. (It is one of my many battles with the determined critters, not to mention the one with the squirrel whose favorite acorn storehouse is my attic.)

But, in contrast to the tall- and mid-sized trees that seem to put all their growing efforts into thick trunks, racing toward the sun, there is the dogwood. My favorite kitchen window tree, by far. The graceful slopes of her branches are a well-appointed chandelier, waiting to woo me anew when the tips burst into white flames come spring.

Its larger-than-life blooms will leave me forgetful of the brewing coffee and the hungry children, if only for a moment. I will stare longingly from that kitchen sink, knowing the beauty won’t last as long as I want it to. Knowing it will only stir in me a yearning that no view out my kitchen window, no view in this world, can quench.

But those blooms—and the thickly green foliage that will accompany them soon enough—will also outshine the view I’m taking in right now: Bare branches framing an impossibly golden sunrise. Every summer, we forget the view that winter’s barrenness affords. Every winter, we ache for spring. These trees’ branches, stretching out in arms-open prayer toward the sky, seem to ache for the coming spring more than I do. But today I am reminded—there is beauty in their waiting, too.

Below is a beloved version of the song, which you’ll remember from the Winona Ryder version of Little Women, to inspire you to continue to raise a song of grateful praise for this beauty of the earth...

When Self-Pity Raids Fellowship

This article originally appeared at

Woe is me. 

I don’t say it as I walk through the doors of our lovely church and greet our fellow saints every Sunday morning. But—if I got the kids out the door and the limping dog fed and the home group meal made while my husband was off at another drill weekend—it’s likely I’m thinking it. 

Woe is me. I am only trying to get to church. 

For years, I thought the problem with this scenario was that the God of the universe didn’t swoop down to help everything go perfectly on Sunday morning. There was the morning I got entirely ready before fetching my toddler, thankful we might be on time—for once!—only to find she had discovered some paint supplies while wearing a soiled diaper and redecorated the nursery in a certain shade of brown. 

Other mornings, it’s a 102-degree fever discovered when we’re already on our way or the car doors that seem to, almost providentially, auto-lock every time I’m headed toward them with my hands full of piping-hot casserole for a potluck lunch. Sometimes it doesn’t take much at all—a bad hair day, a botched breakfast—to send the woman who woke ready to praise the Lord careening down a cliff of “why me”s. 

Rather than entering the house of the Lord with a smile befitting my salvation, I rush to my seat with clenched teeth. Tell the story of Jesus and his glory? I can’t wait to tell the tale of my terrible morning. I have more than a chip on my shoulder; I am bearing a silent grudge against a God who didn’t orchestrate my circumstances to my liking. Rather than a garment of praise, I walk in wearing something that feels more comfortable than putting on Christ: self-pity. 

Woe is me. 

Somewhere between the barking dog that woke the baby and the closet filled with “nothing to wear,” I bought in to the lie that the God who gave me his own Son didn’t give me enough this morning. I believed the whisper that, above all, the Savior who says he gives peace that surpasses understanding still owes me a peaceful Sunday morning. 

But do you know what God says about my pity party? “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). 

Oh, the slippery slope that hope becomes when we place it in lesser things than the one who promises to be “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:18–19). How quickly pity rises when I fixate my meager hopes on a tranquil morning rather than the lasting source that springs eternal. But how did I get here? 

How is it that, even as I prepare to enter the sanctuary to celebrate this shared eternal hope, I find my own hope placed in so many trappings of the Sunday morning experience instead? Like a piece of driftwood, these hopes of on-time arrivals and family-feud-free drives are dashed to pieces on the rocky shores of circumstances that are out of my control.  

But here’s the thing: I think that’s exactly what God wants. 

When I place my hopes and mood and focus for a Sunday morning in things other than the only one who’s worthy of them—it is a mercy for them to be shattered. 

In the early days of my first baby’s arrival, I told a friend that it often felt like God was opposing me when a series of these little things went wrong—especially if it was while I was on my way to do a good thing, such as get to church on time. 

“Why would he do that?” I asked out loud. 

“Well,” she said, wincing before delivering the blow, “God does oppose the proud.” 


“But gives grace to the humble,” I said, remembering the rest of 1 Peter 5:5. 

It took days for the truth of that phrase to settle in. This, too, is a mercy, I thought. It is a mercy that God allows blow after blow to my thoughts of self-sufficiency on a Sunday morning, that he delivers me utterly humbled and limping across the threshold. 

“We’re here!” I should say, as I throw my children across the finish line into the church foyer. “By the grace of God, we’re here.” 

And what if I did that? What if I did high-five the mother of five who makes it to church (with a smile!) without the help of her worship-leading husband? What if I silenced the voice of Self-Pity 2.0 that says when I see her, “Look, even she made it to church on time. You only have two kids. She has five!” and offered instead a knowing glance, a reassuring hug. You’ve arrived. We’ve arrived. 

I shudder to think about the half-truths that marinate in my mind and keep me from doing just that, that keep me rooted in thoughts about myself rather than reaching out to others. Because, if there’s one thing self-pity does on a Sunday morning—with the help of its friends comparison and envy—it’s suffocate fellowship. It is the tip of an iceberg of ingratitude, looming large beneath the surface. It is a symptom of a heart that fails to receive what God has delivered to us that morning and, instead, looks longingly on the lots of others. 

We can chip away at self-pity with a little self-talk, sure. But it can do very little to cure us of our condition. This iceberg must be swallowed up by something larger, melted by the glory of a God who is worthy of the hopes we have placed in lesser things, able to bear them fully, able to fulfill them fully. Worthy of our Sunday mornings.  

When I meditate on the upside-down arch of Christ’s life and coming kingdom, I see that we should not be surprised by the “fiery trial” of another Sunday morning. I see that, in Christ, we have both the example and the ability to receive it humbly, even to fellowship in it. 

Philippians 2:1–8 (NIV): “Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” 

I see that Christ—the only one untainted by the sin that threatens to sink me every Sunday—did not shake his fist at a God who ordained circumstances he alone did not deserve. He asked for the cup to pass from him, yes, but then received it fully. “Not as I will,” he said, “but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). 

Lord, let us remember that whatever passes into our Sunday mornings passed first through the fingers of a suffering Savior. Even the most unwelcome of circumstances—especially those—can be used to humble us, to sanctify us, to lift our eyes from the burning eggs to remember the Bread of Life. Let us fix our gaze on the object of Sunday morning worship and find self-pity—find our very selves—swallowed up by Him.  

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