The Start of a Journey - Ashes to Joy

My name is Vivian Coleman and this is my very first blog posting. 2009 is the beginning of a new stage in my spiritual journey. As a follower of Jesus Christ for over forty years, I have served God at home, in schools, and in churches. These days I enjoy being a Nana to the little ones in my wonderful family. But starting next month I will spend the other half of my weekly timetable in a new role as Discipleship Coach at a local church. I’m really excited about the challenge, and the opportunity to help people “stretch and grow” their own spirituality, and that of others. I decided to start blogging, in order to journal my own take on what Eugene Peterson calls, in Proverbs 11: 28, “the God-shaped life," and to inspire other followers of Jesus to enjoy the journey with me.

It is no coincidence that my first post is materialising in the week of Ash Wednesday – a day when Christians all over the world commit to a journey of self-reflection. My heritage is Presbyterian, and my local Church is Baptist, but even these non-liturgical traditions can enjoy the centuries-old praxis of observing Lent. The custom of taking a season, the several weeks running up to Easter, to engage in a critical reflection as individuals and a community, has wide appeal. Some faith communities use Lent for fasting and prayer, others to launch a stewardship campaign, many engage in an intentional focus on mission, such as Forty Days of Purpose. Over the years I have participated in a variety of these, and been inspired and changed. This Lenten season I am taking the Lenten journey as an intentional (and public!) exercise in spiritual formation. Each post will reflect a theme or thought that has come to me as I seek to live a “God-shaped life” in Auckland, New Zealand, in the challenging spiritual environment of the twenty-first century.

Ash Wednesday for Christians is a day when we remember that “we are dust.” Three thousand years ago, the writer of Psalm 103 used this expression, referring back to the ‘Genesis story”, not to humiliate and demean human beings, but to emphasise the tenderness and compassionate grace of God, who recognises the fragility of his creation. So our prayers on Ash Wednesday, though rightfully leading us to a realistic assessment of human weakness, also point us to a God who cares deeply, who wants to see us become who we were meant to be.

Some years ago, in a postgraduate course on Biblical justice, I was introduced to the feminist notion that our traditional prayers of confession can be acutely destructive, because they do not always fit the human experience. Feminist theologians like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza tell us that the traditional focus on things we do wrong, like being proud and self-centred, and “following the desires of our own hearts” , do not fit the experience of the many women whose life is far from proud and self-promoting. What they in fact need to hear is not God’s judgment for being egotistical, but God’s encouragement to value themselves in the way God values them. This was quite an “aha moment” for me. I am a thinker, and a leader, at times even a control freak, and my human weaknesses definitely lie in the realm of the overactive ego, and self-focus. When I led prayers of confession in church, they focussed on the wilful mistakes and unwitting blunders humans make; we do not love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, or others as Christ loved us. It dawned on me though that for some in my congregation – at that time I was leading a suburban faith community - that was not at all what the Spirit wanted to convict them about. Their sin – or missing of the mark, as the Greek NT puts it – was more about underdevelopment or negation of their self, about accepting a trivialisation imposed on them by others. Of course, this is not only a women’s issue; it is shared by marginalised groups everywhere, but it took this feminist dialectic to bring it into sharp focus for me. I changed the prayers of confession in our church, at least the ones for which I was responsible. I shifted from focussing exclusively on the (perhaps “male” temptation) to exalt self and began to acknowledge as well the wrongness of suppressing a sense of self, as a creation of God and deeply loved by him, and of wasting God's good gifts. Confessions and Ash Wednesday have become different for me. At times like this we can remember not that we are dust but that we are the very breath of God.

This first week of Lent I am determined to be alert not just to times when I push God aside in favour of having my own way, but of times when I fail to hear his joyful invitation to be myself as he created me to be – and to enjoy life in all its fullness.

To Chew Over: Are there times when you suppress what God is wanting to do in your life because of feeling of inadequacy , or a need to defer to more powerful people in your family or church?

Note the nuances in this Contemporary Prayer of Saint Francis:

God, help me be your agent

one of your messengers, bringing your kind of peace.

When I encounter hate, let me react with love.

When I am hurt by others, let me forgive.

When those around me question and doubt,

let me voice my faith, my hope.

Where people are afraid, let me be an encourager

helping them to step into a new and better place.

Brilliant creator and lover of this universe:

Let me offer comfort and hope more often than I need to receive it.

I want to know the deep desires of others' hearts.

He1p me to listen more than I speak.

Let me spread love everywhere I can without expecting to be loved equally in return.

Let me give of my joy and my gifts knowing that this is the best way to receive.

When I hurt others, let me make amends.

Let me forgive myself and others for being human. Make my heart free and expansive.

Help me to understand that it is when I let go all my expectations,

all my shoulds and all my rules, that I will experience abundant life.

(Cathy Warner ©Alive Now 2009)