Sunday, March 1, 2009

Cold Pipes and Warm Ashes

I'm giving up plumbing for Lent.

Just kidding. If you've been following our story, you know that we've been living without plumbing since early January, when we moved into our unfinished cottage out of a desperate desire to stay warm. After a succession of unfortunate plumbers (or lack thereof), I am cautiously happy to report that we seem to have secured the services of a generous retired plumber, due to start about two weeks hence. Frankly, I'll believe it when I pee it--and afterwards, we'll all be flushed with pride!

Bathroom humour aside, it IS Lent, when many people of faith engage themselves with the spiritual discipline of self-denial. Chocolate is a common choice. Frivolous entertainment is another--though it may mean less to give up movies or tv shows now that they're easily accessed through downloads/Netflix. While I embrace the idea of personal sacrifice readily enough, my Lenten choices are always complicated by my birthday, which usually falls in the early part of Lent. My idea of spiritual discipline does not extend to include the denial of one's own birthday cake. I don't think God would be particularly enriched, honoured, or eddified by this. If I read the scriptures correctly, Jesus himself was a "life is short; let's have some cake together" kind of guy.

This year, my birthday came on Ash Wednesday. Instead of blowing out candles on some big ol' homemade cake, I went to a pancake supper at our church, helped clear away the paper plates and rearrange the folding chairs, then attended a brief evening service where my forehead was marked with ashes.

"Remember that from dust you came and to dust you will return." Not exactly what one wants to hear on one's birthday. For a brief, macabre moment, I felt sucked into the pages of Lemony Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events." In the span of the past few months, I had weathered burst pipes, sub-zero temperatures, huge bills for an unseasonal excavation, missing plumbers, a car crash, and a drastic cut in available hours at my off-farm job. Now here it was, my birthday, and I was being asked to contemplate my personal dustiness? As much as I appreciate Lent and its rich array of symbolism, I just didn't feel ready to welcome the spiritual "journey into the wilderness" this year.

This morning, though, we had communion. Being "deacon of the month" (a title which implies personalized trading cards or a box of treats delivered, every thirty days, right to your door), I arrived a bit early to pour the grape juice into the chalice and prepare the communion bread. In spite of my early arrival, several of the Pillars of the Congregation were already there, calmly tending to devotional details. They wore blues and purples, colours appropriate to the ecclesiastical season. In my dark greens and browns, I hoped I was subdued enough to be "Lenty..." But the effect was somewhat spoiled by my dusty red shoes. I'd opted for them as the only ones clean enough, and in good enough repair, for church, but their jolly colour--even slightly faded--was admittedly inappropriate. I was fretting over this when our minister rushed up to confer on the morning's logistics. I admired her well-tailored black robe and lovingly-handmade quilted stole. Then I noticed her shoes.

Peeking out from underneath her very professional and appropriate preacher's outfit were a pair of red shoes--bright red shoes. Whether she caught my downward gaze or not, I don't know, but she lifted one of her feet and playfully wiggled it. "Maybe I shouldn't have worn these. They're better for Pentecost than Lent." She shrugged, laughed, and--before I could even mention my own footwear concerns--went back to preparing for the service.

Without knowing it, she resolved, by example, my conflicted approach to Lent. Her shoes and her laughter reminded me that, wherever there's smoke (or ashes, or dust), there's fire. Underneath the dark clouds, the somber moods, and the heavy robes, there's a promise of passion and a trace of flame.

This year's journey has taken me into snowdrifts, not the shifting desert sands. While Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, I find the devil in the details: the cost of feed for our animals, the dwindling firewood pile, and the daily struggle to pay our bills. I need to feel the heat and light of the Lenten story. I need to wrestle angels to get warm. I need to move close to the fire.

They say firewood warms a person four times: once in the cutting of it, once in the splitting of it, once in the stacking of it, and once in the burning of it. As I move into my own Lenten journey, my discipline is this: not to give something up, exactly, but rather to stay engaged: to dwell between embers and dancing shadows, mindful of the passion that binds us and the fire that transforms us all.

P.S. And if some of that transformative fire shows up at the end of a plumber's torch while copper pipes are being soldered, we'll welcome that fire too.


Mama Pea said...

Sending you very happy belated birthday wishes. May this next year be different than the one just past, bringing you much wealth and prosperity, a finished warm home with plumbing, publication of your extraordinary writing, and dreams fulfilled.

Happy Birthday!

Songbird said...

What beautiful thoughts, I am glad my red shoes played a part!

Questing Parson said...

Great post. And because of some personal recent experiences I'm joining you on the first line.