Ash Wednesday — Remember you are Dust….. ugh!









“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.  These are the words uttered as we receive ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.   Let’s be honest — we really don’t like being called dust!  Being referred to as dust is like being told you are nothing, useless, of no value.  It brings up every feeling of inferiority that we have experienced in our lives.  How can this be a good way to start this holy season of Lent?

The dust reference is not designed to make us feel worse about ourselves.  That’s not what Jesus is all about.  The dust reference invites us to remember the impermanence of life.  It invites us to stop and remember that all the things we concentrate on day in and day out — all the things we worry about, strive for, take pride in — they are all going to pass away.  None of it is permanent.  Saying “remember you are dust” is another way of saying “remember that your job, your house, your belongings, your 401K,  your physical health, even your relationships, they are all going to end someday. Only one thing will last forever, and that is your soul — your connection to God.”

This past month I attended a day long meditation retreat.  During the course of the retreat, we recited the 5 Reflections of Buddha together.  They are:

I am of the nature to grow old.  There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.  There is no way to escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die.  There is no way to escape death.

Everyone I love and all that I hold dear are of the nature of change.  There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My deeds are my closest companions.  My deeds are the ground on which I stand.”

To be honest, I’m still grappling with the last one! But the first four spoke powerfully to me.  Life is impermanent.  All of it.  Lent is a time to stop and ponder that reality and see how that awareness changes how we live and how we see God. Ashes are the symbol of that impermanence.  And that is why we start with that symbol today.

So — how do we begin to ponder this reality?  And how do we find God in the midst of it?

i invite you to establish for yourself this Lent a kind of  “Rule of Life” — things you will do each day to help you go deeper and see what is beyond the physical aspect of life.   The image at the top of this post invites us a kind of Rule of Life.  It says “Prayer. Fasting.  Works of Love.”

Prayer —  Why not make a commitment to 10 minutes a day and 1 hour a week?  Spend ten minutes a day in silence, listening to the small voice within that is God.  Turning off the noise and settling in to the silence is a great way to start recognize the eternal in the midst of our busy lives.  And why not commit to worshipping each Sunday with your faith community?  The fact is we cannot even attempt to live this Way of Jesus on our own.  It is not something meant to be done in isolation. We need each other.  We need the reminder of what Jesus calls us to be in this world, and we need the support from knowing that others are trying to live this Way with us.  Both of those things are present in Sunday worship.  Commit to being part of it each week this Lent.

Fasting — I remember a conversation I had with one of my kids about giving up something for Lent.  They were going to eat healthy for Lent.  And I said,  “That’s a great practice.  And how does that help you become more aware of God?”  Blank stare.  Everyone at St Thomas hears me say this every year:  Lent is not a self improvement program.  The purpose of giving something up is not to show how much will power we have.  The point of fasting from something is to make room for God.  The absence of whatever we are fasting from helps remind us of the presence of God.  So when we have a craving for that chocolate we gave up, it reminds us of a deeper craving for our souls to be at rest in God.  And the lack of chocolate opens an opportunity to pray at that moment of craving.  That’s the point of fasting.  It’s not bout endurance or discipline or any of those things that make us proud.  It’s about awareness — awareness of what lies beyond the craving.  Awareness of what our souls are really longing for.

And maybe what you need to fast from this Lent is anger.  Or jealousy. Or self loathing.  Or guilt — or any of those things within us that really block us from experiencing the love that is all around us.  Worth a thought.

Works of Love — This year at St Thomas,  I gave each of our kids a poster with a path that has forty  squares on it leading to Easter.  Each square is blank and at the bottom of the poster is “How did you show God’s love today?”  I invited the kids to write in the square each day what they did to show God’s love.   it’s not a bad idea for us adults as well!  Decide each day to look for opportunities for show God’s love to others — strangers and loved ones alike.  Keep a journal of what you did each day. See how God spoke to you through those encounters.

The theme for Lent this year is forgiveness.  I will be writing more throughout the season about this.  But for today, remember that you are loved, and cherished and honored by a God that loves you beyond your wildest imagination.  And remember, as well, that you are dust.

Attitude of Gratitude: Day 31 — Something different


I recently got a request from a blog follower to say something about being grateful for our trials and tribulations because they make us stronger.  It was a fair request, but one that I cannot honor. One thing I learned in my Clinical Pastoral Education training for Chaplaincy was to BE with people in their pain — not try to define it for them, or tell how it should be, or try to fix it.  Just be with them. When people are hurting, sometimes the last thing they want to hear from another person is that this will make them stronger.  And because I have no idea who all the people who read this blog  are or what they are facing in their lives, I hesitate to say that what they are facing will make them stronger. It’s just not a given.

But today, I want to tell you about my dearest of all friends, Sr. Christine Mulready, CSJ, or as I called her, Chrissie.  Chrissie was my best friend, my maid of honor, my son Geoff’s godmother, and a guiding light in my life.  She was, in a word, a saint. Not a one dimensional, solemn, never-do-anything-fun kind of saint.  She was a fully alive, funny, deeply faithful saint who loved God immensely and loved God’s people more, especially the poor.  And Chrissie knew a lot about trials and tribulations.  She was born into a large Irish Catholic family, the oldest of six children.  When Chrissie was just eight years old, her mother died of cancer, leaving behind six children under the age of eight, including two year old twins and a three month old baby.  Chrissie’s family had the cancer gene, and she, too, was diagnosed with cancer at age 46.  She died  six years later.

But in her short life, she did amazing things. Chrissie lived her life as a nun in the Community of the Sisters of St Joseph. She worked tirelessly for the poor and the forgotten all her life.  She travelled to Iraq during the first Iraq war and brought Iraqi children who had been injured in the war back to the United States for treatment.  She traveled to Bosnia during the Bosnian War on a fact-finding mission  and advocated back home for an end to the atrocities there.  She travelled to Haiti  to help bring attention to the profound poverty of the Haitian people. She performed multiple acts of civil disobedience to protest nuclear weapons.  She did all this with a lightness of spirit and an infectious joy.  She was a person who just sparkled.  She loved life, despite her own suffering and the suffering she witnessed all over the world.

Chrissie had a great saying.  She used to say:  “There are two kinds of suffering:  Redemptive… and crap!”  Sometimes our trials can teach us things and make us stronger. But sometimes things happen to us that are just awful — that are just crap.  There’s no other way to describe it.  And not everything we experience in life necessarily makes us stronger.  Some things can really level us, make us feel more vulnerable.  Sometimes we come out of our trials feeling fragile, not stronger.  And that is ok.

But here is what I do believe,  in the midst of feeling fragile and vulnerable; even in the midst of the crap.  I believe in a God that can bring us back to life even after those kinds of trials.  I believe in a God who can redeem any situation, no matter how dark.  John’s gospel put it best: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not put it out…”   I don’t think all our suffering makes us stronger.  But I do think God can bring us back to life even when we experience profound suffering and are weakened by it.  Everyday we are offered more life, another possibility, another chance.  Sometimes we can run toward that invitation.  Sometimes we limp toward it. But however we get there, the invitation always stands. We are loved.

So, for my last gratitude post, let m say that I am deeply, profoundly grateful for God.  For a God who never forgets me, even in my darkest hour; for a God who created masterpieces like Chrissie, whose light still shines in my heart; for a God who is able, as St Paul says, to do immeasurably more than we could ask for or imagine.  I am grateful for a God that everyday offers us new possibilities, no matter where we are in life.

And I am grateful to all of you who have faithfully followed this blog all month.  I hope it helps you feel more grateful during the bleak months of winter.  Blessings.

Attitude of Gratitude: Day 30 — Angels


Today I am grateful for angels.   There’s lots of discussion about the actual existence of angels. Some people swear by them, others not so much.  One thing I know for sure — I have had angels in my life.  Not the chubby cherub kind with bows and arrows.  I’m talking about real life people.  I’m talking about the people in your life who give you encouragement, show up out of nowhere when you need them; the ones who always seem to know the right thing to say.  They are that voice that whispers in your ear the words of hope when you need them most.  They always seem give you what you need the most. We don’t always recognize them, but they are there.

The picture above is of one of my oldest and dearest friends, Marie.  Marie was one of my real life angels for 30 plus years.  We met when I was sixteen.  I dated her oldest son for about a minute one summer. And from that summer on,  Marie and I became life long friends.  We were soul mates despite our 25 year age difference.  And throughout our 30 years of friendship, Marie was my angel.  She was the voice of encouragement and truth.  She never hesitated to speak the truth about anything, and she did it in the most generous and loving way. And she was never afraid to talk about God to people.  I admired that in her growing up.  She made me want to spend my life talking to people about God.

I’ve thought so much about Marie this past month because it was she who first encouraged me to write.  I was no more than 30 years old, and Marie started saying to me on a regular basis, “You should write.  You have something to say.”  I had neither the confidence nor the discipline to write back in those days.  And I certainly did not have the courage.  It took more than 25 years for me to muster the courage.  But all through those years, Marie’s voice of encouragement whispered in my ear, ” You should write.  You have something to say.”   It’s almost 10 years since Marie was called home to God. I miss her everyday.  But I carry her voice of encouragement with me always.

We all have had someone in our lives who has been that encouragement to us.  In my mind, those people are angels — sent to us to carry us through when it all seems like too much.  Maybe it was a teacher who got you through algebra.  Or a neighbor who always has your back.  Or a life long friend who gives you the courage to do what you thought you could never do.  Whoever it is and however it shows up, they are a gift from God; God incarnate among us to remind us that we are not alone.  We are more than we think we are.  And we are loved —  always, always loved.

It has taken a zillion angels to get me to this day.  Some of them I recognized, others I didn’t.  But for all of them, I am very, very grateful.

So — who has been your angel?

Attitude of Gratitude: Day 29 — Heroes

Today I am grateful for heroes.  All those people in our lives who, everyday, do the brave, right thing to make this world a better place.   I love the above quote from Joseph Campbell.  I have found this to be truer than true in my own life.  The people who have had the most impact on me and on the world around them are the ones who are connected to something bigger than themselves, whose lives are about more than just feathering their own nest.

You may have noticed that my blogposts are often late on Wednesdays.  That’s because every Wednesday I work at Hospice in the Berkshires as a chaplain.  It’s a long day, ad it’s a day filled with heroes.  The people I work with at Hospice and the people in the medical facilities that we visit are an amazing group of people.  Everyday, they get up and try to make life better for people whose lives are very difficult.  Today I spent time on a geriatric psychiatric unit visiting patients.  I was simply awed by the staff on that unit.  Here they were, surrounded by people that most others would be afraid of, or would simply avoid or just write off.  But the staff on this unit gives their lives to these people.  They work everyday to keep them safe, to treat them with dignity and respect and to let them know someone cares about them.  It take courage, because some of these people are violent due to their diagnosis.  These staff people see through the risk and recognize them as human beings in need of help.

The Hospice staff are just as brave.  On 9/11, they described the heroes of that day as the ones who ran INTO the Twin Towers , not away from it, and all to help their fellow humans, people they had never met.  The Hospice team is like that.  Most people run away from death and are afraid to face it.  These team members move toward people who are dying and care for them till the end of their lives.  They have the courage to face the death and loss with their patients and their families.  They walk into the homes of people they have never met and care for them with compassion and dignity.  It never ceases to amaze me.

Maya Angelou had a great quote about heroes.  She said:  “I think a hero is any person intent on making this a better place for all people.”  Those are the people I spend my Wednesdays with,  and for that I am so very grateful.

Attitude of Gratitude: Day 28 — Pete Seeger


Today I am grateful for the life of Pete Seeger.  Pete was a musician who used his music to promote civil rights,  equality for all workers, care and reverence for the planet, and peace.  He dropped out of Harvard in in 1938 after two years as a sociology major.  He was disillusioned and wanted to find a way to change the world.  His sociology professor told him, “Don’t think you can change the world.  The only thing you can do is study it.”

Boy, was that guy ever wrong!

In the 1950s during the McCarthy era, Seeger was accused of un-American activities and banned from network television for two decades.  He said it was the most fruitful time of his career.  He spent those years performing on college campuses, using his music to inspire a new generation to work for peace and justice.  On the skin of his guitar, he had written “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”  What a wonderful way to spend one’s life.

I had the privilege of meeting Pete Seeger a few years ago.  I was one of the people planning the clergy conference for the Episcopal clergy in the Diocese of New York.  Our theme was the spirituality of ecology, and we invited Pete Seeger to come speak to us about his lifelong commitment to the preservation of the Hudson River.  He was a gentle man, amazingly strong and sharp for his 90 plus years. He was unassuming, and clearly preferred to play music than speak!  That evening, he stayed and gave a concert around the fire for all the clergy.  The news articles about him report that he would often say, “I can’t sing much anymore.  I used to sing high and sing low.  Now I just growl in between.”  He sounded pretty great to me that night! And, as he always did, he invited us all to sing along with him, feeding us the next line so we could all join in.  It was a sacred night, that night around the fire with Pete.  You just had the feeling you were in the presence of true goodness. And you wanted to go out and share that goodness with the world.

In 2011, with his banjo on his back and two canes to support him, he led a 2 mile march with the protesters of Occupy Wall Street.  In an interview with the Associated Press a few days after the march, Seeger said, “Be wary of great leaders.  Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”   That made me think of how often I have longed for someone great to rise up and lead us out of the darkness of our times.  But Pete reminded me that I am who I have been praying for.  We are all who we have been praying for.  We are the small leaders,  the ones who each day put one foot in front of the other and try to do the next right thing.  Pete Seeger did it with a banjo on his back.  Maybe you do it with chalk in your hand, or a stethoscope around your neck, or a laptop on your lap.  Wherever we are in life, that is where we are called to take the small steps, to be the voice of the voiceless, to work for peace in our communities, to honor all people.  That’s where we are called to do the next right thing.

So, I am grateful to God for giving us Pete Seeger, and I’m grateful to Pete Seeger for the courage to follow his heart and his truth and inspire us all.  Go with God, Pete.


Attitude of Gratitude : Day 27 — Forgiveness

Today I am grateful for forgiveness.  I have noticed lately how many conversations I have had with people that have revolved around being hurt and a need to forgive.  Or conversations about how hard it is for people to forgive themselves.  Forgiveness, I think, is the hardest part of following Jesus.  We are told to go and reconcile with each other before we approach the altar of God.  God wants us all to be reconciled — with Him, with each other and with ourselves.

But somehow we have trouble finding our way there.  We feel vulnerable.  What if I forgive this person, and they hurt me again?  So we shut down, thinking that’s the way to protect ourselves.

But we couldn’t be more wrong. The author Anne LaMott says not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.   Holding on to anger and resentments, nursing grudges — these are the things that eat away at our souls.  Not forgiving ourselves for the ways we have failed — that just leads us further down the rabbit hole of despair.

I am grateful today that we always have the possibility of forgiveness offered to us.  Jesus tells us to forgive seventy times seven.  A tall order, for sure — but the good news is that is how endlessly God forgives us. The key to opening ourselves to forgiving is letting the forgiveness of God into our own hearts.

This Lent at St Thomas,  we will be looking more deeply at this issue of forgiveness.   For now, I am grateful that forgiveness is always a possibility everyday.

Who do you need to forgive?

Attitude of Gratitude: Day 26 — Being At Home


Today I am grateful for the feeling of being at home.  I just came from visiting Bob and Diane in their beautiful new home.  They have found the perfect spot for them  — a house just the right size on a beautiful piece of land with spectacular views.  It has the quiet and serenity that feeds their souls, and you can see it written all over their faces.  Bob and Diane waited a long time to find a place like this, and, along the way, lived in a place that was not-so-perfect for them.  But they are here now, and it has made all the difference. They describe finding this new home as nothing short of a miracle.

There is something miraculous about feeling at home where we are.  Feeling at home is a profound gift, one that at times doesn’t come easily.  Feeling at home is not always just about where you live. Life is filled with transitions — some voluntary, and some simply thrown at us.  Sometimes those transitions require a physical change in location to find a new home.  But many of them require a heart change, a soul change, and that can leave us feeling uncomfortable in our own skin, and a longing to, once again, feel at home, wherever we are.

2012 and 2103 were years a big transition for the Fisher Family.  Good things happened to us, but they required all kinds of change — moving to a new house, a new town, a new state; meeting lots of new people;  changing the rhythm of our work life and our family life.  For a long time, it was hard for me to feel at home anywhere.  But with time, I got the rhythm back.  And that which was so unfamiliar began to feel familiar.  And I was finally at home again.

You don’t get to that place by yourself.  Whenever we go through a transition, there is a period of time that is uncomfortable and unfamiliar.  But those people who walk with us and love us through those transitions are the ones that help us find our home again.

I am grateful for the sense of being at home, and for all the people and places that helped me get there along the way — my family, my friends, and especially for my community at St Thomas for always grounding me in what is truly important.

So — are you feeling at home these days?

Attitude of Gratitude: Day 25 — Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense


Today I am grateful for the organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.   This morning we heard of yet another shooting in a shopping mall in Columbia, Maryland.  A few days ago, Doug pointed out to me, while reading the New York Times online,  that there was another campus shooting that occurred, and it was the seventh headline down in the Times.  SEVENTH.  Six other stories were more urgent than a shooting on one of our college campuses.     What could be more urgent than the safety of our children? 

I remember having a conversation about a year ago with my kids that stunned me.  The Newtown shootings had just occurred and they told me they often worried about shootings. I had no idea. And from talking to them and other young people and parents I’ve come to find out that this fear is pretty common among children and young adults.  Because shootings in schools have been part of the landscape of our country throughout their childhood.  They have grown up with lockdown drills in school in case a shooter enters their building.  They are aware of where the exits are in pubic places in case they need to get out in a hurry.  We used to check  for the exits in case of fire.  Our kids check for the exits in case of a shooter. 

And now shopping malls have become the place for gunman to open fire.  Shopping — the great American pastime — has become a risky activity.  Opponents of gun control argue that gun control laws take away our freedom.  I think if you can’t attend school or spend an afternoon shopping without worrying about gun violence,  then we have already lost our freedom.

i am grateful for organizations like Mothers Demand Action because they work to keep the issue of gun violence in the national dialogue everyday.  Around the one year anniversary of the Newtown massacre, when many communities were planning a moment of silence to honor those lost, it was Moms Demand Action who had the courage to stand up and say that silence was the LAST thing we needed on a day like this.  There has been too  much silence around this issue.   If we really want to honor the children and teachers who lost their lives, we need to speak up and demand that our legislators stop the madness.

Since the Newtown massacre, there have been 36 school shootings in our country.  36 shootings.  Where is the outrage?  If you want to learn more about Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, click here .  I am grateful for their courage and their challenge to all of us to protect our children. 









Attitude of Gratitude: Day 24 — Sleep

(This is Boo the Dog, the cutest dog in the world!  To learn more about him click here .)

There are times when the absence of something is what makes me grateful for it.  Today is one of those days.  Today I am grateful for sleep.

For most of my life, I was a champion sleeper. It was one of the things I did best!  I could fall asleep on a dime, anytime, anywhere.  I could sleep for hours.  But then I hit a certain age and all that changed.  A good night’s sleep is a precious commodity these days.

For me, sleep isn’t just about renewing myself physically, though that is very important as well. Sleep is about soul work.   When I am troubled about something, or need to make a big decision, I usually “sleep on it”.  Some people think of that as just putting off the decision and not thinking about it.  But for me,  it means engaging my unconscious to help lead me in the best direction.   God does some powerful work in us through our dreams and unconscious.

  My sermon preparation begins Sunday night of the week prior to my sermon.  Before going to sleep, I read the Gospel for the next Sunday and ask God to speak to me through my dreams about the passage.  Of course, this isn’t the only preparation that is needed — sermon prep is not magic!  There’s reading and praying and research that needs to be done.  But the time of sleep helps unlock my unconscious soul and leads me to ideas and insights that I may not have been able to recognize in the busyness of my waking hours.

The best preparation for a good night’s sleep for me is to engage in something called The Ignatian Examen. It’s a brief , five step process that helps settle my mind and put the day’s activities to rest.  The five steps are:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.

2. Review the day with gratitude.

3. Pay attention to your emotions.

4.  Choose one feature of the day and pray for it.

5.  Look toward tomorrow and invite God to be there with you.

For more information on the Ignatian Examen, click here.

When I have had a good night’s sleep, everything seems possible.  I feel connected in body, mind and spirit.  It is truly a gift.   For most of my life, I took that gift for granted because it was readily available.  Not any more.  Today, I am profoundly grateful for a good night’s sleep.

Attitude of Gratitude: Day 23 — resurrections

Today I am grateful for resurrections.  I remember about 7 years ago running into a dear, non-churchgoing friend right before Easter.  He asked how my sermon prep was going and then asked:  “You’re not going to preach on the resurrection, are you?  Who believes that stuff, anyway?”  (His language  was a bit more colorful than that but this is a family friendly blog!)

It was a loaded question, and one that required more than a passing conversation on the street.  But it was a question that, for me, was a gift.  Because it started me thinking about how people see resurrection.  It woke me up and made me go deeper into why I do believe in resurrection. I realized that I believe in resurrection because I have experienced it and witnessed it over and over again throughout the course of my life.

I’m not just talking about the actual events that happened early on a Sunday morning 2000 plus years ago.  Some of the accounts of the resurrection in Scripture  (there are four accounts by the way, and all pretty different from each other —  check them out here, here, here and here ) have some pretty dramatic aspects to them — earthquakes, men whose appearances were as bright as lightning.  My everyday life is not nearly as dramatic as that. But I learned something about 15 years ago when I was training to be a hospital chaplain.  I worked for three yeas as the Oncology Chaplain at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, NY. During those three years, I accompanied dozens of people on the last leg of their journey on earth, helping them make peace with their lives and their impending death. It was a profound experience.  When I started working there, I was pretty much of the mind that life was linear — you were born, you lived your life, and, at the end of the line, you died.   But what I discovered was that life was not linear at all.  Life was a cyclical series of  life, death and resurrections.  Over and over again throughout our lives, we go through difficult things, we suffer, we die to something within us or lose something  or someone in our lives, and we learn how to live again in a new way, in the context of our new reality.  We discover, if we allow it in, new life.  And,  I think,  all of these cycles of life and death and resurrection are a dress rehearsal for the big final one at the end of our lives.  It was quite a revelation for me.

My experiences of resurrection have been far less dramatic than the accounts of resurrection in Scripture.  They have been more like blades of grass breaking through the concrete.  In the midst of hard and seemingly lifeless situations,  I have experienced or witnessed life, like those resilient blades of grass that remind me that the loss or pain or disappointment  or grief is never the last word. There is always more life being given.

Lately, I have talked with many people at different phases of the cycle.  Some are in the depths of grief. Others are anticipating a loss to come.  And still others are those blades of grass, experiencing new life — different from what they knew before, but life nonetheless, full of possibilities.  I find this process miraculous.  It fills me with hope.  And for that I am very grateful.