Remember You Are Dust…

It has been forever since I’ve occupied this space with current thoughts and words from my pen.  A year to be exact…I have missed this quiet corner of the multiverse.  As a part of my Lenten journey this year, I have committed to sharing thoughts and reflections each day…bear with me…there are many bad habits to break. My life is so different now than when I first started this blog and I find myself with little time to write thoughts (I am so often sharing them through spoken word) and far too many “to do” piles on my desk.  So here we go…

“Remember you are dust…and to dust you shall return…”ash wed

The pastor speaks with hushed tones as he reaches toward me.  He brushes away wisps of hair that refuse to be confined by the barrette at my temple.  His hand sweeps warm across my forehead as the acrid scent of palm ash and musky smell of frankincense and myrrh mingle in my nostrils.

My Grandma always told me that prayers are a sweet aroma in heaven and I wonder if this is what it will smell like- life consumed completely by age and fire and the sweet perfume of holy gifts well spent.

The ashes feel strange on my forehead- not sticky, but not dry either. I ponder the words as the pastor speaks them over and over.

Over my head- middle aged and graying beneath vibrant hair color…

Over an elderly woman in a wheelchair, breath of life whirring from a portable green tank slung over the back of her chair…

Over the young mother with twin Tasmanian devils dashing between her legs and bumping off people like bumper cars…

Over the precious baby…just a few months old…crossing her eyes as the pastor crosses her forehead.

He speaks mortality over us as a blessing. The cross writ on our foreheads as a reminder to die to self and sin and to count our numbered minutes precious.

This is my first time receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday…coming new to experience a tradition not my own and I find the service profound and deeply moving.  I bear my commitment like a brand and sit in my car letting solemn moments pass as I seek God’s heart with my own… and confess that I have been struggling with my faith these last months. This is my mortal moment of reckoning and it  steals my breath and steels my heart and I find in surrender to Christ the freedom to be okay.

I think you are supposed to confess BEFORE you receive this ashy symbol, but I came to this place as a student, with a purely academic motive.  Not seeking God, but seeking an understanding of a faith tradition that has long felt shrouded in mystery.  I researched before I came. I knew the ashes were made from the burnt remains of last years’ palm fronds.  I knew that they are mixed with fragrant oils to dilute the acidity of the ash. I knew the phrases that would be spoken over me. I knew that this tradition has rich symbolism that draws people close to their own mortality and sinfulness. I knew this was the way many enter into the waiting of Lent. I knew everything there was to know and nothing at all…all at once.

I, being ever the student, had reached out to my friends in the clergy in the weeks leading up to this day.  I asked what Ash Wednesday meant to them and how it affected them. I planned a purely journalistic report based on history, research, their answers and my would be experience.  Their answers stunned me, awed me and, yet, in no way prepared me for the beauty of the imposition of ashes. Overwhelmingly, my friends spoke of the beauty of speaking out loud human mortality and the impact of repeating that process over people from all walks of life.

My new friend, Pastor Clint Schnekloth, tells me:  “As a pastor the most powerful part of the imposition of ashes is writing them on all the different foreheads, from heads at death’s door, to heads recently emerged from the womb. The range and texture of our mortality is a powerful, tangible thing.”

And my blog sister and fellow writer, Sara Miles, whose book, City of God, a friend gave me last year says, “Almost invariably, the people I give ashes to– parents, old ladies, gang kids, hipsters, day laborers, drunks– say “thank you.” I say it, too: touching strangers with such intimacy in public, admitting what we share (our mortality), feels like a gift, one that turns the lies of our culture upside down.”

My Yoda and spiritual director, Judy Turner of Christview Ministries, tells me that she believes “at the beginning of Lent, the imposition of ashes can be a meaningful, tangible way of expressing our commitment to die to sin so the Savior can live more fully in us.  It is a powerful reminder of our mortality to help us focus our lives on what is eternally significant.”

They were beautiful sentiments, really.  An indication that  serving a community as Pastor through these rituals comes with its own equally charged graces.  They gave me insight into their lives as leaders of church communities…but they didn’t prepare me for the moment ash touched head and contrition settled into soul. Neither for the sensation of solidarity as I glanced around at the 30 or so foreheads marked as mine…infant, child, adult and elder…all bearing the blessing of our death to sin. It was stunning, and powerful and I am forever changed by it.

Merciful Father,
we have sinned against heaven and before you.
We do not fully live as your sons and daughters.
We use your gifts to our own ends.
Forgive us and restore us,
that we may resist all that draws us away from you,
and be at peace with one another. Amen.

Covenant Relationships: The Power of Prayer

This is an excerpt from my 2010 book, Living Life with Strings Attached.  It’s a short little guidebook that walks through the Strings Attached Pledge and the development of covenant relationships.  Enjoy!

job and his friends

“After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before.” – Job 42:10

I love this quote from Job. Let me refresh your memory about the story.  This particular verse actually takes place within the Epilogue of the story of Job. Job has been through (literally) Hell on Earth; he has been faithful, but prideful; he has questioned God; and he has seen the error of his questions and repented before the Lord.  The Lord is angry with Job’s friends for speaking out against Him. He tells them to offer burnt sacrifices and Job will pray for them and that Job’s intercessory prayer will be heard. It is heard and Job’s friends are restored in the eyes of God. Job also, by praying for his friends, is restored.

How many times have you said to someone going through a tough time, or needing a little encouragement, “I’ll pray for you.”

I do it, often multiple times a day. It’s the standard Christian good bye.  “Hi, how are you today?”

“I’m fine, thanks!”

“Oh great…I’ll pray for you!”

That’s wonderful! But the real question is: how often do you REALLY do it? Do you REALLY pray for them?

I will be totally honest – I am preaching to the choir here! I have been really convicted of late to change this part of my Christian walk.

Here’s my challenge to you (and to me, too):

The next time you are confronted with an opportunity to pray for someone…STOP RIGHT THERE and do it! Right then! There are a couple of ways to do this:

First, you could simply say to the person you are talking to, “I would love to pray with you about that. May I pray with you right now?” If the answer is yes, well, then you know what to do.

Sometimes, however, the answer will be no. Prayer is a very intimate experience and some people are simply not ready to share that with you. They may covet your intercessory prayers on their behalf, but they are not ready to be privy to them.  This is ok, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t pray RIGHT THEN.  Just take a moment alone, and lift that person up in prayer. Your moment doesn’t have to be long, but it does need to be intentional. I find that not only does praying for others encourage a life of “praying without ceasing it also helps me to remember the prayer requests of the people who I run across in my daily life.

Thinking of the Book of Job, I often wonder at Job’s friends. They showed great loyalty by sitting with him.  They sat for 7 days and watched their friend suffer. They debated and thought and tried to coach Job through a solution to the problem.  Sometimes, perhaps they were not far from striking the theological truth. Sometimes, they were just plain ole wrong. But never once did they offer to do the one thing that all good friends should do. They never once offered to pray for Job.

I wonder what would have happened if they had?

AVFM: The Load Gets Lighter…for when burdens get heavy

This post is part of a series I like to call “A Visit From Mom.”  These posts are written by, well…my mom. I think she kind of rocks! My mom and her mother were the primary inspirations for me to starting writing way back as a little girl.  Now, I share my blog with my mom cause I think she has some things to say that you might really love.

highway-rainbow

A few years ago, I was working long hours at a very demanding position, commuting 2 hours a day, leaving home before anyone arose and returning in the late night.  I missed my family! I was totally bound by the concept that if I worked harder, tried harder, excelled more, I would finally be in a position to relax with my family and enjoy life.  

On one of those mornings, as I cried on my way to work, I said my usual prayer to my Heavenly Father and the message came to me very clearly.  I pulled off to the roadside and had a moment of silent, joyful revelation.  

Shortly thereafter, I spoke with my family and decided to give up my “dream job” and come home to the people I really treasured.  In that process, I found a position I love doing work I love with people I love!. . . And it was a regular work week—I could spend time with my precious family.  

That was almost ten years ago, and I’ve learned to treasure every extra moment.   It is my prayer that you enjoy the fruits of my lesson well-learned:

The Load Gets Lighter

Weary from my travels,
And the trials of each long day,
I looked into the heavens
And prayed, “Lord, I’ve lost my way.

If you could please remember me
As you look down from above,
And show me some sweet kindness
And bless me with your love,

I know my life would flourish
And happiness would flow.
Just now my thoughts are sadness
And my sorrow only grows.”

His Hand then touched my shoulder.
He whispered in my ear.
“I’m gladdened that you called to me.
I always have been here.

Now, I can help you carry
The heavy load you bear
And light your road with sunshine,
Spill jasmine in the air.

Now, go from here with singing,
And know you’re not alone.
For when your journey’s ended,
I’m here to take you home.”

 

© Carlene Welch, 2012

Carlene Welch is the General Manager at Home Instead Senior Care of Northwest Arkansas, and avid writer and poet, and my mom. She serves as a Stephen’s Minister at her church and is one of the wisest women I know. She writes custom poetry and prose for cards and gifts. For more information, contact us at stringsattachedministries@gmail.com.

Re-Mix:The Key Ingredients for Incredible Women’s Events

I originally wrote this post in early 2011, not much re-mix needed here….women people still need the same things to stay engaged.  In the past couple of years, lots of churches have gone to using DVD materials to lead retreats…this is not necessarily a bad thing (well maybe for me it is- I do feel that pinch!) but we still need to build in time to move, to fellowship and to be alone with God…and no, the five minutes the DVD gives you to write your answers in the $10 workbook you bought from Lifeway does not work on any of those counts. Remember, just cause you are using a boxed curriculum, doesn’t mean that you are suddenly off the hook when it comes to making sure that your attendees have gotten the message.  *ahem* Stepping down from the soap box now :)…here’s the post:

As a speaker, I am often called on for advice in planning women’s events. I hear over and over again how different and fun Strings Attached events are, but what makes them so different?  I think that there are a several key ingredients to an incredible women’s event.  Keep these in mind while you are planning and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Always create moments to connect with each other and engage everyone’s learning method.

An incredible women’s event is centered on building relationships (with God and with others).  I know, I know, relationships are kind of a big deal here at Strings Attached, but this because all women are relational.  They want to interact with each other.  Many women’s conferences try to shove so many special features into the day that they don’t leave time for forging connections.  As a team-building coach, this is my forte – bringing games and exercises that invite connection and sharing of story.  Plan times for connection, for mingling, for fun. Laughter is a great unifier.

Even the most engaging speaker will lose your audience after 45 min.

People should never be talked AT for more than 45 minutes.  This is a difficult one, especially if you are using an inexperienced speaker or a DVD program.  I always think back to my school days.  When sitting in a class, no matter how interesting I found the subject material, my ability to concentrate and assimilate would wane at about the 40 minute mark.  This is true for the women who are attending your event as well.  Incorporate experiential games and mixers to help the message stick, object lessons to bring real world metaphors to life, and time to reflect and absorb the information. Get the women up and moving, get them talking, help them form bonds and connections.

Every lesson should be applicable and give “real world” ways for incorporating it into life.

Remember, that the speaker’s story or curriculum needs to be applicable.  This gets left out most often when using lay speakers or women who haven’t yet learned to craft their talks.  (Sheila Wray Gregoire provides some great instruction on honing your message on her website Becoming a Christian Women’s Speaker.) Every presentation should have a way to apply it to everyday life.  There needs to always be a “Why” and  a “How”. Choose a retreat and speaker that challenges women to grow personally and wear the message home.

All women do not learn the same way.  Incorporate activities that provide a variety of learning methods.  In Strings Attached Retreats, you always find auditory (music/speaking), visual (object lessons and games), and kinesthetic (games that require movement and touch).  It’s not difficult to build these into your event, but it does take some thought and practice to get the timing right.  Many games and exercises cover all of the learning modalities.  We will be posting more about how to build this into your event in the coming weeks.

Leave time for reflection at the end of the day.

Reflection, reflection, reflection. In our harried world, in our frantic lives, we very rarely give ourselves time for reflection.  These women who have chosen to share their most valued resource—their time—with you, need time to reflect and connect with God. I attended Stasi Eldredge’s Captivating retreat in Colorado last year (if you haven’t been or haven’t read the book by the same title- you should!). Many things touched me—the speaker, the worship time, the food :), but the most profound moments came during what they called “Covenants of Silence.” It was during these times of reflection that the message of the weekend, the message God had brought me there to hear really soaked in. So many times during a women’s conference, we get so excited that we cram full our day or our event with programming. Leave some time and space for quiet reflection.

So there you go, “Cari’s Special Recipe” for a fantastic women’s event.  I am booking dates for the spring and fall of 2013 now if you would like Strings Attached Ministries to come to your group. We have packages available for any budget. We’d love to be a part of making your event spectacular. You can contact us here.

However, if you are a do-it-yourself-er, I will posting more tips on how to create this on your own. Until then, if you have questions  feel free to put them in the comments or send us an email at stringsattachedministries@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Laura Keck. All photos were taken at Hayward Wesleyan Church during 
"Vital Pieces: You are Signifcant to God's Plan." If you would like to order a copy 
of this presentation on CD, click here.

Sprinting with God

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” – CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

It happens once in a while….God places someone or something in your path that rocks your world and shifts the gear on your sanctification process.  Anyone else experience this?  You are walking along with Jesus- happy with the God you have created, finally understanding your place in your reality- and then suddenly God grabs your hand and starts off at a sprint…

Come with me…I have something to show you, he shouts back over his shoulder.

And so I run…no sprint…to keep up- lungs breathless and legs burning…and I sense it, that just over the horizon is new revelation…new understanding…new holiness, and I can’t wait.

I’ve just begun a new study of God’s words…of his principles…of the Kingdom…and it is transforming my heart.  But sometimes, God divinely appoints someone to speak into my life exactly what I didn’t know I was needing , but was searching for, last night was one of those divine appointments.

I stayed after to request a book list of my instructor.  I had no thought of spending the next two hours pouring out my questions like a pitcher with a thousand holes in it.  With grace and truth he spoke to me and I felt the thousand little heart explosions as truth landed there between us, and what was an easy-paced walk with the Lord, turned into an Olympic record sprint.

Although David had many weaknesses, one thing he did well was to receive the Word of God from the prophets around him.  His obedience to God’s truth saved him, grew him and molded him into the “man after God’s own heart” that he was to come.  I am thankful that God has placed in my life wise prophets to speak God’s Words into me…words of life and encouragement.

As we crest the hill together, God and I, I see that this is my Adullam – my refuge…my place of learning and of building and of growing and a confirmation sweeps over me that I am in the right place at the right time. The right time to learn how a shepherd becomes a king…

“I need to know you are holding me just as closely as the day you took my life and gave me a vision, as the day you poured the oil and gave me a dream. I can’t believe this is happening. How does a shepherd become a king?”- Sara Groves, Cave of Adullum

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Cave Of Adullum (Album Version)

God’s Promises Everywhere

“Look at the bathroom lights, Mom! There are rainbows everywhere!”

She gazes up at the light sporting cardboard glasses from a Mad Science camp that look like a cross between old school 3-D glasses and those cooky looking shades you get when the optometrist dilates your eyes.They’re refracting glasses and they break the light into millions of tiny rainbows.  She rocks her head from shoulder to shoulder and giggles with glee as the rainbows dance through the room.

“Mom, I never knew there were rainbows everywhere! They were here all along! I just had to look through the right glasses!”

Like my promisesGod whispers. Revelation sweeps over me and sucks the air from my lungs.

Oh! How I’ve forgotten.  Forgotten to live my life seeing the rainbows everywhere. Forgotten how God’s promises sparkle on the walls of my home, and dance through the air of my church, and surround my children’s heads like halos.

‘Cause they are, you know?  Everywhere- it’s just a matter of taking off my worldy human glasses and putting on my God lenses.

I’m sorry, Lord. Sorry for overlooking the promises you’ve fulfilled all around me.  Sorry for not believing in Your plan and your promise to prosper me. Sorry for putting on the world’s glasses and seeing this life as something not steeped in  Your light. I’m sorry for forgetting about the rainbows, Lord. Thanks for the reminder.

 

I'm linking up (a little late) with Duane Scott over at Scribing the Journey- would you join us?

Releasing Control

“Cari, what would happen if instead of controlling the breath, you just released it? What would that feel like?”

My inner teenager rolls her eyes and begins again sliding notes off heavy tongue while rolling my head around like a rag doll.  My vocal coach plays through ascending scales and murmurs encouragement in a slight German accent.  My voice feels strange and loosey-goosey and free all at the same time.

He stops for water and while I sip, he explains.

“Music is the vehicle to release all the emotions God has created in us:  happiness, sadness, anger….passion.”  The last word curls slowly off his tongue in his foreign way as it’s emphasized, pounding his fist on his heart so hard I could feel it in the chambers of my own.  “But we try to control everything about it– our breath, the muscles around our throat, the tone of the note, the pitch, and a million other elements when we sing. Trying to control creates tension. Tension creates pressure, and pressure kills everything it touches, especially the song within us.”

I nod with the truth of it…but I don’t know how to just release…..well, ANYTHING. 

Not my breath or voice. Not my dreams or life. Jesus, can I really learn this? It seems so far away. 

Maybe this is why God sent me here to this tiny German task master who yells contradiction while I sing the equivalent of a basketball line drill.

“Vun, Dwo, Tree, Four….just relax de tongue…Vun, Dwo, Tree, Four…free the voooiicccee!”  I feel like I am in Olympic training and I am tired from all the releasing at the end of our hour together.

I listen to this slight, middle aged man sing a favorite- “I Surrender All.” I watch him as he closes his eyes and releases breath filled with notes and I envy the way his voice floats and soars in the space between us.  I can sense the difference….feel the way the air changes and I feel hope rise that maybe this is a skill I can learn.

Maybe by learning to release breath I will learn to release other things too.  I will learn that being in control is not a prized character trait, but a limiting behavior that keeps me bound to a life locked away from God.  Maybe by setting my voice free I will unlock the cage of control that I bind myself in.

I close my eyes and listen….

“All to Jesus, I surrender. All to thee I freely give.”

and I sing while I  pray the words in my heart….please let it be, Lord….let it be.