Ash Wednesday: Swingers of Birches

In Robert Frost’s poem “Birches,” the speaker describes his love of birch trees, whose branches bend to left and right, and he imagines a boy swinging from them, traversing up and down. He writes,

He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

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Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

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Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

 

Lent is a time for us to kick our feet outward with a swish, to fling ourselves into motion. Tonight is Ash Wednesday, the day our flung feet make their way down through the air to the ground, to the dirt, to the ashes. We start here, earth beneath our feet–and soon to be marked on our foreheads–but this is just the beginning of our journey. We will go down, and up, and down and up again, because in this space between the two destinations, transformation happens.

As I envision this boy in Frost’s poem kicking his way down, riding a branch from a birch tree, I’m reminded that Lent arguably comes from two words, one being the Latin “lentare” which means to bend, and the other the Anglo-Saxon word “lencton” which means to lengthen. So during these forty days we seek to bend and to lengthen, to travel down and back up, in both directions flinging ourselves nearer the One we follow.

Some years, this means more bending. Maybe we’ve been too rigid in certain places in our lives, too straight up and down like a ruler, and maybe the tension of all that precision is getting to us, or getting to other people, like a schoolteacher swatting ruler against palm. Maybe we’re the schoolteacher, or maybe we’re the student flinching as the ruler passes by; and it’s time to leave the classroom. These places of tension in our lives, of rigidity, are not helpful to us or to others, and Lent is the time to bend, to breathe, to relax and to realize that maybe some red-blooded life can come back into those knuckles if we just eased up a bit.

Some years, we need to bend from our own stubbornness or hardness of heart. We become aware that our stubbornness may break us, may dry us out and make us brittle, like Play Doh that has become hardened and crumbly, no longer able to be formed or changed or enjoyed. And Lent comes to us like so many drops of water, reconstituting our form, collecting our crumbs and pieces back together that we can become again clay for our Potter, bending and changing in his hands.

What is making us brittle? Where are we holding this tension, and can we let go? There are things that hold us captive, and God wants us to be free of them. God says to us in Isaiah, is this not the fast that I choose, to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the yoke? There are rigid bonds and yokes everywhere- systematic bonds of injustice in our world and personal yokes of grief or despair or anger in our lives. It is time for them to be loosened, for them to bend.

God wants us to venture further out on that limb until it bends back to God’s good earth, because we trust and we know that the world bends toward justice; but sometimes we need to help it a little. Sometimes we need gravity to help us a little. We need to venture out and put some weight on those outer branches, flinging outward, feet first with a swish.

Perhaps this Lent, you need to practice bending. Perhaps these 40 days what you need is to inhale grace like oxygen, let it fill your lungs and your heart and your blood vessels so that you can move where God wants you to move, be shaped the way God wants you to be shaped. What yoke needs undoing? What bond needs to be loosened? What yokes have you placed upon others that need to be removed? What in you, in us, needs bending?

Some years, Lent means more lengthening. Maybe there are places in our lives that feel contracted, stultified, stagnant. Maybe our vision extends just barely past our eyelids and we’ve lost a sense of the bigger horizon. Perhaps the rooms of our hearts have become crowded and the ceilings hang too low, and we just need to get outside for a while and stretch our arms wide and take in a deep gulp of newness.

Perhaps our reach has been too short and our connection or support of others has become like a constricted muscle that has hunkered down into itself. And we know that kind of isolation causes nothing but pain, because muscles are meant to work with the body and not against it, creating motion and not prohibiting it. It is not natural or good for us to contract and isolate. We are called to stretch out and to lengthen. God is frustrated with God’s people in Isaiah because they did not respond to the needs present around them but turned away and contracted instead. Don’t hide yourself, God said. When you see the hungry, feed them; when you see the naked, give them clothes.

If we’ve been stingy, with ourselves or with other people, if we’ve lost our sense of gratefulness, without which we cannot be humble or loving or hopeful in any sort of full or lasting way, the time has come for us to stretch. God asks us in Isaiah, Are we wasting our time pointing fingers and speaking evil? Do we really think that will get us anywhere? Are we just standing there, earth-bound, contracted, while a tree branch is just waiting to take us higher?

For if we stretch out toward others, God says to us, do we not become like those who shine, like those with strong bones, like a spring of water? Does it not bring us closer to others as well as nearer to God? When we lengthen, we push our feet from the ground and stretch out our toes and find ourselves moving skyward, catapulting through the air. Service to others is not drudgery. It sets us free.

These forty days, does our perspective need to be lengthened? Do our actions need to stretch us? Do we need to reach out and reach up and get beyond ourselves?

Lentare, to bend. Lencton, to lengthen. This is a season of turning and returning, a season of introspection and confession. It is also a way we traverse the space between the tops of the birch trees and the hard thud of the ground beneath our feet. In between these two poles of heaven and earth, we move, hearkening down toward earth after kicking out with a swish; sailing up toward the skies with a push of our feet. Bending and lengthening, lengthening and bending, that we may be moved and changed.

The Christ Child has come to us, and he has brought the high low and the low high, bending and lengthening, inverting life as we know it so that we may have instead life abundant. “You shall be called the repairer of the breach,” God says in Isaiah. And so it is with God’s chosen and Beloved One. He comes that he may repair the breach between heaven and earth, that he may bend what needs bending and lengthen and raise up what needs lengthening. Jesus is like a boy swinging in a birch tree, repairing for us the space between the now and the not yet, the broken world and the coming kingdom, the fullness of heaven and the fullness of earth, and he will keep swinging up and down until all is made whole again, until the breach is no more, until we are one.

So, too, in Lent, are we to live. God calls not only Jesus to repair the breach, but all of us. Made alive and new in God’s spirit, we are called upon to bend and to lengthen, to be swingers of birches, reaching high and dipping low. Can we live these 40 days aware that life is comprised of this movement, where our ashes meet the skies, where our skies meet the ashes?  “You shall be called the repairer of the breach,” Isaiah tells us. So we traverse this space between heaven and earth, knowing that they are ever and always connected to one another, entangled, dancing even, within us and around us, calling us to be both grounded and set free.

Robert Frost ends his poem by saying this:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over…

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Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

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And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

 

Ash Wednesday is where we come back to the earth and begin over. And we do so because we, too, are convinced that Earth’s the right place for love. We do so because we follow the One who is and who is calling us to be the repairer of the breach, bridging every divide with God’s steady and unchanging love. Let us bend toward our God, let us lengthen toward our neighbor. Let the repairing begin. For one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Amen.

1 Comment

  1. Wow! Talk about a posting knikocng my socks off!

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