Looking Beyond the Ashes

Looking beyond the ashes these last days of Lent seems appropriate as a way to begin the journey into Good Friday and the cross. My late husband’s library was substantial. Actually, it was massive. Thousands of both his books and mine were destroyed when our home burned. Our church put together a “book shower” to gift us with replacements of some of our lost treasures. Often the gift givers wrote personal messages about why they chose a particular book. Each book and each message brought a reminder to us that in the midst of all the loss, we were loved.  

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of something I wanted from one of our replaced books by Father Thomas Keating. As I opened the book, a folded note card with “Jolene” on the outside dropped out. This time it was not a message from the giver of the book, but a note in my late husband’s handwriting. It said,

“If God can take a grain of sand
and time,
with thousands of gallons
of waterweight,
and make a pearl,
imagine what She
can bring forth from us,
whenever we’re deep, down
and under.”
Honestly, I don’t know if the quote comes directly from my husband or another source, but I do know that the message is real.Lent invites us to receive the gift of living in the ashes or being shaped by the sculpturing of gallons of water often enough and long enough to realize that a beautiful new self will surface. It reminds us that pain, loss, healing, and love are all intertwined as gifts to be received even though it hurts.  Shalom,
Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson
Executive Director/President 
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Out of the Ashes

The Third Week in Lent
In the midst of the times of loss and grief in our lives we often find something unexpected. My husband’s family traveled the world as a career Army family. My father-in-law was often given unique gifts. One that was lost in the fire was a real tiger’s skull from a general in Thailand. I didn’t mind loosing that one. But also in the midst of the destruction, some ash covered but still beautiful treasures kept popping up that carried the family story. Lent is like that. In the midst of the darkness we are surprised by a gift of new insights.
I hadn’t realized how close I could feel to victims of loss and suffering until I experienced the ashes.
I hadn’t realized how much I took love and family for granted until I experienced the ashes.
I hadn’t realized how deeply I held onto my false ego until I experienced the ashes.
I hadn’t realized how interconnected we are until I experienced the ashes.
I hadn’t realized how much I needed to depend on others until I experienced the ashes.
Yes, finding gems of challenge and potential healing are gifts we may receive from the ashes. 
Our losses may vary in intensity and content, but the message is the same. There is no hierarchy in grief and loss.The attack on the world trade center came just 20 days after our fire and my father-in-law died two days later. I started to listen to some voices that said, “Well, that must make your loss look very small.”
That comment hurt, and it also made me think I was being selfish to grieve. With help and wise council I learned that no matter the magnitude of one’s grief and loss; loss is real. One gift darkness brings is not to compare who’s loss is greater, but to walk with each other in the midst of all losses. The gift of companionship and care for all is a beautiful treasure that can come from the ashes.


Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson
Executive Director/President 

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What Can I Possibly Give Up?

The Second Week in Lent

Lent traditionally invites us to give up something. After the fire, that invitation took on a different meaning. We had given up many of our possessions, so now, what can I possible give up?I muttered to God with a hint of blame and self-pity. Then it came. Give up your self-serving ego. Others have suffered just as your family has suffered. Give up your desire to look at another with any judgment. Give up self-pity. Give up blaming others. Give up asking, “why us?”  Give up finding answers to events and questions that can only be seen “through a glass, dimly.” Give up the idea that we won’t have ashes in our lives. Give up thinking that you are beyond human suffering. Give up the voices that say, “you deserved to have a fire because you are not worthy of good things.” Give up the voices that say, “you must be finding great favor with God to be tested that much.”  What?   

Letting go and giving up are beautifully healing and hard things to do.  

In all of this I am reminded of the prayer that I received from my spiritual director many years ago:

The Welcoming Prayer

Welcome, Welcome, Welcome
I welcome everything
That comes to me at this moment
Because I know it is for my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings,
Emotions, persons,
Situations and conditions.
I let go of my desire for security,
I let go of my desire for approval,
I let go of my desire for control.
I will let go my desire
To change any situation,
Condition, person, or myself.
I open to the love and presence of God
And the healing action and grace within.

Not only during Lent but every hour of every day I repeat this to myself. It is not human to “let go” in this way. May we have the gift of being able to do so at least now and then.
Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson
Executive Director/President 
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In the Ashes–the first week of Lent

My husband and I were celebrating his Uncle’s 99th birthday when our daughter located us to tell us that our home was on fire. We rushed home. Channel 7 news was just leaving when we arrived. Our son had managed to survive an insistent reporter who finally gave way to his plea to leave him alone in the midst of the chaos and fear.

A delegation came from our church as well as friends in our community. There were many supportive faces, hugs, and empathetic tears.

However, in the midst of the support, the “vultures” came pushing at us seeking our commitment to their businesses to board up our home, provide clean-up, and to sign for re-building contracts. They remained for several hours stalking outside our home in the hope of getting our business. It was hard for us. It was their livelihood. They were not out of line. Our home needed to be boarded up.  We needed to hire cleaning crews and builders.

But I still wonder why anyone would think it was okay to ask people in the midst of the deepest despair to be logical and plan for a future? At that moment, all we could see was destruction. We needed to be left alone in our truth before we could come into the light of rebuilding. It was like we were screaming, “please let the flames be extinguished before we look at gathering wood for new construction.”

Lent gives us permission to be in the midst of the ashes and even the flames before we begin to rebuild.

We will rebuild! But we need to honor where we are before the construction can begin.

Our Creator gives us permission to be just where we are. Do we give ourselves permission to be where we are?


Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson
Executive Director/President 

In the Ashes

On August 22, 2001 lighting struck our home in Oak Park, Illinois. There was destruction everywhere. Our son, the only one at home at the time, was spared his life by moving from one floor to another to check the Cub’s score. We will never stop thanking God for his life, saved from what could have conceivably been an unlivable loss.  

We were not allowed to go into our home until the fire department let us enter the next day.  We were devastated. Ashes filled the attic. Water damage and destroyed wood and furniture spilled over all of the 2nd floor. Water was still dripping thorough the ceiling. It was our own “war zone.”

In the midst of the destruction, my husband and I kept repeating, “We have Andrew, our son” who could have lost his life. Yes, we had life even in the midst of all the loss. But the ashes were real. Darkness and despair entered our lives in a new and profound way.

Is this not what starts us into the Lenten season?  Is it not from the ashes and ruins of our lives that we walk the valleys and hills of despair and destruction into the light and hope that comes with the morning? 

But our family didn’t enter into the morning light easily or quickly. The ashes were real. Our losses were real. When the insurance adjuster walked through our home he kept saying to us that it was “just things” that were lost. At one point of frustration I declared in a loud voice, “Sir, these are not just things, they are our family’s story. See that picture, it came from Great Grandma Moody who brought it from Sweden.”  Stories and people are not things. Darkness and loss cannot be dismissed.

All of us have had “fires” of some kind in our lives that bring ashes of despair and hopelessness. As hard as it may be, Ash Wednesday and all of Lent reminds us to remember the ashes and despair. It also invites us to walk together in the weeks ahead through the ashes into the dawn.


Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson
Executive Director/President

Order out of Chaos

As I sat in a Hebrew Bible class in the early 1980’s my mouth dropped and tears filled my eyes. We were studying the creation narratives in Genesis. I heard for the first time that God created order out of chaos. I had been taught that God made nothing into something and that God separated things and had males rule over females, but I had not learned that one significant role of our divine creator was and still is to bring order out of disorder.

Today we are living in a time when chaos is becoming the norm. Chaos is praised as “change.” Chaos is celebrated! So as I reflected back on my class I found comfort in the interpretation that God is a god of order not chaos. Chaos and darkness were the norm before humanity was invited to be in relationship with the divine.

In my early ministry days I walked with a young mother who had been severely abused as a child. She and her children lived in daily chaos. As she received professional and spiritual counseling to care for her wounds, I noticed a pattern that kept appearing. Just when her professional counselor declared that she was “stabilized,” she created a scene that caused her peace to be thrown into chaos again.

I was puzzled. Why didn’t she like to live in order?  What internal force kept pulling her back to chaos? I realized that all through her childhood and adult life chaos was her place of comfort, control, power, and security. It was where she found her identity.  

In these last months I find myself reflecting on her story. Where and what tempts me into the swirls and twists of chaos? Separation and hatred enter my chaotic world when I twist with the noise and clutter of unhealed and power hungry voices screaming division and hatred to others. Chaos drives me to unending circles of hopelessness.

I am tempted to stay in chaos for its false sense of power. But eventually I remember the One of real power who always invites us to be “ordered” in love.


Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson
Executive Director/President 

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