Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year A

Ash Wednesday

Safe Spaces

February 26, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.

As I anticipate ashes upon my forehead once again, I am pondering the relationship between my private prayer and my public life. Scroll down for the interdisciplinary lessons and my collect and reflection. Blessed Ash Wednesday.



Arts & Architecture

Keeping Up Façades

John von Sothen

author's blogsite

An op-ed on the move in the past decade to resurface buildings in several arrondissements in Paris with new façades.

Consider what an emphasis on facades prioritizes and what becomes hidden, as a result.

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Current Events & World Affairs

Creating Safe Spaces for Kids

Operation Shoestring

Operation Shoestring Nonprofit Organization in Jackson, Mississippi

A story about a half century old nonprofit in Jackson, Mississippi that is remaking its physical spaces and engaging in advocacy to create safe space for children.

Consider the impact on children and families now and into the future of Operation Shoestring’s stated priorities in creating safe spaces.

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How do safe spaces help us stay engaged in the world?


And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." –Matthew 6:5-6

For those who participate in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, there is this question…do I keep my ashes or wipe them off? Are they there to remind me and the world of our mortality throughout the day, or must they be removed so that I am not practicing my piety for show?

In our old home, there was a landing halfway down the stairwell to the basement. It was partially finished with a small bench. We realized it had been the intention of the original owner to have that spot for tornado warnings, of which there are plenty in that part of the country. It was our own little “safe room.”

It wasn’t a place we wanted to spend lots of time, but when we needed it, I was always grateful it was there—away from windows that could hurl shards of glass toward us in the wrong kind of wind. It was a place to retreat from the kinds of storms we never wanted but that came our way, from time to time where we lived.

I wonder if that’s the kind of space Jesus means us to have for our prayer life. In today’s gospel, he cautions his listeners against practicing their piety publicly for all to see. Religion for appearance’s sake is such an odd thing that has apparently shown up in most every culture from long before Jesus’ day until our own. The idea that the business of meeting the living God should be a matter of show for purposes to suit our egos is odd indeed. Especially when you consider that most circumstances surrounding encounter with the living God involve upheaval—like tornados moving through a city.

We spend too much time trying to present an image that others will find acceptable. Nothing wears us out like trying to keep up those images out in the world.

Recently, my husband and I were in Paris. I noticed several areas where construction is underway to put new façades on old buildings. I have learned that this work has been in full swing for the past decade, resulting in a number of areas that seem to have a new shine. There is, to be sure, a visual appeal to the refreshed look. Yet, as John von Sothen observes in today’s arts and architecture lesson, the façades lead one to wonder what messages are being projected by choosing this priority in spending over others and what is lost.

And if all our energy is going toward the façade, there can be little left for what’s inside.

A different prioritization is evidenced in the initiative of Operation Shoestring, a decades old nonprofit in Jackson, Mississippi. They, too, are beautifying space. But as the story in today’s current events and world affairs lesson notes, they are doing so with the goal of changing the experiences of the most marginalized children in the city—to create spaces of light and hope and strength for children in a place with a legacy of shutting out children of color with gates, walls, fences, signs and policies for generations.

In its early years, Operation Shoestring experienced a tragedy, the gunning down of their Executive Director by a person dealing with a persistent mental illness. That event could have easily been the catalyst for shutting down the nonprofit in a context of long-seated fear fueled by racism and classism. Instead, a multi-racial cohort of leaders doubled down to insure that the mission would remain strong. Now, almost 30 years later, they are about the work of systemic change. Their inner life of spirit is propelling them to set priorities about their outer work—in beautifying space and in advocacy. All of that began decades ago, with people gathered in grief over a tragedy, in quiet places of prayer across the city. I was there; I remember the grief, the retreat to safe, quiet spaces to process.

We need an interior life, one that is not an open book for everyone to view, with a comment page for their opinions about us. We need a place to meet God that is not about public persona. We need a safe room.

Maintaining a prayer life is not some esoteric idea for the hyper religious. I think it’s more like keeping a safe room ready. A place away from the shards flying at you. A safe, quiet, and yes, private, space. Intimacy requires a certain amount of privacy. That’s as true of our relationship with God as with one another. A healthy life of prayer will lead you into this world with new eyes for seeing what’s always been all around you. In Isaiah’s text, Yahweh lays out the image of a well-heeled person of prayer. And it is not someone with her head in the clouds. It is not someone with his spiritual practice on his shirtsleeve.

No, it is someone who, after shutting the door and praying quite privately, can come into the world to be, as we heard in Isaiah, a repairer of the breach. To pray is to become a person of stamina for the facing of this world’s storms—a person who can loose bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, and share bread with the hungry.

Our spiritual practice exists to lead right back out to find Christ wherever he needs us in this world.

So, keep your ashes or not after you leave the service; it matters not.

But find your safe room this Lent. Find the practice, the time, the space in your life to be a person who prays. Stop everything at some point in each day. Be by yourself.Shut the door.