Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Remember you are dust...

Years ago, when I worked as an admin at a church, one of the other admins talked about “baby preachers” that came through the system. At that time, the senior pastor of her church was the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry, so she kept all their files in her office. From her, it was a term of endearment.

Now I am one of those baby preachers. I’m often aware of all the things I don’t know, despite a Master of Divinity hanging on my wall. And I’m often struck powerfully, painfully, truly by the grace that I sometimes talk so much about that it becomes subject rather than reality.

I’ve been appointed to my church for 3½ years now. I’ve gotten to know so many of the people deeply. Their faces are dear to me and I know their stories. In teaching an older adult Sunday school class recently, I was able to step out onto political limbs for the sake of the gospel because I was entirely confident that I love them, and they know it, and they love me back. It’s an amazing place from which to do ministry.

So tonight, on Ash Wednesday, which has never been my favorite day of the liturgical year, I choked up…again. I didn’t remember it from last year, but as I looked into all of these dear faces, young and old, dipping my thumb into the bowl of ashes to trace there the symbol of death which has become a promise of life for us, I found my voice breaking. I see an upturned face, an expectant waiting. I approach. I press my thumb into the black grit. I trace a broad down stroke, with the words, “Remember you are dust…” And as I seal the sign across their brow, “…and to dust you shall return.”

Ah me! Across the wrinkles, I wrote it. Across the smooth skin of children, where time has left no sign yet, I wrote it. Across the foreheads of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, wives, husbands, grandparents, grandchildren, I wrote it. I wrote the fatal/immortal sign and felt the anticipated pain of losing them to this mortal sight.

To me, the reminder of our mortality is unwelcome. I don’t like being dust! I’m so much more, as I preached one Ash Wednesday a few years back. Death and the fear of death hang around all of us, why must our faith remind us of it, too? Just look at the pop culture, where men and women spend small fortunes to remain forever young. We all fear the march of time that robs us of vigor and spirits our loved ones away.

And yet, I know the hope in this day is that death does not have final say. Even as we enter Lent, even as we remember that we are but dust that our Eternal Creator crafted in the palm of an almighty hand, we know we are precious creatures who find their eternal home in God.

As William Wordsworth puts it in his Ode: Intimations of  Immortality,
            “The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
                        Hath had elsewhere its setting,
                        And cometh from afar:
                        Not in entire forgetfulness,
                        And not in utter nakedness,
            But trailing clouds of glory do we come
                        From God, who is our home:
                        Heaven lies about us in our infancy!”

This is my "who am I?" for the #rethinkchurch
photo-a-day project for Lent.
Follow me to see more: @UMeldergirl

So while I may not like Ash Wednesday, I do my best to wrestle with it and find its blessing, as Jacob taught. And I pray that I never become so hardened or practical or accustomed to grace that these moments fail to move me toward tears.
But when I got home, just before my 2½ year old’s bedtime, grace continued to abound. He saw me, pointed to my forehead, and laughed. Mommy had a dirty forehead. Oh yes, child, and how much dirtier am I within. But there is good news for me and for you and for all us dirty folks.

What are your thoughts on Ash Wednesday? I’d love to hear your take.

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