Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

img_0596I ran home at lunch today to burn last year’s palm leaves.  It’s a funny smell and my neighbors might have wondered just what the minister next door was doing.  Nothing untoward, truly – unless you consider taking a symbol of honor and life (the palm) and burning it to ashes to remind people that they are oh, so mortal untoward.

Another Ash Wednesday is nigh upon us.  I think about my first Ash Wednesday as a pastor some twenty-five years ago.  Death seemed neither imminent nor scary, just a nice little comma in this journey with God.  But I stayed long enough in that first congregation to start loving those people, some of whom got sick, some of whom were dying as I drew a cross of ashes on their forehead.

Fast forward, as Ash Wednesday falls three days after what would have been my dad’s 89th birthday; as Ash Wednesday falls two days before my darling daughter’s 14th.  I fear death now.  I know the havoc it wreaks, the worry it brings, the dread not just of the slow march of dying but also the crushing emptiness of the one who is gone.

Yet here we are, making crosses out of ashes and saying to young and old, to hale and sick, to the faithful and doubting, mortals all, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  Stern stuff, these ashes.

Here’s a little spoiler alert because I’m going to mention the end of The Good Place so if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read any more, but happy Lent.

I thought that last episode was exquisite, with the prevailing realization that what made life so precious was the knowledge that it would end.  We would never know what would be our last sunrise to awaken to, what would be our last time to hear our favorite piece of music, what would be our last time to tell that old story and laugh and laugh.  I remember the last time I spoke with my dad – and I knew it was the last – and it’s still so hard to think about and to write about. I said goodbye, then joined my siblings where I sobbed and fell to the floor.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.  Ashes, ashes; we all fall down.  We fall down in grief, in wonder, in agony, in worship.  We fall down in disbelief, maybe, that all this will end, that to the dust we will return.

But unless the seed falls to the dust, to the dirt, and dies, no new life will come.  Fall down we must.  Rise, we will.

Preaching resurrection in the middle of Lent

empty-tomb-and-three-crosses-colette-scharfI am a big fan of the liturgical calendar.

As someone who plans worship, knowing what season it is helps.  It helps us with the colors, the themes, the hymns, the scripture, the tone of worship.  That being said, I must also admit that the liturgical season is an entirely human construct.  We invented it to help us know God.  God did not invent it to help God know us.

Yet I find myself in a seasonal muddle this year.  In the past week I conducted two memorial services and they were not particularly Lent-y.  The opening hymn at the first was “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”  The choir sang Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” from The Mount of Olives at the second.  A few weeks ago, our retired soprano section leader, a helluva woman in her 80’s, sang an introit and a benediction response that were full of Alleluias.  My own husband, giving the benediction at the Ash Wednesday service, spoke out his usual “Hallelujah, hallelujah, Amen.”

What’s a liturgical-seasoned girl to do?

The funny thing about the liturgical calendar, and holidays/holy days, is that it’s all play-acting.  We’re pretending Jesus is born again; we’re pretending the Holy Spirit has lit a flame on the apostles’ heads; we’re pretending Jesus is walking toward his execution as if we have no idea what might happen next.  But we do know what happens next.  That’s why we’re in this story in the first place.

It’s always with a little guilt over my own pretense that I approach the Good Friday service.  We know what happens next, so if there is genuine sorrow, it is about the sorrow in life right now, in the world today.  Maybe.  I suppose we can – and do – feel sorrow for tragedy and suffering, whether it is the suffering we are going through right now or the suffering of innocent victims scattered among the pages of history.

Is my sorrow over Jesus’ death mediated by my belief that he rose?  Does the joy at the end of the story erase the pain near the end of the story?  What does it means to utter alleluias and preach resurrection in the middle of Lent?

Alleluia (1)

The second memorial service this past week was for a woman who had been a matriarch of the congregation.  She loved butterflies, and so in her memory we hung our Easter butterfly banners, and in my homily, I quoted “Life Lessons from a Butterfly” which had been among her keepsakes.  ““Let go of the past. Trust the future. Embrace change. Come out of the cocoon. Unfurl your wings. Dare to get off the ground. Ride on the breezes.  Savor all the flowers. Put on your brightest colors. Let your beauty show.”  The words might be a little twee for some,  but they reflect a sweeter approach to life held by more than one woman I’ve known in her 90’s.  They are Easter words – “come out of the cocoon, put on your brightest colors.”

But if we take the season of Lent seriously – if we take this time before Easter as a time for reflection, repentance, and change – maybe these are Lent words too.  Let go of the past (and stop doing things that hurt others because of hurt done to you in the past).  Embrace change (repent, turn around, choose love instead of hate, trust instead of fear).  Unfurl your wings (do not put your light under a bushel).  Dare to get off the ground (follow Me).

There is no Lent without resurrection; we invented Lent after the Easter event.  We might see the three crosses, but we see the tomb and the garden just beyond them.  Maybe, then, knowing the life after death awaits us gives us courage to face the hard pieces of our lives.  And maybe an ‘alleluia’ or two in the midst of repentance is not a bad thing.

He is risen!  Take up your cross and follow Him….

butterfly_cross_

Chocolate and Ashes

choc 1On the table at our Ash Wednesday service tonight, we will have both chocolate and ashes, which may well seem like competing images. One suggests indulgence; the other, death – not things we tend to put together. But there is a purpose in having these objects on our table and they come, in part, from the images in Isaiah 25:6-10.   That scripture combines the image of feast and death, a reminder that God promises us an incredible feast even as God destroys the shroud of death that hangs over us all. That might be a theme for this Lent: the promise of God to provide, and to heal even death itself.

Here we are, at the beginning of Lent. For as long as I can remember, I have heard that it is a good spiritual discipline to give something up for Lent. As a teenager trying to manage her weight, I usually gave up chocolate, and delved into that Cadbury Crème Egg first thing on Easter morning. As I got older, the object to be given up changed. One year I gave up television; one year I gave up swearing. (I have since gone back to both.)

And then at some point I started hearing that it is good to add something, to do something, as a spiritual discipline during Lent. So I read a daily devotion; I prayed for someone I didn’t like (and realized that I had enough people to cover the whole of Lent.)

But for me, whether giving up something or adding something, I was always thinking about myself, and not about God or Christ. I would think about how hungry I was, or how noble I was in my sacrifice. It was about me, not about God, not about Jesus (who really knew hunger and really knew sacrifice.) So this year, for a lot of different reasons, I’m going to try a different kind of Lenten discipline, represented by the chocolate.   What if this Lent,the discipline was each day to consider the sweetness of God. That could mean taking time to meditate each day on all that I’m grateful for; it might mean reading a psalm or something else from scripture that tells of God’s goodness to humanity. It could look like looking for signs of God at work in the world today, or plunging the depths of the morning paper for good news.

What if the Lenten discipline were to have one piece of chocolate – good chocolate – or one sweet thing a day. Limiting it to one piece a day can be hard. Then again, having one good piece of chocolate a day might seem too indulgent for this austere season of Lent. But what if, mid-afternoon or after dinner, I had one piece of chocolate, and really savored it, took time with it, tasted it freshly, noticed the hint of salt or chili or cinnamon that lies beneath. And what if, as I savor this chocolate, I remind myself of God’s good intention for my life and for the world? What if a piece of chocolate a day was my Lenten fast, my Lenten feast?

Because the ashes will always be there. There will always be reminders of death and decay. We are confronted with our mortality all the time, as our bodies grow weary, as we lose people, as violence pervades the world. The ashes are there, and we can’t run away from them, nor should we (if you’ll allow me a ‘should’.) We can’t deny them. But we don’t have to give them the only word, or the ultimate word.

So that’s why we have chocolate and ashes on the table tonight. To remember that even our mortality is surrounded by the love of God.