Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Starting Over

(Several years ago I published this New Year's piece in the Birmingham News. It is my hope that you and yours will have a great New Year.)

You discover all sorts of things when you move. Back in October I retired from the church I served. Eight years of accumulation in an office is quite a job to sort through. High up on a shelf, back in the corner I found a brass bowl which contained a mound of ashes. It was sealed with plastic wrap. I remember thinking--ashes? Why would I save ashes? Suddenly I remembered. Surrounded by files and books and eight years of memories it all came back. Standing there packing suddenly I was transported back in time.

The bowl and the ashes began with a woman with a turban wrapped around her head. She came up just before the year had ended. "Have you ever had a Burning Bowl service?" "A what?" I said. "A Burning Bowl ceremony. I've seen it at another church. You give everyone a piece of paper and they write down something they want to let go of. And there comes a time in the service when the people come forward, bring their paper and light it. They place it in a bowl and watch the fire take it away." She said, "It is a powerful service. I hope you'll think about doing this."

This woman had had a hard year. She had been diagnosed with cancer. Rounds of chemotherapy had left her weak. Her hair had fallen out. She word a turban to cover her baldness. Emotionally and physically she was depleted. The future looked scary. "I want," she said, "to write the word cancer down on my paper. I want to burn it up and let it go."

So the first Sunday of that year we had a Burning Bowl ceremony. We gave everyone a moment in the service to write out the things they wanted to release and let go. Then they were asked to come forward and bring that scrap of paper. At the altar, one by one, they lit their paper from a lighted candle. Each person placed their burning paper in a bowl and watched the fire consume what they had brought.

Mary, still wearing her turban, came and touched the lighted taper with her paper. She held it until the flames almost consumed it. Then she dropped it into the bowl where so many others had already left their offerings. Tears ran down her face as she watched her paper crumple, turn black and disappear. I remembered what she had said: I want to release the power that this old cancer has on me.

She was only one of a long line that came to the altar that New Year's Sunday. Later some of our members told me some of their scribbled-out offerings. One woman said: "I wrote the name of my mother. She died this year and the grief has been so hard." Another said: "We broke up at Thanksgiving. It just killing me. I wrote his name down. I want to say good-bye." A mother confessed: "You know my son has AIDS. I can't deal with this. It is all I think about. I want him to live so bad. I wrote down his name and HIV. I hope God will take it away or give him a lot more time." "I lost my job," another shared. "I feel so scared and so hopeless. I wrote my fear down. I want God to take it away. As my paper burned I prayed that I might find hope." These were only a few of so many who came with their wounds, their shames and their fears. They hoped, in writing down their needs and burning up what they brought that somehow they would release the power of some hard thing in their lives.

Years later, standing in my office packing boxes and wrapping up my treasures, I rediscovered the bowl full of ashes. Then I remembered why I had kept them all these years. Faces loomed up before me of people who shared with me the things they had signed that long-ago Sunday. I remembered most the woman in the turban who told me of the ceremony in the first place. She has moved far away She has gotten married again. The turban is long gone. Her hair has come back. In a Christmas letter she recently wrote: "It's been over five years now. The Doctor says I am cancer free."

I stopped my packing. I took the old ashes outside. I gently took the plastic cover off the bowl. I lifted up the black, charred remains of all those hopes and dreams. Even after all these years I offered them up to God. "Lord--release us from all the hard things we wrote down and we still carry. Make this a better time for us all." And then the wind caught the ashes and they flew in every direction.

Life is often hard. We all have our lists. As a New Year begins release whatever it is that makes life scary and difficult. Remember the woman with the turban. Move into this new year unafraid.

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