Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday Thoughts

Well, it’s Ash Wednesday and Christians the world over will move down to some church, slip inside and sit in the quiet. They will come to little churches and big. And after the Hymns and Prayers and silence—they will be invited to come forward and receive the Ashes. Strange custom. Yet year after year like so many others I stand in that line. 

Why do we do this? Many reasons. But after another year—mostly this year of ups and some downs—but moving much too fast, I come back. Nobody knows us better than we know ourselves. “Rend your hearts,” the old Priest says, “and not your garments.”It would be much better to rend our garments. To tear the hell out of our clothing or throw some favorite vase against the wall. Or do a hundred push-ups or write a check. Maybe promise to attend church every week. Read my Bible during this season. Quit smoking. Watch your anger. Whistle while you work. Be kind to strangers. Do something extra around the house. That would be easy or, shall we say, easier.

But rending our hearts that’s an entirely different matter. My old College Dictionary says that Rending means to pull or tear apart. To disturb. Distress the heart with painful feelings. To cleave. To chop. To fracture. Maybe it means to do some looking on the inside. The places where nobody else can go. Maybe it means to stir up all those things in there we would just as well ignore. 

We look at Donald Trump and say: He’s disturbed. He’s a narcissist. A bully. Not a nice person. I take none of these labels back. But all these are distractions on Ash Wednesday. I don’t stand in the line and wait my turn because of the President—any President. Neither do I stand in line because my stomach turns when I think of all those dispossessed and frightened here and around the world. No. I stand in this line with my own rendings. No distractions here—or there shouldn't be. I am not here too look at that gorgeous woman in front of me or the old man shuffling on a cane. Or that handful of young people that are back there. I am not here to wince when some Lay Liturgist mispronounces some word. God knows it is hard to brush away all the distractions. 

photo by John Ragai / flickr

But this is the meaning of our own personal deep down rendings. To know that these ashes mean that I am really dust and to dust I shall one day return.  That tears at the tissue of my heart. My own finitude. My own vulnerabilities. All those outside things that invade my very being that I cannot change. The dust. As the old AA prayer says: To accept what I cannot change. Germs. A lousy President. A country in disarray. ISIS and all the rest. A back or feet that hurt. Getting up on the wrong side of the bed in a funk. The old black dog of depression that comes when I least expect him. 

My wife says, looking around says: ”Why is there so much dust in this house?” But in this line I ask, maybe just for a moment, why is there is so much dust in my own life. I need that 51st Psalm. “Have mercy upon me O lord, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy blot out all my transgressions.”  I need what I find here surrounded by this little cluster of folk like myself. I need to be reminded of my own transgressions. Dust. All those things that I work so hard to ignore. All the dust that just keeps coming. Here at least today—and maybe this whole Lenten season I will attend to some of my own personal rendings. My own personal dust which I really would liked to wipe away once and for all.

But it keeps coming, this dust. And I keep transgressing. I come back year after year because like the old Priest said to the farmer, “We fall down and we get up.” “”We fall down and we get up.” All of us. So I’m here to be reminded of all the fallings—so many, Lord so many. And some of the fallings hurt like hell. And some are downright embarrassing. The Prodigal knelt down and whispered, “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you and I am no longer worthy to be your son.” Dust. Not only dusty feet. But that Prodigal like me covered with dust and from head too toe. 

I remember the story. The boy was kissed by the old Father. The boy felt those arms holding him close. The boy surprisedly found his nakedness covered with something mighty fine. The boy found home for the first time in a long, long time. 

This Ash Wednesday line is the great leveler. No pecking order here. Just folk. Some young. But mostly old. Liver spotted. Propped up with a cane. A man in a wheel chair. A ten-year old child. A woman with a tremor. And in the middle here am I. 

Every year I keep coming back and standing in this line. The Priest marks my forehead with the smudge of a cross. I go back and sit down. It’s quiet. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I come. But maybe I come to be reminded of the rending. My dust. My transgressions. The burden of just living. The hatred of being 81 for God’s sake. The terrible truth that one day I shall return to dust.

But in this Ash Wednesday place I hear those other words. Mercy. Steadfast love. Forgiveness. Grace. Unconditional love. Like the boy kneeling before the Father. I remember the old story. The kiss. The ring. The robe. The laughter of the old man. Maybe, just maybe, this too is why I come.

--Roger Lovette /

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