The Grace of Lent

As we begin this very special time in the Church Year, the season of Lent, a particular image stays with me. It is the image of children with the smudge of ash in the shape of a cross on their forehead. In this year’s ecumenical Ash Wednesday service at St. John’s Episcopal, I had the privilege of preaching and then other participating pastors took the role of imposing ashes on the foreheads of those who came forward.

After the imposition of ashes, I looked out from the chancel and there was little Hugo Hagel happily toddling up the aisle with ash on his face. Then I began to catch in my line of sight other children, from toddlers to elementary age children, all with the mark of the cross in ash. It is not unusual to see children with smudges on their faces – dirt, that pea-green baby food, spaghetti sauce, cake-icing; but it takes your breath for a moment when it is the dark, intentional ash of the palm in the shape of the cross.

When we impose ashes, it is a reminder of our mortality and our utter dependence on God. We normally say “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” When I impose ashes on a young child, I tend to say something like, “God has made you human, Jesus loves you, and will always be with you.” But in my mind are those words that I can’t shake: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is a statement that catches us by surprise every time; the hard truth that this life, this mortal body will die and will be no more. It feels different to say it to someone who has lived a good long life already, and to smudge that ash on a face that is a bit wrinkled with age; someone who has considered his or her own mortality. But when we touch that fresh smooth skin of a baby with the ash, it is just almost too much.

At the beginning of this Lent, I am aware that our mortality is ever before us; so much so lately that the heaviness for ALL of us is almost too much. Yet the message of Lent is not simply that we are mortal and that we sin, but that we are held in the grace and forgiveness and love of God who will never let us go! That is the truth we carry with us as we travel this journey toward Holy Week and then Easter. We are human AND we are wrapped in the holy love of God! We are broken AND we are embraced by God who calls us to turn around and look into the compassionate eyes of Jesus the Christ. We sin AND we are made whole in God’s forgiveness.

Yes, I want every child and every adult to be reminded in these days that “God has made you human (you are dust and to dust you shall return), Jesus loves you, and will always be with you!

May this be a Holy Lent and a journey of deepening faith for all of us,

Unimaginable Loss

Every life is so precious, so very precious.  At any moment of any day we cannot imagine how dear a life is … until it is gone.  One of the gifts of ministry is that we share life with amazing people. Another gift and challenge is that we experience the deep pain of loss and share in the grief of families and friends.

I’ve always said that it seems to come in waves, and I hold to that.  Lately, we’ve experienced so much grief in our congregation as families have lost dear ones … some after long battles with illness, some sudden loss to illness that took them in blink, another the tragedy of a shooting.  For others the loss is a slow creeping thing; life holds on but the ravages of disease cause the person and family to grieve what has been lost and will never be again.

There are those with whom we have been able to share stories, to celebrate precious memories; to prepare for that “good death.”  As a pastor, I savor those and am grateful to God for such a leave-taking.  But too often, lately, this is not the case.  There is just that breathless shock as life has changed in the blink of an eye.  A sudden absence, emptiness leaves families gasping for air. No, not air — God; gasping for God.  Trying to get a grasp on life as they fall through what seems like nothingness.  Trying to see some possibility when everything – every daily task – now seems impossible.

The amazing gift is that as we wrestle with God and with ourselves in the dark night of the soul, we slowly discover what is possible.  A step at a time, the ability to get up and make toast, to do the laundry, to go to the grocery, to work, to have a 5 minutes conversation without tears and then a 10 minute conversation ….

I somehow find a strange comfort in the fact that as precious and particular as each life is, every person who has ever lived before us has died to this life. Every beloved, special, unique person has lived a limited life-span.  And everyone who loved that particular person has grieved because of so great a love.  It has always seemed impossible to imagine that this person could die, could be here one day and be gone the next.  And yet it is so.

I believe we go on, and the world goes on, because deep down we know that there is life beyond this life.  That the spirit and the soul of each person is a part of life that goes on.  We who are Christian believe those promises – that there is place for us, that we will not be orphaned, that now we see through a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.  We believe that we are surrounded by that “great cloud of witnesses.”   Yes.  Thanks be to God.