Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ashes to Ashes

"By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." Genesis 3:19

Today was Ash Wednesday here in Guam. For whatever reason I can't remember going to too many Ash Wednesday services growing up or in recent years. Chances are I had a lot going on. Or had my Wednesday night Wine Group. Or Bible study. Or class. All good places to be. When Nick came home achy and feverish from work today, I thought I would claim some kind of sympathy illness (?) and skip tonight's service to hang out with the sick little puppy on the couch. But Nick insisted I go anyway since he wouldn't be much fun, and since I had already showered the salt water off of me from another wonderful day in the sun here, I figured I might as well go.

Tonight's service was such a great reminder of our humble entry to and humble exit from this world. We read Bible verses, sang a few hymns, and prayed, just like we do at every church service. But towards the end, we were summoned to the front to receive, if we wished, a cross of ashes on our foreheads. I know from hearing about it and going once or twice before that this is a part of Ash Wednesday tradition, but that wasn't the part that struck me. No. It was the pastor's words as he scraped the ash above my eyes: "Peyton, From ashes thou came. To ashes thou shalt return."

As I turned to take these words back to my seat with me, I thought about the beautiful life residing in each person filling up each seat in the congregation. It struck me that we are all here, without exception, in this liminal state between our humble origin and our ultimate destiny as plain, black ash. There is this gift of time and life that fills that space between, how much of each we know not. But we are given these arms and legs, these eyes and hands, these hearts and minds---almost as if on loan---to put to good use before returning to the ground. At the end, it will all become ash. Well, almost all of it.

I find it no coincidence that tonight, on my drive to the Ash Wednesday service, I found myself putting in a Tracy Chapman CD I hadn't listened to in ages and immediately skipping forward to the final track, past many of my other favorites. That final track sums up the words that resonate with me tonight at the beginning of Lent, a season I tonight learned was so named after the Old English word which means "to lengthen." That final track is called "All that you have is your soul." It's a beautiful song as well as a humble reminder. I recently heard a parent at our church explain to a child what the word "soul" actually means. They said, "it's that part of you that if you took away your arms and your legs and your ability to talk and your ability to see... it's the part that's left that still makes you you." I thought that was such a beautiful, simple description of that part of us that matters most. The part that, because of the Easter miracle, will one day be saved from becoming ash.

And so tonight, on Ash Wednesday, which many of you are just waking up to, I hope this season ahead of 40 days will be one in which you will be lengthened... one in which your spirit will be renewed. Because at the end of the day---rather, at the end of that day---that spirit is what makes this time before we return to ashes mean something. And even more comforting than knowing who you are is knowing whose you are. So grateful for this season, these forty days, of humility and growth.



PS - Our church is doing a "lengthening" program called "You've Got the Time." If you listen to one 28-minute podcast every day throughout Lent, you will have heard the entire New Testament by Easter. If you're interested in joining me, the podcasts are free download here on iTunes:

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