Last night was one of surprising difficulty.
There have been times in my life, because I am a pastor, that I have been pushed way beyond my comfort level. I'm not worthy the honor of these hallowed moments. Such as being with dear friends as one hears how many months they have left to live. Or with parents watching their child die after an accident. Or praying with dozens of people as they lived their last hour.
The Words Weren't What Tripped Me
As I prepared for my first real Ash Wednesday--that is to say, one where I imposed ashes to foreheads--I thought about and prayed for many aspects of the service. I prepared the ash and olive oil mixture. Our team planned the songs, scripture readings and the order of service. I got a bowl to hold the ashes, and decided where and how I would impose them.
I found the words which are to be spoken while smearing the mixture on foreheads in the shape of a cross. "Dust you are--And to dust you will return." I wrote them in large letters on a piece of card stock, and placed it at the altar where I'd be able to read it if I got lost.
It Was the People I Love, and To Whom I Spoke Them
The problem first showed up when I told my children about the words: "Dust you are--And to dust you will return." The phrase stuck in my throat. It choked tears from my soul. How would I be able to mark them with the black muddy smudge, and tell them they would die?
And so the service came, and I looked into more than a hundred and twenty sets of eyes and told them they were going to die. I wept while telling these dear friends this hard truth. I sobbed when marking and speaking impending death to my children. I watched mothers eyeing me sadly, as I spoke to their young children--mothers who understood they could do nothing to change the reality of which I spoke. And I knelt, as a friend marked my head, and told me that I would be dust again someday.
I have lived and benefitted from the season of lent many times. I have never begun in such a low place. This is appropriate.
It amazed me that so many people thanked us for doing this service. So many spoke of the power of the symbol and the words. Several even said "Thank-you" to me through their tears, as they left the altar.
And I realized in a deeper sense than ever: I am a shepherd of mortals. I am a pastor of souls who are eternal. And they want nothing less of me, than that I would speak the truth to them. Even when it makes me shudder.