Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday: The surprising difficulty

Last night was one of surprising difficulty.

Death Vigils
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.


Michele said...

During last night's service, I recalled the words you spoke both at Christmas and last Sunday....about the "shekinah glory" and referring to it as "heavy-ness." At Christmas this might be a difficult definition to grasp, but last night I truly felt we were entering into the "heavy glory" of God. The service was awe-ful and I felt honored to be sharing it with my family and my church family--both whom I love so dearly. There really are no words....maybe a picture will take form.

Zee said...

I am a shepherd of mortals. I am a pastor of souls who are eternal. - quotable quote...

We don't have Ash Wednesday here... but reading your words... I might propose it at our Church - it's something that we don't want to think about, yet it's an important reminder... and while our bodies will indeed become mere dust, the breath of God in each one of us that was breathed first into Adam will live forever.

david said...

Thx Shel. I hadn't thought of shekinah last night, but it may just fit. Zee, I couldn't help but share that good news with the children who came forward. Good to Skype earlier!

Dave Clark, An Urban Dweller said...

David, I have struggled more than anything else with this very thing . . . telling people the truth. And yet I find so drawn to the church we attend here in the city, LaSalle Street Church, where our pastor has become so very good at speaking hard truth. I have always appreciated those who speak the hard truths into my life. I am beginning to understand that I must also speak those hard truths when called upon. Thanks for sharing your Ash Wednesday experience! I also remember how difficult it was to face death when Paula was diagnosed stage IV melanoma and we were told six months to a year. (Thankfully, she is still here 10 years later!) I also know how facing death dramatically changed our lives and gave us a freedom never experienced before that facing. Blessings upon you in your obedience to the whispers God is placing in your mind and heart!

david said...

Thanks Dave for your insights here. Speaking the truth in love... Why so difficult? Interesting the honesty and openess which your own wife's death call presented in your home. I read an interview of Wil Willaman yesterday where he said something very similar. Something to the effect that...the kingdom requires us to speak bible stories and biblical truths from the perspective of God, not our own categories...