Ash Wednesday: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Today the Baptist church I serve, gathered with our sisters and brothers of Saint Peter Episcopal Church for Ash Wednesday.  The beginning of the Season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday is not normally part of the Baptist tradition and it is beautiful to see distinct branches of the Christian tree come together for a common purpose. For this ‘liturgically challenged’ Baptist, my spiritual imagination has been enriched and expanded by the addition of Ash Wednesday.

In my previous setting in Oregon, we shared this ritual with a Roman Catholic congregation.  For the Latino/Latina members of that congregation, it was the largest service of the year.  It was beautiful to worship in Spanish and English.

Here in New England, we gather with an Episcopal Church.  The crowd and diversity may not be the same, but the meaning we find in the company of one another is a constant.

For this ritual, ashes are placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross.  The ashes are presented with these words, “Repent and believe in the Good News”.  It is a truly intimate act to look someone in the eyes, offering ancient words of repentance, as you smudge their forehead with ashes.  You can’t avert your eyes, you can’t deny your vulnerability.

In our highly individualistic culture, Ash Wednesday is profoundly counter cultural.  This ritual reminds us that we come from dust and to dust we will return.  The placing of the ashes on the forehead is an ‘in  your face’ reminder that the illusion of our immortality, and hyper individualism,  is just that, an illusion.

There is something strangely reassuring, in acknowledging one’s mortality.  Rather than being a morbid ritual, Ash Wednesday is a reminder to savor the gift of life, to take care of each other.  A reminder that one day, each of us returns to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.

Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.

Sheer Silence: Part Two

In the midst of the busyness and noise of daily life, where can we turn for perspective and refreshment?  Is there an antidote from our seemingly relentless pace?

The answer is simple and profound: Practice being quiet.  Each day carve out space for rest and renewal.

What I’m suggesting is counter-cultural.  Be assured that the dominate culture will do everything in its power, subtle and overt, to get you back on the treadmill of busyness and noise.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  You and I have the power to make changes.  Here are three steps to help you experience the gift of silence:

First, begin with a question:  ‘Where can you go and what can you do, to help you to be quiet, to reflect and relax?”  The answers are personal.

Second, put your idea (s) into practice.  Carve out at least 30 minutes.  Consider when in the day you have time.  If you are a busy parent or working a demanding job, this may take some creative planning.  Then put your idea into practice.  Try something multiple times to give it a chance.

Here are a few ideas (once you’ve turned off your phone):  Go for a run or walk, play in your garden, savor a hot drink in a restful setting, yoga, tai chi, walk your dog, cocoon with your cat, stroll in a park, choose a brief reading to quiet your mind…the list is endless.

Third, focus on your breath. Take a deep relaxed breath in and let your breath out.  Slow and easy.  Relaxed breathing will drop your blood pressure and increase the amount of oxygen in your blood stream.  Physiologically your muscles will relax and you’ll think more clearly.

Lectio Divina at Independence Park Beach

Consider sharing the silence with others. Most religious traditions understand the power of shared silence.  For ten years, once per week, I’ve started my day with a small group for Lectio Divina (meditating on Scripture).   During the summer we meet at a local beach.  The group holds me accountable to show up and shared meditation affirms the importance of being quiet.

Thomas Keating the Trappist monk and mystic says: “God’s first language is silence.  Everything else is a poor translation.”   Keating understands that silence is not an end unto itself but a doorway through which we may sense God’s loving presence.

To be clear I am not a natural contemplative.  I’m an extrovert.  I get a rush out of being busy.  But I also know that there are gifts to be found in being quiet.

Being quiet offers perspective and a foundation upon which to stand, from which to live.  When we are over stimulated we lose perspective, become unbalanced, anxious.

I invite you to try the following for one month: Carve out 30 minutes a day to be quiet.  Do that which helps you slow down.  Focus on the relaxed rhythm of your breath…  After each week make a mental note as to what you like and don’t like about being quiet, make adjustments to find what works best for you.  At the end of one month, if you’d like, send me an email at and let me know how you’re doing.

I wish you well in being quiet.  It’s an acquired ability.  Be patient.  Enjoy.


Naomi’s Potlatch

On an appointed Sunday, Naomi invited her friends to her apartment to go through boxes of books and to take whatever we liked.  Naomi was raised in a family that treasured books.  She worked for many years as a book buyer and had accumulated many boxes of books.

Over the course of the afternoon a steady stream of friends stopped by.  Many of these books had a special place in Naomi’s heart and each was a gift of friendship.   It seems that Naomi had far more books than her lovely, cozy apartment could make room for.   For sometime the boxes had been stored in that uniquely American growth industry, a storage center.

Naomi however is a soul who values both books and friends and it didn’t seem right to lock away what she no longer needed or had room for. So she entered upon a profoundly counter-cultural act, to give away most of her books.   No storage locker, no garage sale, no eBay.

She served wine and cheese and provided box upon box for our sorting pleasure.  Often she would recommend a book to a particular friend making the gift even more special.  I was reminded of the Native American potlatch.   A potlatch is a gift giving ceremony and economic system practiced by indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest coastline.  The word comes from the Chinook language meaning to give away.

To give something away simply for the pleasure of another is a wonderful experience.  To give that which you value away for the well-being of the community is beautiful to behold.  For the tribes of the Pacific Northwest the potlatch was based upon the core belief that the community was to be valued and honored.  What better way than to gift what you hold most dear with those that you rely upon the most.  The indigenous people believed that our true security rested not on what we accumulate but rather upon the support and caring of one’s fellow community members.

The potlatch is based upon the belief that there is always enough to go around, that those with much will share with those who have less.   The potlatch teaches that we all go through times of wealth and scarcity and what is constant is the support of the community.  In our highly individualistic society Naomi’s book potlatch is radical stuff.

Naomi is a generous soul by choice and by nature.  A relative newcomer to McMinnville she has come to treasure the friendships she’s made and the ways she has been welcomed into people’s hearts.   Her book potlatch was a reminder that we belong to one another.   Thank you Naomi for the great books, particularly the one by Robert Coles that you recommended.   Thank you for reminding us of the importance of community.