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.

Rise Up in Love

In my tradition Lent begins today. A six week season leading up to Easter.  A time to slow down and listen for the ways in which that great mystery we call ‘Spirit’ is speaking into our lives.  Sometimes the Spirit guides with a nudge, sometimes a slap upside the head.  Even so, we often miss the cues.

Many of us are over stimulated and over scheduled.  Certain politicians foster anxiety and division by telling us whom to fear.  In the wake of such busyness and noise…how do we tune in to the ways in which God speaks?  Is there a way to get in sync with God’s eternal rhythm?

Last week I went on a spiritual pilgrimage to Nicaragua.  Our team of ten spent ten days living in Apontillo, a rural, isolated village in the District of Matagalpa.  Our team worked alongside local leaders installing 40 water filters and staffing a health fair where we screened for anemia in children.   We fell in love with the people.

We were hosted by AMOS: Health and Hope  http://www.amoshealth.org/ a faith-based mission that empowers communities to develop best practices to ensure basic health care for all.  Ada Luz serves as AMOS’ Health Promoter for her community. She is the only accessible health provider for her community of 1300.

On Mondays and Fridays she sees up to 40 patients who may walk three hours to see her.  The other days she walks the mountainous terrain to visit those pregnant, newborns or those in poor health.  She’s always on call for an emergency.

It was humbling and inspiring to see how Ada Luz with the support of her community take care of each other.  A sense that ‘we are in this together’.

Such a witness is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in Matthew 22: 34 – 40, in response to a question: “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus responds: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’.  This is the first and greatest commandment, And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In Apontillo we had fewer distractions…no cell reception, no WiFi, no politicians and  cable news chumming the waters of fear.  Rather, we had time to listen, pray, reflect on Scripture and be inspired by the humble service of people like Ada Luz.

Now back in the ‘real world’,  I want to hold onto what I learned and the neighborly rhythm we experienced in Nicaragua.  I want to spend less time being fearful and more time being generous.  Less time excluding and more time including. To hold onto the eternal truth that what  truly matters is ‘love’.

photo-nica-team-2017
Nicaragua Mission Team with village friends and Ada Luz (in center wearing white).

Maybe like me, you are a follower of Christ.  Maybe not.  But we all need time to slow down.  To look around and know that we’re not really all that different.

For me the Season of Lent reminds us to be mindful, to focus on what truly matters.  To put into practice that which Jesus says is foundational for how to live and be.