Wednesday, February 18, 2015


This is the second year we have offered Ashes to Go.I know the whole idea makes some people's blood run cold but my experience is that this is worth doing. I think I have given ashes to about 30 people today outside of a Church service (and a lot more within the services). When they tell the story of why they have come, which not all of them do, it is never a story of "I can't be bothered."
There was the couple in from out-of-state for one of them to have surgery at Mayo. There was a woman with a sick child. There were parents who had spouses away and could not get to Church easily. There was the woman who promised her son they would  go home and read about what they had just done. There was the crossing guard who told me how much she loved Jesus, there was even the reporter who had come from the local paper to cover the story.
Those who told stories spoke of regret at missing the liturgy of the day but were profoundly grateful for the opportunity to pause and receive ashes. We gave away Lenten meditation booklets, so that this was not isolated and random.
Someone had posted on Facebook that this was like having a vending machine for communion. No, not really. Bread and wine, taken, broken, blessed are a part of a sacrament- I am not sure ashes fall into quite the same category. They are a sign, a blessed sign, but they seem to be, somehow, more portable.
I would not suggest a vending machine for Ashes either. It is too important that we make contact with people, too important that we are a living face for the God who calls us to repentance. I would challenge the nay-sayers to, at least, observe ashes-to-go with an open heart and prayers for those participating. It is a rich blessing that God allows us to touch lives in such simple acts yet in such unknown ways.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ash Wednesday

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”.
At first sight those words seem strange and depressing – after all it seems as though we might just be reminding ourselves of the inevitability of death and sort of driving ourselves into the ground. Ash Wednesday seems like precisely the sort of negative publicity which the church should be avoiding, the negativity, the emphasis on sin and our generally miserable demeanour.
In fact, I find Ash Wednesday, and Lent in general, an enormous relief. I have to have no motive for being here, other than wanting to stand before god as exactly who I am in exactly the state I am in – good and bad together.
If we take this opportunity afforded by the Church calendar seriously, to consider our createdness and those pieces of that createdness which so desperately need mending and healing Ash Wednesday becomes the beginning of joy and hope.
Discipline is another word which the Church would probably do well to avoid if we want to be popular in the world around us. After all discipline reeks of old school teachers with bad breath tying up our enthusiasm for life with needless and endless rules and regulations. But then there is that other and much more liberating side to discipline, that piece which we all know we need.  That piece which says I will not eat that second piece of chocolate cake because…….
Lent stands at the beginning of an arc of Church time which really will not end until Pentecost. In this arc we will find the whole story of the Church, and if we pause long enough to find it, the whole story of ourselves in Christ. There is no magic, or secret. There are simply points at which, during our life, we must come before God, kneel down and say – sorry, this is where I messed up, help me to do better. There is no shortcut and depending on the year that has been, on the places where we are walking, on the folk around us, that very process of saying sorry will be more or less painful.
Lent though is not a one step process, it is not just the saying of sorry it is learning the living of sorry, and this is a very different thing. This is the thing that it is hard to explain. We have sometimes created a bit of a fairy-tale out of our faith which says that is you say that you believe in Jesus loudly enough and boldly enough in every situation then that will be enough.
I am not sure about you, but I would not want to be operated on by a brain surgeon whose sole qualification was saying very loudly many times that she was a brain surgeon. Saying we are Christians and living into that faith are steps along a journey – one is not enough without the other. We must engage with the word of God, with Christian community. We must endeavour to learn our faith both by practicing its various aspects and through academic study. We must participate in activities of the Church – in worship and the sacraments – and all of these things are discipline – and this is hard for us in a world where everything else is pretty much divided into work and not-work.
Work is what I have to do to make ends meet, to survive, to pay the bills. Not work is everything else and, often because work is pretty miserable, I want the not-work to be fun all the time and I am disappointed and want to give up when it is not.
The bad news is that being a Christian is not 24/7 entertainment – it is not all about feeling good about ourselves – it is about so much more. It is about those moments when we really need answers, when we run out of steam, when words fail or things are just not as they should be – in other words it is about those moments when we need the sort of healing which goes beyond doctors and medicine and then suddenly it is OK that we are dust, to dust we shall return – because suddenly that makes sense.
The God who made us, formed us, created us, atom upon atom still holds us, calls us onwards and towards home.
The Gospel today might seem to you, as it often does to me, an odd choice. Don’t disfigure your faces, says Jesus, just before we put ash on our heads.  Of course, the Gospel is less about what we are doing and much more about where our hearts and minds are settled. If for one second you are walking out of here today in order to parade your Ash – please wipe it off before you go anywhere. But my guess is, in this society that does not go very far, the risk of ridicule is far higher than any perceived sense of superiority we might ever feel from a dirty smudge on our heads.
The real question is then, where is your heart? Is your heart a heart of dust, longing for the creator, knowing from whence it came – yearning for where it is going. Are you standing broken-hearted, waiting for the wholeness and healing that this Lenten journey can bring. Ready to do the work, put in the hours, take a step forward in the right direction.
You see that is the other thing the Gospel is about, Jesus is looking for a single step in the right direction, he is desperate for the breaking down of those awful barriers of self-determination which the people have set up around themselves – let me in, let me be in you  - might be his single plea to them.
Broken hearted is not about being depressed and miserable for the next forty days, it is about leaving enough space for God to work. Whatever outward disciplines you choose, it is the inner work of the Spirit which you are making space for. As we come forward today, we are simply who we are, who God made us, open and ready to begin a journey.
Remember we are all dust, and to dust we shall return.


And so we come to plant our feet
At a beginning
Deliberately, carefully turning over
Words like dark soil slipping through fingertips
Dust thou art
Dust like the dry land which will not feed a soul
Dust like the desert road churned by angry feet
Dust, dry, parched.

But then the rain.
Dust becomes a river, a soaked and holy descent
Wave after wave.
Dust thou art, parched, dry,
And to dust you shall return but as those dry bones breathed,
As life breath seen
As new growth green.

We plant our feet and stand.
Forty days and fifty, forty steps and twelve brave marchers
Forty thousand particles of dusty messy dust
Becoming life
Through this Lenten offering.
Remember, dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.