On Ash Wednesday, as a clergy-parent

 

 

IMG_2506-2
ash to ash… 

From dust you were made, and to dust you shall return…

——————

I love Ash Wednesday.  It’s such a… human event. I mean, we literally gather together to be reminded that we will die. Our faith is embodied, and our bodies are sacred… and our bodies die. 

Ash Wednesday ushers us into the season of Lent: an entire season set aside for remembering our humanity. Images of death surround us; many churches even veil the crosses and refrain from using the word “hallelujah.” Church life gets more somber. The lights dim and we breathe a little more slowly, paying attention to death and darkness.  

And that’s precisely why I love it: death is a natural part of life. This idea is so counter-cultural in our society of worshipping youthfulness and avoiding death at all costs, as we are able to artificially prolong life far past the ancients ever thought possible. Of course, the ancients did not bury their bodies in metal boxes like we do; their bodies decomposed into the elements. My family knows my wishes are to have a funeral, not a celebration-of-life service, because I believe death should be honored. To use the word died over lost or passed away can be jarring, because we don’t like to think about death or even name it, and yet, it’s all around us.

And on Ash Wednesday, we remember. 

———————————-

On my first Ash Wednesday as a brand-new senior pastor, I was ready. I had only been in that position for a couple weeks, and it was both bizarre and oddly fitting to begin our time together by entering into Lent. 

Inspired by colleagues, I offered Ashes to Go in the strip mall in which my congregation is housed; I made flyers and took them to all the neighboring businesses: the day care, the chiropractic office, the dive bar. 

I was ready. 

I had been generously gifted ashes from my previous call, a profound and tangible illustration of the interconnectedness of the Church. I worked and worked to get the mixture of ash and oil just so. 

A few people stopped by to receive ashes throughout the day, as I read liturgy from Chalice Worship. It was holy and beautiful. 

Later that night, I took a deep breath of gratitude as a handful of my new congregants entered the sanctuary, gathering for this sacred time together. Candles illuminated the space, bulletins and hymnals were passed out. 

I was ready. 

We read Scripture and sang, we sat in silence and prayed. And as the service began to draw to a close, it was time for the imposition of ashes: 

From dust you were made; to dust you shall return.

I remember feeling both honored and excited to be a part of this observance, as a line began to form with people in my new congregation. New faces: faces that would become trusted co-laborers in ministry, faces that would show fierce love and compassion, faces that would die. 

From dust you were made; to dust you shall return.

When my husband arrived at the front of the line, I took a deep breath. Just a couple years before, Ash Wednesday was his last service before he deployed to Iraq, and death is a familiar word for us as a military family. As I made the sign of the cross on his head, I was grateful that his new position would keep him home for a while, after so much time away.

From dust you were made; to dust you shall return.

But then. 

Then.

I was not ready for what happened next. 

Standing before me was my own child. 

Six years old. 

My breath caught, I couldn’t speak the words, and my eyes welled with tears. 

She smiled at me, blissfully unaware of the significance of what was happening.

From dust you were made, and to dust you shall return. 

She was followed in line by her siblings. Unable to compose myself, I imposed the ashes while whispering what few words I could choke out. These precious humans who I bore and labored for, who I continue to labor for with each passing year… will die.

The ones I would give my own life for, the ones from whom I want to protect from death and all suffering… will die. Speaking these words and imposing ashes on my own children is beautiful and terrifying and absolutely wrecks me. These are the hidden moments of clergy parenting, when our sacred work and our intimate family relationships come crashing together, like the rush of baptizing my own child and the whiplash of comforting my crying toddler moments before I step into the pulpit. 

But Ash Wednesday? My parent-heart wants to leave them at home, but… they belong in worship. I know that, on some level, they need this reminder… as do I: 

From dust you were made; to dust you shall return. 

As I face another Ash Wednesday, I’m still not ready. As they approach the front of the line, I’ll be thinking about the families all over the world for whom death is a familiar word, because their children have terminal illnesses. The families who are surrounded by violence. The families fighting for health care, for food, for shelter. I’ll be thinking about the families I know who have buried children and the recent headlines I’ve seen about children who have died. I’ll be thinking about families who are being displaced and who live every day with an uncertainty I can’t imagine. I’ll give thanks that my own kids are so healthy and safe, still knowing that none of us is promised another day. My parent-heart will break even as my pastor-heart will be filled with joy that the Spirit is with them from their first breath to their last, no matter what. 

And one more time, I will utter those devastatingly true words: 

From dust you were made; to dust you shall return.

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