Entering the unknown; our feet have stepped down into the shaky silt of intentional brokenness and death.
Lent is here, and we have chosen to move into it, palms up, foreheads raised, hearts cracked open; waiting for water.
First things, first: Two nights ago I facilitated an Ash Wednesday service for the first time in my life. Blessed by an abundance of resources and wisdom (namely, my brother and The Google), I crafted an order – a ‘liturgy’ – and printed programs and pulled together three outstanding, heart-tender musicians and we travelled to the faraway place that I call ‘home’ on Sundays and twice during the week.
Candles and burlap and terra cotta pottery in front of a semicircle of chairs. Oil dripped into the midst of ashes burned from bits and pieces of backyard detritus.
We sang the songs and read the words and walked, together, through a confession that poked its bony finger into every part of my humanity. During those moments, I reminded myself – often – that this focus on our collective humanity is a necessary thing. To understand freedom, you must look at your chains. To live into redemption, you must see the need.
Have mercy on us, Lord.
Again and again, the same plea.
Have mercy on us, Lord.
Collectively, it was a powerful thing; to be with people that I love, in this place of confession and emptying. Because our church has never had an Ash Wednesday gathering, my experiences over the past several years have all been as a stranger, in another church house; part of the larger Body of Christ but completely unconnected from those standing before, behind, and around me. But last night, to look into the eyes of people that I know; well, I could not find words to describe the welling of emotion in my throat that wrapped itself around the words that gave life and breath to our togetherness. These were my people, and it mattered.
And there is this: Twice, on this Ash Wednesday, I felt the full weight of what it means for me, in this space, in this season, to be a pastor; to bear the burden and responsibility of leading and shepherding and – at my core – to simply love a group of people who gather in search of grace. First: Wednesday morning, in the backyard, I searched for materials with which to create ash; because we did not have a Palm Sunday service the prior year, I had no palms to burn (the traditional way to get the ashes). I gathered bits and pieces from the backyard burn pile; sticks and twigs, a segment of pine from our dried, brittle Christmas tree, a snip of lavender from the plant leftover from Shannon’s wedding. An aluminum paint bucket held it all.
I dropped a match into the bucket.
Squatting on the deck in the chill morning air, I watched as the flames reduced the raw materials to grey soot and cinders. It’s not necessarily a pretty, sacred picture to imagine, but for me there was a raw holiness in that moment; one in which I prepared tangible material to bring to the community that I loved, material that would mark a definitive beginning to a unique and particular season of our journey – both together, and on our own. The simplicity of the preparation, this act of burning things to bring to our gathering – it was a surprisingly powerful and emotional moment for me.
Second: While in the service, the time that we wove together scripture and song and confession, I felt something unlike anything I’d ever experienced from the perspective of leader. As I stood in front of this group of 50-odd men, women and kids, I could clearly see their faces. Most I knew; several, I did not. Some, I knew very well; their joys and sorrows imprinted on my heart from previous conversations and experiences. Some faces brimmed with expectation and welcome; others were masked by hesitancy and veiled caution. I looked upon them all and began to speak the words I had to share – words from my heart and a deep, almost desperate desire to explain and affirm and gently lead.
I spoke, we sang, we confessed.
The final act in the service was the imposition of ashes; and isn’t that an interesting way to say Come up and let me mark your forward with soot? The word itself – ‘imposition’ – feels like a negative, blustering, assertive act of aggression, almost. To ‘impose’ something is to lay upon someone a burden or demand – often unwelcome.
It got me thinking a lot; as we participated in the imposition of ashes, I was “The Imposer”, as the leader; and so what, exactly, was I doing? Was I imposing, literally? What is this act about?
Serious stuff (especially for one who sometimes thinks too much.)
I believe in the challenge of growth, of being better than we are. I believe in the redemptive possibilities that the things we understand, that govern our behavior, are malleable. I believe that the places in which we are stuck are opportunities for adaptation.
I believe that far too often, we settle. We choose what is easy, because we are comfortable, or lazy, or afraid. I believe that we are capable of so much more discipline and determination.
I believe that our past often determines our perspective, and that adjustments are necessary and possible, when we are willing to be honest with ourselves and others.
I believe that to answer the question, What is it that haunts you? brings a unique freedom to face those fears and the the ghosts of our past can become holy things (as Peter Rollins says).
And I believe a confrontation with death and brokenness, in a solemn space of contemplation, invites us to begin forward motion that will propel us, or perhaps drag us, kicking and screaming, into the celebration of resurrection – that of Jesus, and maybe even our own.
As I contemplate these things that I do, so desperately, believe, it seems that imposition is perhaps not such a bad way to describe this act. To believe that I have a holy calling, a specific role, a vocational unction – the compelling nature of imposing an invitation of hope is, I think, exactly as it should be.
And it was, by far, one of the most holy and sacred things I have ever done.