I Want My Ashes

I was sitting in my study busily preparing for Ash Wednesday when I heard a gentle, almost imperceptible knocking at my closed door. When I opened the door, I looked down to see one of our preschoolers staring up at me. Her mother was close behind, and prompted her daughter by saying, “What was it you wanted to ask Pastor Chris?”

The little child said, softly, “I would like my ashes.”

“Your ashes?” I asked, unsure at first what was being said.

Her mother then explained that they were not going to be able to be present for the service later that night, but that her daughter insisted she wanted her ashes. They were coming to see if I had them and, if so, if I would place them on the little girl’s forehead ahead of time.

I didn’t have them ready yet, but we worked out an arrangement so that I could come downstairs to the preschool before the end of the day and place the ashes on her head.

I scrambled around after the morning Bible study, going up to the outdoor pavilion and burning the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday service in the grill. Time was running short before preschool let out, so I removed the ashes from the grill earlier than normal, mixed some olive oil in with the still smoldering ashes, and headed downstairs.

It must have been quite a sight (and smell), as I took the little girl out into the hallway with her mother, knelt down and placed my thumb into the still-warm, smokey mixture, smudging it onto this four year old child of God’s forehead – the same forehead on which I traced the cross after her baptism four years before – and pronouncing words that caught in my throat as I said them, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Later that night we began worship with a breathtaking musical piece, sung by a gifted trio of singers: Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes.” His interpretation of Psalm 121 is ethereal, setting a perfect mood for this day when we recognize our mortality and, in that recognition, come to understand our only true help is from the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps.

When the time came for the imposition of ashes, my colleague C.J. and I stood in different corners of the sanctuary and met those who wished to receive them. There was a great crowd, and almost everyone received ashes, so it took some time. I had those predictable moments of emotion as I placed the ashes on Kim, Caleb, and Chandler. It is never easy to say the words no husband or father wants to permit.

At the end of it all, after the benediction was said and we filed out, the only thing I could think about was that four year old girl, knocking on her pastor’s door, wanting her ashes. She was lifting her eyes, not to her pastor, but to a God she has experienced in the enfolding arms of this congregation, in stories told in Sunday school and nursery, in a home with faithful parents, in the remembrance of her baptism each time she comes forward to witness another child being baptized, and in the manifold ways she is told, every day, every week, “You belong to God.”

It is only someone who knows this deep sense of belonging – this rock-bottom awareness of God’s grace – who can bravely say, “I want my ashes.” I am grateful to worship and work in a place that instills this baptismal identity in all who come.

This Lent I am committed to emulating the brave faith of one of our youngest members. I want my ashes.

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Housekeeping

I have changed the settings so that it will be easier to make comments. Several folks, including my wife Kim, mentioned that they tried, but had to sign up first. You should be able to comment now.

We had a wonderful service of worship last night. I will post more thoughts on that later. It will suffice now to simply say that I give thanks to God for First Presbyterian and the family of peace and grace it is.

Ashes to Ashes

This week we mark the beginning of Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday. At First Presbyterian, for only the second time in our history, we will impose ashes on the foreheads of those who desire it, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Frankly, I can see why it has taken 186 years for First Presbyterian to celebrate Ash Wednesday. Reformation sensibilities aside, this annual cross-shaped smudge on the forehead is not a pleasant reminder. Though we cloak it in the ancient “dust to dust” language, the fact is that Ash Wednesday is really a reminder that we are going to die.

We are going to die. The little five year old boy who approached me last year at this service and offered me his lollypop even as I traced the sign of the cross on his head is going to die. So is the young couple who came through my station hand-in hand, love in their eyes, taking them off each other only long enough to watch as my blackened thumb approached their brows. The attorney who rushed from his busy office and barely made it in time to get in line will die as surely as the homeless person who came out in the bus for a hot meal and a warm bed. All these faces, young and old, rich and poor, all colors, all circumstances, all one day closer to the inevitable. I can understand why we try to avoid it. Who wants to be reminded of their own mortality?

No one wants to be reminded, of course, which is why Ash Wednesday is important. It is important because we are all of us prone to forgetting that we are mortal. In our forgetfulness, we are apt to think that we are responsible for all we are and all we have. In our forgetting, we are tempted to fall headlong into a culture that is, as my old professor Peter Hodgson says, “soulless, aggressive, nonchalant, and nihilistic.”

When we remember we are dust and to dust we shall return, we affirm the heart of the Reformed Tradition, “God is God, and we are not.” We acknowledge our utter dependence on God. We recognize that each breath we draw is gift, and each day we live is grace. We are freed from striving, freed from anxiety, freed from fear. We are dust. We belong to God. On Ash Wednesday, we remember who we are.

I hope at some point tomorrow, whether you receive ashes or not, you will take the time to begin your holy Lent by remembering:

You are dust.
You belong to God.

First Post

I am making a tentative step into the blogging world with this post. I intend it to be what the title suggests, a place to stop off and enjoy a wee dram of whatever suits my (and your) fancy.

“A wee dram,” for the uninitiated, is a Scottish phrase used to describe a small amount of the local beverage of choice (usually a single malt of one sort or another). Used here, it refers to the sharing of small amounts of whatever is on my mind regarding life in the church or out. I hope it will not be a monologue, but rather a chance for interaction. I am one of those Presbyterians who still believes we are better together than apart, and that means all of us, especially those with whom I may disagree. So I welcome conversation with all who are willing to talk, whether Presbyterian or something else.

And so it begins…