As difficult as many days can be, I’m always grateful for the new start that each day brings. There is a feeling of new chances after rest, morning coffee and prayers for the day. It’s the same with my students coming in the door of my class. They are newly scrubbed (well, most of the time!), fed, with lunches packed for the day ahead and I am reminded that they are experiencing this too.
For me, our community’s meetings are kind of like the beginning of a new day as well. No matter how off track my addled mind and heart have become during the day, there is always a chance for renewal as we reflect on scripture, talk and pray together. More often than not, God uses these times to get me back on track. I know everyone in the group would say the same.
This past Wednesday, our normally boisterous group went downstairs to our meeting space at Cal and Linda’s house in silence. We were about to have our Ash Wednesday service. Some in the group that evening had never been to an Ash Wednesday service before and I wondered what they were thinking as we all watched the glowing candles.
I had been looking forward to this evening. I knew that I needed to get refocused on my deepest values and on my spiritual path. I took deep breaths in the silence, hopeful and expectant.
Church services might not sound like the most inviting thing to many people, especially during the week, but I have a hunch that seekers from whatever faith would love being with us. Our meetings are meaningful conversations on what matters most in life.
That evening, Paul gave a talk about Ash Wednesday. He talked about one of his first jobs, years ago, as an Educational Assistant at a Catholic school. Ash Wednesday rolled around and as a Protestant, he was taken aback by the black, cross-shaped smudges on students and teachers. Ever the curious student, Paul asked what the ashes were about, and a teacher (who was non-Catholic) gave him an answer that always stuck with him, “The ashes remind us that we are human, our time is limited, and our choices matter.”
Bringing this good quotation to life, Paul invited us in his talk to reflect on memories we had which dragged up our mistakes, losses or sorrows. It may not sound like a fun way to spend an evening, but as he talked, everyone’s ears perked up. We all have dark companions; character traits or problems that continually beset us. Depression and anger is like that for me. Sometimes it seems like they are the only reality of our lives. Paul’s teacher was was right, we need reminders that we are human, or else we begin to make poor choices. Like the character Amir in the book The Kite Runner was told, we all need a chance to be good again; to be forgiven for where we’ve blown it.
Paul talked about one of his greatest life’s failures – of the ideals he had had for a church more than 20 years ago, and how he began to love his ideals more than the actual community. His reforming energy led to perfectionism and a loss of love for God’s people. His dreams turned to ashes as he became burned out, his fondest hopes going totally off track. Like the nun had told him, he was reminded of his humanity. It was no accident that in those years (in the previous, larger church he pastored), we had our first Ash Wednesday service. He offered up his mistakes to God and invited us to do the same. Our small house church is proof that God can make something beautiful out what we think of as dead ends.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian most famous for standing up to Hitler (and being hung for it), once wrote a famous
letter from prison in the days leading to his execution, and Paul shared the quote with us:
“Nothing that is past is lost… God gathers up again with us our past, which belongs to us… Everything is taken up in Christ… Christ restores all this as God originally intended it to be.”
The most moving part of Wednesday evening came when Paul asked us each to think of a memory that we wanted to offer up. We each did this silently, writing 2 or 3 words on a slip of paper. I wrote “Angry helper” on mine. We put the slips in a bowl which Cal and Linda burned one by one. We watched in silence as the small flames danced in the bowl. The silence combined with our problems offered up to the flames was evocative, and I teared up. It felt like I was letting go of my efforts and saying, “Here you go God. Take all of this. I don’t know how to fix this. Only You know how to bring healing.”
We were each invited to see ourselves as God saw us: forgiven and loved, warts and all. I was reminded of the famous Rumi poem which says,
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of living, it doesn’t matter
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come even if you have broken your vow a thousand times,
Come, yet again, come, come.
I think everyone in the room felt new hope stir up in ourselves as we gave our predicaments to God. We passed the bowl of ashes around the circle, making a cross on hands or foreheads as generations before us have done. Going home with Lyle, I felt becalmed and at peace. I still felt this the next morning. I knew that it was what I wanted to write about this week in the blog.
The next few weeks leading to Easter will be a time where we continue to go forward in this spirit as a community. I am so thankful that God sees new beginnings where we see only endings. I don’t know where I’d be without this hope.