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March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday

His recovery was going well; the chest pains reduced to the unavoidable soreness of a broken sternum. His spirits were high, after having slogged through the predicted ups and downs of triple bypass heart surgery at age sixty-four. Healing and restoration of body, mind and spirit were well on their way.

But then, the supporting actor, the spouse and caregiver, plunged all on her own. For three days she cried and entered a dark room and consumed sadness. This was not predicted; this came swooping in with no seeming reason or cause. For three days she was falling. Her husband, her mom, her sister, the president-elect, her colleagues, the God who flung the stars and created the daffodil, along with the driver plodding along the River Road at twenty-five miserable miles an hour, became the cause of her wrath and anguish.

Days later, when she was able to close the door on that dark room of sadness, she discovered a gift in the form of a medical study. As bypass surgery patients begin to feel better and move assuredly toward recovery at around week six, the caregiving spouse takes a nosedive. Her body preempted this trend and plunged at week four. It had, after all, been eight long and emotional months since his second heart attack…

My descent was textbook, predictable, and could have been scheduled. But no one spoke about this to me in the hospital, in the doctor’s office; there were no pamphlets describing the caregivers’ journey, no one sat me down and cautioned me about the recovering process as a supporting cast member.

Today is Ash Wednesday. We prepare for a noonday and 7 pm service in which worshippers will come forward to receive the marking of ashes on their foreheads. Strange. What an odd ritual. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Students come—hoards of them, and like hungry birds present their foreheads and hungrily receive the blackened small cross along with those candid words.

Each forehead is unique, some sport heavy bangs that need to be pushed aside, some are greasy and marked with acne, some are surrounded by hair made stiff and brittle by hairspray. Some foreheads lead to baldness from cancer treatment, others are the fresh foreheads of a baby or toddler and I squat mark them. And it feels out of place to say to those young beings: remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.  This is too much truth and too much mortality to say out loud to the innocent.

Yet, on this day in the church year, we immerse ourselves in the honest truth that all life returns to the earth. There is deep comfort in being told the truth, in knowing what is coming, what to expect, it’s textbook. And into this truth dwells the promise, the dust to which you will return is held in my loving and fierce embrace, declares the star-hurling Creator. You may think your life is in your control, but it is not. There is freedom and fresh air in this thought. I can let go, be suspended by this grace, knowing there is no way around this mortal life other than through it.  The body will collapse a bit after caring for someone, we will face emotional outbursts, we hit our limits, we fall apart, we collapse. In those times we encounter vulnerability and finitude. We glimpse and grasp a promise, a word and receive a gritty cross, etched on our foreheads.  And by this action we feel the words: you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.

“All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song. Alleluia.” (223 ELW)

Blessed Lenten journey to you, Pastor Mary
Invocation for Lent
Into a dark world
a snowdrop comes
a blessing
of hope and peace
carrying within it
a green heart
symbol of God’s renewing love
Come to inhabit our darkness
Lord Christ, for dark and light
are alike to you
May nature’s white candles of hope
remind us of your birth
and lighten our journey
through Lent and beyond                                      

- Kate McIlhagga, The Pattern of Our Days


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