By the looks of my blog, you wouldn’t have guessed that we’ve entered into Lent. It’s so early this year (you can’t see me, but I’m shaking my fist at the lunar cycle). I wasn’t quite ready for it.
But we had an Ash Wednesday Service last night.
The sanctuary’s not huge, but when 30 people show up for a service, it seems like it. So we often gather in the choir loft during the midweek. There’s a big, beautiful stained glass window in the back of the sanctuary, which no one gets to see, other than the pastors and the choir (what was the architect thinking?). This gives us all a chance to see the glass. It allows us to enjoy the beauty of the sanctuary, without being engulfed by it. And it makes it feel like a packed house, rather than an empty one.
We sang songs from Taize, read Psalm 51, and confessed. And since we were thinking about “ashes to ashes” and the frailty of human life, I opened the service up for people to talk about those who died, or those who came before them. We had never done anything like it, and I was a bit worried about what would transpire. (What if no one says anything? What am I going to do? Am I just going to sweat it out in silence for 20 minutes? Or will we end with an awkward 15 service?) But they did. The storied poured out.
A college student talked about a friend who died too young. A young professional spoke of a grandmother-in-law, with whom she felt a wonderful affinity. A daughter spoke about her father who recently passed away, while her mom sat in a pew next to her, listening gratefully. A biology professor, who’s been teaching for many years, spoke about his father, and how not a day has passed when he hasn’t thought about him. One woman talked about how she never knew her grandmother. But her mother gave her this wonderful gift. The mother translated a pack of Swedish letters for her daughter, and so now the daughter is unfolding the stationery and discovering her grandmother. My colleague, who’s been at the church for 25 years, spoke about the woman who was the head of his search committee, who worked for personnel at the state department. At her funeral he learned that she had protected many LGBT workers, making sure that they didn’t get fired. People didn’t just speak of those who died, but also friends who taught them, hosts who made them feel comfortable.
It was an important time for me, since I’ve lost a significant mentor and a former professor this week. I won’t be able to attend either memorial service. So I needed a few moments, to grieve and to be thankful.
When we received the black cross on our heads, with a whispered “ash to ash, dust to dust,” we were reminded of the frailty, as well as the sweetness of life.
That’s what makes this job so precious. Because we’re there, next to the babies being baptized and we’re there next to the hospital beds. We’re there to celebrate the union of loving couples, and we’re there, praying when the relationship seems to be falling apart.
Everything surrounding the bereaved is telling them to just “get over it,” to skip through the stages of loss as quickly as possible. Even in our society which rarely speaks of death by natural causes, we have a place where we gather, to celebrate and grieve, in the full spectrum of human life, giving people the space to feel. Allowing them to form the words. We let them say it: “I miss her. Every day since she’s been gone, I think about her.” Even when it’s been twenty years since the death.
Where else can we talk about the frailty and sweetness of our lives? And so, thanks to my good community, I’m ready to enter these forty days.
photo’s by theologienne