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A journey in ashes

Woman receiving ashes on her forehead.

“I invite you, on the heels of General Conference, to observe a holy Lent,” says Michigan Bishop David Bard. His counsel, “slow down and dig deep” in this uncertain time.

Michigan Area

If you are taking time to read this, you may be expecting another word about the recently completed special session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Though General Conference will certainly not be absent from this essay, it will serve more as background than foreground. 

My previous letter containing initial reflections on General Conference has been shared, and thank you for sharing it with others. I will be soon sending out another letter to clergy and lay leaders encouraging leading from places of hope, courage, heart, and tenderness rather than fear, anxiety and reactivity. I have in my mind a third, longer pastoral letter and am wondering if that might not best come following the next meeting of the Judicial Council which will be ruling on the constitutionality of the petitions approved at General Conference. I will be looking at my calendar to see what might be possible for a few face-to-face gatherings for conversation. 

Because we are waiting for the Judicial Council rulings on the petitions passed by General Conference, there remains much uncertainty. Additionally, you need to know that any legislation passed at General Conference that is constitutional will not take effect until January 1, 2020. Thank you for your patience in the midst of all of this.

Coming directly from General Conference, entering the season of Lent seems fitting. In the service for Ash Wednesday in our United Methodist Book of Worship, the worship leader shares these words as part of a longer invitation: “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: the early Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration there should be a forty-day season of spiritual preparation. … In this way, the whole congregation was reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent.”

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday when we are reminded of our mortality, that our bodies will age and decay and return to the dust. During the season, somber colors are encouraged. We are reminded of our limits. We are invited to be in touch with our brokenness. Some of the words of the prayer offered in my listening session before General Conference are particularly appropriate: “Redeeming God, heal our broken places even as we acknowledge that we are often complicit in the brokenness of our lives and of our world.”

Coming from General Conference, it feels fitting to enter a season reminding me of limits, mortality, of brokenness and of my own complicity in that brokenness. I think of the beginning of a poem by Robert Bly, a Minnesota poet whose hometown was located in the district where I once served as superintendent. “Come with me into those things that have felt this despair for so long.” Lent invites us into deep and serious self-examination and self-reflection. It invites us to take the pain seriously, hurt, anguish, loss, uncertainty, and injustice in our lives and in the world. Lent asks us to slow down and dig deep, to pray from the depth of our hearts and souls.

Lent is a time to acknowledge grief, loss, sadness, brokenness, woundedness, and limits, but not for the sake of wallowing in them. God’s Spirit invites us into Lent so the Spirit can do the work of expanding our hearts, enlivening our minds, enlarging the capacity of our souls. I invite us to stay with some of the difficult feelings of Lent, as uncomfortable as that may be, trusting that God’s Spirit is at work in us.

God is about the work of moving us from sadness to tenderness. Some years ago I read these words that struck a deep chord within me. “We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy. …  The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness.” (Wendy Lesser, The New American Spirituality, 180)  This is Lenten work.

God is about the work of taking ashes and breathing into them to create new life. The traditional liturgical phrase when ashes are imposed on one’s forehead is, “you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” Yet we say that knowing we are also created in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27)  We hear the words of Genesis 2: “then the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.” (v. 7) We hear Paul write, “do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (I Corinthians 3:16)

God is about the work of resurrection. At the end of Lent comes Easter, the joyous good news that God raised Jesus, crucified by the Romans, from the dead. In the resurrection of Jesus comes the promise of new life for us. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” (II Corinthians 5:17)

Thinking about Lent this year, words from another Robert Bly poem come to mind. “We did not come to remain whole./We came to lose our leaves like the trees,/The trees that are broken/And start again, drawing up from the great roots;/… That we should learn of poverty and rags,/… And swim in the sea,/Not always walking on dry land,/And dancing, find in the trees a savior,/A home in dark grass,/And nourishment in death.”  I think of the words of Jesus, “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

In the name of the Church, I invite you, on the heels of General Conference 2019, to observe a holy Lent. Take the pain, hurt, anguish, loss, grief, uncertainty, and injustice in our lives and in the world seriously. Slow down and dig deep. Pray from the depth of your hearts and souls. Trust that if you do, God’s Spirit will continue God’s work of moving us from sadness to tenderness, of taking ashes and creating life, of resurrection.     

Not Every Step Along the Way is Joyful Even When the Journey Is.

Last Updated on March 12, 2019

The Michigan Conference