Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that begins the season of Lent. Lent is observed by Christians as a time of reflection during the 40 days prior to Easter. For me, Ash Wednesday is the most profound observance in the liturgical calendar. This year in particular, the Ash Wednesday service at my church will be especially significant.
I’ve been active my entire life in a mainstream protestant denomination. Childhood memories of our church traditions remind me that it was the seven days before Easter, known as holy week, that we were prompted to focus forward to the cross and beyond to the miracle of new life. Some of my childhood friends were Catholic, and I was aware that they did some things differently than my church. I remember thinking about their rule about eating only fish on Fridays for a time before Easter. Since fish was my least favorite food as a child, I thought my friends were being punished on Fridays in some way by their church, and I knew I didn’t want to be part of that. And because I was young and had other things to learn about life, I didn’t question beyond my small and uneducated assumption about their practice.
It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I was introduced to the observance of Lent in a new way when my family relocated to Albuquerque. We moved fairly often with my husband’s job and our first task in each new community was to find a church home for worship and fellowship. About a year into our life in this new faith community, we became friends with fellow choir members who were also new to the area. Dale and Ann, like us, were also far from their extended families, so we became one another’s local family. They were kind and patient to our young daughters and we shared the enjoyment of hiking and camping together, as well as activities in the life of our church.
I remember overhearing my friend Ann talking with another choir member one evening about her difficult experience shopping for foods which did not include refined sugar. Alarmed that she had acquired a health concern, I asked about her intent. Ann explained that she was preparing for the Lent season, and that she had decided to ‘give up’ sugar as her Lenten practice, but she was challenged that added sugar was an ingredient prevalent in much of our available foods. This immediately piqued my interest. Not the sugar problem, but the idea that a protestant person in my denomination would actively observe an exercise for Lent; after all, wasn’t that a Catholic tradition? Later in private, I asked Ann to explain why she practiced Lent in such a way. She explained how her spiritual life had been transformed by following daily mindfulness during the previous Lenten seasons. Knowing Ann as a person whose life showed her faith so clearly, her example convinced me that I too may practice Lent as a new way of exploring the mystery of God and to further my understanding of Jesus.
I know in my soul that God ‘speaks’ to us but I fail to recognize the message right away. One of my most fervent prayers pleads with God to make messages obvious, to make my ‘ears and eyes and mind’ available to those messages, because I need obvious sometimes to truly understand. With Ann as the messenger and through her willingness to reveal her personal practice to me, God nudged me forward.
That began my annual journey through Lent. Since then, I’ve not only ‘given up’ things for Lent, but have also added disciplines and studies to further my spiritual growth. 20 years later and living many states away from Ann, I begin each Lenten season in the Ash Wednesday service so to continue to prepare my mind, heart, and spirit each year through God-searching and soul-inspiring practices in the days prior to Easter.
My church community is now in Oklahoma, and it has a vibrant, loving membership whose care for one another is only outdone by their care for the least of these. Since before this church became my home, it was led in worship and in practice, by a remarkable pastor, Gary Byrkit. An authentic and gentle soul, he shared his wisdom gleaned from the gospel and a deep concern for us as his congregation and for the world. Never (I mean never!) did Gary fail to influence my mind and heart in new ways; prodding me so that I could come to my own conclusions, pointing me in the direction that the ultimate way to practice faith is to care for others through Jesus’ example as shown in the scriptures.
Every year since coming to this congregation, in the Ash Wednesday service I have quietly risen from my pew and moved toward the sacred table in our sanctuary for the solemn practice of receiving a cross of ashes on my forehead. I have slowly stepped forward with my fellow worshippers to stand, in a subdued single file of solidarity, before Reverend Gary. Dipping his finger into the black ashes which were remains of the palm leaves waved by children in the previous year’s Palm Sunday service, Gary then reached out to me, put his hands on both my shoulders, looked straight into my eyes with deep kindness in his, called me by name, by name, and said, “Kerry, from dust you came, and to dust you shall return.”…..reminding me that I always have and always will belong to God; then he marked my forehead with a cross of gritty ash. I am known, I am cared for…not only by this community of the faithful, but by the Creator of all that is… and Gary’s warm statement of that always stirred my soul to tears.
When I stand in the front of the sanctuary this evening to receive the mark of the cross, it will not be Reverend Gary who places it there. Gary died suddenly, unexpectedly last August, leaving his own family and our church family bereft of his leadership, of his tender loving care. I will weep as I receive those ashes tonight….I weep now knowing how deeply I will miss Gary in that moment.
While preparing for today’s Ash Wednesday service, feeling raw with both grief and gratitude for a man named Gary, God speaks. My soul knows this. Sometimes it is obvious, written in ashes…we belong to God.