So, I ended up helping shape the Ash Wednesday service at church. This is the first part of what I had to say:
Thanks, so much for being here tonight. My name is Jeff, and I am so honored to celebrate and mourn this day with you. I have been here at the woo for six months or so, now, and I have kind of fallen in love with this place and this community. A guy who is one of my favorite people, a personI have been deeply sharing my life with, came to the woo at pretty much the same time as me. He has the extraordinary honor of also being named Geoff. As we have gotten to know some of you, we have had this sense of not only how open and kind and loving you all are, but also of the idea that there is some pain in this place, some hurts that are being carried around. It was when we shared these observations with Lucas that he asked us if we would be interested in taking a roll in shaping tonight’s Ash Wednesday service. And so here we are, together, on Ash Wednesday. I am going to ask you to permit me a story to explore just what this means:
I’d like to bring you back to the year 1991. I had just graduated high school and I realized that I could do all these adult kind-of things, like arrange a camping trip. It was going to be me, and my girl friend, and another couple who would show around ten on the evening.
There was a lot to manage, yet I felt like I had it under control: time off of work, the reservations of the camp site, packing the groceries, clothes, and equipment we needed.
We found where we are going, which was a pretty big deal in the world before gps’s. We chose a site, pitched the tent, arranged our meager things around. everything went off with out a hitch as the sun began to set.
Both tired and exhilerated, we sat down in our little folding chairs. As I stared into that fire pit, the first little flaw in my plan began to emerge. Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a great idea to have given the responsibility of bringing fire wood to the people who weren’t supposed to be there for another four hours.
I was young and determined, and back then, I was stupid enough to think that being young and determined was enough. We were, after all, in the middle of nature. We could gather our own wood.
I started with the fallen twigs. I quickly realized that was going to ammount to much. It is bad etiquette, against the rules, and also not easy to burn the green wood that is still alive on trees. In desperation, I looked around and started to break the branches off the trees around me. The thing about Southern California is that it is basically a desert with irrigation. It is not known for thick forests populated with old trees. As darkness fully fell we had a pretty pathetic harvest.
As I look back, I think what I did next is hard wired into us. It is part of the human condition. It is the first step toward a tragic ending. Like so many people, in so many different ways, I saw that it was getting colder and dark, and so I tried to convince myself that we had enough.
We put away fears sometimes because there is nothing else we can do. If you are anything like me, you can become really, really good at locking your sense of doom away. It still lives in some little place, way down deep, and it steals some of the joy that I might have had. Mostly, though I am unaware of it. Sometimes, I fool myself into thinking that in fact, things are going great.
The sun set and I arranged the kindling into a teepee shape, feeling the call of my inner cave man. Lighting a Fire resonates with some deep place within me.. Even though I had done little more than pile up twigs and and strike a match, it brings this sense of mahoismo, and provision, this bringing heat, light and warmth. When the twigs ignited I placed some of the medium-sized branches on the growing fire and felt more than competent, I felt like I could handle whatever life was going to throw at me. I think I must have decided that I would be a millionaire in my adulthood, or maybe the president. Me? I would be able to do anything.
We were happy for a while. But it was with something like dread that I watched how quickly the flames ate the wood. I began to hope that my friends would arrive early. It soon became clear that our little wood pile wasn’t going to make it.
It got colder and darker. We were away from the comforts and convience of home. We couldn’t nudge up the thermostat, dig into an endless supply of blankets, or seek electronic distractions. This was before the advent of cell phones. We couldn’t distract ourselves with apps or even call them to get an eta.
I still remember watching those last few flames on those last few branches die. I had been rationing the fire for some time; at this point it had been nothing but a pathetic few flames.
As pathetic as they were, when it is cold, and you are away from city lights, there is a world of difference between a few flames and zero flames. As the last of the embers died we sat there looking into the smoky pile of ash. I felt like a failure. I had been deluding myself. President? At that moment we were more like homeless people, cut off from our possessions and families and everything. Going to bed would have been the wisest thing. But that would have been admitting defeat. And our friends would be getting there. In two hours. Assuming they were on time.
Two hours is the blink of an eye when you have things to do. It isn’t much time when you are feeling good about yourself. It is an eternity to spend two hours feeling like a lonely failure in the cold. And I think I was connected with our ancestors in a sudden realization.
Fire is this profound symbol of things that we want and need in life. To somebody thousands of years ago, though, more than just pride and comfort were on the line, if the fire went out. If there was not enough fuel, injury and death were what resulted. It’s no wonder that God is described in the bible as a fire.
Ashes, though. Ashes are what is left when we no longer have the things we want and need. They are the reminders of warmth, light, and love that we no longer have.
I sat there, at the end of a line of thousands of generations. Every single one of them was faced with the same reality that I was: sometimes there is not enough. On the most literal level, there had been Not enough planning. Not enough wood on the ground. Not enough daylight to find it. Not enough fire. Not enough heat, not enough light.
On a broader level, for as long as there have been humans, there has been not enough: Not enough sense of God. Not enough love. Not enough food. Not enough friends. Not enough money. Not enough creativity, not enough joy.
All of have huddled around all manner of fires, we have watched our ability to keep them going slowly fade. We have been in these places, where once everything was good; we have set in the wreckage, wishing we still had flames, when all we can do is breathe the smoke and look at the burned-out logs where our fire used to be.
Today is ash Wednesday. For centuries, Jesus followers have entered into a season of preparing for the reality that death is not the end of the story. This played out when Jesus died and then came back from death. And death, it can be so much more than just when our life functions stop. There are so many kinds of death…
And this is the brilliance of the Jesus story, this is the importance of Ash Wednesday:
It faces, head on, the fact that life can be really hard. Death is a real and powerful thing. In everyday life,
It is so tempting for me to want to deal with the hard stuff by not dealing with it. It is tempting to try to talk myself into believing that it just isn’t that bad. Or to spend some energy just not thinking about these things at all.
To an extent, this is probably n helpful. We can’t carry the full wieght of the hurts we have suffered, the parts of us that died– if we held that every day and all the time, we probably would not be able to keep completing our job responsibilities, our family responsibility, our friendships.
But we can’t put these things away for ever. Through out Christian history, this day has been seen as a day to agnowledge the full reality of these deaths: the death of Jesus, the death of our hopes and dreams, the deaths of the people that we love. Perhaps our spiritual mothers and fathers had an easier time with ashes as a stand in for the reality that things die. Sometimes it is so hard to see how anything good can spring back up where our hopes used to be.
This day takes it’s names from the ashes used in those ceremonies: Ashes sprinkled on believers hair and placed in the sign of a cross on their foreheads. These ashes are an agnowlodgement of our mortal lives, they are a recognition of our losses and our failures.
Tonight, we are going to ask you to begin by thinking about one of the deaths that you have suffered. Perhaps you want to think about the last year. Maybe you are ready to face something that is really hard. Maybe it is not the right time for that very difficult loss, and perhaps there is something that is less raw that you can think about. Whatever it is, we hope that this next hour or so can be a step out of ordinary life and into something sacred, and safe, where we can agnowledge the reality of these losses… losses in relationships with other people, with God, with the church; losses at work or at home; losses in our beliefs about the world or our belief in ourselves.
I believe in a God who will guide you into wisdom and safety. Perhaps there will be things tonight that you should not participate in. That’s totally fine. Maybe you will need some support, or something a little different.
In the prayer room tonight, Colleen and Kaylee are waiting. If you need prayer, or would like somebody to help you discern for yourself what God might want, she would really like to help you for that. As tonight goes, if you would like to step away, to take some space for yourself in the lobby, or to have her pray for you, I hope you will.
And so, as we begin with this song, I am going to ask you, if you want, to find the paper, and the pen, that were on the seat when you got here. If you would care to participate, we are going to ask you to call up to your own mind a loss, death and grief that you are experiencing.. On the front side of this page, there are guiding questions for you to consider. The backside is blank. Maybe it is better for just to write it out in open ended kind of way, without being limited by the questions we asked. Either way, perhaps you would care to participate by expressing a loss, pain, or struggle you are experiencing.
So lets take some time to feel God’s love in the music, and the lyrics, and the people around us. Let’s sit back, and prayer, or meditate, or just think.
They are going to be singing about a safe space, and the hope that we have is that this really is a safe space for you tonight.