I really liked the Lenten devotional guide produced by Presbyterians Today when I flipped through it. It came with the January issue and has been sitting on my desk waiting for today ever since. I haven't been great about keeping up with daily prayer/devotional disciplines since college, so I've been excited to try something new this year. Sure, I could have started it before Lent, but having a specific start date somehow helped me gear up, get excited, and strengthen my resolved to stay committed.
I also think this will be my only Lent discipline. I have done a combination of things in different years, but nothing authentic was coming to me this year. This, however, is something I've been looking forward to for a while, so I think this is the way to go. Also, sacrificing cravings and pregnancy just don't sound like a good mix to me! So here I go with my thoughts and reflections on Praying Through Lent with heart, soul, mind and body.
Ash Wednesday has always been one of my least favorite holy days as a pastor. It's not something I mind as a worshipper. I mean, I'm OK with the discomfort it brings to me as an individual person of faith, but as a pastor it's a hard one for me to lead. I don't really like imposing ashes on others. Some year I would like to move to a tradition of having folks "ash" each other so it doesn't feel like I'm the only one imposing this sentence on others. Last year the day or week before I had had a very uncomfortable, but honest conversation with a congregation member just before Ash Wednesday. It was a couple, actually, and they called me out on missing opportunities to offer them pastoral care. It was completely called for, and they were totally in the "right." When Ash Wednesday came, I was able to ask the husband (the wife did not come to the service) when he came through the line to put my ashes on me. It was wonderfully meaningful for us both and went a long way in healing that relationship.
When I felt those ashes and heard those words, last year, I felt forgiven. I had been beating myself up over my lapse in pastoral care and somehow the pronouncement in that moment was at the same time the last recognition of my failure and the forgiveness for it at the same time. It was like I was let off the hook, but was a mutual recognition among myself, this man, and God that I made a mistake, I had been confronted, and, by the grace of God, there was only one way to go from there. I think it was a sense of relief and letting go.
The devotional offers alternative words for use with children in the ash liturgy, "You will always be with God." I like that, I think. In my first call we only ever had one family that came to Ash Wednesday services. I will never forget the time they offered their then 3 year old daughter to me to receive ashes. THAT was hard. I will be the first to admit I'm not ready to think about a 3 year old "returning to dust." My own children came to Ash Wednesday services for the first time last year, too, and that was another hard one - a 3 1/2 year old and 18 month old. It was hard not only to do, but hard to explain later. In fact the explanation flopped. I can't tell if this year will be easier or harder since they have now experienced in their recent memory the death of a great-grandparent. "You will always be with God" is a message I can talk about with them and even in the context of death.
Shoot, it might not be a bad way to impose ashes with adults, too! I might add to it or adjust it a little to go with "In life and in death, you belong to God." I've got a few hours to think on that.
God of life and God of death, in today's ritual I find release and comfort. It feels good to confront my mortality and claim my imperfections. It releases me from striving for something I will never reach, but challenges me to grow closer to you and your holiness. Give me strength today as I live out my calling. Make my attitude in ministering one of servanthood and humility. Help me to speak the truth of your love, forgiveness, and mercy to others as well as myself. Amen.