A Poignant Start to Lent

IMG_9915The sanctuary was mostly quiet. Every now and then a hum, rattle and swoosh from the ancient heating system would interrupt the stillness. It was a welcomed noise as I was trying hard to keep the cavernous room at a toasty 60 degrees. After all, I didn’t want to sit all day with my coat and mittens on.

The “little white church” as locals fondly call us, was doing something different for Ash Wednesday. Rather than hold a worship service in the evening that hardly anyone would come to — in my time there as pastor, the Ash Wednesday service has boasted anywhere from a whopping six people to an unprecedented 28, and those numbers were with a combined service with sister churches — we were inviting people to drop in throughout the day.

We created an art gallery in the sanctuary and encouraged people to pray with the art before making their way to the front of the sanctuary where I waited with a blackened thumb ready once again to dip into the ash and proclaim the sobering reminder, “From dust we come, to dust we shall return.”

The people came — more than 28 — and I did my part, making the sign of the cross on foreheads that ranged from smooth and worry free to wrinkled and creased with burdens.

From dust we come, to dust we shall return.

There was a lull mid-afternoon and out of the corner of my eye I noticed the big yellow school buses rambling down the road. School was out. I would only have to sit in the sanctuary for a few more hours. It would be nice to get home to a hot bowl of soup and cuddle on the couch with my big old Bernese Mountain dog.

Just then I heard the creaking of the old floors. I didn’t to turn to look when people entered the holy silence, for I didn’t want to break the prayerfulness they were trying to embrace. And so, I would listen to the footsteps to see how close they were to me, so that I could stand up and take my place with the ashes.

The footsteps didn’t linger at any of the pictures. Rather they came quickly to where I sat. I was surprised when a teenaged girl dropped down next to me. She looked upset and there were tears beginning flow. I guess the blank look on my face gave it away that I had no idea what was happening beyond the peacefulness of the sanctuary walls.

“What kind of world do I have to live in?” she asked angrily.

In a way, I wish I didn’t ask what she was talking about for the words that came next filled me with anger and grief as well.

“There was another school shooting. This time in Florida. It is horrible. I am afraid,” she sobbed.

Sadly, I wasn’t shocked by the news she told me.

“There’s been a school shooting” has become an all-too familiar phrase, leaving many numb and worse yet, just accepting this as the new reality in which we live in.

I also knew what would next in my rural community. The heated debate on social media with those yelling that guns don’t kill —people do — and those yelling back that we need more gun control.

I also knew as a pastor of a rural community that I had to find a way to bridge these debates. I had to find a way to speak in a community that cherishes their right to have guns.

I looked at the sobbing teenager knowing, like many of her friends, she had a gun. For rural teens, hunting is rite of passage. Pictures of deer and bear they snag always appear on Facebook. And with the spring thaw, turkey season will bring a bunch of new social media posts.

Where will the two divides of anti-gun and pro-gun meet? For the debates are not stopping the killings.

I searched my heart for something pastoral to say to the sobbing teenager sitting next to me. I searched for words of hope to overcome fear. I searched to find a magical way to take away this girl’s brokenness. I searched, but came up empty.

I looked down at my sooty fingers that have been making crosses on foreheads all day and realized there was nothing I could say. I am not God. But God did send us a Savior, to be with us in times like these. To hold us when we are fainting and to comfort us when we are grieving.

God sent us a Savior who reminded us as he went to the cross, that this life is painful and not fair at times. But just when all seems lost, we are given hope. God defeated death. It doesn’t have the last word.

I looked down at my sooty fingers. With my tears joining her tears, I took her hand and with the ash made a sign of the cross on her palm.

From dust we are, to dust we shall return.

I then added, “And God is with us always.”

She closed her hand tightly, holding dearly to the promise of the cross now in her possession.

We did something different for Ash Wednesday. We opened the church for people to drop in when they wanted to throughout the day. Who knew that one broken teenager would seek the solace of the “little white church” in her time of grief?

God knew. And God knows how broken we all are. The question is, what will we do with that brokenness? And when will we go beyond just “thoughts and prayers?”

When will we understand that this life of faith calls for us to live out the faith, to find our voices to speak up and seek change.

To dust we shall return.

But before we do, God has work for us to do. Work in creating a better world for our children to live in. May our prayers be ones in which we ask God to lead us into action, to find ways to listen, understand and move forward in stopping the senseless violence.

 

 

Ash Wednesday

This Way of Life: A Little White Church Lenten Journey

When the cold of winter turns into the bleakness of mud season, hope is hard to find. Yet beneath the hard ground and in the midst of life’s muddiness, there is always new life waiting to bloom. Join Pastor Donna as she reflects on the transforming power of Lent and takes you on a 40-day journey of discovering God’s message of hope and renewal that she discovered in a little white church and in the hearts of the people who called that church “home.”

February 10 images

There I stood in the sanctuary, cold and alone, tired and a bit aggravated. It was Ash Wednesday and the little country churches in the rural area I was serving decided to pool their resources together and hold a combined Ash Wednesday service—of sorts.

I say of sorts because Ash Wednesday worship really wasn’t “our thing.” Or so I was told by one of the pastors who had a long tenure in the area. I guess she was right. After all, I could remember growing up and doing nothing for Ash Wednesday in my church.

For me Ash Wednesday was a Catholic thing where my friends would show up to school or an afternoon play date with strange smudges on their foreheads that I couldn’t decide if they were meant to be crosses or squashed bugs. When I asked my mom about the smudges she would say, “Oh, those are ashes. We don’t do that.”

So the Ash Wednesday service put together by the area churches would not be a traditional worship service, complete with worship bulletins, organ music, choirs singing, pastors preaching, etc. What would be offered to the community was an opportunity to have an interactive worship experience where activity stations would be set up to explore.

There would be an area for writing prayers to our service men and women and another area for making prayer beads. I can’t remember what the other activities were but I do remember volunteering for the station where the ashes would be received. Thus, how I found myself standing in a sanctuary of a neighboring church, cold and alone, tired and a big aggravated… because there were very few people showing up. The snow that fell outside didn’t help an already anticipated low attendance event.

“Why didn’t we just cancel tonight’s activity?” I thought. I was new to the area and so I was still not used to braving wintery elements that surprisingly kept very few folks at home in these parts of the woods. In fact, it seemed nothing was ever really cancelled due to a little—or a lot—of snow falling.

I stood there in the sanctuary waiting for foreheads to show up so that I could master the art of the perfectly shaped ash cross. When I became ordained I vowed I would not have my crosses looking like squashed bugs. (FYI…I have failed in the perfectly shaped cross department but I have excelled at squashed bugs.)

Sporadically, a few people trickled into where I stood and, given the informality of the imposition of ashes, they would linger afterwards and make small talk with me. I, of course, used this time to inquire how bad the weather was getting outside. Each report was not good. The snow had turned into ice and roads were getting tricky. My angst increased, but I tried to focus on my pastoral duty.

From dust you came, to dust you shall return…smudge finger in burnt palms and make a cross…darn, another squashed bug. The next one will be better. I promise.

In the background were the whispers from the few gathered about the icy roads.

How am I going to get home on these country roads that I still was not familiar with. Why didn’t I just stay home?

When it became apparent that no one else would be coming to this joint Ash Wednesday service of sorts, I quickly threw on my coat and said a rushed good bye to the other pastors. I just wanted to face the elements and get home safely.

Sure enough the front stone steps of the church were coated with ice and I slid right down, making me more anxious and frustrated.

I picked myself up and began making my way to my car not looking forward to having to scrape off an inch or so of ice. The hood to my coat was pulled down as far as it could go so as to block the pelting ice from face. The hood, though, blocked something else.

What I didn’t see was the gentleman standing by my car scraping the ice off of the windshield.

“Beautiful night, pastor, don’t you think?” he said, without a hint of sarcasm. He actually did think it was a beautiful night.

“Um, well, I guess. I’m not too happy with the ice or having to drive home in this,” I said, wondering if then he would confess that he really didn’t think this weather was beautiful at all. No confession came.

“Don’t fret. You’ll be just fine. Take it slow and trust God,” he said.

Trust God. I was in no mood for hearing my words thrown back at me.

“Yeah, I guess I can do that. You know you really didn’t have to do this for me. I mean, I do appreciate it, but why did you come out in this storm to clear off my car?” I asked, only then noticing this man wore no gloves and had only a thin jacket on.

Without stopping the ice scraping, he said, “You came out tonight for us, didn’t you? It’s the least I could do for you.”

I guess he noticed the surprised look on my face because he then said, “This is what we do for one another around here. This is our way of life.”

While I didn’t know him, he knew me. He knew I was the “new” pastor from the big city where this way of life, that is, life spent really caring for one another, was a rarity. He knew I didn’t understand yet the beauty of life in a small rural village. In time I would not only understand. I would come to treasure it.

All of sudden my anxiety of having to drive home faded away. My frustration with having to be at a service where hardly anyone showed up melted.

The windshield was free from ice. I was ready to go. As I leaned forward to shake this man’s hand, I noticed he didn’t have a black smudge on his forehead. He didn’t come out in this weather for the worship service “of sorts” we were having. He came out for another kind of service—the one that matters more than a smudge of ashes on one’s forehead. He came out for the ultimate service of helping someone else.

Ash Wednesday really isn’t our thing. I disagree. Ash Wednesday was indeed this little village’s “thing.” For I got to see a true worship service in action in the way of a stranger reaching out to me, the new pastor. I was going to like this way of life.

“This Way of Life” Lenten Challenge:

Seek to worship God out in your community by the acts of kindness you can do for others when they least expect them.