Thursday, February 15, 2018

You Are Dust

Ash from my fireplace

Remember that you are dust, 
and to dust you shall return.

I’ve loved Ash Wednesday services for as long I can remember.  Sure, Christmas Eve and Easter celebrations can be great with the colorful decorations and grand music, but some years I’ve found them bittersweet—hard to keep up the pretense of joy when my soul is feeling something more complicated.  Good Friday gatherings, in contrast, can also be powerful in their sadness, but their focus on the agony Jesus experienced and the cruelty of our world can sometimes be more than I can handle contemplating that day. 

Ash Wednesday is something else, though. It allows us to show up however we happen to be at that moment. It is about reflecting on who we truly are and our place in the universe.  It is, for me, an invitation to begin again on the Lenten journey—a time of intense introspection, repentance and mindfulness—the nearest thing Christians have to Ramadan. We begin by the reminder that we are made of dust,* and that to dust we will return.

There are a number of traditions on how best to get the ashes that are placed on our foreheads on this holy day.  Many burn the leaves they had saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and by doing so highlight the fickleness of humans--we praise a person one day and tear him/her down the next. In the congregations I attended in my youth, my father preferred to distribute notecards for all gathered so that we could put on paper the regrets, grudges and fears that we needed freed from in order to draw nearer to God. Watching my card burn was so cathartic that I began ritually burning a notecard every year—even inviting friends to join me in the ceremony when there otherwise was none.

This year, however, I have a new relationship with ashes. I now have the image seared into my mind of the small transparent bag filled with pale dust which I numbly placed into a columbarium tube—my father’s physical remains compact enough to fit in a coffee can.

There are realities of life which we can know intellectually yet not truly grasp until, well, we do. I can no longer scoop ashes from the fireplace without my mind wandering. I can no longer gaze upon the ashes of Ash Wednesday without thinking “My father is now dust.” And someday we will be again too.                


Image Courtesy, Wiki Commons

*In recent years, when I was in full clergy mode, I preached on Ash Wednesday about the awe and wonder of being made of stardust and one day returning to the cosmos.  That's the thing about being made of dust; it is both a painful and magical truth.

Monday, February 05, 2018

In Support of Choosing Unlikely Friendships

Image from the book Unlikely Friendships 
A noteworthy thing happened on my Facebook wall this winter.  Few people noticed it--but those who did called it everything from a "miracle" to "hell freezing over."  What happened was this: one of my friends wrote that s/he agreed with what another one of my friends had commented on my post.  This would have been completely un-noteworthy except for who those two people are; both are extremely active in United Methodist Church politics on the denominational level, and they disagree adamantly on an issue that is dividing the church.  The idea of the two causally interacting and agreeing on a separate subject in a FB comment thread seemed surreal to certain

That such an unusual thing occurred is no accident; I consider it the fruit of a discipline that my late father, the Rev. Dr. "Biking Bob" Walters, attempted to ingrain in me and modeled in every area of his life. Ten years ago when we were brainstorming names for our new venture, he suggested Theopraxis (already taken) or something involving the words Skunk Works (too obscure a reference, plus possibly copyrighted).  We explored on and on "What will be the core values of our organization?" Then, Dad hit upon the name Friendly Planet Missiology.  I was uncertain at first, but he was insistent that was the right one just as certain as he was that he must build friendships by visiting others by bicycle. Over time, I've come to appreciate this wisdom.

There is something truly radical about resolving to take a friendly peer-to-peer stance with those you encounter. It is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive no matter who or where you are.  It can be complicated; it can get you ostracized by some, and it can come back to bite you. But, it can also build bridges; it can generate hope and illuminate a way forward where before there was none.

So, I reasoned, if church leaders in North Katanga and Tanganyika have been building peace by transforming war lords into friends,* then surely I can decide to build unlikely friendships by focusing on positive things we can accomplish together.  Sure, it would be easier to treat everyone as either good or evil--ally or enemy combatant, but the friendly way prevents bloodbaths.     

In my husband's line of work, this is what we call diplomacy. In mine, we call it grace.

Let those with ears hear what I'm saying.


*to clarify: most are still war lords in many senses of the term.