beauty from ashes (Lent #1)

I almost gave up blogging for Lent because I have been so behind. But I am discovering anew that writing is a necessary spiritual discipline for me. Years ago a friend noticed my start and stop writing habits and remarked, “You avoid pleasure.” I knew what she meant. Writing is my creative play, a time for me to experiment with words and ideas and when I can manage an un-self conscious moment, I can see the Holy Spirit dancing on my pages too. I can even see me dancing a bit. My writing can be (occasionally) profound and elegant or (and probably more often) just stilted and pithy (or maybe all these things at once) but it is always my attempt to commune, to explore, connect and share. My avoidance of writing then, is an avoidance of the dance, of communing with God and even more revealing, it’s an avoidance of  me.  It’s easier for me to be a workaholic and try so hard to save the world from all its injustices than it is to allow myself the joy and the discipline of weaving my ideas into something I can hold out as a love offering. I can even make myself believe that taking time to dance with the Creator God is optional, like signing up for the extra workshops at a conference. So for me, writing is less about working than a simple enjoyment of being. I am slowly repenting of my ol’ protestant work ethic which has little room for something as lovely as mere pleasure. Pleasure in this creative sense is worship, and worship is not something I can afford to neglect. This pleasure is not mere.

So as I think about pleasure and being and even though it is a week late I am still going to blog about Ash Wednesday. I had been a good protestant who for many years avoided all sorts of “empty ritual” as something devoid of real religious value, so I have missed out on years of sensuous worship. Sensuous worship means to worship with all of the senses, not just the ears that hear the Word imparted. Pleasure. Wholeness. Being.

If you have ever sifted the cremated ashes of a loved one between your fingers you have touched our startling human frailty. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. The black Lenten ashes feel a bit similar, though they are different in color. Even so, through them we bump up harshly against our own mortality. They are a reminder of what is killing us. They expose our desperation for a firm place to set our feet – how to make sense of things and how to know who we are and how to find a face to present to the world. Doing this feels as natural as slipping into a comfortable old pair of shoes. It feels right. But this is not faith, it is certainty. It is something to grasp. The real word is idolatry. We’ve been creating ourselves since before we can remember and we see the results all around us in the pain and greed and inequity of this world. Ask any sage on a barstool what happens when you find something that you believe will help you to ride the raw experiences of this life with some sense of safety. You lose yourself. And you lose God.

Repent, and believe the Good News! I wish all of our people could have seen what I was seeing the evening of our Ash Wednesday service. Receiving ashes is still a relatively new and strange ritual for these Presbyterians. Yet they came, all shapes and sizes of people, young and old, streaming forward wide-eyed and expectant.  There were also a few who looked a little scared and a few kids who looked up at their parents in curious awe, “What is this you are doing?” My finger drew the ashes gently across foreheads that were bumpy and lined, smooth and soft. For some, I had to poke under carefully coiffed bangs. All were warm with life, tender flesh stretched over living bone. With only a few exceptions, their eyes met mine, sparkling even in the somber light. Such life in these dust bin bodies! It was one of those transcendent moments when I could truly sense our communion. We are all clay. We are vulnerable, dependent beings in every moment. We are tethered together by the most basic of needs that are exposed by a growling stomach or an empty wallet. And all of us are sparkling with some semblance of hope, waiting for the triumphal entry, trusting that Life is coming and it can penetrate even the hardest portions of our hearts.  Jean Vanier says, “We feel small and weak, but we are gathered together to signify the power of God who transforms death into life.  That is our hope, that God is doing the impossible:  changing death to life inside each of us, and that perhaps, through our community, each one of us can be agents in the world of this transformation of brokenness into wholeness, and of death into life.” 

And I basked in the simple pleasure of the senses, hands blessing warm flesh, eyes meeting eyes, false selves gone for a few brief moments as the ashes revealed our common lot, casting our pretenses into shadow and freeing our humanus/humility to shine. No pretending, just being. And though Lent marks a time of repentance and fasting, a paradoxical thought popped into my head. I thought of the words of John Wesley, “Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.” And I thought it was a little bit funny that there amidst our dirty, smiling, sheepish faces I could sense the pleasure of God.

Let it be so.


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Showing 15 comments
  • lindy

    simply beautiful.
    I am glad that you are choosing to write. You are gifted. You have a way of putting into words (this entry for example) what I cannot express. 🙂 I really appreciate you (when you write and when you don’t).

  • chrisd

    Great encouragement, Ellen. You are a talented, expressive writer and I’m thinking that God would want you to keep doing that and perhaps give up chocolate. Or potato chips.

  • Michelle

    Go Ellen!
    Go Ellen!

    It so important for us to feed ourselves. If writing feeds your soul, then write!

    And I loved your imagery from Ash Wednesday. I took the children for the first time this year (it’s an evening service) and they “got” a lot more of it than I dared hope.

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