It happens every year. I look them in the eyes, these that I love. And as I go to say those words, they catch in my throat. I choke on them. They're just too dusty. Then the tears, always the tears. But somehow I manage to say "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." I say it to sweet little ladies with skin as delicate as fine paper. I say it to people who sit in my office and make me howl with laughter. I say it to people with whom I've disagreed.
When our eyes meet, these ashen ones, our humanity touches-- and we realize that we're all bound by the frail limits of living in mortal bodies. It's holy, when it's all said and done.
But I'm tired of the ashes. Usually, I let my cross linger as long as it will--not necessarily consciously, but it's just not a thing. This year I just needed it gone. I need not to sit in the ashes anymore.
We've had seven deaths in four months. And that doesn't include the ones the church still grieves that happened in rapid succession last year. And the year before that. Our numbers are dwindling. Our budgets are the cause for much anxiety. Our programs don't feel manageable any longer. Our building is literally crumbling with age and wear.
And of course, we are just one church. But churches everywhere are saying the same thing: "We're dying."
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The Church is sitting in ashes. We're mourning days gone by. We're singing the only songs we know-- but they all come out sounding like a death march. All we can think about is our own mortality. As if dying is our chief end, and not glorifying and enjoying.
Why doesn't anyone talk about the life? Didn't Jesus say "I have come that you might you have life more abundantly?" Why don't we talk about the life? Are we called to trumpet the world's death song or are we called to rise from the ashes like a vibrant pheonix?
And what is ash but flakes of carbon? Carbon. That's life stuff--in fact, it's the building block of life. Doesn't death then lead to life? Isn't that our story?
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust?
But sometimes we get stuck in the ashes. Wallowing, waiting, wailing. We forget the life part.
I'm giving up Lent for Lent this year. I will not once sing a death song. I will not ban flowers from the sanctuary. I will not stifle alleluias. I will not talk about sin, except so I can talk about grace. No, I will stand in the ashes and I will call the church to rise up in life. I will talk about life because life is what Christ was about. Jesus didn't die so the church could sit in the ashes.
"Graceland" is the name of my favorite song and album. It's by Paul Simon, but more importantly, it's what "home" sounds and feels like to me. We always listened to this album as we traveled from my home in Tennessee to my parents' childhood homes in Florida. But today, it's also a pretty good snapshot of my theology. Somewhere I really believe that the Christian journey is all about a wild trip to Grace-land. As I see it, Grace-land is the place where God is waiting to meet even us–with all the baggage and brokeness that we tote with us. Grace-land is the place where we will be received with open arms, even though our attempts at “getting it right” have been miserable failures at best. But, I think, every step we take is a step on the journey to Graceland.