Ash Wednesday: We Belong

Ashes

Today, many in our world are keeping Ash Wednesday together. This is the day that initiates the holy season of Lent.

It is a day of confession.
It is a day of contemplation.
It is a day of recognition that our lives are mortal.

And this may seem heavy to us.  . . I have a good friend and colleague named Reid Hamilton who is an Episcopalian priest in Ann Arbor. He calls Ash Wednesday, “The service of d minor, the saddest of all keys.” It can certainly feel that way.

And yet, he and I also went to the Diag at the center of the University of Michigan this afternoon, and we stood there to provide ashes for any who would like to receive them. Though the themes of Ash Wednesday can feel heavy, they can feel surprisingly freeing and life-giving too. They remind us that we are human. And remarkably, though the themes of Ash Wednesday can feel solemn, they can feel freeing as they invite us to trust.

Here’s why. Here is the good news we honor and remember today: In life and in death, we belong. We belong to God, and we belong to one another.

No matter what,
It is absolutely true.
From our first breath to our last breath,
From this life to the mystery the exists beyond this life,
We belong.

We belong to God and we belong one another.
All the days of our life, and even beyond our life,
No matter what.

Each time Ash Wednesday rolls around, I find myself remembering Ash Wednesdays I’ve experienced in previous years. I think of the many congregations where I have been present. Some are churches where I grew up, and others are congregations where I’ve served as a pastor. Over the course of my life, I have come forward many times to receive ashes upon my forehead. At other times, I have had that sacred privilege of placing ashes on the foreheads of people I love.

It can be challenging to hear the liturgical words we speak to one another on this day.

“From dust you were created, and to dust you will return,”

It is just as challenging to speak those words of mortality toward others.

“From dust you were created, and to dust you will return.”

Most years, I’ve said those words — I think we need to be reminded of our mortality — but then, I’ve also added the good news that exists around, before, and behind this truth. I’ve added these words:

“You are God’s child, God’s own, this day and forever.”

So today, let me say those words to each of you.

“From dust you were created, and to dust you will return.
You are God’s child, God’s own, this day and forever.”

Let these words sink into your very being.

“From dust you were created, and to dust you will return.
You are God’s child, God’s own, this day and forever.”

Today I remember the many times I’ve heard and spoken words like these over the years. And as I ponder those moments, one particular Ash Wednesday comes to mind in a specific way.

In 2007, I was in the middle of my time in seminary. There was much from that period of time that was beautiful. I was reading everything I could get my hands on and growing in my unfolding sense of call. But it was also a very challenging time in my life.

On Ash Wednesday in 2007, someone I loved very deeply received a terminal cancer diagnosis. He was the pastor of the church where I had grown up, and many times, he had lovingly placed ashes on my forehead. But much beyond that, David and his wife Amy were very much like parents to me. They taught me, nurtured me, and provided safe spaces for me. Like true parents, they even occasionally annoyed me, and I occasionally annoyed them. But most of all, we loved each other.

We all knew that David had gone in for testing, and during the Ash Wednesday service I attended in Austin, I found myself thinking about him and Amy. I prayed for them and all those who loved them. When the service was over, I stepped into the courtyard of that church, and I received his news over the phone.

David said that the cancer would be ‘terminal’ — that word felt so heavy — but doctors thought treatment would work for about a year and a half.

That news was devastating, and it initiated a long period of anticipatory grief in my life. But as I consider the memory of that night, alongside the painful news, I remember how David chose to break that news to me. I remember how much he emphasized my sense of belonging. I will never forget it.

He was the one who had received painful news from his physician that very day, and yet, he was sharing it from such a posture of care for me. He said to me,

“You know, there are children who just come into your lives, sometimes unexpectedly. You are the child we never bore, and yet you are ours.”

It wasn’t the first time David had said something like that to me, but it stands out in my mind as a particularly strong memory that our lives belonged to one another.

Today, on this Ash Wednesday, we remember that we belong to God and to one another — no matter what may come.

There is nothing that can separate us from that love of God.
Even our losses.
Even our health crises.
Even our mortality.

I wonder. . . do you ever fear that something is separating you from God or from others? Whatever it is, you ever fear that it will trump your belonging?

We all fear things like that from time to time, but today, we rest in the truth that nothing — absolutely nothing — can separate us from the love of God. Nothing! And as we are rooted in that love toward God, we are absolutely connected to each other. Always.

Even when we argue, or even when we experience estrangement in relationships, they are never the last word. Even when we lose loved ones to death, that is not the last word. If any brokenness exists to death, it is never the last word, because in life and in death, we belong to God.

God holds our life,
and God is restoring all things,
both now and in the life to come.

So hear these beautiful words from the Apostle Paul as they are recorded in Romans:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Hear these holy words again as they mark your life:

“From dust you were created, and to dust you will return.
You are God’s child, God’s own, this day and forever.”

Renee Roederer

This post is adapted from my recent sermon at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Dearborn Heights, MI.

 

2 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday: We Belong

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