Facing Ash Wednesday

Facing Ash Wednesday

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Ash Wednesday, a day of doom and gloom: I am 59 years of age and Ash Wednesday looms just ahead . . .

In my young adult years, I envisioned my life turning out differently than it has . . .

I am hard-pressed to give details. I guess I thought everything would be far more settled. I don’t know what that means as a whole picture, yet small images come to mind. My children would have graduated from college. My wife would be waiting for me when I came home from the office each evening. I would live comfortably in a nice older neighborhood, maybe in a home built with stone. Out of debt, my retirement accounts would rise at a pace to meet my every retirement need. A nice garden, a dog, perhaps a summer cottage, perfect health . . . Even a seminary education left my dreams relatively undisturbed. God remained in heaven, boys were boys and girls were girls, the music sounded classical and the pulpit summoned respect. in this vision, the church I served was, well . . . much like the churches in which I grew up: Brick or stone, large or small, yet calm, confident and filled with people. The life I saw laid out before me extended  the life I had already to the distant horizon, with some minor variations on the theme of success and tranquility.

Reflecting back, my young adult assumption of changeless security had deeper roots.The Protestantism of my childhood enjoyed the place of privilege. Jews entertained us on television as comedians at a safe distance. Catholics had taken the papacy, the presidency and the next door neighbors’ house with its pictures of Jesus and Mary, yet that was the sum of it. We had one enemy, the communists. Brown people lived across town and several became good friends in the newly integrated high school I attended. I really didn’t think much about them. Truly Black people came from Africa and surely would return shortly. Everybody went to church on Sunday (perhaps even the Jews, as far as I could tell) because the stores and movie houses were closed.

As for the larger world . . . I admit that while my classmates in high school, college and seminary had tremendous political passions, I had few.  Just as I drew comfort from the constancy of my religion, I had such confidence in a system of checks and balances and the balance of powers that I gave it little thought. The slow grind of the Watergate hearings to their inevitable conclusion reassured me. As for economic concerns, I knew that the three legged stool of my middle class roots would bear me up into old age: social security, pension and personal savings. All was right with the world.

Over the years, friends of diverse races and backgrounds have blessed me with their own experiences. It took awhile for these to sink in. I discovered that my own sense of endless security was not theirs. Nevertheless, even as I gained empathy for their reality, my anticipated future remained relatively undiminished.

Yet someplace and sometime, that all changed. Perhaps my father’s death altered me, or my mother-in-law’s, or a having the responsibility of children, or serving that one congregation to which I gave my heart, but it demanded my soul . . . Ash Wednesday commemorates life, not as we wanted it or planned it to be, but as it is. No reading is too dark for for it, no lament too anguished: http://www.liturgies.net/Lent/ashwednesdayrc.htm

Neither the world nor my life have turned out as I once imagined they would, and for many personal reasons I am grateful for the course my life has taken. Furthermore, I treasure the diverse people I have met: immigrants, persons of various faiths and no faith, people whose history, manners and wealth have varied considerably from my own, and innumerable congregation members. I have felt that the privileges I enjoyed growing up have been multiplied to others, without any diminishing of my own, which is the American dream. Change can be good.

Yet change has also brought the end of much on which many of us counted. 500 years of Christendom concludes how it began: divided. Economic growth depends on resources that, if used, will irreparably harm our environment and the future of our species with it. Politically, the world has entered a turbulence with no end in sight, and this turbulence has deep implications for refugees and militarism. It could be overwhelming.

59 years has elicited in me what I hope constitutes wisdom. Knowing what I know now encourages me to disentangle myself from unfulfilled visions and unwarranted assumptions. The fact is, flowing down a swift moving river while grasping desperately at every available branch accomplishes little.  Indeed, it feels faithless. My commitment henceforth is to embrace the flood and allow it to sweep me in directions in which God would take me. To follow Christ is to be borne along by love, without needing to possess or control that by which I am carried. it is to be a traveler and not a victim, to paddle playfully and not to fight. On Ash Wednesday, soot falls from my forehead and I acknowledge I am dust . . .yet dust moving downstream, with a host of others unimpeded by distracting delusion, toward a wide and deep reservoir waiting to welcome us.

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