“You are dust…”

ashcross2On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, we gathered at St John’s Episcopal. These services are always a blessing for me. I enjoy the opportunity to minister with my colleagues (Derek, Steve Sturgeon, the Vicar of St. John’s, and Scott Thalacker, pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran). We are unique in style, perspective, and tradition, but we also share the common bond of our calling. There’s always something that I learn from them.

I love the whole ashes on the forehead thing. I love smudging your foreheads, one by one, as you come forward. There is nothing that I am doing that anyone of you couldn’t do. But personally, it’s a profound moment for me because, standing there in front of you, I feel not only like a pastor, but your pastor. Can’t really explain it beyond that, but it’s special for me.

I also love the ashes on my forehead. It reminds me that we are all mortal, finite, flawed, and in need of God. That’s not a bad I dark thought. It’s a freeing one. It’s reassuring for me to know that I am not, nor do I have to be, the perfect anything. I am dust brought to life by and dependent upon divine breath – a creature of God’s creation. You are too.

Lent is a time to discover that again. When the weight of responsibilities and expectations (other’s and our own) become too heavy, when our hurts go too deep for us to heal on our own, when our energy and attention wane I when our wants take precedence over other’s needs, we could use a reminder: we are dust. Lent starts here, and then patiently and persistently prepares us for divine breath.

The world distracts us with tons of messages that tell us that we have to be self-reliant and super. In ways both overt and subtle, we often get the message that when we are not, we are bad. When we mess up, we are bad people, bad parents, bad children, bad workers, bad citizens, bad Christians. Lent reminds us that we are not bad, we are dust … in need of some divine breath.

You are invited to get ready with us. Join us in study, worship, fellowship, and mission. When all is said and done, you will discover God’s enlivening breath. That’s what this dusty old pastor believes anyway (I cling to this because I need that divine breath as much as you do).

On Ash Wednesday, Derek offered the Word. He told a story about a nun who was trying to focus on God by learning the discipline of contemplative prayer. In great frustration, she approached a teacher, telling him “I’m such a failure at this prayer! In twenty minutes of sitting I’ve had ten thousand thoughts.” “How lovely,” responded the teacher, “ten thousand opportunities to return to God!”

Derek was my pastor in that moment. He reminded me that though I may be in the middle of my ten thousand nine hundred ninety ninth distracted, dusty moment, it is but another opportunity to return to God. Dusty as we are, we are all invited to place our lives in the Divine’s hands so that God can breathe that life-giving breath on us once more. In your dustiness, may you find life, and that abundantly.

Peace,

Paul

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  • Breakfast Encounter

    Last Friday morning, I stopped by my GP’s office to let them draw some blood for a test and to get my flu vaccine for the year. Because of the blood test, I had to ‘fast,’ arriving for the blood draw without having any food that morning. When the phlebotomist had drawn the blood and given me the shot, I went to a nearby diner to get some breakfast. Little did I know I was about to witness something extraordinary.

    While I was eating my pancake, egg, and piece of sausage and reading a book about Oscar Romero, a young man went up to the counter to pay. I didn’t notice any of this, of course (occupied as I was with not only Oscar Romero’s life and ministry to the poor of El Salvador, but also all that butter and syrup…) until the young man started yelling at the woman behind the counter.

    “Swipe it again!” is what drew my attention.

    She did, and the card must have been denied a second time. She ran it again, and the look on her face told me the same thing happened. Denied.

    The young man was getting more agitated and saying things to her under his breath. I was paying more attention now, and she asked if he had another card she could try.

    “No! I don’t have another bleeping card!” he yelled at her. Except he didn’t say bleeping.

    Now I’m not a stranger to harsh words. I’ve said them myself. Usually when I’m trying to get a rusted bolt off an old machine and it finally comes loose, taking some of my knuckle skin with it. And I think I quietly swore under my breath in January of 1988 when the Washington football team beat my beloved Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, 42-10. There have been other times too. But never, ever at a person.

    Upon being sworn at, the young woman stared at the man like she didn’t know what to do (how could she?). Tears were about to appear. And the air in the room went real still. Like in the movies. I’m sure the background music was still playing, but it seemed deathly quiet at that moment.

    I was about to get up and walk over to the counter—not exactly sure what I was going to do once I got there—when another man who had been eating nearby wandered up real slow, eyes staring at the young man. He was a tall guy, with white hair under his old IFA ball cap, probably in his sixties. He asked the young woman, “What seems to be the problem here?”

    And that’s when the young man made what I thought was a fatal mistake: he answered when he hadn’t been spoken to. “It’s nothin’. My card won’t work,” he spat back.

    I thought a fight was about to break out, but the older man, his eyes searing into the young disgruntled one’s face, reached for his wallet and said to the cashier, “Aubrey, I’d like to pay for this young man’s meal, if that’s okay with him.” And after getting out some cash, he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, not one of those friendly pats on the shoulder, but one of those firm grips that, well, made me think he was making sure the lesson was going to stick.

    I’ve had those kinds of hands on my shoulders a few times over the years. Perhaps from a coach, maybe from my dad once or twice; they happen when a boy or young man really needs to start paying attention.

    And after staring at him for what seemed like an eternity, the old guy said, “Be kind.” And then walked away.

    The young man left the restaurant and climbed into an oversize truck that was parked right out front, cranked up the volume on his radio, and left some rubber on the road as he departed.

    I went into the church office sometime later to finish my sermon, but I kept thinking about angry people and hurt people and kind people and people who teach lessons to those who could use them. I also thought about people who have a head full of kind words who refuse to tolerate ugliness.

    I hope I can be someone like that.

    I have a feeling Aubrey earned a whole lot of tips that morning. She deserved them.

    Be kind.

    That’s all for now.

    —Pastor Derek

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