Ash Wednesday

My sister died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

It’s a fact that has haunted these first few months of my own daughter’s life.

She died before I was born but the memory is alive. I wake to hear my little girl breathing. I check. I triple check. I am careful to keep every blanket or pillow as far away from her mouth as possible so that history will not repeat itself. She’s almost made it. My little girl is nearly four months old, which is how old my sister was when she stopped breathing. She was only four months old.

As with so many of those stories, I don’t know the specifics. I know now that there are many things that could have contributed to her death. My father was a smoker. She was probably lying on her tummy. There were definitely bumpers lining the crib in the hope of protecting this blessed child, but even with these facts, I don’t know much about that story. It reads from my family’s history as something that happened, but not something that wanders into conversation.

There’s not much to be said. She died. It was terrible. Of course it was terrible, but what else can be said about such things?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I was thinking about it today as the Gospel Lesson was read before ashes were placed upon my forehead. My daughter wiggled in my lap. Her little toes kicking, dancing to some distant beat. Alive. Unrepentantly so. Alive and kicking.

Here I was sitting with this squirming little reminder of life to hear it proclaimed again that we are dust, both she and I. We are dust and to dust we shall return. Life will end, even when it is so new. It will end. We do not know the day or hour, but life will end. It always does. Sometimes it happens far too soon.

It is always that way. It was that way in Florida today. While I sat in my pew, seventeen children were killed in a high school in Parkland. Seventeen children were killed. It bears repeating because it’s too terrible and the specifics are even more overwhelming.

It is the eighteenth school shooting this year. It seems impossible.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This doesn’t have to happen, but somehow we have failed. We have missed something. We have allowed this to happen and I can’t help but think that it has something to do with what happened in that tiny chapel this afternoon.

When it came time to receive the ashes and remember that we are dust, I stood in the aisle waiting with the other worshippers bouncing my baby girl in my arms. I heard the familiar refrain repeated again and again. Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return until I stood before the deacon and he pressed his thumb into the ashes. He took a breath, looked into my eyes and said again, Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. And then, I turned so that he could offer this same mystery to my daughter peeking over my shoulder.

I heard him say the words, just as I heard her coo, but when we sat back down in the pew there were no ashes upon her forehead. Somehow we won’t allow ourselves to believe that children die.



Last Minute Plans for Lent

Lent is just one week away. Most plans have already been laid out. It’s been printed in the newsletter and in the bulletin. Resources have been ordered. Palms have been burned. (I know because the traffic on this old post on how to make ashes skyrocketed two week ago.)  Some have already done their food shopping for gallons of maple syrup and pancake mix for the Shrove Tuesday celebration. To those people, I just want to say: don’t forget the pancake games. No. Seriously. So much fun.

In truth, I am one of those pastors that usually plans far in advance. I don’t tend to procrastinate because it makes me nervous. I need a plan even if things change in the midst. I need to have some sense of what’s to come. It’s not just in church that I do this, by the way. But, this year is different. This year, I’m not a settled pastor. I’m an interim which I’m learning involves a different kind of leadership. I can’t plan as I might otherwise. Interim ministry isn’t just church as usual. It’s marked by transition and everything feels tentative. So, I can’t plan because what I need to do is listen.

This is a bit terrifying to the über planner. It was especially horrifying when I recently realized that Lent was so soon very and I had nothing planned. I freaked out and then I started planning. I’m sharing those plans in full awareness that we are in this together and sometimes we need a little help from our colleagues to make it all happen.

The church that I serve as an interim is a small, country church. They don’t tend to do anything programmatic on any other day but Sunday so planning Lent was really a matter of planning worship. There won’t be any adult education or special events to add to this congregation’s life. All that we experience together during this holy season will happen in worship.

After worship, on most Sundays, I lead a sermon talkback conversation which is where the idea for this preaching series began. It was in one of those conversations a few weeks ago that I heard some really solid theological claims without much heart. Good theology has its place but this is a church that really wants to grow. It believes it can grow but not without heart. It’s not enough to spout good theology. There has to be some passion to it. There has to be some sense of why it matters.

2016The theology I was hearing that day from these good people all centered around who Jesus Christ is.  So, after listening a little more to God in prayer, I opted to entitle this sermon series Who Do you Say That I Am? This is, of course, something that Jesus says in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29 and Luke 9:20). I decided to break slightly from the Revised Common Lectionary and explore some theological claims that we make about who Jesus is as we try to answer his own question. Here’s the plan so far:

  • February 14: Jesus is… the Son of God (Luke 4:1-13)
  • February 21: Jesus is… the Messiah (Luke 9:18-27)
  • February 28: Jesus is…the Word (John 1:1-18)
  • March 6: Jesus is… the Good Shepherd (Luke 13:31-35)
  • March 13: Jesus is…the Light of the World (John 8:12-29)
  • March 20: Jesus is…the King of the Jews (Luke 23:1-49)

Here’s what I don’t know: I don’t know how this will lead into Holy Week. This congregation shares their observance of Lent with the local ministerium that hosts weekly worship on Wednesdays, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I am not sure if this theme will play into how we journey into Jerusalem. That is something that I will need to listen for as we move through this season.

I chose some of my favorite theological claims and dodged a few others. For example, I really didn’t want to do suffering servant because I know that’s not who my Jesus is and I’m not convinced I could preach good news on that particular claim. I do know that I need to push myself though so there are two books I’m hoping to read this Lent to push my own theological imagination. In the spirit of this preaching series, I’ll be reading James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage which just came out in paperback yesterday. I’m also going to attempt to read Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. That said, there is so much that could be added to this preaching series. I mean, really, it’s what we are preaching no matter what the season, right? So, there are certainly others  that might be added and I would hope that this series would inspire some exploration on theological claims beyond these six. That’s something I’ll have to think about. What’s the best way to encourage such exploration within this particular congregation?

CoverThough this church is a small church that won’t have any specisl educational experience to build upon our shared experience in worship, I do have something to offer if you’re a last minute planner. Several years ago, I wrote a curricula called Toward Transformation with the good people of the First Congregational Church UCC in South Portland, Maine. It is a six-week study that navigates the Psalms in a desire to experience resurrection individually and communally. As worship tackles the question of who Jesus is and why that particular confession matters, this six-week experience might bring those questions to life in a slightly different manner. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect fit but I have to say it’s pretty awesome. Both times I’ve used it, it has led to some really awesome changes. You can download the resource from my Ideas + Resources.

Maybe you’re not interested in that so much as you want to know about the graphic. Want to make your own cool graphic for your church newsletter or social media campaign? I used Canva. Once you’re logged in, choose the Facebook Post option. You can choose any one of the free designs. (Why pay?) The one I chose seems to have disappeared. Sorry! Once you choose a template, you’ll need to replace the image with an image of Christ. Maybe you take a picture of one in your Sunday School classroom or in the stained glass in the chapel. I admit that this particular image makes it a little hard to read the text. Alas! Add your church information including address and worship time and hit download. Look how fancy you are!

How are your plans for Lent going?