There were a few chores I really enjoyed while growing up. Feeding the chickens and ducks was always fun, and hanging up the laundry on the clothesline was also something I never minded doing – but the one chore that my brother and I actually fought over getting to do was to carry the trash up to the big old burn barrel at the top of the hill, dump it in, and light the stuff on fire. I liked burning stuff. I liked creating that little spot of warmth on a dead cold winter day. I liked watching the sparks rising into the evening sky. I liked the smell of the smoke that would hang on my old wool coat for days afterward. And as I got older I remember the ritual of tossing things into that old burn barrel as a rite of passage of sorts…a bad exam or two that I felt my parents didn’t need to see, some of the tattered magazines that we cleaned out of grandma’s house when she died, old clothes and dolls, and as the years of high school and college unfolded, even some old love letters met their fate on top of that hill. There was something ceremonial about throwing things in that burn barrel and tossing a match on top. Sometimes they had to be coaxed into catching fire – but then they would burn brightly until finally all that was left was just glowing cinder and ash. Of course the leftover ash wasn’t nearly as fun as the blazing fire. A chore we didn’t like was emptying out that burn barrel when it was full of ashes…we had to shovel it into a big wheelbarrow and wheel it to a specific spot that my dad had designated as the place where the ashes and other remains of the burn barrel went. It is in that spot where still today you can see the unburnable bits of the our history – the metal zipper from my favorite 2nd grade jacket, the nails that held together an old picture frame, parts of my brother’s toy fire engine. No, the place where the ashes went wasn’t the fun place. It wasn’t warm and light-giving like the fire on top of the hill. The ashes were cold and grimy. The ash place was full of forgotten, dead, and unwanted things. Of course I have been thinking a lot about ashes as this Ash Wednesday approached. “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” are the words we each hear spoken to us when we have ashes placed on our foreheads. This is a day that we choose to think about the dead and unwanted things in our own lives – the things we need to repent. The broken parts of our lives that require God’s grace and mercy.
This is a reflective day in our church year – the scripture uses words that promote that idea of quiet – in fact, the word secret is used 6 times just in the nine verses of our Gospel reading. Jesus uses it to express how our giving and praying and fasting should be done – and also to express God’s presence even in the parts of our lives that we think are most secret. Do you have any secrets? Oh, I think most of us have a few. There are many kinds of secrets.
Some secrets people keep are wonderful secrets – I think of couples I have known who didn’t want to share what they were going to name their baby that was on the way because they just wanted to treasure that information for themselves and not be getting everyone’s opinion on the name beforehand. Secrets can be sweet – an engagement ring being hidden away until just the right time, a surprise birthday party. Those kinds of secrets are fun.
Another kind of secret is the one we keep just because we don’t know how others will react if they find out the truth. Until we know if others are Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, mean or nice, we often keep our true feelings about certain things to ourselves.
At the first church I served in New York, I had been there a few years when one of the older gentlemen in the church invited me over for coffee. I had spent a lot of time with him over the years I had been there – sitting in the hospital room with him and his wife, Evie, as she was dying; and later as he was helping out with different projects at church. I felt I knew him pretty well. But this particular day as we had coffee he was telling me stories – amazing, stories – and not all of the stories were about good church-going sorts of behavior. They were the sorts of stories you tell a friend…not necessarily your minister. And at the end of the afternoon before I left I said to him, “Pete, thank you for telling me stories about your past. I’ve known you three years and you never mentioned any of this before. I had no idea what a colorful life you have led.” And he smiled and said simply, “Well, now enough time has gone by that I know I can trust you with my secrets.” It’s true, isn’t it – we don’t share our secrets with people unless we know they will treasure those secrets, keep them safe like we do. It is a privilege when you are entrusted with someone’s secrets.
In his book Telling Secrets Frederick Buechner writes about a difficult secret in his own life and the relief he found when he finally began to share a story he had kept secret for a very long time. He says, “One November morning in 1936 when I was ten years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room, and then went down into the garage where he turned on the engine of the family Chevy and sat down on the running board to wait for the exhaust to kill him.” Buechner continues, “Except for a memorial service for his Princeton class the next spring, by which time we had moved away to another part of the world altogether, there was no funeral. He was cremated, his ashes buried in a cemetery in Brooklyn, and I have no idea who if anybody was present. I know only that my mother, brother, and I were not. As far as I can remember, once he had died we rarely talked about him much ever again, either to each other or anybody else. We didn’t trust the world with our secret, we hardly even trusted each other with it”
In the years that have passed, Buechner has since written many times about his father’s death. He says that for him, carrying the burden of that secret was too much. He needed to share it – and that he found that each time he shared it – it somehow gave permission to others to share their secrets as well. And the surprising thing was that once those terrible things that people kept inside were spoken out loud, admitted, looked at directly, they weren’t so frightening anymore. When they were brought out into the light of day those secrets lost their power.
Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent – we spend time in confession. We dare to take a look at our secrets – those things we have done or have left undone and by offering these things up to God along with our heartfelt repentance, they lose their power over us. The darkest sins, the blackest stains on our hearts – they will never be as strong as the light and love of Christ.
God knows who you are. God knows what you need. Don’t bother to bring anything with you to receive the ashes on your head tonight except your real self and your repentant heart.
Tonight the ashes that will be put on our foreheads will remind us that we have fallen short, that we have failed in much, that all dies – even us. But thank God, there is one who can take ash and dust and make something new. That is what our journey over the next forty days is all about.
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