Ash Wednesday

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.




It’s been over four years now since the first time that I went back to our home place over by Henning after the new owners had bought it and taken down all the old buildings that were the setting for most every memory from my childhood.  I knew it would be strange and hard to go and see the place but like a magnet it draws me -If I am anywhere near those green hills and oak trees of Folden township in Minnesota then I find myself winding down the country roads toward home.

It was late afternoon as I turned the corner off highway 65 onto Lost School Road.  That was the fancy name they gave our road sometime while I was growing up.  Before that it had no name, it was just the road that the Hetlands live on or the road past the Hendricks place.  There was an old school building just past our property.  It had been decades since it was used and then a couple from California bought it and renovated it into a beautiful home.  Anyway, that’s where our old road finally got its’ name.

As I turned the corner, I caught my breath.  Every time I had turned that corner my whole life the first thing I would see was the white building at the top of the hill, about a quarter mile in the distance.  It was where we parked our cars.  The house was next to it, cloaked in trees.  There was a light post next to it that mom would always make sure to leave on if we were coming home at night.

Now there was nothing there.  My car crept closer down the road and finally to the driveway, up the hill and came to a stop right in front of where the house would have been.

It was the oddest feeling.  Haunting and solemn and sad and empty.  The sidewalk where my brother and I had played marbles, gone.  The garage with the basketball hoop where I had played for hours, gone.  The clothes line where we hung our clothes, the chicken coop where I raised the hens, the house where we had been a family, gone, gone, gone.  I was struck by how small the clearing really was now – that space where all my memories had been – it had always seemed so much bigger.  How could it possibly be erased clean now of the life we had lived there?  I found myself thinking strange things, grasping at remote hopes – wondering if the trees would remember us at least, if it could even be remotely possible that if people lived and loved and shared life together in a place –if some essence of you did indeed live on there even after all physical evidence showed otherwise. 

I noticed that on the apple trees which had been behind our house – on one side of several of the trees, the leaves were shriveled and brown.  As I walked closer I realized it had been from intense heat – and I knew what had happened.  That’s how they took down the house.  They burned it, let the ashes of the place descend into the basement below and then they covered them up.  Voila. 

It had to be done, of course.  The house was falling apart.  The wiring was bad, there were bats and mice, all sorts of disrepair.  It had been a very old house.  It needed to be torn down.  My brother and I had known that, had talked about it many times when that property was still in our names.  But we both knew that we couldn’t be the ones to do it.  Those walls had not held a perfect family – there had probably been as much tears as laughter.  But it had been our family.  And then before we knew it time went on and we buried our father and then we buried our mother and all that had been left was an empty old house that we loved, but we knew it would not be our home again. 

So we signed some papers and now someone else would make the decisions about the buildings and the future of those eighty beautiful acres.  It was good really.  I knew that.  Someone else would build a home or a cabin there.  Someone else would make memories with children and grandchildren there now.  Someone else would go sit by the lake, watch the sunrise over the meadow, listen to the breeze through the branches of the poplars and see how the noontime sun could make their leaves glimmer like silver coins.  All those things were so good.  Life was going on.

So why did it feel so much like death?

Because of course it was that as well.  I bent down and scooped up some of the dirt beneath my feet that was mingled with the ashes of all that used to be.  I wept big sloppy tears for my mother and my father and the finality of death.  I wept for my childhood home, burned to the ground, and that I’d never again be just a little girl sitting in her pink bedroom daydreaming about the future without a care in the world.  I wept the big sloppy tears that I had to cry, and then I put down the dirt and ash and dusted off my hands. 

I took some pictures then before I left – pictures of the trees that mom and I had planted in the front yard and the lilac bush we had grown from a clipping taken from grandma’s yard.  I looked one more time down toward the valley where the deer pause to drink from the pond and up toward the hill where mom used to take us sledding.  Scores of memories every direction I turned.  It would always be this way here.  I sighed and slipped back into my car and drove away.

We all have our stories of ashes, don’t we?  Mine, I think of a home that once existed – now just a memory.  Yours might be the ash and ruin you found your life in after poor choices made.  They could be the ashes of dreams you had for a relationship or the ashes of the prayers you prayed that a cure would be found or the ashes of a loved one whose body finally gave up its spirit at the end of a long life.  Ashes are the sign of something that once was – but no more.  We sweep them up and toss them away, we bury them, scatter them, or store them away and try to forget about them. 

Yet today, we are marked with them.  We choose to be marked with this sign of death and endings.  Why in the world would we do such a thing?

We do it because it is only through death that there is the possibility of new life.  We do it because it is only through the repentance of Ash Wednesday, this season of lent, pondering the last days and words of our Lord Jesus, and remembering his last supper he shared with his disciples on Maundy Thursday and kneeling at the foot of the cross where he hung on Good Friday and then was shut in the tomb that we can truly experience the joy of the resurrection on Easter morning.

On Ash Wednesday I am always struck by the power of the ritual of this day.  There’s nothing quite as powerful as putting ash in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of the smallest children to the oldest adult in the church and speaking the words, “remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  The first time I marked a baby with that cross, the words were stuck in my throat and I had to push them out.  Ashes are a sign of endings and the blackness of sin and death, it felt so wrong to place them on the pale, smooth, perfect skin of an innocent baby – and yet, I knew that we are all born into the blackness of sin, and the only hope for any of us, from the youngest child, to the eldest matriarch or patriarch – our only hope is in Jesus Christ.

Without him, the ash places and the death places in our lives would be the end of all of our stories.  Without him, the cold tomb really is the end.  Without him, without grace, there no peace, no forgiveness, no second chances, no hope for our home beyond this one and life eternal with the ones we love.

And so we learn to love the ashes because they stand for far more than endings.  Because we find our home in the heart of a Savior who is making all things new.  Even you and me.

Blessing the Dust

A Blessing for Ash Wednesday

by Jan Richardson

All those days you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face toward the wind

and be scattered to the four corners

or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial-

Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?

This is the day we freely say we are scorched.

This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning.

This is the moment we ask for the blessing

that lives within the ancient ashes,

that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth.

So let us be marked not for sorrow.

And let us be marked not for shame.

Let us be marked not for false humility

or for thinking we are less than we are

but for claiming what God can do within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff of which the world is made,

and the stars that blaze in our bones, a

nd the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.

In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.


The Bell Tolled 91 Times

The church bell tolled ninety-one times this afternoon as we brought her out to the cemetery.  The wind swept like a brush through the grass and picked up bits of dust, carrying it far off over the cedars and live oaks.  “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I said and sprinkled the sand over her coffin.  I drew the indentation of a cross and watched granules slip into the grave below. I stepped aside as we silently observed the flag folded and presented.  She had been a Navy Nurse. The gun salute sounded.  The trumpet haunted in echo.

I thought of my mother and my father, their bones resting so far away.  I saw the man with the cane let his tears fall onto his jacket. We prayed an ancient prayer and headed back toward the church, still keeping watch over her dead all these years.