Several weeks ago, PW invited me to preach at the noon Ash Wednesday service at Emmanuel. My first thought, which I kept to myself, was, “Yikes! There’s no way I can be ponderous enough to write and then give an Ash Wednesday sermon.” So, of course, what I said out loud was, “Okay!”
Every time I worked on my remarks, in the days leading up to today, I kept hearing the voice of a man I interviewed recently for a letter I wrote for work. So here’s what I ended up with.
Well, here we are, perched at the beginning of the 40-day journey of Lent. You know, legend has it that explorers used to write “There Be Dragons,” or they’d draw dragons onto areas of maps to represent uncharted territory. I’ll confess that the view of Lent from Ash Wednesday often feels to me like looking at a map where an X marks “You Are Here” and I’m looking down a road that is dotted with signs that say “There Be Dragons.”
Oh sure, the festive welcome of Easter awaits us at the end of Lent, with all its flowers and Alleluias and new beginnings. But it seems so far away, and February lasts so dang long for the shortest month of the year, and There Be Dragons! And We Are Here.
Each of us has our reasons for coming through the door today, and if you’re anything like me, you’re struggling to unload a freight car’s worth of baggage you have accumulated with regard to Lent. Maybe the stuff you might give up for Lent has been tumbling around in your head, like lottery ping pong balls in their little see-through chamber. Chocolate? Facebook? Swearing? Maybe you’re debating whether to get the ashes, whether to rub them off before you leave the building, or whether to disregard Jesus’ strongly worded admonition and wear them all day, as a visible sign of your spiritual commitment. But, if you do that, then you risk having them misunderstood or judged… Aaauugh!
See if you can put all that down for a bit, and since We Are Here (and There Be Dragons!), let’s be travelling companions through Lent. I know this is likely the only time this peculiar and unique group of friends and strangers will be together. But, as we’ve already heard, and we’ll be repeatedly reminded, we all share a common beginning and ending: dust. So, really, we’re family!
I know that for our purposes today “Lent” refers to the time of fasting and reflection that precedes Easter. But, I love word play, and I love to tango with heresy, so I want to point out another meaning of Lent: it’s the past tense Lend — the act of giving something away that must be returned, eventually. Specifically, I’m thinking about life, about how our lives are Lent to us. None of us can keep what the poet Mary Oliver calls “your one wild and precious life.” Sooner or later, we all have to slide through that Return slot.
Later on, when we get to the Ash part of Ash Wednesday, listen for Pam’s voice repeating, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” as she marks people’s foreheads with ashes. If you don’t get the ashes, that’s fine, but, please, listen for the words. Let them be a chant or a mantra for Lent; let them remind you of your borrowed time. This life of yours, the body you’re in, it’s all fleeting.
At the beginning of our Lent journey, You Are Here, I Am Here, We Are Here, and surely There Will Be Dragons! With our borrowed lives, in our Lent bodies, with our unknown Return dates, consider: What is it you need over the next 40 days to break out of patterns that have become prisons? What do you need in order to arrive at Easter feeling more alive than ever, with a feeling that your life has marked some Xs where once there were dragons?
I interviewed a 65-year-old man recently named Richard. Ten years ago he went into the hospital with a kidney stone, acquired sepsis, and to save his life, doctors had to amputate his arms below the elbows and his legs below the knees. Richard’s one of these guys who is always tinkering – you know the type. And he has made a very full life for himself. He continuously tweaks his prostheses so they work better, so he can do more things on his own. He figured out how to paint and play guitar and even shovel snow.
Richard sometimes visits new amputees in the hospital. He’ll walk into their rooms and jump up and down on his prosthetic legs, to show them that their lives aren’t over just because their legs are gone. He made videos to demonstrate how quickly he could attach his arms and legs, without help, to show others new ways to be independent.
Richard told me, “I have a great life! I am the kind of man, when I see a door open, I go through it. I know that my family will support me. I have a great family, and I know not everybody has that. So when a door opens, I go through it, for myself, for my family, and for the people who can’t go through, for whatever reason. Maybe they don’t have the support, or they’re too scared. Whatever. I go through for them, too.” Richard’s one of those guys who matter-of-factly ventures out into the “There Be Dragons” part of the map and marks it with a new X: Now, We Are Here.
A couple of years ago, Richard’s wife Carole saw a TV news story about a local hospital’s new hand transplant program. Carole called the hospital to see if Richard might be a candidate. Last April, after more than a year of tests and screenings, Richard was put on the list of potential hand transplant recipients.
Last October, a local man about 20 years younger than Richard suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. Like Richard, Steven was a tinkerer, one of those guys who fixed his friends’ cars and did all his own home repairs. Still, when doctors asked Steven’s wife Jodi about organ transplants, and asked if she’d also be willing to donate his arms and hands, she was startled. But she took a night to think about it and concluded, “Steven’s talents were in his hands. Why let them go to waste?” Jodi went to a There Be Dragons place and marked an X. And now, We Are Here.
More than 40 medical personnel worked for 12 hours to give Steven’s arms (below the elbow) to Richard. It will be at least a year before Richard has full sensation in his arms, before he’ll have full use of them. He won’t be shoveling any snow this winter, so it’s just as well that we haven’t had much. But he’s started to playing some piano and he can’t wait to feel his grandsons’ faces, to feel his wife’s hand in his. When Richard met Steven’s widow, Jodi, he told her it was okay if she wanted touch his new hands. She hesitated. She hadn’t been sure if she even wanted to look at them. She was afraid she might not recognize them.
While they sat and held hands and cried together, Richard said, “I told her how sorry I was about her husband and I just kept thanking her. I said we gotta keep going forward. I’m a living example that there’s always a way to go through the next door, even after you lose someone you love.” So now, We Are Here.
Today I want to suggest that our guideposts for the next 40 days can be the noun forms of the traditional Lent activities of giving alms, praying, and fasting. Specifically, they’re what I’ll call the three Cs of Lent: compassion, connection, and clarity.
Jodi, Steven, Richard, and their families are ordinary and stunning examples of compassion, connection, and clarity. They are also profound reminders of the message of Easter: when death meets love, love always wins. EVERY TIME. Love. Always. Wins. One of my favorite modern prophets the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Every little deed counts, every word has power…[E]veryone [can] do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all the frustrations and all disappointments.”
My hope for you, for all the members of our Dust Family, is that we spend the rest of the lives we’ve been Lent finding ways to go forward, through whatever unlikely doors might open, even, and maybe especially, when There Be Dragons. My prayer for you, for all of us, is that we launch ourselves off the X that marks wherever we are now, and fill the next 40 days with so much compassion, connection, and clarity, that it will become a habit with us. Compassion. Connection. Clarity. Yeah, ‘cause THAT’s how the Dust Family rolls!
And when we return to the dust from whence we came, the world will be more redeemed, the map will have lots fewer dragons on it, and it will be spangled with X marks we have left behind: We Are Here.
Update: On 2/23/18, I changed the video that goes with this post. Because six years after writing the post, We Are in a Different Here, and I liked the way this song fits.