Ash Wednesday: On Taking the Time to Be Alive

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Emory University Hospital Midtown: the inner city Atlanta hospital where I accompanied people as their lives changed, and I saw my own life change as well.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Matthew 6:1-6, 12-21

“Blow the trumpet in Zion. Sound the alarm on my holy mountain.”

There are moments for all of us when our lives change forever: when someone is born or when someone dies, or when you get injured or have a health episode that threatens your life. These are moments when our own human-ness and mortality are shoved into our faces. When the preciousness and the fragility of human life are undeniable. And I can’t help but notice how often those moments involve hospitals.

And then there are the people who work with people whose lives are changing like that: EMTs, ER doctors and nurses, and, at one time, me. I worked as a hospital chaplain before I came here. I found the hospital to be a sacred place. Even now, when I walk into one, I take a deep breath of what is, almost, relief. I may not know much, but I know how to navigate this kind of space. I have to remind myself, in fact, that most people hate hospitals, mostly because of the things that have happened to them there.

I came to think of the hospital as a holy place pretty early on in my time as a chaplain. Bad things have happened to me in and around hospitals too, which led me to be a little ambivalent at first. But, slowly, I learned to see the holiness. This place was sacred, for it was where people said hello and experienced great joy when their children and grandchildren were born. Whenever a child was born in our hospital, the opening notes to Brahms’s lullaby played.

That was especially meaningful when I was in the hospice wing of the hospital. The hospice nurses would glance at each other and smile when they heard it, knowing that as they helped someone to say goodbye, someone else, in the very same building, was saying hello.

Holy moments.

The hospital was also a place where I watched people heal. They came in, afraid that they might not survive, and they left with a new lease on life and a new way of seeing the world. They no longer wanted to take life for granted. A brush with death — their own mortality — had gotten their attention. We do not have forever to live. We must make the most of the time we have.

For me, as I watched lives change in front of my eyes, my life was slowly changed too. My eyes were opened to my own mortality. I watched people my age fail to wake up because of a heart defect they never knew they had. I got to know people younger than me who would eventually die from cancer. The sometimes sleepy, sometimes overanxious way that I was used to walking through my life changed, at first tentatively, and then permanently. I realized that I was wasting so many good things simply by not paying attention. I wasn’t really enjoying the time I had: the times I could be alone and enjoy my own company, time I could spend in the sun, time I could spend hiking or running, time I could spend with enjoying the company of people I love. All I had was chores to be done, notifications to be attended to, emails to be answered. I wasn’t really cherishing having the ones I love close to me. I enjoyed time with them, sure, but I never considered how quickly they, or I, could be gone.

And I was, through seeing human mortality every day, forced to see the truth now: life is so, so fragile.

The prophet Joel calls to the people in our Old Testament reading to “Blow the trumpet in Zion, to sound the alarm on [God’s] holy mountain.” Kings did this from time to time in ancient days: call for a fast, a time for the whole community to tear their clothing, put ash on their heads, and repent of their sinful ways. But here in Joel, it’s God, not a human leader, who calls for the fast. The whole thing is meant to be a wake up call: you can’t continue as you have been. You can’t go on like this.

Wake up. Pay attention. Things have to change.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of discussing Ash Wednesday, a friend of a friend on Facebook — more than one such person, actually — said something to the degree of, “I’m just not that into Ash Wednesday. I think focusing on sin and feeling sorry is a little bleak for me.”

I can understand not wanting to talk about sin if all we’re talking about is the times that Jesus was looking over your shoulder and heard you say a bad word. If all we’re talking about is relatively trivial offenses (or non-offenses that people think are offenses) committed by individuals, I get it. I still think that most of us have a psychological need to be forgiven when we’ve done wrong, but I can understand not wanting to deal with individual sin.

What I don’t understand is not wanting to deal with communal sin.

Things in the world are not as they should be, my friends, and we can’t keep saying it’s everyone else’s fault but ours.

We live in a world where people around the world flee violence, where some people don’t have clean water or food, and where still others — some within our own nation — live in fear. We live in a world where greed is rampant and we are distracted and acknowledging truth only has to happen if it confirms my pre-conceived feelings and beliefs. We have all contributed to the way that things are. We need to wake up. We need to change.

Blow the trumpet in Zion. Sound the alarm on God’s holy mountain.

It begins by paying attention. We are not here forever. Life is so, so fragile. We all may be — collectively and individually — a lot closer to disaster than we think we are. We’d better watch what we’re doing and enjoy the time we have.

This Lent, I invite you to slow down. We live in a world where we have constant access to information, where our buzzing phones and computers and tablets so often demand our attention. If it’s not a device demanding our attention, it’s probably something else: a job, a person, a project.

Slow down.
Pay attention. Things have to change.

This Lent, we’ll begin on a journey. Every Wednesday, we’ll gather to enjoy each other’s company, to do nothing but slow down, pay attention, and enjoy good food and good people and good conversation. And then we’ll come into this place to sing and pray, turn off our phones, and even sit in silence.

Blow the trumpet in Zion. Sanctify a fast.

Ash Wednesday is here to remind us of what we always know but rarely acknowledge: we are dust, and we will return to dust. We won’t be here forever.

A friend of mine posted this poem by Jane Kenyon, and that’s where I want to end tonight.

“I got out of bed on two strong legs.

It might have been otherwise.

I ate cereal

Sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach.

It might have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill to the birch wood.

All morning I did the work I love.

At noon I lay down with my mate.

It might have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together at a table

With silver candlesticks.

It might have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.”

So let’s wake up. Let’s slow down. Let’s listen more closely to God’s voice in the silence. This could be a moment that changes your life, that calls you to pay attention: one day, things will be otherwise. Let’s at least be able to say that we lived our fullest, and did all the good we could, in the time we had.

From dust you came, to dust you shall return. We are dust, but we are beloved dust, given love and blessing and opportunity to enjoy. So let us pay attention, squeeze our loved ones, listen to God, and pay attention. Amen.

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