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It’s been a hard year for friends and family. Illnesses, diagnoses (and lack of diagnoses, which can also be scary), hospital visits, loss, fear. We’ve lost husbands, brothers, cousins, friends, mothers, fathers, and grandfathers. Because of the blizzard, some weren’t able to make it to a loved one’s funeral. Because of family illness, some had their funeral travel arrangements complicated to the point of utter exhaustion.

Personally, I have been in the emergency room twice this year. Still no diagnosis. Still trying to manage an illness that could be one of several things – or none of those things.  How does one manage an illness that has no diagnosis? It’s kind of crazy-making. And the fear that the pain will return is constant and constantly unsettling.

Two people I love suffered sudden death. My cousin, a teacher in a pretty peaceful part of Iraq, was shot by a student, who then killed himself. Random school shootings happen everywhere. While my cousin and I weren’t close these days, when we were younger he was my favorite male cousin, the closest to me in age. We had grand times playing capture the flag at family reunions – I have almost 40 cousins on that side of the family alone! The morning the news broke, I woke up from a dream of playing capture the flag at a state park in Indiana that our family used to rent out for reunions. I think God was giving me a last chance to connect with my cousin before I learned of his death.

A friend, only a few months married, suffered a blood clot in her lung. She lived for a couple of days in a coma before dying. She and I used to carpool between our homes in Northeast Ohio and school on the North Shore of Boston. She was one of those people that, truly, everyone loved. And it is particularly unfair that she and her husband had only a couple months of married life before he lost her in this way.

My Facebook friends list is spilling over with people grieving and raging and lost. My friend Karyn, who lost both her mother and her father in the last two years, posted this status update:‎

“Remember you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
is not speaking to me today. It’s not what I need.

For those of us living in the face of our mortality every day, Ash Wednesday can sometimes feel like a slap in the face. In recent years at my tiny, elderly church, every Lent saw the congregation either grieving a member’s death, or grieving a member’s illness unto death. And there was no reprieve in the world around us: after several months of hard Vermont winter, what we need at this point is not more reminders of death, but the promise of new life. By mid-February, we know we have a couple more months of winter left to go. We know we’ll celebrate Easter in wool sweaters and long johns. We know Good Friday services may be canceled due to blizzard. We most emphatically do not need to be reminded of our mortality, of the fragility of life, of loss and transience.

One of my favorite fellow church members, Nancy, was the most curmudgeonly old lady I’d ever met. I adored her, partly because of how offensive she could sometimes be. I loved that she wouldn’t let everyone else get away with putting a happy face on a shitty situation. And sometimes she said what really needed to be said, but that no one else felt comfortable saying (outsiders’ stories to the contrary, small town New Englanders are more often desperate to keep the peace than they are crotchety and rude). One year before Lent, she announced that she was sick and tired of all the Lenten hymns, with their dreary repetitions of “forty days” and sin and penitence (and really, isn’t penitence meant for specific sins – we do wrong, we repent, we apologize and make amends? The idea of a season of penitence seems to rest on the idea that we are sinning nonstop, or on original sin. I reject them both). Our organist listened, and we sang the one really life-affirming Lenten hymn several times that season. It is #145 in The Hymnal 1982, words by Percy Dearmer, with some alteration:

‎”Now quit your care and anxious fear and worry;
for schemes are vain, and fretting brings no gain.
Lent calls to prayer, to trust and dedication;
God brings new beauty nigh;
reply, reply, reply with love to love most high.

“To bow the head in sackcloth and in ashes,
or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent’s goal;
but to be led to where God’s glory flashes,
his beauty to come near.
Make clear, make clear, make clear where truth and light appear.

“For is this not the fast that I have chosen?
(The prophet spoke) To shatter every yoke,
of wickedness the grievous bands to loosen,
oppression put to flight,
to fight, to fight, to fight till every wrong’s set right.

“For righteousness and peace will show their faces
to those who feed the hungry in their need,
and wrongs redress, who build the old waste places,
and in the darkness shine.
Divine, divine, divine it is when all combine!

“Then shall your light break forth as does the morning;
your health shall spring, the friends you make shall bring
God’s glory bright, your way through life adorning;
and love shall be the prize.
Arise, arise, arise! and make a paradise!”

A Lenten hymn that calls us back to Eden, that puts more emphasis on justice than on just feeling bad about yourself, that speaks of friends as a gift of God to brighten our lives? That’s the true Christian message! Christianity, at its heart, is NOT about sinfulness, or groveling, or self-denial, or dismal music. How could that POSSIBLY be considered “good news”? No, at its heart Christianity is about love, about solidarity across the boundaries that usually separate us, about joy, about life – and that abundantly! It’s about the grace of forgiveness when we do mess up. It’s about the refusal to allow death or any of the powers of death to defeat us.

So, yes, today and for the rest of Lent – for the rest of the year, really – I choose to live the Christian message embodied in Percy Dearmer’s hymn. As another friend responded to Karyn’s status update, “Isaiah 61:1-3. That is how I am applying my ashes.”

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance for our God;
to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord to display his glory.”  (NRSV)

Another friend says that, at her church, which has been going through hard times lately, too, they’ll be singing Gungor’s “Beautiful Things”: “You make beautiful things, you make beautiful things out of the dust. You make beautiful things, you make beautiful things out of us.”

So to all who’ve lost this year, who can’t get away from the knowledge that we are dust, and to dust we will return, know two things: First, you are not alone, either in your sorrow or in your struggle with the church calendar’s sometime obliviousness to human realities. And, second, though we are dust, “we are star-dust, we’re golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” This life is not the only one.

Asters in stone

Beauty in hard places