Tonight I went to the first Ash Wednesday service that I have ever attended. A new friend invited me for dinner and then to attend the service. I had many things to do, and it was a long drive home. But I now know that it was the most important place that I have been in a long time. It was beautiful, sobering, Real. After my friend, Reverend Al Allison, put ashes on my head in the shape of the cross and said "The scripture says, 'From dust you came, and dust you shall return,' I was struck by this visible reminder that we truly do not own ourselves, that we do not have control of our origin or our end. God's grace enables us to recognize and participate in our ultimate end in Him, yet so much else is a mystery. We are trained by our culture to despise mystery, to despise surrendering control. The lush, seemingly absurd, and utterly fulfilling beauty of God's lavish grace is subversive in a culture that claims that the ultimate sins are boredom and lack of control (which are often connected). We must be entertained, and be in charge of that entertainment; it must please us in a simplistic, formulaic way that gives us a false sense of security and depth as we are spoon fed the very ideals that have taught us to hate mystery, wonder, and a recognition of our lack of control.
Tonight I realized that the more we try and control our lives, the more chaotic our lives become. This is such a simple truth--but it was a great revelation, a needed revelation to me. I pray that I will allow myself to be still and linger in the mystery enough that that revelation is not forgotten, swept under the rug of feigned control and depthless entertainment.
On my drive home, I kept thinking that I needed to read TS Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" when I got home. I am less familiar with this poem than many of his others, and I also knew that tonight's experience would cast a new light on the poem. Here it is in its entirety. But I wanted to highlight just a few lines that are really poignant to me, right now, directly after this service and my realizations about our lack of control:
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself
I too much discuss
Too much explain...
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks...
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
During communion, we sang along with "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" (Sufjan's version). Perhaps you are like me and the "prone to wonder Lord I feel it" is often the line that resonates the most deeply. But this is the line that takes me back to the lack of control, and to one of the most reassuring pleas in scripture: "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!". Amen.