I have not had consistent employment since February of 2009.
My three-year journey has been a wave of emotions and melting pot of pinch-hitting jobs. And, to be quite honest, there have been some dark days. While not having steady income has been stressful, it has not been my most painful loss.
The most painful loss has been that of identity and purpose.
As a pastor and chaplain, not having a congregation to love up on, lead, or nurture has left me, at times, feeling empty and wondering what my purpose is during this phase of life. While financial stress in this economy has rendered many of us fearful and weary, not feeling able to fulfill one’s sense of calling is just as draining and anxiety inducing.
One of the aspects of consistent employment I miss the most is that of leading worship, and leading special services in particular.
I love leading worship.
I love standing before others calling us all to confess the sins of our lives, then assuring all of us that once again God is recreating us in grace. I love sharing the stories of the Gospel and the stories of the community. I love witnessing the Spirit transform, heal, and redeem when two or more are gathered.
My very favorite service to lead is Ash Wednesday. I’ve had colleagues ask why it’s my favorite, since it is seemingly a bit more dark than say, Christmas Eve or Easter. And, I really cannot articulate what makes it my favorite. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen a number of people return to dust, many much too soon, in my work as a hospital chaplain. Maybe it’s rooted in my passion for pastoral care and journeying together through all aspects of life. It may be derived from the fact that I have a parent who has lived with cancer most of my life, and we all know what cancer can do to finite creatures.
Whatever the reason, I love that we have an entire worship service dedicated to the reality that we are but dust and to dust we will return. I love that we gather our dusty selves together to stand in humility and mortality before the One who overcame even death itself. I love that our greatest human bond lies in the fact that we are all finite.
As I thought about the upcoming Lenten Season, I grieved that I did not have an Ash Wednesday service to lead this year. I knew I would still attend one, but wished I had a service to plan and lead and wished I had consistent employment.
To my great surprise, on Tuesday, I was invited to co-lead the Ash Wednesday service at the church I attend. Now, some of my colleagues would laugh at the thought of being asked to lead a service 24 hours before as a gift, and quite frankly, until three years I ago I would have too. But it was a gift. And a gift given at precisely the right time.
Not only did I need to be amid other broken, humble, weary, and finite creatures, I needed a reminder that there is still a sense of calling in my ash heap of cover letters, applications, and even rejection letters.
As I settled into my chair at the service and watched others do the same, I was overwhelmed with a sense of empathy and belonging to the precious people facing me.
Only four days earlier we had all gathered to bear witness to the resurrection of a matriarch in the congregation and influential community leader. We gathered for Ash Wednesday as a people very much aware that to dust we shall all return one day. We came knowing full well that we need each other and we need God’s unconditional love. We greeted Ash Wednesday still burning from the recent sting of death in our midst.
We called ourselves to worship through Scripture, prayer, and singing. Then it came time to confess our sins aloud and silently. And, as we confessed our sins aloud it was as if there were multitudes as our voices grew stronger together as our need for forgiveness and love was petitioned to the Throne of Grace. There we were, in and among our own ash heaps, begging the God of our lives to remember us, to forgive us, to sustain us, to revive us. And yet again we were promised that God will indeed breathe new life into us, granting us another opportunity to be better dust.
As forgiven children, one by one the ashes were imposed upon our faces. We were marked with the sign of the cross and reminded that from dust we were created and to dust we shall return.
that was formed on purpose for a purpose.
that was made alive with the breath of the Spirit.
that makes us equally vulnerable and mortal.
that is so beloved the Word became Flesh to live among us.
I went out from that service into the crisp Chicago evening giving thanks to God for the dust of our lives and for sending the Spirit to move us out of our own ash heaps to be reunited with our dusty, broken, beloved sisters and brothers. I gave thanks for the collection of dust we call community.
Thanks be to God who promises that our ashy dry bones can and will be revived and thrive. May our Lenten journeys be filled with opportunities to take on the mission of revival among the ashes and invite other dust to join us along the way.