I used to think that a seriously spiritual person only prayed on mountain tops, or by the sea, or in monasteries. I used to think that in order to be a deeply spiritual person I would need to leave the world behind and enter the peaceful quiet world of some other place. I used to think that in order to have prayer time I would need lots of space and lots of quiet. I used to think I knew something about God and spirituality and life.
Now I know better. Now I am a mother.
It was mid February 2007, on a dark and cold Ash Wednesday in Iowa. It was my first Ash Wednesday as the pastor in a new church. I was just learning people’s names and starting to feel less like a stranger in a new land. Meanwhile, three children were at home: five months old, three years old and five years old. It was spaghetti night. I ran upstairs before eating and got ready for the service, squeezing back in to my normal clothes for the first time in ten months. I ran back down stairs, feeding the baby while sitting down to eat. What happened in the next fifteen minutes is a diminished memory. What I do remember is standing at the backdoor to say “good-bye” with the two older children crying, “don’t go mama!” My husband holding the baby and spaghetti all over the walls and on the floor. With minutes before I had to be at church, I looked down to find red spaghetti sauce splattered across my white sweater and in my hair. I shut the door and stepped into the cold, February night air. I got into the van and started to cry and pray. I cried and prayed all the way to church. “Dear God, this is impossible. I can’t do this. I am insufficient. I don’t have it in me. This is too hard.”
I got into church made it to the bathroom and attempted to get the spaghetti sauce out of my hair. I made it to my office and said a prayer of thanksgiving that I could hide all of the messiness of my life with the salvation of a black robe, and I sat down to read through the service one more time. The service began with the story of Jesus being in the wilderness for 40 days where he was tempted by the devil. The wilderness, that place that we feel the most separate from God, the most on our own. Jesus, who never needed to go there, went there because that’s where he knew he would find us. It’s certainly where he knew he would find me.
After the sermon, it was time for the imposition of ashes. This act is probably one of the most intimate and pastoral experiences a pastor can have with her parishioners. One by one people came forward, people who have now died came forward and I told them they were dust and to dust they shall return. Mothers and fathers came forward and brought their children, and parents heard it be told that their children were dust and their children heard that their parents were dust, and people with cancer came forward, and people who survived open heart surgeries came forward, one by one people came forward and as ashes were etched on their foreheads, tears flowed down my face as I gave thanks to God for the shear honor and privilege of reminding them that each of them was loved and known not only in this life time, but in the life yet to come.
And then a colleague came forward and asked if he could impose ashes on me, remind me of my humanness my need to know the love of God, and I smiled to myself thinking about how underneath this priestly disguise was spaghetti sauce and baby throw up and I said “yes,” and he said to me, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Jesus said, “As the father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15: 12).