On Mardi Gras I spent the day at the house of the Sisters of Charity in Leavenworth, Kansas. I was leading a retreat with a lovely group of new Presbyterian pastors. They renewed hope in me, yet again, with stories about how they are learning the practices of ministry.
The event was surrounded by well springs of worship planned by Loretta Ross and group work led by Sandy Carlson. In the gathering dark of Mardi Gras we met in the chapel. Inside the cocoon-like sanctuary we donned beads and masks and starry crowns. We wrote our hallelujah’s so we might put them away for Lent and look forward to celebrating at Easter. As we entered into worship, we had some help from Paul Simon singing “Take me to the Mardi Gras.” He crooned, “take your burdens to the Mardi Gras and let the music wash your soul.”
We spun around in our chairs, giggling and laughing, feeling the spirit of the Carnival. Okay, I admit it. That was me. I misled everyone with the first spin of my chair. But honestly I didn’t try to spin. I just put my feet up and away I went. Ahhh, it was just part of the fun of Fat Tuesday.
We listened to the stories of Moses’ shining face and the transfiguration of Jesus. Then we served one another communion. After worship we sat and talked away the evening. Someone said it was the first time they had been served communion without also being in charge in many months. Wow.
When I returned to my room that evening I looked at blogs and tweets and posts from those preparing for Lent. To fast or not to fast? To take up something new or lay down something frivolous? To find a new practice or refuse an injustice? I weighed and measured my own thoughts, hopes and longings. I searched my new Leonard Cohen album hoping something might fit the season that would begin in a few hours. I was not disappointed.
I listened to “Come Healing” by Leonard Cohen over and over. It is just right for saying what I hope about the season.
The next morning I awoke on Ash Wednesday. And I packed up for a day of travel. After breakfast I joined the group for a morning service of ashes. As we took turns marking one another with ashes around the circle, we spoke these words: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” And while we did this “Come Healing” was playing. It bowled me over.
Several hours and 412 miles later I was in St. Paul. My friend and project assistant, Catrina picked me up at the airport and we caught up on work and ideas and campus news. Then we went in search of the Ash Wednesday service in the park. It was supposed to include a fire.
Really, who can resist an outdoor Ash Wednesday service? With a fire and a theme from Mumford and Sons? It was only 32 degrees, not cold by Saint-Paul-in-winter standards. “In these bodies we will live. In these bodies we will die. Where you invest your love, you invest your life.” The line comes from Mumford and Sons’ amazing song, “Awake My Soul.”
Pastor Jodi Houge and some of the flock from Humble Walk prepared for the service, built a fire, laid out cards for confession, and came ready with ashes. We processed from the edge of the park grounds to the fire. We made our confessions by writing them on cards at the picnic table.
We folded the cards and gave them to pastor Jodi, and she gently placed every last one in the fire. And she said words that went something like this:
“We give these burdens over to you, O God, and we trust them to your grace and mercy.”
This was yet another holy moment in this day of wonders. I could have written any of a multitude of sins on that card of confession. But the ones I chose to write down – quickly and in the moment – were the subtle and slithering sins of complicity with racism and sexism. The surprise and grace of the moment was that even these largest of sins and most major of injustices can be taken in by the mercy of God. This spiritual reckoning is not an excuse to stop working for justice and peace. Instead it affirms that God is larger than all our plans and hopes and dreams and even larger than the deep and troublesome problems of our lives which fester in social fabric of our lives.
The deeper grace is that God is already and always in it. Whatever it is: the branches and limbs, burdens of every kind, fickled hearts and woozy eyes, and every last part of ourselves in need healing. That is where God is: at the very point where need and healing meet.
In a year that is rife with headlines about the end of the world, the good folks of Humble Walk are taking as their theme for Lent this year, “The Beginning Is Near.” What a brilliant counter to “the end is near. . . the sky is falling . . . things are broken beyond measure.” The beginning is at hand, closer than your breath or the next song.