Today is Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of the season of Lent. The word "lent" is derived from the German word lenz, meaning "springtime".
Days of new growth, green grass and budding flowers.
Days of resurrection life out of cold Midwestern wind sheets crushing both marrow and bone.
That was a personal note, but true all the same.
As a pastor now for nearly 17 years, I have done my share of funerals. I have walked the padded carpets of Victorian-homes-gone-parlor with people in various stages of grief. Some of the "It's better this way" and some of the "I can't believe he's gone" persuasion, some weeping and some rejoicing, and even more painfully some who are unaffected. A life that leaves little wake behind it is hardly missed when it is gone. I do know that someone, somewhere misses it but for whatever reason they were unable to attend the services.
I have spoken the words of comfort, smelled deeply the flowers surrounding the bier as I inhaled pain and sorrow and exhaled the words of a God who "comforts" (2 Corinthians 1) anyone, anywhere, regardless of the reason. I watch them pat their eyes dry, watch their young children to whom death is for the old snake in and out of the rows of chairs looking for a grandparent-figure with an open hand and a pocket or purse that may contain mints, candy, or any other distraction.
Then we head to the gravesite - I follow the casket at the head, which is notoriously difficult to do unless you pay attention when they close it, and ride in the hearse with the funeral director. I wish I could recount all the conversations with these men and women of the "dismal trade" but this book accomplishes that feat with grace and beauty that I don't have at my disposal.
We arrive. Trekking across grass and stone, braving wind and heat, to the final resting place. I stand at the head, again, either under an awning or in the open expanse of God's oxygen-rich world and say the words from Psalm 23 - "even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
And we are all there, in the valley, in the shadow, almost instantly.
However, I have never talked about the "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" passage at a graveside. Instead, I opt for Paul's words on resurrection in how a seed must fall to the ground and die before a plant can grow (see 1 Corinthians 15).
We are all in the shadow, the valley, yes, but we are following the plow. We are being planted, even as we live towards our bodies dying, we are being planted.
It's on this day, Ash Wednesday, that these thoughts rush back to me. Thoughts of funerals past, friends and unknown penitents long since buried and mourned, come bubbling to the surface as I think about the ashes that will travel on foreheads of God-lovers yet to be planted. Those of us walking through the valley of the shadow.
So we do Lent. We fast, we submit, we enter in with our minds and hearts to the thought that we are tourists in the valley of the shadow and will one day become residents. And yet, this fresh springtime lets us know that we are simply being planted. There is a resurrection. There is a new body and a new world and a new way of seeing things rightly that lies just beyond the glistening veil at the end of our finger tips.
So no meat on Fridays, or no beer or chocolate or Facebook for 40 days, yes, yes and right and holy. Yet if we do not come to the conclusion that it is all part of the ashes, something that must die for the seed of our souls to be planted, then we do not live in springtime at all.
We are in a world, as C.S. Lewis illustrated: "Where it is always winter, but never Christmas."
Come Lord Jesus - draw us into the future of your resurrection as we meditate on the ashes of our present. Come Easter, show us what the valley is truly for.