Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ash Wednesday

It took me a while to realize what I was doing, but I noticed that after I preside over a funeral, I write something on my blog about it. And also, if it’s warm, I sometimes take Sophie to the cemetery afterwards and “introduce” her to the person I just buried.

I don’t know what it is about funerals that make me more reflective. It might be the obvious. I’m face to face with someone who had died.

And it’s hard to proclaim a message of life and salvation at a funeral service without some peoples’ tears landing on you, bringing out tears of your own.

Maybe it’s because death causes me to face my own doubts. When you’re standing at the foot of an occupied casket, with family members quietly wiping their eyes, it’s hard to keep the bible’s promises of resurrection as abstract theory or weighty theological principles. It’s hard to pontificate when people are weeping. It’s difficult to spout soft religious platitudes in the midst of life and death questions

Maybe that’s why I get reflective. I find funerals to be an uncomfortable reminder that one day I will lie in that coffin, and I don’t like that scenario. I don’t like being confronted with the fact that, yes, I have come from dust, and to dust I will return.

Two years ago, I was almost killed on the Granum highway. Twice. Within the space of two minutes. It was snowing and I took the turn off Highway 2 too fast, hit some black ice and my car spun into on-coming traffic before sliding toward a ditch.

A minute later – after retrieving my heart from my throat - I went east on an unpaved side road. An 18-wheeler came barreling down the westbound lane. A gust of wind pushed me into the lane in front the truck. At the very last moment my tires clenched some gravel and I was able to pull the car back into the eastbound lane.

Seconds. Milliseconds later. I'd be maggot feed.

This is the closest I've ever come to dying. At least that I know of.

When I got to my office an hour later I was still shaking inside. I kept running the events over and over in my head, constructing little scenarios about what people would do in the event of my demise. Where would the funeral be? Who would preside? Who would attend?

I thought about how my two little girls would grow up without a dad. Rebekah would bury her husband. I would only be a memory. A few pictures in a box. Some posts on a blog.

I used to think that I was prepared for death. This is not because I have super duper, unshakable confidence in the resurrection to eternal life.

No. I have HOPE in the resurrection, not certainty. I have NO IDEA for sure what happens to us when we die. The bible makes promises, tells stories and poems, and tries it’s darndest to relieve us hapless souls of our existential anxiety. But alas, the bible does not offer certainty.

I used to believe that I was prepared for death for one simple reason: I’ve outlived many friends. I’m 37 and I know my fair share of dead people.

When I was in grade 3, a classmate died from bone cancer. In high school, a basketball player keeled over and died during practice. My dad passed away when I was 20. In university, it seemed that a summer break couldn’t go by without the news of someone dying while away from school. Seven years ago, a classmate and colleague, who was a year younger than me, died suddenly from meningitis 2 days before Christmas.

And I outlived them all. So whatever life I have now, I consider gravy. I used to tell myself that I have to live the life that these people were robbed of.

At least that was the theory. It sounded good. It FELT good. But after that’s day’s near misses I feel like I need to confront my own mortality – for real. I don’t know what that looks like or how it will make me behave differently. Some moments it makes me afraid to leave the house. Other moments I need to be out in the world doing something, making a difference, leaving my mark, “participating in God’s reconciling love for the world” as our church’s purpose statement puts it.

But today it simply means rubbing ashes on my head.

It is a cliché that after a near miss, life seems better, fuller, your senses sharpen; food tastes better, flowers smell better. But like most clichés, it contains an emptied husk of truth.

Near misses remind me that, one day, I will say good bye to those whom I love. When I snuggle with my daughter before she falls asleep I know that, one day, we will part. Either she will die or I will. The same goes for my wife. And everyone else in my life. I call that the underside of intimacy. With great love there is also great loss.

When I remind myself that one day I will say good-bye, I also remind myself that that day is not today. Today I will love and be grateful. Let tomorrow take care of itself. I think I read that somewhere.

But even if I had 100% scientific proof that my dust will not be the end of my story, I will probably still harbour deep anxiety about death. I think death, and with it, resurrection, is one of those things you need to experience in order to really understand it. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons Jesus died, so that the divine could experience human fragility and limitations. In other words, in Jesus God knows what it’s like to die.

And I suppose that God gave us the gift of fasting to remind us that we are fragile and limited, and why Jesus put boundaries around our fasting, because he knew that, like everything else we do as human beings, we do the rituals and forget about their meanings. He knew that we’d make fasting about US, and how super-spiritual we are. We sometimes think that merely doing our rituals is enough.

But rubbing ashes on our heads reminds us that we are going to die some day. That, for me, is a hard ritual, maybe even harder than giving up fatty foods for Lent.

So, maybe that’s why God asks me to fast, and maybe you as well. It’s hard to arrogantly flow through life, seemingly invincible, when you’ve got a reminder of your mortality stuck to your forehead.

Even after we sponge it off, it never completely washes clean. It stays with us whether we can see it or not. Only though the waters of life given to us in baptism is the stain of death removed.

In the meantime, I think keep mine on, and maybe you should too. After all, it’s not just a reminder that I’m going to die some day; it’s also the promise of new and everlasting life that is found in Jesus.

May these ashes never rub off until we see Jesus face to face. Amen.


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