Ash Wednesday makes me nervous.
It's not the ashes themselves that make me uneasy. It's not trying to form the perfect paste of dirt and oil that makes my heart race. It's not the the whispered comments about Lent being "too Catholic" for United Methodists that make me squirm.
What makes me nervous about Ash Wednesday are the vessels holding the muddy mix: pottery made from earth's clay and shaped into masterpieces. I only use them once a year. I won't let anyone else touch them. I want to protect them. Paul may have referred to people when he wrote "we have this treasure in clay jars," but on this holy day the clay jars are the treasure.
In my first year as a pastor, I received the patent and bowl as Christmas gifts. One came from a yoga student, the other from a family member of a parishioner. Both of them are potters. Both of them molded and shaped and fired the pieces themselves. Both of them blessed me with these gifts.
Both of the artists also have experienced the unimaginable pain of losing a child.
Knowing about the heartache and loss they had experienced, I viewed the ceramics as more than vessels. I saw them as my friends, the givers of these gifts, fragile with grief yet strong with hope. I looked upon the patent and the bowl as testimonies to surviving and thriving in the fieriest of life's furnaces. I wanted to keep them tucked away, safe on a shelf. But Ash Wednesday has called me year after year to take a risk--and fill the most delicate of vessels with the most delicate of dusts. I pray for the two families. I pray for all who will receive the ashes. I pray, "God, please keep the bowl from breaking. Help me not to drop the patent. Keep them safe. Keep us all safe."
After our evening service concluded this week, I breathed a sigh of relief at home. The vessels may have been full of grainy paste mixed with sweat and make-up, but they were safely at rest in the kitchen sink. Then I heard a "ding" on my iPad, signaling a news alert.
Seventeen were dead in a shooting at a Florida high school.
There was no literal crash in my kitchen, but the brokenness of more grief, more loss, was still audible. Evil was once again in the spotlight.
I thought of the two potters, who had experienced being overcome by the evil of death, and yet here in my kitchen sink was their good work. Their work represented hope and resurrection even when holding the ashes of death. For the past ten years, I have lifted from their good work countless crosses on numerous foreheads in a timeless symbol that death is not the end for those who confess the One on that cross as Savior.
As we move through this Lenten season, may the hands that formed us from the dust craft us into vessels of mercy, love, and comfort to all who are grieving. Evil will not break us, for the Lord of the coming Good Friday calls each of us "very good."
all good things to each of you,