I know I write and talk a lot about my children. They have totally changed everything about my life, and even much about me.
Like, just now, my younger son, who attends preschool at the church I currently serve, popped his head into my office and said, “I love you, Daddy!” It’s totally changed my work day.
He does this every day, mind you. It’s one of the things I wait for in the morning. “I love you, too,” I respond. He always waits around until I say it, letting his class go on down the hall. After he hears it he’ll run to catch up with them.
We wait for love.
One of the most moving and meaningful things as a pastor is Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we get to do some public art: the public act of remembrance that you place on the foreheads of everyone who comes, from the oldest to the youngest, that we are dust.
That time is fleeting.
That the world buries us one minute, one hurtful act, one sinful offering at a time (much of which we participate in), and there is very little that we can do to stop it, so we should wait around to feel love whenever we can get it.
A few years ago on Ash Wednesday I was walking through the neighborhood in Chicago when a well-known gadfly said incredulously to me in my formal collar, “Gonna peddle some superstition today, eh Father?”
I ignored him. But as I thought about it, I realized that if I was going to speak to him on one day, Ash Wednesday would be that day, because Ash Wednesday is the day where religion offers something that speaks to everyone, regardless of what they do, or do not, believe: you will die.
Dying is the leading cause of death.
The knowledge of our mortality is too much to bear sometimes, though. And as I mark my own babies with that cross, I always choke a bit. It is too much for them to bear, too.
And yet, with their bodies, they do. Because cells grow cancer. Because heart disease and car accidents and suicide don’t seem to care about your age. And my babies are made of cells, and ride in cars, and live, and it happens. To all of us.
But instead of being depressing, Ash Wednesday is like the day when we all communally hug the cactus of our mortality, hug the cactus that we do wrong and harm in this world, even when we do want to (but also, sometimes, we do want to) and remind ourselves that we are not gods.
We are not God.
And once we get that fact out of the way, somehow we start to truly live. Like the cancer patient in remission who realizes that life is better spent on love than arguing. Like the near-death experience that increases are thirst for life rather than makes us more fearful. Like the person living with depression who, because the meds are finally working, smiles and laughs and realizes that they are worth it, by God.
When I think about my boys, my babies, my children on Ash Wednesday, I am full of hope.
I hope that they will embrace life, and death, and all of it with a gusto, with a big bear hug, as confident as they wear that cross, that sign of hope for Christians, on their brow. I hope it reminds them to love really freely, and really intensely, and to wait for love, and stick around for it. I hope it reminds them that they don’t have to do it all, they don’t have to be perfect, that nothing is unforgivable, and that they can admit that sometimes life is too much to carry alone, and that they aren’t alone even when it feels like that.
And, sure, my eyes will tear up, and I’ll choke a bit, but not because I will think of their death, but because I will think of how they can, they will, with their lives, and their love, overcome all that tries to bury them in this life, by God.