Ashes, ashes . . . we all fall down

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Ring-a-round the Rosie

No one really knows the origins of “Ring-a-round the Rosie.” Some say the nursery rhyme sprang from the Black Plague, the epidemic that took children as well as adults, kings as well as paupers. Others say it has different origins, but I don’t care. This is my blog, and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to! “We all fall down.”

It’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in a QAnon world when reality doesn’t mean much anymore. Truth is a fiction. Choose your fantasy. It doesn’t matter anymore. We may fall down, but, like corks thrown into the sea, we bob up again. Or so some think. We never really fall down. Yet something in us knows that how Narcissus dies bowing to his own reflection, and that the flower only blooms when he and his loyal Echo return to dust.

What stories shall we tell ourselves in a time when the pond we thought was ours is drying up, when there is no up or down on a spinning Big Blue Ball floating in space that feels upside-down and falling back to dust and ashes? 

The Parable of the Madman

When the madman in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science parable steps into the marketplace with his lantern lit on a bright morning seeking God, and later announces, “God is dead! God is dead. And we have killed him, you and I,” those who view God as a phantasm laugh in derision. You can’t kill what never was. The believers don’t laugh. They throw him out when he enters the church to sing his requiem for God, leaving him to ask, “What are these churches but the sepulchres of God?”

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” asks the madman. “What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.” — The Gay Science, Book 2 (1882)

What stories do we tell ourselves?

Ash Wednesday brings every fantasy to a halt. There is no higher history than all history before us. There is life and there is death. Both are real. Where do we find a footing? What stories do we tell ourselves? What does a disciple of Jesus do when the Jesus hanging on a cross crying out that the horror of god-forsakenness has been re-shaped into a positive thinker, a White supremacist, a Christian nationalist? What to do in a reality denying QAnon world in the aftermath of January 6, 2021?

Where your treasure is

“Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:19-21).

The imposition of ashes

Ring-a-round the Rosie seems different this Ash Wednesday, but it’s not. It’s always the same. Going forward for the imposition of ashes I acknowledge the reality I flounder to avoid. “Dust to dust; ashes to ashes.” The ashes that smudge my forehead always have to be imposed. We all fall down.

Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 short commentaries on faith and life; Chaska, Minnesota, February 17, 2021.

Plagiarism or a Blank Page?

Today, Ash Wednesday, is a solemn day that calls for distraction from frivolous distractions, you might say.

Photo of Steve Shoemaker welcoming  President Clinton to Champaign-Urbana, IL.

Entertainment cultures shun solemnity. Ash Wednesday interrupts our flight from the knowledge of our mortality: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Steve Shoemaker, seen here welcoming President Clinton to Champaign-Urbana, shared a poem that leads me a decision Ash Wednesday: plagiarize or leave the page (Views from the Edge) blank?

I HAVE NOTHING

I have nothing…
nada…zilch…zero…

no thoughts, no ideas
no inspiration.

Worse, only clichés
crowd my mind:

stock images
standard phrases,

or remembered words
wielded by real writers.

Feeling only frustration,
tempted by alliteration,

or worse, rhyme…
Theft?

Is it worse to plagiarize
than to leave a blank page?

— Steve Shoemaker, Feb. 6, 2013
Photo of ashes drawn on a forehead

In memory and thanksgiving for Steve’s faithful solemnity and smile,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020

I will give up ______ for Lent?

photo of 6'8" poet Steve Shoemaker crammed into seat of an airplane.

Seen here with his 6’8″ frame squeezed into his seat on a flight to somewhere, Steve Shoemaker (1942-2016) wrote poetry. Often the verses came to him in the dark. At 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. Steve would turn to his right side so as not to disturb Nadja, and commit the verses to his iPhone. The poem was waiting in the in-box in the morning.

Often he led the reader through the lines to a surprising last line that shined a humorous light on all that had come before.

LENT

I will give up writing poems for Lent.

I will give up eating desserts for Lent.

I will give up sex for Lent.

I will give up thinking about sex for Lent.

I will give up lying for Lent.

I will give up bragging for Lent.

I will give up exaggerating for Lent.

I will give up self-centeredness for Lent.

________________________________

I will give up self-denial for Lent.

— Steve Shoemaker RIP, Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2013.

Steve Shoemaker sitting on an ancient bristlecone pine at 1,000+ feet in Colorado.

In this era of ill-humor and self-indulgence, Steve’s tongue-in-cheek verses ring the bell on the distortions of our best intentions and our shared need to focus on what lies beyond the self.

This photograph shows Steve sitting on an ancient bristlecone pine at 11,000+ feet in Colorado. — GCS, Feb. 25, 2020.

The Day the Ashes Were Turned into Water

We are drowning in a sea of lies, but the ocean has a way of caring for itself. Without exception, all life is part of the Ocean. If it seems strange to be talking about water on Ash Wednesday, perhaps a memory will bring water and ashes together for you, as it did for me.

The Ash Wednesday I’m remembering, I robed 20 minutes or so before the 7:00 PM Ash Wednesday. There was plenty of time. I went to fetch the the little ZipLock bag of ashes. I’d forgotten that the credenza where I’d always stored the ashes had been moved from my office to the church basement. I rushed to the basement to where the credenza had re-located. There was no credenza. Finally it dawned me that the credenza had been sold at for a couple of bucks at the annual festival-flea market last fall.

“Somebody has my ashes,” I thought, “and they’ll probably treat them like dirt! Or maybe they’ll freak out, thinking the ashes are somebody’s cremains!”

What to do? Burn some newspapers! Smoke a cigar! No time for that. There would be no imposition of ashes. No outward, visible sign that we are dust and we return to the dust — the thing we never want hear. It was then that the missing ashes were turned into water.

We filled the baptismal font with water and marked each worshiper with the waters of baptism. “[Carol, Bob, Judi, Clyde], you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”

The last worshiper to leave that Ash Wednesday Service offered to do for me what had been done for her.

“Gordon,” she said, marking my forehead with water, “you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”

Like the miracle at Cana where water was turned into wine at a wedding, the turning of ashes into water became an unexpected moment of joy in the communion of saints.

Today, when we feel overwhelmed by a sea of lies, remember that everything empties in the Ocean. I wish you an Ash Wednesday when your ashes are turned to water, and a few drops of the vast Ocean wash away what you’ve lost and welcome you home for a sacred communion.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Chaska, MN.

Photograph is the baptistery in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Monza, Italy, uploaded from Wikipedia.

The Level Playing Field: Ash Wednesday

Today levels the playing field. Our differences make no difference today.  What you have become is beside the point today. All the quarrels and distinctions are beside the point. Ash Wednesday is the leveler. The eraser. The antidote. The reminder that we are mortal. That I am living my death as you are living yours and dying my life while you are dying yours. Today, the roosters comb their heads with ashes and stop crowing.

Roosters strutting and crowing in the barnyard

If it often seems that the roosters are in charge of the barnyard, today reminds them and us that, in the end, they are not. Neither are we. Ash Wednesday levels us all to the baseline of zero. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” No matter whether you’ve crowed or cowered, no matter the story you tell yourself about yourself in comparison to others, you are no exception. Every reason for pride or self-loathing, and division, is erased by a pencil bigger than our mortal selves.

Whether our stories are re-written by a better Author will continue to be one more matter of dispute and division, but there can be no reasonable doubt about our mortality. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In the meantime, before the roosters stop strutting and crowing and all the cock combs fall to the leveling plain, those who see the face of God in the compassion of Jesus remember the ethic appropriate to those still living in the barnyard:

“As they were arguing over who was the greatest, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The roosters strut and crow, and you think you are dependent on them. Don’t be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves.”– (Luke 22: 24-26, GCS translation)

Today, I offer my forehead for the imposition of ashes and pray that in the citadels of power someone else will do the same, for the sake of life itself.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2018.

Two Little Boys with Matches

Happy Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday.

Remember when you used to play with matches and your mother told you not to? Remember when you aimed a toy gun at a friend and your father told you not to?

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Maybe not.

Maybe the adults in your home never told you “No”. In that case, you may understand what it might have been like growing up as a child who would lead the United States or North Korea, playing with the bigger matches that can light the fuses of nuclear holocaust on Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday.

Saint Valentine’s Day celebrates love; Ash Wednesday observes our mortal nature. Love and death are side by side on February 14, 2018 when wine and chocolates coalesce with dust and ashes.

Is it too much to hope today that two adult boys with matches will be parented by nations that impose the discipline they lacked as little boys? Is it too much to pray they put away the “sticks and stones” they throw across the Pacific Ocean, burn their match sticks into ashes before they burn the house down, and send each other a Happy Valentine’s Day card and some chocolates?

ash-wednesday-2018-valentines-day-same-dayjpg-b1c29010aeace57e

Ash Wednesday ashes and Saint Valentine’s Day chocolates

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Ash Wednesday and Saint Valentine’s Day, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2018.

 

 

 

Addition by Subtraction: Leveling the Playing Field

Today levels the playing field. Our differences make no difference today.  Whether you are religious, agnostic or atheist is beside the point today. All the quarrels and distinctions are beside the point.

“One is still what one is going to cease to be,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea, “and already what one is going to become. One lives one’s death. One dies one’s life.”

Today is Ash Wednesday, the leveler. The eraser. The reminder that we are mortal. That I am living my death as you are living yours and dying my life while you are dying yours.

This year more close friends and classmates are closer to dust and ashes. As I ponder the meaning of it all, my appreciation of the religion into which I was born increases. “I have always said that often the religion you were born with becomes more important to you as you see the universality of truth.” — Ram Dass. Born into and raised in the Christian faith has led me to the universality of truth.  Today the church’s practice reduces the size of my ego. Ash Wednesday levels me to a universal truth: the baseline of zero.

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Ash Wednesday ashes

The imposition of ashes — “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” — is the reminder of the universal truth of our shared mortality.  Wisdom embraces the math of addition by subtraction: the erasure of every source of hubris and division. Today, I will offer my forehead for the imposition of ashes and pray that in the citadels of power someone else will experience the same, for the sake of life itself.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2018.

The Most Real Day

Today strips away every illusion. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” Other days we avoid it like the plague, but it is our mortal truth. We die. Without exception.

It’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, when many Christians offer our foreheads for “the imposition of ashes” as the beginning of everything that the is truthful.  Perhaps the term “imposition” is chosen because the recognition of our mortality and ultimate dependence rarely comes willingly, although it is the most “natural” of all cognitive recognitions.

We all run from death, but we never outrun it, leaving us to ponder on our most real day.

“Whatever lies on the other side of my years is beyond my mortal knowing. But I can and do affirm the eternity of God and the scriptural point of view that whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord, ‘All flesh is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God (YHWH, the eternal) shall last forever.’ Right now, that’s enough bread to live on today. . . . ”

– Excerpt from “When the Breath Flies Away,” Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p. 64, now available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Today, I wish you a most real day. . . beyond exceptionalism.  It’s the beginning of all joy and personal responsibility.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, trying to get real, Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Chaska, MN.

Somebody has my ashes!

Views from the Edge

It’s Ash Wednesday. I put on my ministerial robe 15 minutes before the traditional Service that marks the beginning of Lent with the imposition of ashes and go the drawer of the credenza.

Ash Wednesday“They’re missing! Where are the ashes?!” 

Every year I store the ashes in the credenza in my office. I’ve forgotten that we’d moved the credenza from my office last fall. I rush downstairs to look for it. No credenza anywhere. Then…I remember. We sold it at the Annual Fall Festival!

“Somebody has our ashes!”

What to do with no ashes? Burn some newspapers? Smoke a cigar and use the ashes? No time.

I grab a pitcher and pour water into the baptism font.

We begin the Service with the story of the missing ashes. Smiles break out everywhere. Maybe even with signs of relief. “Instead of the imposition of ashes this year, we will go to the…

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Somebody has my ashes!

It’s Ash Wednesday. I put on my ministerial robe 15 minutes before the traditional Service that marks the beginning of Lent with the imposition of ashes and go the drawer of the credenza.

Ash Wednesday“They’re missing! Where are the ashes?!” 

Every year I store the ashes in the credenza in my office. I’ve forgotten that we’d moved the credenza from my office last fall. I rush downstairs to look for it. No credenza anywhere. Then…I remember. We sold it at the Annual Fall Festival!

“Somebody has our ashes!”

What to do with no ashes? Burn some newspapers? Smoke a cigar and use the ashes? No time.

I grab a pitcher and pour water into the baptism font.

We begin the Service with the story of the missing ashes. Smiles break out everywhere. Maybe even with signs of relief. “Instead of the imposition of ashes this year, we will go to the font for the waters of baptism, the waters of the renewal of life.”

We have some fun justifying the change in the Service, focusing on the that part of the Gospel text for the day – the words of Jesus himself. “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen my others….But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret…”(Mt. 6:16-18).

People come to the font, one-by-one, for “the Imposition of … [Water]”. I dip my hand into the font. “Pat, (making the sign of the cross on her forehead), “Dust to dust; ashes to ashes. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You are a child of God. Live in this peace.”

After the Service is over, one of the worshipers asks whether anyone has done the same for me. She reaches her hand into the font. “Gordon, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Remember…You are a child of God…..”

I’ll never forget it. Neither will they. And somewhere in this world a stranger has a credenza with a sack full of ashes. Whoever you are, feel free to keep them. They’re all yours.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 10, 2016 – a memoir from 2012 at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN