Friday, February 28, 2020

Ashes, Lent, and the Journey of Motherhood

I picked up my four year old as I gave the Words of Assurance near the close of my congregation’s Ash Wednesday service. He had been fidgety and hungry for most of worship; packing a snack had not even crossed my mind in my list of preparations for the evening. Bulletins, yes; candles and decor, yes; ashes, of course; diaper bag for the baby, most assuredly. My oldest had been taking more of an interest in worship so I had assumed that he would either sit quietly and participate or color quietly up front. I had guessed wrong. He ran laps around the sanctuary, occasionally jumping over his baby sister as my husband practiced the hymns, I put the final touches on the evening, and one blessed islander sat in the back trying to spend some time in quiet prayer. That should have been my first clue that being calm might be too much for him.

We powered on, my family and four others making our way through the prayers and the ashes above his soft refrain of “I’m hungry mom; I’m hungry mom; Mom, I’m so hungry…”. As I stood to offer God’s pardon to the gathered congregation he came to me, arms outstretched, and I picked him up. I’ve led worship with him or his sister in my arms dozens of times.

This time, however, was different. This time, his seven month old sister saw him in my arms, and screamed. Screamed. I had never seen her be jealous before. But in that moment, she knew that she wanted to be where her older brother was. I put him down, walked over to the woman holding her and took her back while the opening bars of “Breathe on me, Breath of God” played, and arranged my hymnal on the music stand so I could pick him up too and sing along.

So there I was with my two kids - one in each arm - after having just shared my Ash Wednesday reflection based on the TIME magazine article by Lori Fradkin ( - all about the idea that of course mothers with young kids are not OK - even those who seem to have it all together. (The end of that worship service was pretty much the perfect illustration of that fact). Ash Wednesday is the same - it’s the opportunity for us to acknowledge that we’re not OK in our life with God, even though so often we try to pretend we are. There are always places God prompts us to grow, places in our souls that are dead and barren that God wants to bring new life to, places that we need to turn over to God again and again and again.”Repent and believe the Gospel” the phrase goes.

Except this year, I was drawn to the dust - “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The moment of leading worship with two tired and cranky kids on my arm, as frantic and exasperated as I felt, is fleeting. Time with these two moves so swiftly, like dust being swept away by the breeze, here then gone, leaving faint smudges as the only evidence of their passing before gradually fading away into memory. Saying those words to my four year old this year brought me face to face with that reality - that someday I will be gone, he will be gone, and our energies and our remains will be absorbed once more into the cosmos.

So for Lent I’m leaning into the ephemeral nature of it all to focus on being present for the joys (and the burdens) of it all. I deleted my social media apps and turned off email on my phone. I set boundaries around my usage of Facebook and Twitter. Too often I use these platforms as a method of distraction and disengagement, distancing myself from being present. I feel led to work well when I’m “on the clock” and find healthier means of resting - reading, knitting, cooking, playing with my kids - when I’m not. I want to be here and present, knowing that far too quickly it will all be gone.

At the end of the service, I put my four year old back down so I could have a hand free to give the benediction. I always end the service with this blessing by Jan Richardson (

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

Life is messy and life is full and there are days that I am ready to be done, but these moments I have with my kids are real, even when I’m exasperated with them, even when I’m frustrated that my oldest won’t sleep or ignores my requests or when I feel sad I can’t take the teething pain away for my baby or when all I want to do is drink my coffee by myself and my oldest crawls into my lap and demands I read to him. Parenthood is not for the faint of heart, and there are days when it feels like I have made it through the burning. But there is also the awesome joy of it all - and God is in the midst of each moment of it, breathing life minute by minute, second by second.

And that’s what I want to be here for this Lent.