The Ashes and the Being Made Whole

by Micha

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I had planned to worship beside my husband on Ash Wednesday. For the almost-decade of our marriage, we have never once been to my favorite service of the year together. He’s had to work late or go out of town or somebody’s been sick.  This was finally the year he would sit beside me and he’d know, understand, what moves me so deeply about this service. The ashes and the honesty and the hymns and the way the Church aches together.

Part way through Brooks’ afternoon with the babysitter, my almost-two-year-old, who’d been succumbing to a virus for a little over a week, began crying hard enough to demand a stroller ride home from the park. The day before he’d had a fever, but that morning he’d appeared happy, near-healthy.

But by the time they reached the sidewalks of our street, my babysitter was calling me frantic.

“You should probably come meet us outside. Something’s wrong with Brooksie.”

So I jumped from my desk rushed down the stairs and out into the sunshine, where she was running the stroller down hill toward me.

“Brooksie!” I shouted at the slumped boy beside his oblivious brother in the double stroller. The eyes that had been gazing off into some secret distance, refocused on me. “Mommy, Daddy, Buppy,” he cried. “Mommy, Daddy, Buppy!”

I pulled him out of the stroller and looked at my babysitter’s worried eyes.

“He wouldn’t respond to me, Micha,” she said. “I was kneeling in front of him and he was limp with his eyes open.”

I brought him in the house. His skin was fire hot. I took his temperature, 104.3.

Yes, no wonder he was gazing off into the nothing.

You do what you have to and you worry later. I poured Tylenol down his throat. I called the doctor. I waited for her return call. By then it was after five and my husband was on his long commute home, stuck in traffic. As the medicine kicked in, Brooksie began to engage with me. We read stories and rocked in the rocking chair. He asked to eat.

The after-hours clinic said to bring him in at 6:50. The babysitter went home.

Brooks had been easing into a Daddy-phase for the past couple of weeks. But on Ash Wednesday day he came into it with all his heart.

“My need Daddy! My need Daddy!” he cried.

“Daddy’s coming soon, baby,” I said as I rocked his fevery body. “You want to go to the doctor?” I asked.

“Wid Daddy,” he mumbled.

“Yes,” I said. I texted Chris. Would he like to take our boy to the doctor?

Of course he would, he said. Of course.

August had been excited all day for the Ash Wednesday service. Unlike my childhood, where church was a place I spent every Wednesday night, this going in the middle of the week thing (and at night!) is fantastical to him.

By the time my husband arrived home from his two hours stuck in traffic on a bus, Brooksie was in his pjs, his Tylenol fully at work in his body. August was dressed for church. And I was handing a piece of paper to my husband in which I’d scratched out every single thing that had happened to our sick child that day. I not only gave it to him, I read it aloud, just in case.

What kind of mother leaves her baby with a fever of 104 and goes to an Ash Wednesday service?

Chris dropped us off and I took August to the room where the children were listening to a story about Adam and Eve, about a Terrible Lie they chose to believe, about their broken spirits and minds, how desperate we’ve all been ever since.

While he listened, I sang slow hymns in the sanctuary. There, in the back of the balcony where the late-comers huddled together, I felt like I was singing alone, with only the violinist there to accompany me:

Jesus I long for thee
And sigh for Canaan’s shore
Thy lovely face to see
And all my warfare o’er…
I pant, I groan, I grieve
For my untoward heart;
How full of doubts I live,
Though full of grace thou art

I cry every year on Ash Wednesday. Maybe it’s because I’m alone. Always alone, always late.

*

Last year in Austin, Chris was away for work and I couldn’t get myself together to get the boys to the service and forfeit our baby’s bedtime, knowing I’d spend the whole service nursing and hushing.

That afternoon, after August woke from nap time, I took leaves burned them in a pan in the backyard. And I marked myself. I said, “Micha, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

It felt like most of my moments of personal prayer: distracted, not quite complete, the little boy playing cars around me.

“I want ashes too,” August said.

“Okay, but this is only something we do if we are serious. It’s not a game. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he said and sat before me on the deck.

“It’s to remind us that we have broken hearts that only Jesus can fix.”

Then, as a priest-mama, no different than any other day I have held up Gospel and broken bread before my boys, I sealed my son with ashes. I called him to some future repentance he could never then understand. I marked him with the cross, a stumbling block for some, foolishness to others. Or to us, there in the backyard, a symbol of wholeness, a symbol that everything sad will come untrue.

I reminded August (and myself) that his life is ashes.

And like that, our service was over. He was back on the grass with his cars, a mess of a cross on his forehead.

*

While my husband and toddler sat on the doctor cot in an after-hours clinic, I watched the first rows of worshippers snake toward the priests in front. And there, coming down the aisle was the row of children, my oldest boy in his black zip-up hoodie looking around the big room at all the faces.

I stood where I was, longing to walk through the line beside him. I rushed down the balcony stairs and cut in front of those in the middle section. August’s line was veering left, mine right.

I was marked. Reminded of my mortality, of hope against death. I walked the side of the great room and across the back, met August’s line as they headed back to their room. I caught the eye of the children’s pastor and August was released back to me. We sat on the floor in the back the sanctuary, my four-year-old in my lap, and we sang:

Out of unrest and arrogant pride,
Jesus I come, Jesus I come
Into Thy blessed will to abide,
Jesus I come to Thee.

I thought of how many nights of my childhood I stood behind a pew and sang low and heavy, “All to Jesus I surrender…I surrender all…” I’d rock side to side or back and forth while the pastor begged the people to come forward, to be saved. How many nights did I rock under that brass lit chandelier dangling above my head and make promises? How often did I say, Whatever you ask of me, Lord? How many times did I pray, Make me brave?

There, right there in that moment on the floor with my back to the wall, my son in my lap, I remembered to own the grace that’s been given to me. I remembered that I am ashes and so is my boy. But we are going to be made whole. We are mortal and weak. But, still, we are going to know completely, even as we are known. I remembered to believe.

Out of myself to dwell in Thy love,
Out of despair into raptures above,
Upward forever on wings of a dove,
Jesus I come to Thee

We sat on the floor and I sang those words. Across town, my husband and baby walked the aisles of Walgreens and waited for the antibiotic. And all of us were ashes. All of us were recipients of grace. All of us were coming to Jesus.

I come, I come, I sang, my face in August’s hair, our heads covered in grime.

 

Photo Credit: jemasmith at Flickr

27 Responses to “The Ashes and the Being Made Whole”

  1. Gregory Jeffers February 20, 2013 at 5:11 am #

    Micha,

    Absolutely stunningly beautiful.

    Thank you so much for sharing your spirit–heart and soul.

    I’m reminded of Bonhoeffer: “The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us . . . Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”

    • Micha February 20, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

      Love that quote, Gregory. Thank you for the kind words…

  2. Jason Boyett February 20, 2013 at 10:55 am #

    The description of you as a “priest-mama” resonates with me so much, not just in relation to you, Micha, but to all mothers (and fathers)—so many of whom live every day in that role but don’t feel like the work they are doing is anything more than wiping noses and changing diapers. Redeeming these menial parenting tasks as a powerful and authoritative spiritual discipline is the best thing about your focus here and in your writing. Keep at it.

    • Micha February 20, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

      Hey Jason. Your words are really good for me to hear. Thanks for further defining what I feel like is my task as a writer: “redeeming…parenting tasks” and valuing them as a “powerful and authoritative spiritual discipline.” Your encouragement means a whole lot.

    • Christine February 21, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

      I often hear of the sacred tasks of diaper changing and nose wiping – I remember those days well. Where I am now is parenting middle school. Are the tasks of reminding about homework and monitoring texting and cheering at lacrosse games sacred too? I know it must be, as it is a later stage of mothering, but it doesn’t seem so. The worry, the repeating of “advice,” the delicate choosing of words (and times of silence) to encourage a quiet boy made quieter by his age, the listening to illogical yelling and frustration (and joining in too often) – I can’t remember that it’s sacred. But please God, be here and present and help us all to cling to you. If I can remember that I am still priest-mama when he doesn’t want to listen, that maybe he is still listening even though every external sign shows he is not, maybe I will make it through.

      • Micha February 28, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

        Christine, thanks for the reminder that the sacred tasks continue into each stage of our lives. Yes, as a former youth minister, I know first hand the holiness of cheering at lacrosse games. (And I know what it looks like when moms don’t monitor texting!) Sacred work, for sure. Thank you so much for your comment. Peace to you as you walk through this stage with your kids.

  3. Donna February 20, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

    I hear you. The aching heart, the always being late, the interrupted prayers, the little, inconveniently sick boys… I hear you.
    I wonder if God sees the effort it is for ones like us to even get to church (and then to often spend most of it away from the service, caring for children who need us) and counts it as worship? Maybe the desire of our hearts to be in His house, to honour and worship Him, to bring our families with us… maybe He sees it as the widow’s mite. It’s all that we have, everything that we can give, and I think maybe He counts it as precious.

    • Micha February 20, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

      Exactly, Donna. I think it is exactly like the widow’s mite. Even our distracted attempts at prayer. I’ve come to believe that sometimes God holds those incoherent-middle-of-the-night-exhausted prayers of parents as way more valuable than the long-winded fancy prayers of the more impressive. I always come back to St. Benedict’s words: “Prayer should usually be short.” And I find a lot of freedom in that!

  4. Bethany Bassett February 21, 2013 at 1:29 am #

    This post left me breathless. I’ve never felt any great connection with Lent or Ash Wednesday or any real liturgy, if I’m going to be honest. I’m the type who chafes against tradition-for-the-sake-of-tradition, and while that has been an essential part of my finding freedom from my past, it also causes me to miss out on some very beautiful and meaningful experiences like the one you described here. Thank you for bringing me [us] along and drawing out all the poignant and gritty nuances of Ash Wednesday; I feel like I was there with you, and I wanted to be.

    • Micha Boyett February 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

      Thank you so much for saying that, Bethany. I think we all come into our adulthood faith in different ways. I bucked my non-liturgical religious system by discovering liturgy, and in it I found a lot more freedom to express doubt and ask questions and work through the process of faith in a more holistic way. The church calendar has added so much freshness to my life of faith. Though I can totally understand how someone who grew up in a lifeless liturgical experience would not be able to respond the way I do…

      Grateful for your comment.

  5. sette February 21, 2013 at 4:59 am #

    This aches with beauty. Thank you for it.

  6. lauren martin gauthier February 21, 2013 at 7:28 am #

    Your writing is always beautiful, Micha. From where I sit right now, the image of ashes speaks to me. I wonder if one day the hope that you cling to will become real for me again…

    • Micha Boyett February 21, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

      Thank you, Lauren. So good to hear from you. Peace on your head instead of ashes. And prayers for the hope to be real…

  7. Amber February 21, 2013 at 11:53 am #

    Lent has always been my season. I love Ash Wednesday. I love Holy Week. Maybe it’s because it’s the only time of the year that the depression I struggle with suddenly has a place in the community.

    • Micha Boyett February 21, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

      Yes, absolutely, Amber. There is something dark and terrifying about Ash Wednesday. Every one is solemn. It’s a perfect place to recite sad Psalms and feel at home with our melancholy-tendencies. I really think that’s one of the reasons I was so drawn to the liturgical church in the first place…because I felt like there was space and time for me to be sad. And space and time for Jesus to minister to me within that process.

  8. cara February 21, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    You inspire me, friend, you do. Your writing is beautiful & raw & captures the moments perfectly.

    • Micha February 28, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

      So grateful for your kindness, Cara. Thanks.

  9. Diana February 21, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

    Exactly. Yes. This yearly reminder of our mortality is sobering – and at the same time, quite beautiful and freeing, too. In pre-prayer for our Sunday service last week, our lead pastor prayed these words and they have stuck with me all week long: “Help me, Lord, to remember that I do not have it in my power to do everything wrong.” Frail as dust, yes. But that means we are free to be human, right? Free to fail and know that the universe will survive just fine with our failure. We cannot do everything wrong because there is a God who is all about making things right. Thanks so much for this lovely reflection.

    • Micha February 28, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

      Love that prayer, Diana. I remember the panic of making those huge life-decisions in college and thinking: What if I choose the wrong major and get a job in the wrong city and then marry the wrong person and then bear the wrong children and my choices ruin God’s plan for the world!!!! (Yes, I really did fear that.) I’m grateful I do not have it in my power to do everything wrong. And I’m thankful for grace for when I do a lot of things wrong. I’m grateful for your thoughts!

  10. Tamara @ This Sacramental Life February 23, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    Out of all the words I want to say to you in response to this post, I’ll just say the four sounding loudest in my heart:
    I love you, Micha.

    xo,
    T

    • Micha February 28, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

      Thank you, sweet friend. So grateful for you.

  11. alan February 26, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    I stumbled onto this site and flipped through the stories and I absolutely breathed in these words tonight…thank you for sharing.

    • Micha February 28, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

      Wow, Alan. That means a lot. Thanks so much.

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