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George Linney: From dust you were born

Gloomy RainThe day began gloomy and in a misty rain—just as it should. Driving in the freezing rain, Mumford & Sons consoled and convicted me with the reminder that I am indeed a Hopeless Wanderer. One prayer that would come that evening speaks to the fact that I lack concern for those who come after me.

As the Book of Common Prayer reads:

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of
concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

I can fight as if such lacking in my own life is not true…but it’s mostly true.

The days and hours leading up to our Ash Wednesday service were not merely rainy and gloomy. On Tuesday, my two boys and I set fire to the palm branches we used last year seven days before the Day of Resurrection. We re-imagined God’s triumphal entry and it even felt like we brought along the flames of Pentecost. But this time we did not wave them and shout Hosanna in the Highest. Instead we set a fire in a tin pan and watched the fronds turn to dust. After the cooling, I poured a little anointing oil in the ashes and tested the paste on ready young ones who were proud to wear a cross of ashes a day early.

All this on a Shrove Tuesday evening as we prepared to make our home a place of worship to begin Lent—the 40 days leading up to Easter. Usually we gather outside along the American Tobacco Trail in Durham, North Carolina, but the winter moves us indoors.

When the service arrived after a long day of work, hurrying home to meet dear friends around the fireplace in our living room, we began the liturgy:

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

I read and reflected briefly on a text from Matthew Six where we are condemned if we practice righteousness in order to be seen.

I took on the text, at least at its flattest of readings, and invited the hearers to take a humble yet outward and evangelical approach to Lent this season. Where worship really happened for me was in my own broken behavior, and the response that came later.

I had asked the children to stay around during worship, which is always tough when their bedrooms are just a few feet away. But they did. The youngest at five was whispering in his mother’s ear, but it was a whisper louder than I was talking. I scolded him mid-homily. I felt bad about it. It got the job done, meaning it silenced him, but it embarrassed the child and somehow I knew I was on the Lenten hook. I was reminded of my own impatience.

Later, as I imposed ashes on the others, and we were drawing near the end of this ritual, I didn’t have any ashes on my broken body. I asked the youngest one, the one with whom I had quarreled, William, will you help me? He came to the front, took ashes on his thumb and repeated after me a few words at a time, just like at a wedding, as he smudged the upright X on my forehead:

From dust you were born,

And to dust you shall return.

George Linney is pastor of Tobacco Trail Church in Durham, North Carolina.

Fresh Expressions

Fresh Expressions


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