Ashes and Priorities
Next Wednesday, those attending worship at St. John Lutheran Church will file up the center aisle as if they were going to receive communion, but instead, when they get to the front, Pastor Leonard Payton will make the sign of a cross on their foreheads with ashes and say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
“It’s not morbid,” he said. “It’s realistic and honest, and it helps us come to terms with our only real hope, resurrection from the dead. . . .”
When I was working as a parish pastor, parents would sometimes carry their babies with them as they came to receive their ashes. One time a dad, after receiving ashes himself, held his baby up to me implying that he wanted me to do the same for the infant. I complied even though doing so was disquieting. The baby, of course, didn’t know what was happening to him, but the mom and dad knew exactly what they were doing. Here, at the beginning of their child’s life, they were keeping the end of that life in mind. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Keeping the end in mind helps us keep life’s ups and downs in perspective. I’ve gotten into the habit of turning off the volume while watching the pairs ice dancing at the Olympics, because the commentators spoil it for me. Instead of marveling at the grace and power of all of the performers, even those who come in tenth or fifteenth, they analyze every move to see if one tenth of a point may have been lost by a less than perfect landing.
I want to say to the commentators, “Get a life.” It’s not the end of the world if team America doesn’t get the most medals. Keep the end in mind. Do you really think that when you’re 85 and living in an assisted living facility that anyone will care if you didn’t win a medal?
I keep bringing Cec and Tonya, the Two Fish girls, up in my columns because even though they went out of business—ie didn’t win a medal—they were a joy to work with. They are smart, but making a profit never was their bottom line. They put a lot of effort into relationships with other merchants and with this town. Ashes to ashes. When all is said and done, what I fondly remember about the Two Fish girls is the amount of social capital they had in their relationship account much more than what the bottom line was on their financial spread sheet.
The commentators at the Olympics often mention that athletes who compete at the games put their lives on hold for years as they single mindedly train and sacrifice in pursuit of what to them is the ultimate prize. But I can’t help wondering if the people who finish fourth or tenth or thirty-second behave that way, especially if they know coming in to the games that they don’t have a prayer of winning a medal.
I suspect that those athletes, who were able to keep their end in mind, do not put all their eggs in one basket. They do not put their lives on hold in order to strive for an illusive prize which, in the end, can’t carry the freight of a meaningful life anyway.
Many of us have attended funerals lately. We’ve lost some good people. I bet that as you remembered why those people were important to you, you talked about how they played the game much more than whether they won or lost.
I was getting a haircut at the Millionaire Barbershop over on Roosevelt Rd. a few days after the Superbowl, and, as usual, the guys there were talking about sports. I mentioned that I was impressed by the behavior of the Seahawks’ quarterback, Russell Wilson, after the game. After hearing me say that Wilson seemed calm and collected even though his team had just won the “big game,” my barber surprised me by saying, “That’s because he’s a believer.”
I think that part of what the man cutting what’s left of my once full head of hair was saying is that the young quarterback was able to keep the end in mind, that he had gained the perspective to know that victories and defeats are both temporary. That on life’s journey there will be smooth, straight stretches of the road where you can make good time as well as sections with potholes which break the ball joints in your car, and every once in awhile you will run into snowstorms during which it’s wise to just pull off the road and get a motel room.
Ashes to ashes. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
That dad who wanted me to apply ashes to his infant son’s forehead had his own head screwed on straight. Because he understood that this relationship he had with his son would end some day, he was very aware that the gift must be appreciated every day. Because he kept the end in mind, he would teach his child that when you keep your own mortality in the front of your consciousness, you have a better chance of keeping your priorities in life where they should be.
The reason St. John members are willing to walk up the aisle to hear that they are mortal and will die someday is because doing so will help them appreciate what they are going to receive the following Sunday when they walk up that same aisle again.