• Rebecca Brierley

In the Ashes of your Life

A guest blog contributed by Reverend Dave Tomlinson, a writer and preist in the Church of England. Dave gave this sermon at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace on Ash Wednesday, 2019.

Lent is a very ancient practice in the church created as a fast in preparation for Easter. In the early centuries of the church it lasted no more than a few days. It wasn’t until the fourth century that Lent was expanded to forty days – the period that Jesus fasted in the wilderness at the start of his ministry. At first, the fast was strict: only one meal a day, towards evening, and all meat including fish (and in most places eggs too) were absolutely forbidden. Gradually, this was relaxed and nowadays those who keep a Lenten fast tend

to abstain from something they normally enjoy like chocolate, sugar or alcohol. The word ‘lent’ is from an Anglo-Saxon term meaning ‘lengthen’ referring to the lengthening days of spring. And for lots of people – religious or not – Lent serves as a kind of spring detox.

This is no bad thing: many of us tend to abuse our bodies with various excesses, especially in the cold months of winter, so a period of restraint can be a way to rebalance our lives. So instead of seeing it as guilt-trip maybe this is how we can see a Lenten fast: as a way of being kinder to ourselves, to our bodies by tempering our indulgences and affirming better rhythms and practices in life.

But it’s not just about our bodies: maybe at a deeper level, we could see Lent as an invitation to pause and reflect on our life in general: to reaffirm what is important to us and to question how much our daily lives reflect the values and priorities we hold dear? So it’s an opportunity to reboot our attitudes and concerns.

Ash crosses are marked on participant's foreheads during Ash Wednesday services

The ‘ash’ part of today is a reminder that life is short: that ultimately we return to ash – earth to earth, ashes to ashes – so we need to value each moment and live it as fully as possible. None of us much likes to be reminded of death but in fact the conscious realisation that life has limits is an important way of valuing the gift of life.

A few years back, Bronnie Ware, who worked in palliative care wrote a book based on her experience with people at the end of life, entitled The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying. During Lent. It’s a fascinating book that could easily make an excellent meditation for Lent.

The top five regrets she identifies are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

In How To Be A Bad Christian I wrote a chapter entitled ‘Wakey! Wakey! How to make sure you live before you die.’ On numerous occasions Jesus, like other great teachers, called on people to wake up, to stop sleep-walking through life. Perhaps we can think of Lent as a wake-up call; just as nature starts to wake up after the sleep of winter, so we to can rub our eyes and start to look again at what’s important to us, what we are neglecting to do that we

will one day regret.

Barry lived with extreme physical suffering most of his life. Then two years ago, he decided that enough was enough. He booked an appointment at a clinic in Switzerland where he could end it all. At the request of his son, I went to visit him a few days before he left the country. I am an essentially upbeat person. Despite being a vicar, I don’t find painful

situations easy. What would I say to him, I thought? Well, I needn’t have worried. Barry immediately put me at ease. We chatted. Laughed a lot. Cried some. He dozed off a couple of times in mid-sentence…then awoke and carried on where he left off – which made us laugh some more.

Barry’s son told me his dad was a wise person who people visited for guidance, but now he needed some wisdom. In the gaps when Barry dozed, I glowed at the privilege of being there. Among other things, we swapped questions. He asked me what is the opposite of life. I said, ‘I sense that’s a trick question!’ He laughed and said, ‘No tricks, Dave… there is no opposite to life. Life always continues in some form. We just need to trust ourselves to it.’

I asked Barry what was the thing he now treasured most. ‘Having a life I can look back on with a smile’, he replied – this from a man who had suffered so much! He assured me it was the relationships in his life that gave him the biggest smiles – knowing what it is to love and be loved.

It’s strange that one of the most hopeful, happy friendships I ever experienced was with a man I only met once, who was about to die. But somehow, that encounter made me feel more fully alive, more appreciative of the incredibly simple gifts of breath… and days… and loved ones. That happened on Shrove Tuesday. What a way to begin Lent!

Finally, life comes to an end for each of us. But in fact life involves many little deaths – times of letting go. Every disappointment is a little death: when an expectation is thwarted and lost. These may be relatively insignificant – but they may be huge… the loss of a loved one or of a job, or a relationship. But it is out of the ashes of loss and disappointment that ultimately new possibilities can arise, even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

I love the poetry of David Whyte:

Sometimes everything

has to be

inscribed across

the heavens

so you can find

the one line

already written

inside you.

Sometimes it takes

a great sky

to find that

first, bright

and indescribable

wedge of freedom

in your own heart.

Sometimes with

the bones of the black

sticks left when the fire

has gone out

someone has written

something new

in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.

Even as the light fades quickly now,

you are arriving.

The poem is hopeful – new things can be written in the ashes of our life. David Whyte says he wrote ‘The Journey’ for a friend who had gone through the agony of departing from a long-standing marriage. As she went through the process of being stripped of the hopes and dreams she had shared with her husband for their relationship, Whyte says he witnessed a very powerful, very simple new internal identity starting to make itself known in her. As Barry told me: there is no opposite to life… life always continues in some form. We just need to trust ourselves to it.

The ruins of St Ethelburga's, after it was destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1993

The place in which we now sit is testament to what I am saying. On an April Saturday in 1993, this place became ashes when 70% of the building was destroyed by a terrorist bomb. It was an end to the church as it had been. What could possibly come from the ruins? Well,

Sometimes with

the bones of the black

sticks left when the fire

has gone out

someone has written

something new

in the ashes of your life.

St Ethelburga’s was reborn to become a centre for peace and reconciliation. How ironically defiant!

Is it a morbid thing to have a day when we focus on ashes, when we wear an ashen mark on our heads to acknowledge the fragility of life? Is it sullen to look loss in the face and accept that loss is intrinsic to human experience? Not at all. To the contrary, it is a way of valuing what we have, of being grateful for every single moment, every precious breath, every beloved relationship (even those that continue beyond the grave)… Ash Wednesday is a way of saying thank you that we are blessed to be part of the story of planet earth and its beautiful creatures, part of the story people’s lives, part of the story of tears and laughter, of love and loss and recovery, and by sitting here today… part of the story of this ancient, broken yet healed, house of prayer.

St Ethelburga's as it stands in Bishopsgate today

Sometimes with

the bones of the black

sticks left when the fire

has gone out

someone has written

something new

in the ashes of your life.

You can keep up to date with Dave via his website and on Twitter - @goodluker

Views expressed in guest blogs are not necessarilly those of Reconcilers Together.

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