Making Sense of Ash Wednesday and the Crosses on my Children’s Foreheads

Photo by Laurie-Anne Robert via Unsplash
Photo by Laurie-Anne Robert via Unsplash

It was a beautiful thing to do in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the week, at the beginning of Lent. We crowded into our church’s small chapel, the adults in chairs, the children sitting on the large, red carpet at the front. We prayed together, and we confessed together. We sang hymns together.

We’ve attended Saint James for nearly three years now, and this was the third time in my entire life I attended church on Ash Wednesday. Every time, it surprises me. Every time, I sit there and watch my children walk to the front, receive on their clean little foreheads a dirty cross of ashes (made from the palm leaves of the previous year). Every time, I hear the priest say over them,

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Every time, I feel the tears well up in my eyes as I think of this reality. They are dust. I am dust. And, someday, to dust we shall all return.

* * * * *

Richard Rohr, writer and Catholic priest, has done a lot to help me make sense of the transition we made three years ago from Evangelical to Episcopalian. I say transition, though it’s been more of a melding, more of a taking on than a laying down. In a recent homily, he proclaimed these words:

There’s a tragic sense to life. What Lent is about is somehow asking for, and hopefully receiving, the grace to accept the essentially tragic nature of human existence. On Wednesday, this church filled up all day. I’m always amazed. Why do you all come on Ash Wednesday? You don’t have to, you know. But people pour into church. The cynic says, “Catholics come to church anytime they get anything for free, whether it’s palms or ashes. They all show up.” There might be some truth to that, but why do we want these dang ashes on our foreheads?

Somehow, we know that we need to be told that we came from the earth and we’re going to return to the earth and everything in between is a school. Everything in between is growing up, waking up, cleaning up. Becoming the full image that you were created in, which is always and forever, the image of God.

* * * * *

Maybe there is more than one reason these ashes bring tears to my eyes. Maybe it’s not just about the sadness of death. Maybe they’re hopeful tears, hopeful in the way we sometimes cry at weddings, or births, knowing the hard things are so intricately tangled up with the good things. Maybe I cry because I so desperately want to grow up, to wake up, to clean up, not in a sanitized way but in the way a fresh spring cleans the rocks it pours over. Maybe the emotion comes because I can sense how infinitely close we all are, and also how far away, from becoming the full image of God.

The kids always come running back to us after the service, their cross of ashes on their foreheads, and we gather in an impromptu, instinctual, group hug, as if to comfort each other, as if we know in that moment, as in all moments, that we need to hold one another close, that we need each other in this image-becoming.

One of the main themes in my upcoming book, The Day the Angels Fell, is death and questions surrounding death – what will we do with it? What is its role in our lives? Could it be possible that death is a gift? If you’d like to have me come to your church this fall to talk about the role of death in the Christian world view – incarnation, death, resurrection, and redemption – click the “Contact” button at the top right of the page and let me know. I’d love to see you! In the mean time, you can preorder my book HERE.

What I Discovered in an Old Christmas Video From 2009

Photo by Steve Halama via Unsplash
Photo by Steve Halama via Unsplash

Seven years ago, Maile and I had just gone through one of the most difficult holidays of our young lives. I had just turned 33. We had walked away from a failing business, left a community we loved, and moved into my parents’ basement. We brought along with us our four children, $50,000 in debt, and a nagging sense that we were failing at this thing called life. All of our friends seemed to be doing very well for themselves. They seemed to be right where we imagined you should be when turning the corner into your early 30s: decent vehicles, a mortgage, and well-rounded children playing soccer and the violin and learning three different languages.

We, on the other hand, were starting over. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

This period of life came to mind again as we watched some old home movies with the kids between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact, it didn’t just come to mind – it was right there in living color for us to experience all over again. The Christmas of 2009.

There the kids were in the video, unwrapping a meager stash of gifts in my parents’ basement. I don’t remember how we paid for gifts that year. I can’t really remember. There sat Maile and I, looking somewhat depressed, somewhat dazed. Life had run over us with a steam roller, and the kids didn’t seem to have a clue.

While we watched that video (it seemed to come on the television out of nowhere), Maile looked over at me and wrinkled her nose.

“I’m not finding this one particularly enjoyable,” she whispered.

“Me, neither,” I said.

But the kids were caught up in it, remembering this, remember that. And they were so tiny, their voices squeaky new: Cade only 6, Lucy 5. Abra and Sammy were just babies: 20 months and 5 months, about the same ages as Leo and Poppy are now.

Tonight, though, as I think back through that time and the images in the video, one sentence came to mind: “That’s what trust looks like.”

* * * * *

I love Henri Nouwen’s take on trust:

Trust is the basis of life. Without trust, no human being can live. Trapeze artists offer a beautiful image of this. Flyers have to trust their catchers. They can do the most spectacular doubles, triples, or quadruples, but what finally makes their performance spectacular are the catchers who are there for them at the right time in the right place.

Let’s trust in the Great Catcher.

Even after I finished my post last week – An Honest Reflection on Self-Employment, Canceled Contracts, and Hope – I continued thinking about it quite a bit. I felt like it was unfinished, that perhaps I had left something unsaid that needed to be said. And I realized that this is it: the most important ingredient in this life of self-employment has been trust.

Not that I have always had perfect trust in God. Not that I haven’t been assailed with worry or anxiety from time to time (or more often than that) – my distrust becomes evident mostly in times when I begin working on a resume. Yet, the single most important thing that has taken me from this day to the next has been a determination to trust that God knows what God is doing. God knows what Maile and I are going through. And God is using it all in this tapestry of mercy and grace, a creative endeavor of which I only ever receive the smallest glimpse.

* * * * *

This is not meant to be a sermon, or a guilt trip. If you are not doing what you feel you are called to do, or if you are not “living the life” the televangelists are shouting about, I am not here to tell you that the reason is a lack of trust. I don’t believe that God approaches us with a Trust-Me-Or-Else approach. Trusting God is not something that will always bring monetary rewards. It is not something that will elevate you above your peers or bring you a world’s helping of success.

But I will say this: trusting God is a conscious decision to move into a gentler movement of mercy. I have practiced trusting all these long seven years, and I can feel it strengthening in me. I can tell when I am moving away from it, when I am trying to force things in my own timing, when I am operating out of fear. And I can sense the deep sigh of relief when I move closer to absolute trust.

Where are you in this journey? Can you trust your life to an invisible force that cares only for your greatest good? Can you even believe in that? Sometimes I can. Other times, I simply hope.

* * * * *

This is a very long post. I will end it with my favorite words of all time about trust, written by Brennan Manning in his book Ruthless Trust:

The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future. The next step discloses itself only out of a discernment of God acting in the desert of the present moment. The reality of naked trust is the life of the pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.

Find the gentle movement of God in your life. And then trust it.

* * * * *

As a complete aside, I am offering a few writing classes that begin in February: Creative Writing for Kids, Fiction Writing, and Memoir Writing. If you’re interested and would like to learn more, you can check those out HERE.

What We Leave Behind


It’s strange, driving down a back road through farm country in October when the corn has been harvested and the trees are changing color. And it’s 85 degrees. My mind and body are connected to this land, and after 39 autumns, most of them spent in this part of the world, I recognize that something is different. Something doesn’t feel right.

The three of us drive along the eastern edge of the valley, our windows wide open. He tells me to turn off of the road. We drive slowly along a tractor lane that separates two fields, the car heaving up and down like a trawling boat.

“Turn here,” he says in a quiet, gravelly voice. Soon we are out in the middle of the field, approaching a quiet grove of trees. We follow the tree line, bend around the back, and he tells me to park where the ground sags like the bottom of a wave, that last glorious moment before the ocean picks you up, lifts you towards the blue.

It is a beautiful day. From here, we walk.

A narrow path splits the trees, then navigates the space between the wood and the 10-foot-high drying corn stalks. They are tan and brittle, and when a breeze blows they rattle like bones.

“The deer must be using this trail this year,” his wife says, and then I notice the corn, some of the cobs gnawed off.

“There it is,” he says, and we stop and the wind is all around us. We stare at a cross pounded deep into the ground just inside the woods. It is a metal sapling, rusting the color of fall. It is a marker that serves as a reminder of forgiveness, a reminder of a past that the current generations have vowed not to repeat.

“There it is,” he says again.

* * * * *

What will we leave behind, when we are gone? I thought of this the other day when I met with someone who told me the story of how her father died when he was only 46 years old. He passed in the middle of the night, cause unknown. I will be 46 in six years. If I would die then, what would I leave behind? What metal crosses have I pounded into this existence? What will the stainless steel letters say about me?

* * * * *

The three of us stand there for a bit, the way you do when you are standing in the presence of something holy. She talks about how well the cross is holding up. He grabs the top of it and, by the firm way it holds to the Earth, I can tell it has been pounded deep. He talks about adding a date to the back, in case anyone stumbles on it in the future.

I wonder about that. I imagine someone crossing through the field, stumbling over the rows, picking their way through the thick undergrowth in that grove of trees, putting their hand up against something that doesn’t move. They take another look. They see a cross with the words “Generations” and “Forgiven.” They see a year.

How are we marking these battles? What will future generations stumble across on their way from here to there?

* * * * *

I do not know who turns away first. I know it is not me. I follow them back to the car and we retrace our bouncing steps, finally back on the smooth road, the sky blue overhead, the warm wind denying fall has ever been here or will ever come back.

Like Breath Over Still Water: The Arrival of a Baby


I drive the truck faster, weaving past cars on the city streets. I nearly pull out in front of someone and hit my brakes. We are 35 minutes from the birth center, and Maile’s labor has started. I stop at a red light just as another contraction builds inside her.

This is our sixth child. I know in an intimate way the process my wife’s body goes through when the baby has decided to come. For example: Maile hums through her contractions. It’s quiet at first, barely a breath, but as the contractions get stronger and closer together her voice swells into a loud kind of almost-singing. It’s a prehistoric chant, something in her DNA. But as we sit at the red light, and the contraction swells, that particular pressure transforms her humming into a guttural grunt. I also know what that means.

“Do you have to push?” I ask, looking over at her. This is not a good time to push. We are too far away.

Her lips are pursed and white around the edges. She’s still exhaling the remnants of the last contraction. She nods.

“I wanted to that time.”

The traffic is slow. We hit every light red. Another contraction comes in, tides back out. Another. All those people we pass in their cars, living their normal evenings. Going out to eat. Going home from work. Talking with friends on their phones. Can’t they see there is a miracle in our truck, barely waiting to break forth?

“Play that song again,” Maile whispers. The song is “Born” by Over the Rhine.

I was born to laugh
I learned to laugh though my tears
I was born to love
I’m gonna learn to love without fear

“You should probably drive faster,” she says in a flat, calm voice, but there is a trace of urgency, like a small, red thread on a white carpet.

Pour me a glass of wine
Talk deep into the night
Who knows what we’ll find

I look both ways and pull hesitantly through the red light, then drive the rest of the highway in the center lane, my four-ways flashing. We are 20 minutes from the birth center. But we are finally out of the city. We are fleeing into the country shadows, the sun setting behind us.

* * * * *

This I’ve also seen: when Maile begins labor, when the contractions start to come closer together, she withdraws inside of herself. There is a labyrinth she follows to the deepest parts, and when she’s there, when she’s in active labor, I can’t find her anymore. She wouldn’t recognize me if we passed in the street.

Intuition, deja-vu
The Holy Ghost haunting you
Whatever you got
I don’t mind

At 7:30pm on Saturday night, one hour before we raced down the turn lane of Route 30, she said she wanted to go for a walk, so she and I set out along with Leo and Cade. We went west on James and turned north on Prince and as we walked down the long hill, the sun was setting off to our left, its light dripping into a vacant parking lot. A cool breeze swept by with the traffic. The air felt lighter somehow, as if August had persuaded October to come and take over the evening duties.

FullSizeRenderWe turned east onto Frederick Street. Cade walked ahead. Leo said hello to a little girl playing on the sidewalk. Maile slowed down. She breathed deep, and I could see it beginning to happen: the withdrawal, the searching. She was looking for a way into the labyrinth.

“You okay?” I asked her. There was some fear in her eyes.

“That was a strong one,” she said, walking with one hand supporting her back. “I’m scared. You’re going to have to help me with this baby.”

I nodded quietly.

“You got it, babe,” I said. “One at a time.”

We walked all the way to Duke, turned south, then doubled back on Prince towards home. A homeless man pointed at her stomach.

“I saw another one of you over on Lime,” he said, practically shouting. Indescribable joy was etched on his face. We smiled and nodded.

“Over on Lime!” he insisted. “Pregnant ladies everywhere.” Then he turned and walked away.

We got to the last crosswalk. Soon we would be home. The sign was orange, don’t walk. Maile bent over then arched her back, breathed deep again, hummed. That was the first hum I’d heard. The contractions were serious. She stood up, looked like she might throw up. Her eyes were far away. She was entering the labyrinth.

“Maybe we should head into the birth center,” I said, not expecting her to take me up on the suggestion. She doesn’t like to go in until it’s time. But she surprised me, there on the corner of Queen and James, just opposite the Greek restaurant we love. She didn’t even make eye contact with me. Only nodded.

“That’s a good idea. We should probably hurry a little bit.”

I wondered what it would be like to deliver a baby in the Suburban. I turned to Cade.

“Hey, buddy,” I said. “Why don’t you run ahead and tell Mimi we need to go? Now. Tell her we need to get moving, fast.”

Cade stared at his phone.

“Hey, you,” I said, half laughing. “Get moving.”

“Dad,” he said, looking slightly embarrassed. “I’ve got an awesome Pokemon on the line.”

“What?” I exclaimed. He paused, swiped his fingers up and down his phone, then took off in a sprint.

“I got him!” he shouted joyfully over his shoulder. Maile and I shook our heads. We both laughed.

Put your elbows on the table
I’ll listen long as I am able
There’s nowhere I’d rather be

That’s when we drove out of the city. That’s when I weaved in and out of city traffic. That’s when Maile started to feel an urge to push.

* * * * *

We slip away from the setting sun, now 15 minutes from the birth center. With every contraction I ask her if she needs to push. Sometimes she says yes, sometimes no.

These are the hills where I grew up, the sprawling, green fields with July corn as tall as a man. These are the summer nights I cut my teeth on. This is the land inside me, the place I will someday go home to when my life is over, my far, green country. I am not afraid of helping my wife deliver a baby in the truck, if I have to – not with those fields as witnesses. It almost seems fitting, that a child of mine would spring into being in the midst of the corn and the tobacco, the trees and the fireflies, the quiet, curving roads and the distant storm clouds.

But we make it. There will be no Suburban birth. We pull into the birth center and the nurse lets us in after hours and we go into the same room where Leo was born. The same room. The same bed, the same tub. I remember when Leo was born. I remember texting everyone the news, including our friend Alise who had recently had a stillborn son. I wanted her to know we were thinking of her. There is such joy and sorrow as I get older. Joy inextricably mixed with sorrow. They’re a tangled mess.

The contractions come closer together now, and Maile is far away. She is lost in the labyrinth, trying to find her way to the elusive center. She hums through contractions. She strips down and climbs into the warm bath, facing the corner, squatting down as far as she can, her arms out in front of her. In yoga, it is close to the child’s pose.

She whispers prayers into the water when the pain becomes unbearable. Her breath scatters shallow ripples over the thin surface. Or maybe it is the Spirit. She wants me to push deep into her back, and I press with the heels of my hands. I feel her spine and the deep muscles of her lower back, her ribs.

Bone from my bone. Flesh from my flesh.

She presses herself down until I think she might melt into the water or split in two. She wants help out of the tub, so we move her to the bed. She hums through the contractions and the humming turns louder and louder, rises up over itself until she sounds like a muezzin calling us all to prayer. Her powerful voice gives me chills. She moans and cries out and pushes.

Secret fears, the supernatural
Thank God for this new laughter
Thank God the joke’s on me
We’ve seen the landfill rainbow
We’ve seen the junkyard of love
Baby it’s no place for you and me

The way a child comes into being from a woman is the birth of a galaxy. It is searing pain and numbing joy; it will break you into interstellar pieces. A bundle of powder-coated limbs slips and jumbles its way into the world, still attached to the source. A squirming heap of carbon and water covered in blood and a ghostly vernix. Believe in miracles. They are born every day, attached to their mothers.

When Maile realizes the baby is a girl, she raises her face towards the ceiling. Her smile is like those clear shafts of light that break through storm clouds.

IMG_4221 copyI was born to laugh
I learned to laugh through my tears
I was born to love
I’m gonna learn to love without fear

“What a gift,” she kept whispering over and over again. “What a gift.”

Later, in the quiet, the labyrinth far behind (or perhaps all around, with us finally residing in the perfect center), we name her Poppy Lynne Louella.

Poppy for the ruby red fields in England we often hiked through, gazed at.

Lynne for my Aunt Linda who died a month ago, who rose through a bright pink sunset and fireworks that split the sky.

Louella for Maile’s grandmother, homeless and alone at a young age with only her sister, married at age 16, one of the strongest women we ever knew.

Poppy Lynne Louella.

What a gift.

Italicized lines are from the song “Born” by Over the Rhine, my favorite band. You can purchase the album, “Drunkard’s Prayer,” or listen to more of their songs, HERE.

Regarding the Long Days Before the Baby Comes


There is the tedious movement of the last few days of a pregnancy. The summer days well up like drips from a faucet, slowly gathering mass, then hanging there much longer than you thought possible. Maile’s stomach drops as the baby seeks out more space. At night she reaches over and grabs my hand, places it on her stomach in a particular spot, like the placing of a stethoscope. Like someone divining water. She doesn’t even say anything, and we sit there quietly, her eyes closed, my hand feeling the heel, the bottom, the bulging movements.

A sharp kick. She glances at me. Her eyes ask, “Did you feel that?”

I smile. After seventeen years you can have an entire conversation without saying a word. She rolls onto her side. I start reading again. I leave my hand on her stomach until she falls asleep.

* * * * *

The older I get, the more tempered my celebrations. I don’t know if this is good or not. It simply is.

When Cade was born thirteen summers ago, in a small hospital thirty miles outside of London, I basked in the joy of having a son. I could barely comprehend the wonder. My world revolved around the three of us, my small family, my insular world. There was no one else.

Now, five children later, my joy is touched by sadness. When our child is born, I will cry happy tears, yes. But I will also remember my friend’s son Eliot who was not born into life but into death. I will think of our friends for whom another month has come and gone without the pregnancy they so desperately want. I will think of my cousin’s child, born with complications.

I think the older we get, the more mixed up our grief and joy become. I supposed I could sit there, try to pull away all the beads of oil from the water. But there it is. Instead of separating it, I will swirl it around, watch the colors spread.

* * * * *

Sammy pushes on Maile’s stomach.

“Careful, you’ll break her waters!” Maile’s mom says, and we smile. Sammy’s intrigue passes from Maile’s belly to his own. He explores his belly button.

“Can boys break their waters?” he asks, deadly serious. We laugh until our sides hurt. Sam is rather pleased with himself.

* * * * *

Maybe we’re not meant to separate the joy from the sorrow. During Jesus’ long monologue in John about love, he interrupts himself to say that if we remain in his love, our joy will be full. Not pure joy. Not unadulterated joy. Full.

Which begs the question, “Full of what?”

Maybe full joy is a joy full of sorrow and grief and happiness and satisfaction and love and everything else, whatever it takes. Maybe full joy is like the movement of a baby still inside or the movement of summer days just before the labor begins.

The Problem With Protecting Ourselves


One of the greatest temptations faced by American Christians today comes in the form of voices demanding that we, first and foremost, protect ourselves. In response to the very real dangers present in the world, these voices encourage, no, demand, that we withdraw, face inward, and put the well-being of ourselves and our families first. The voices promise a way to safety.

We have already, during the last few decades, successfully used the suburbs to separate ourselves from the poor. We have built highways that allow us to avoid the wretched cities, and we relocate refugees deep into those tangled streets, maintaining the illusion that we are all the same, that nothing has changed. We employ the police to sweep away the homeless from our neighborhoods and parks. We look away. We close our eyes. We sigh with relief.

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

Jesus found that place in the scroll and proclaimed it to those who were listening. What are we proclaiming? What are we believing for? Safety? Security? A final and permanent separation from anyone or anything that might cause us harm?

At what cost?

* * * * *

The safe isolation we crave is not the way of Christ.

To make compassion the bottom line of life, to be open and vulnerable to others, to make community life the focus, and to let prayer be the breath of your life…that requires a willingness to tear down the countless walls that we have erected between ourselves and others in order to maintain our safe isolation.

Henri Nouwen

In our country we elevate anything that illustrates toughness and self-sufficiency. The sports we worship in the new cathedrals we call stadiums squash the weak and the small and celebrate strength and domination. We have left little room for compassion, especially a compassion that seems impractical or dangerous.

Yet we are being called back to compassion, the kind of compassion shown by the Good Samaritan to the man dying on the side of the road. The kind of compassion shown by Christ’s disciples, men and women willing to follow his leading into dangerous, dark places. The kind of compassion shown by Christ who chose not to retaliate, not to protect himself, not to escape, but to spread wide his arms and take us all in.

When our first thoughts are for the safety of ourselves and our families, our last thoughts are of Christ.