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Archive for March, 2011

Ashes

One of the “bookmarks” that I have saved on my computer at the office is “How to Impose Ashes on Ash Wednesday.” (Perhaps you have the same “bookmark”) I found it about four years ago, after we decided to include the imposition of ashes as part of our noontime Ash Wednesday service, and after we had ordered what was the smallest amount of ashes (10 grams) from Cokesbury. We are still using ashes from that same batch of ashes, by the way. I can’t imagine how long the 25 gram bag would last! I’m still not sure how reformed the imposition of ashes is, but I’m trying to broaden my theological horizons.
“How to Impose Ashes” is a handy how-to for clergy like me who didn’t grow up in an ash-using church environment. I had no clue how to “impose” (meaning: place) ashes on someone’s forehead, and how does one practice such a thing? I mean, if you had to, you could practice serving communion by buying some bread and juice, placing them in whatever containers your church uses, and distribute the elements to imaginary people. You could even practice baptism using a baby doll and water in the font. But if you are creating something on another’s person’s forehead when you impose ashes, how do you practice? On yourself? On your spouse? Any less than human flesh won’t do!
So naturally I turned to the internet for instruction on how to impose ashes, and voila!, there was the now-bookmarked website “How to Impose Ashes.” It was very helpful, telling me things like that you can’t put dry ashes on a forehead (they’ll just crumble and make a mess.) How else would I know that you have to mix the ashes with some kind of oil, “until the ashes are kind of slurry.” Don’t you love that description? “Slurry?” Sounds one step off of a drunken binge, or one degree off of a “slushy.”
The first year that I imposed ashes I used olive oil. The second year I used some kind of fragrant oil that someone had given me for Christmas (I had complaints about the smell!). The last two years I’ve used Johnson’s Baby Oil. It mixes well, and it smells good.
Now about making the sign of the cross on someone’s forehead—well, it’s not as easy as it seems, even for someone who since first grade was able to color within the lines. I learned from my “bookmarked” website that one doesn’t use one’s pointer finger to make the cross, but the thumb. And there’s an order to drawing the cross: vertical line first, then horizontal line. And, to be even more precise, have an oil-soaked napkin or paper towel on which to wipe your finger every five crosses or so. Still, the website resassures me, “Your cross will look more like a plus sign that a cross.” Which is true. The faithful ones who attend the Ash Wednesday service all receive “plus signs” from me; they walked out looking like a very mathematical bunch.
The result of my Ash Wednesday cross-making is that now,I notice and (-sigh-) critique the ashes imposed on other people’s forwards. The sports commentator Tony Real had a beautifully formed, awarding winning cross on his forehead. Are there Oscars for “Best Ash Wednesday Cross?” I marvel at the skill that crafted that cross, and wondered if I could do better than “plus signs” next year. Later on, in the grocery store, I saw a cross that looked more like a smudge than a plus-sign or an award winning cross and I didn’t know whether it was poorly drawn or if the person had wiped her forehead by mistake.
In any event, imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday is a humbling and somewhat anxious activity for me, the novice cross-maker. But I comfort myself in the knowledge that it’s not how I draw the cross on someone’s forehead that matters, but the symbolism behind it. The imposition of the ashes reminds us “We are dust and to dust we shall return,” but also that “the steadfast love of the Lord lasts forever.” So whether poorly or beautifully drawn, the sign of the cross is our sign of hope throughout the Lenten season, leading us to the joy of resurrection.

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Academy Awards

I watched the Academy Awards Sunday night (aka the Oscars)—well, I watched most of the Academy Awards. I’ll admit that I dozed a bit during the presentation of lesser awards for film editing or sound. I know I dozed because when I fell asleep, Anne Hathaway was in a big crimson colored Cinderella-style gown and when I woke up, there she was in a bright blue satin-shiny-body-hugging gown. I may have dozed through more than one dress change since apparently Anne Hathaway wore 8 different outfits during the show. For someone who abhors the whole idea of clothing shopping because I hate to try on clothes, the idea of changing not only gowns but make up and hair styles 8 different times in a 3 hour period is mind-boggling.
But this writing will not be a reflection on the winners and losers of the Academy awards, or on how well James Franco and Anne Hathaway did as co-hosts or even to comment on how some celebrities “clean up” nice and some celebrities look like they just rolled out of bed (and maybe at 4 PM PST, they did). My guess is that disheveled-looking celebrities paid big bucks to look disheveled. I can do that for free, and frequently do!

Actually, what struck me about the Academy Awards is how we admire certain personality traits, regardless of whether they are the traits of the rich and famous or the traits of the poor and unknown. Everyone admires Sandra Bullock, for example, and not just for her acting abilities but for the grace and dignity she showed over the past year. After she won the Oscar for best actress, you remember, she gave a shout-out to her then-spouse Jesse for how supportive he had been to her, and found out soon thereafter (like 24 hours) that he had been unfaithful. She showed a lot of class in simply not talking about the whole sordid affair, but just moving on with her life.
And while I’ll admit that Kirk Douglas’ struggles to speak and his feeble frame makes me just a bit anxious and a little sad, I do admire his willingness to put himself out there, just as he is, and to let the world know that despite the effects of a stroke, his sense of humor remains intact.
Even the movie that won Best Picture was about someone who had a stutter and overcame it. OK, that “someone” was the King of England, but that makes it all the more poignant in my mind because he was a public figure!
So whether it’s the famous people on the Academy Awards, or the everyday people with whom we come in frequent contact, we admire those who are humble and not overly dramatic when they suffering, those who show courage in the face of their weakness, those who succeed despite the obstacles placed before them. It is as the Apostle Paul wrote, “We have this treasure in clay jars so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed.”

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