My mind works through what to say as my hands wander of their own accord, gathering things for morning chapel.  Boxes of matches.  A gas lighter-thingy retrieved from the crowded closet where the paraments are kept.  Two palm leaves are retrieved from an upper shelf of the bookcases behind my desk.  The bookcases are all but empty now, their contents packed away in boxes sitting in my garage with the useful label of  Books – Paul’s Office on each of the 20+ boxes.   Why is packing an office and a house and a family so surrealistically simple, considering we aren’t sure where our final destination will be, or when we’ll reach it?   I make a mental note to bring in a few more boxes to pack up the last two shelves of books. 

I flex the leaves of the palm branches.  Brittle.  But not as brittle as expected.  How brittle should they be after 11 months?  The irony of dust gathering on last year’s Palm Sunday branches brings a half-smile.  The Jews of Jesus’ day weren’t the only ones who grew tired of the waving palms and waiting.  How quickly we shelve the songs when we don’t get to dictate the how and the when and the where.  I empty a small glass candle-holder-bowl-thingy of the packets of stevia, rubber bands, and dust that have accumulated there in the last year or so.  On another shelf are three small gold boxes, each with a different scented oil inside.  Myrrh.  Nard.  Frankincense and Myrrh.  I opt for the simplicity of myrrh and slip the vial into my pocket.  Burial oil

I grab a large glass bowl that has been sitting on my desk for the last several months, awaiting it’s return to the kitchen.  Matches, gas lighter-thingy, dried palm branches, big glass bowl, small glass bowl.  I locate some aluminum foil in the kitchen and carry the collection to the three benches outside the sanctuary side door.  The foil is folded over and anchored around the rim of the bowl.  I tear off the palm leaves farthest from the base.  Those should be the driest, right?  They don’t crumble or tear easily.  Their fibrousness is impressive.  Even without sustenance for a year, they retain their strength, their shape and form. 

The gas lighter-thingy sets the leaves quickly aflame.  Last year I burned the leaves in front of the children, and they get very excited and very eager to squeeze in closer to watch the smoke and flame.  Better to avoid that potential health hazard.  It doesn’t take very many leaves to make enough ashes.  Enough for the 30 or so children that will soon assemble, and a few teachers, and then a much older group of people later in the evening for the service.  Ashes go a long way.   

Smoke wafts upwards.  I feel vaguely like some sort of furtive drug user, and I wonder if someone will report that the pastor is freebasing outside the sanctuary.  Nobody wanders by.  The last of the flames die away, and I poke the ashes with the gas lighter-thingy.   Everything has been burned away.  The leaves that had been green and fresh a year ago are nothing but ash – so insubstantial comparatively.  And yet that ash leaves a mark that’s hard to get rid of.  The foil is stained with it already, and I know that soon my fingers will be as well.  Residue has power of it’s own that gets overlooked in our obsession with vitality

I crumple the ashes in the aluminum foil, crushing them to a fine powder punctuated here and there with exclamation points of sturdier fiber that refuses to disintegrate, even after having been burned.  I pour the ashes into the small glass bowl thingy.  The children are coming across the parking lot, and I meet them in front of the sanctuary.  They sit on the cement outside the church doors as I pour some of the fragrant oil into the small bowl of ash, mixing it with the ashes into a pungent, sickly-sweet paste.  I give the three and four year olds a Sesame Street synopsis of Ash Wednesday.  Jesus loves us so much.  So much that He died for us – and then God made Him alive again!  Can it really be that simple?  Could it possibly be any more complicated? 

The children receive the ashes on their foreheads.  The teachers receive them as well.  I tell the children Jesus loves you as I make the smudge on their tiny heads.  Dust you are.  To dust you will return I tell the teachers.  Perhaps I should simply tell the teachers that Jesus loves them as well.  But they’re old enough to consider mortality for a few seconds this morning before herding the children back across the parking lot.  So many things that should be said, taught, explained.  So little time, and each second burns away so quickly leaving nothing but residue.  What residue of mine will remain with these children? 

No songs this morning.  Next week we’ll have songs.  Whatever songs you want to sing.  Maybe even We Wish You a Merry Christmas, which one boy requests every week, despite his teachers reminders that it’s no longer Christmas.  But he knows the song so well.  He sang it with gusto in front of a packed church two months ago.  I can’t blame him for wanting to sing it still.  We love to sing the songs we know the best, before we grow self-conscious of our voices and our own joy in them.  Whatever you want to sing, we’ll sing.  Next week will be our last time together.  But there will be a new pastor here soon, and maybe he’ll come and sing songs with you as well.  Maybe he’ll tell you how much Jesus loves you, and laugh at your eagerness to say whatever crosses your mind, as soon as it crosses it. 

I pray he will.  I’ll leave you with ashes and songs, with laughter and hopefully with the idea that Jesus loves you.  I pray that you’ll remember that message more than the silly songs, the puppets, the story books and whatever tools I grabbed at to try and convey the importance and joy of a message simple enough for a three-year old to grasp, and complex enough to wrestle with the rest of their lives.   The person who brings this simple and profound message to you isn’t important – only the message is important.  But the residue of the messengers sometimes remains behind.  Smudges where and when we least expect them, marking us in unexpected ways. 

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