The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry in Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.
“... the Land that I Will Show You” is the blog of the Office of Preparation for Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This blog is designed to serve as a resource for those discerning and preparing for a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament as ordained teaching elders of the church. It will also provide a place for reflecting on and dialoging about the changing context of pastoral ministry in the early 21st century.
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Like tens of millions of Christians around the world today, I stepped away from my usual midday routine to attend an Ash Wednesday service. At about the midpoint of the service I filed forward with the other congregants, and one of the liturgists—a colleague and friend in ministry whom I have known for almost two decades—dipped her finger in the oily ashes and as she traced the shape of the cross on my forehead repeated the solemn words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I cannot hear those words any longer without also remembering back (about a decade now) to when I worked with the worship committee of the congregation I was then serving as pastor to plan a “contemporary” Ash Wednesday service. In this particular instance, “contemporary” meant drawing on a range of artistic traditions as well as the traditional liturgical resources. I prepared a video that juxtaposed music with various images (a hobby of mine). The song was “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas (for their music video, click here). It’s haunting refrain, drawn by the songwriter Kerry Livgren from a collection of Native American poetry, is: “Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.”
Certainly both today’s liturgy and the fact that I first heard Kansas’s song almost four decades ago (it was first released in 1977) serve to drive home a sense of human mortality. The other place where “dust” and “ashes” play such a dramatic role in liturgy is in the graveside committal service: “We commit [this] body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” But (to borrow a line from Livgren) “only for a moment, [before] the moment’s gone” I want to reflect on the mortality of institutions rather than individuals.
The final catalyst to this reflection was a passing comment recently made to me by another friend and colleague in ministry over some two decades. This colleague simply remarked, “Tell me again, why do we keep doing this?” Why in the face of all the challenges facing the church and those who serve it in pastoral ministry do we keep coming back to this work? To borrow more lines from Livgren, it is all just the “Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea / All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see.”
It is a refrain I sometimes hear from presbytery committees that they don’t know quite what to tell those discerning a call to ministry in these days. Clearly the church that defined the experience of “the Greatest Generation” and their children, “the Baby Boomers,” now “pass[es] before [the] eyes [of Millennials], a curiosity” (to once more echo Livgren). The church that was is passing away. So, tell us again, why do you feel called to keep doing this?
The answer to that question is also found in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Hear once more the first words spoken in the liturgy once the processional for the imposition of ashes on foreheads is completed, even as the refrain “remember you are dust” echoes in our heads: “Accomplish in us, O God, the work of your salvation / That we may show forth your glory in the world.” God’s answer to the mortality of both our individual souls and our communal lives together is to accomplish “salvation”; our response should be not to wallow in mourning for what has been lost but to instead “show forth [God’s] glory in the world.”
Livgren once more speaks in more direct language: “Now, don’t hang on, [remember] nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky”—and, we would add, their Creator. May part of what we let go of this Lenten season be our desire to clutch the sand that runs through our fingers. Let us instead open ourselves to the new work of salvation God is doing.