"For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. "They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.
My Ash Wednesday this year was a little different. I've preached more often than not on Ash Wednesday in my first decade of ordained ministry. It's a meaningful service to me. I had not often attended an Ash Wednesday service as a kid, but came to understand them in college and seminary. And at my first service in Colorado, I dipped my thumb in a bowl of ash and oil and looked up to see a woman from the congregation I'd come to know and love. Her family had given me kitchen and living room furniture they were getting rid of when I moved there. I literally didn't have a place to sit in my new apartment that was from this kind older couple. She had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor, the same type that took the life of her daughter years before. I made the sign of the cross on her forehead, knowing it may be her last. Her eyes met mine, watery, and she seemed equally aware. I managed the words, "from dust you have come and to dust you'll return."
That and similar memories have established this as a day I look forward to each year. Circumstances this year meant that I'd be headed to the hospital for a scheduled delivery of our third son a few weeks early, and a day before Ash Wednesday. When Ash Wednesday arrived, our newborn son Marshall was in the NICU and my wife in a room in labor and delivery. I was splitting my time between those two rooms and becoming quite familiar with the staff and nurses. As I passed the nursing station at lunch, I noticed a chaplain giving ashes to the nurses there. I paused, told him I was a pastor and asked if he had time for me and my wife on his rounds. He did. I was deeply grateful not to have missed that humanizing and spiritual moment that marks me and the calendar each year.
A few hours later, I went back to the NICU to wait for my youth who has become an ordained elder this year to come visit Marshall. I looked down at him and the score of wires and tubes leading to his crib. I felt my forehead where the ashes still remained and pressed my thumb to them. Then I softly marked Marshall's forehead as he slept and spoke the words. I was well aware in that moment that hundreds of our friends from JCPC, my home church, folks connected to me as pastors and faith leaders here and abroad, and connected through social media were praying for his health. But in the moment, I was also aware of his life and mine, both in God's hands and both ready to serve a purpose. I remembered the encouragement of my youth from the Sunday before to trust God in those moments, no matter how brief or how long and to know those plans would be for good things, even if they were hard.
I doubt any Ash Wednesday will ever be so memorable as this one, but I'm grateful it comes each year. I hope you'll mark it with me next year and be marked by the reminder. And I hope it centers you in God's call on your life as it does me.