Beth Miller is an author, educator and a veteran in leading group retreats around the world. This spring, she is writing a book about the many ways people can transform local travel into spiritual pilgrimage. We invited Beth to write about entering the Lenten season …
Found Us in Kenya
By BETH MILLER
My most memorable Ash Wednesday was one I almost missed. That year, I was in a Kenyan village close to the Equator leading a “mission trip” for youth and adults. Consumed with all of the preparations for our complex journey half way around the world, I forgot this crucial date in the Christian calendar. The reminder came when I placed a telephone call to my home.
My clergy husband asked, “What are you doing for Ash Wednesday?”
My heart sank. “Nothing. Is today really Ash Wednesday?”
He insisted that I must prepare a service.
I protested that I wasn’t ordained clergy; this was outside my job description.
But he left me no option. “You can. You must.”
One of the teenagers in our Kenyan group was thrilled with the task of finding a cup of ashes. He pictured burning down something! I reminded him that there was an outdoor fire ring nearby for cooking meals. And, off he went.
What would he find? What would he bring back to us? Since early in my spiritual formation, receiving the sign of the cross as the ashes are pressed onto my forehead is a very sensory experience. Some of the ashes always cling to my eyelashes. I am careful as I brush them away, not wanting to lose the mark of the ashes. The physical act is a visible sign of an invisible grace, important to me as a child and cherished as an adult. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—words usually read at a funeral service. Ashes remind us where we have come from and where we are going. Ashes are the result of fire. They are—what’s left. So is Ash Wednesday a day of contemplation and confession, stripping away the extraneous. After that spiritual work, we face what’s left in our lives.
The teenagers and adults around me in Kenya had packed carefully for our long journey to reach the weigh limit for our flights. We carried only the bare essentials on such a challenging trip. And, that’s the spiritual gift of Ash Wednesday: eliminating all that we can do without. Ash Wednesday sets limits that liberate our souls.
That evening in the Kenyan village, we sang songs accompanied by a guitar. I read from Psalm 51:
You desire truth in our inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. …
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
This particular group of Christians was not used to practicing open confession or testimony during worship. Nevertheless, the young man who had eagerly collected the ashes asked if he could talk. Tears started running down his cheeks. Working with Kenyan youth, those living in acute poverty, made him realize how much he took for granted. In this young man’s words, he confessed, “I am a spoiled brat.”
Rather than trying to make him feel better, I found myself saying, “I think God is speaking to you. Stay with those feelings and find where God is leading you.”
Ash Wednesday had found us. One after another, people spoke from deep places within their hearts and souls. By the time the ashes were pressed on our foreheads that night, we were a forgiven people, restored and full of joy.
We were ready for the journey that now stretched out ahead of us.
Lent is booming across the U.S. as a spiritual practice. Learn why that’s happening—and get a copy of the new book, Our Lent: Things We Carry (2nd Edition).
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.