She fumbled through her purse for her phone. The familiar ringing matched other bells and whistles blasting in her psyche, the kind that told her old lies, played old tapes. Lipstick, business cards, flash cards for her Spanish class, gloves, make-up mirror…where the hell is the damn thing? she wondered. Out loud apparently. The pastor, full-robed and in full-sermon, looked, glared really, in her direction. It would have been less humiliating to slap her.
The depth of her self-loathing and embarrassment couldn’t reach any lower. Or so she thought. Her neighbors, obviously as perturbed as preacher, reminded her of her faux pas with their faux compassion filtered through eyes glazed over in very real judgment.
She was wound up tight as a bedspring, and flustered; frustrated at her own lack of discernment. Why the hell didn’t I turn this thing off? Why are they calling now? After dropping almost everything, she fingered the noisy culprit. It’s Sunday, they shouldn’t even be open today she thought, half angry, half relieved. Sliding sideways past her pew neighbors, she answered just in time to catch the call, most needed but least wanted. “Your test results are in, ma’am. Can you meet with the doctor tomorrow?”
He fell backwards against the brick wall, his guts, freshly emptied of the remains of fish-dinner-a-la-dumpster. His head, swimming in too much shit wine, acted in connivance with his stomach against lucidity and balance, let alone self-respect. He smelled of piss, puke and pain. Only the shame kept him alive and the dull remembrance of a life once lived, once alive with the common promise of…promise.
Was it only yesterday that he’d felt the warm body of a wife sleeping next to him? She had stayed with him through the final merger; the one he’d promised would bring them financial freedom. She muscled through his two affairs and the drinking that bridged them both. Now, two years, a foreclosure, divorce and bankruptcy later, he thought he smelled her hair, the fragrance of mint intermingled with aching reminiscence. But it was only the smell of loss mixed with dog shit on his one remaining shoe. He’d lost the other earlier that day foraging for what was left of his meal, now part of his concrete pillow. He slept.
She was desperate. It had been too long between hits and her most regular but equally violent trick had just buzzed to be let in. She frantically ravaged through her regular places searching for her small bag of white, blood-borne courage. If she could get high enough quick enough, perhaps he would get enough soon enough and leave her just enough to start the whole process again.
He started pounding on the buzzer. Now, he wasn’t just horny but pissed off and, most likely, more violent as a result. Her lust to forget competed with his to be remembered and a battle ensued as to whose needs would be met first. She gave up. This time, a paying customer in person overruled her quest to be absent and with quivering hand she buzzed him in.
He stormed and swore his way up the four flights of stairs, a distance not her friend when it came to her chances of getting through this unscathed. Her door flew open, along with his zipper and a stream of obscenities. Everything aligned in a perfect storm, conspiring against her and sealing her fate. She lucked out this time and suffered only one punch before he got down to business. Through a left eye, now starting to swell, she toughed it out through one more indignity.
I sat on the stairs, for once only slightly drunk and for once, just watching. I was a guest in a home that presently provided the shell casing for a larger than life exposé of human depravity: unwise hook-ups, unending pharm drops, unstable bro-downs in the living room, uncool furniture-demolition, and I’m sure much more that wasn’t immediately verifiable from my stairway perch. I watched. I watched for a long time. How long I am uncertain. I watched some more and, for the first time, came to what might be called an epiphany. I can only describe it as a peaceful comma on a life that was quickly becoming a bad run-on sentence – unintelligible and heavy-laden with too much exhausting emotional verbiage. What was the point I thought? Was this to be the sum total of my aspirations?
That particular staircase on that particular night was for me a precipice – a cliff of choice. The “voice” I’d been hearing for years now had become annoying and insistent. I recognized it as a compassionate voice but couldn’t pin it down. That voice had been subtly inviting me to pursue its source; a living déjà vu, like a memory becoming fleshed out before me. Now, that voice was literally sitting beside me on a staircase inside a run down bungalow in Edmonton, Alberta.
Today is Ash Wednesday. It may mean nothing as far as our daily experience of darkness or light is concerned. It may never have been part of your experience. But it offers us a gift. It is a day typically set apart from others by the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of those whose desire is to recognize their own mortality thereby.
Ashes indicate something. They tell us something has been used up, finished. There is nothing left. That which provided fuel for life and heat no longer exists and is rendered useless. Ashes are basically meaningless and, at one level, can provide a bleak but poignant picture of what many of us feel about our lives. Sometimes, life offers little more than the used up fodder of someone else’s fire.
The Gospel says however that ashes can be something more than foul smelling carbon. Jesus’ portrayal on the ethic of self-giving love and his triumph over the ashes of his own life and ultimately over death itself tells us that ashes as death can be made ashes as garden fodder; the potential of new life. In his name, we trade our ashes for God’s beauty. Death and dying for life and living.
Jesus is God’s best idea. God as blue-collar carpenter in a backwater town on the backside of a forgotten desert in an occupied land. Jesus was no stranger to misunderstanding, misrepresentation, abuse, scorn and humiliation. In life and in death. God’s whole point was, through Jesus, to point us from the broken, burned up parts of our ash heap toward the ashes of newness. An anxiety-ridden woman receives the call; a washed up businessman is now one with the streets; a hooker walks a tightrope of addiction and fear to survive the only lifestyle she knows; my own sense of turning from meaninglessness toward God’s better way.
All of us are only a hair’s breath away from ruin or reward, disaster or dream, life or lies. We’re in this together. And wherever our lives may be in ruins, God can bring about beauty from our ashes.