I had just passed over the sign-in sheet to my colleague at a Hospice Team Meeting and realized that she did not have a writing implement. So, I also offered her my pencil.
She looked at my pencil and then at me and, with a mixture of surprise and mild annoyance said, "You ALWAYS use a pencil. Every time I sit next to you, or watch you take notes, you either use your computer, iPad or a pencil and paper. Never a pen. Why is that?"
I hadn't noticed, really. Never gave it a thought.
And then, I did.
I began to take inventory of my desk at work and the one at home. I have lots of pens. I rarely use them. When I do write - I've even started to journal on my computer - it's usually a grocery list (because the container with pens and the pad of paper are in the kitchen). I also use a pen to write out a personal note - thank you, condolence, birthday - to friends. That's if I haven't sent them an e-card.
I didn't always, but I've noticed that, more and more, I'm using a pencil for everything else. Appointments in my calendar. My 'to do' lists. My Hospice visit schedule. These days, I even doodle my primitive art with a pencil.
The nifty thing about a pencil is that it comes with an eraser.
Nothing is permanent. Not anything or anywhere in life. With a pencil, you can change things easily enough with a few vigorous swipes of the little piece of rubber at the end of it. And, if things change and you're a bit upset about it, the erasure rids you of the annoyance or memory of it.
I suspect that working as a Hospice Chaplain has something to do with this new behavior.
On Ash Wednesday, I will be visiting people in their homes and in Skilled Nursing Facilities and imposing ashes on the foreheads of those who know their time on this earth is very limited.
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," I'll say, as I smudge ashes in the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
As if they weren't already acutely aware of that fact.
It's always a bit unsettling to me, when the recipient of the ashes looks up at me and says, "Thank you." I mean, I've essentially said, "You're going to die, you know." And, they say, "Thank you."
I'm never sure if they're being polite or thanking me for the reminder.
I stopped in to see one of my patients who is in a Skilled Nursing Facility - a devout Roman Catholic - and asked if she needed me to bring her ashes. "Nah," she said, "the deacon from the church in town will bring me some."
She thought for a moment and then said, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Isn't that what you say?"
"Actually," I said, "I will say, 'Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.'"
She smiled and said, "And, ain't that just the truth?"
She thought for awhile and then said, "It won't be too much longer for me. Before long, I'll be sitting in a jar on my kids' mantle, right next to my husband, until this summer when they take our ashes out to the ocean and scatter them both and we sail away together. "
I stopped for a moment, thinking about the current fad of 'Ashes to Go', and silently giggled a wicked giggle about her and her husbands 'ashes to go' together in the ocean. Bad joke, I know. Hospice can do that to you. Bad jokes are a survival mechanism.
I wondered what she thought about the call of Joel and Jesus to repentance - not death - which is at the heart of the observance of Ash Wednesday, and the basis of my distress over "Ashes to Go".
Yes, the ashes are a sign of our mortality - the finiteness of human existence - which is the reason to repent. But, the compelling prophetic call from Joel and Jesus is to repentance.
What does repentance mean to someone who is watching the face of death move closer and closer to their own face?
My thoughts were broken by the voice of my patient. "I always brush off the ashes from my forehead, anyway," she said.
"Really?" I asked, "Why is that?"
"Well," she said, "I've always thought of the ashes as the church's need to remind us of our mortality - how really short our little lives really are - as well as our sins. Yeah, we're here one day and gone the next and tomorrow isn't promised to anyone - blah, blah, blah...But, the thing of it is that, if you confess your sins, God wipes it off the books. As if it never happened. We are forgiven. Forever."
"You know, the way a pencil leaves a mark on a paper, and then the eraser wipes it all away."
Ah, there it is, I thought. In Matthew's Gospel for Ash Wednesday, we hear Jesus say,
"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. . . . .Suddenly, I began to understand my change in behavior and preference for pencils. In a way, it's my own subconscious statement of faith.
. . . . .Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Life is short. Yes, we sin and fall short of the mark. We repent. And, God wipes away our sins.
The mark of ashes on our forehead is no where near as important as the message of repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation with God and ourselves and each other.
So, get out your #2 pencils and make sure they've got an eraser on the top.
It's Ash Wednesday. The beginning of forty days and forty nights of Lent.
Know that your life is but a pencil mark on the page of life.
Repent. And, know that God will wipe away any sin that has been authentically confessed.
We may hold the pencil, but God holds the eraser.