Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


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. . . .  .

. . . .  .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."
Suddenly, I began to understand my change in behavior and preference for pencils. In a way, it's my own subconscious statement of faith.

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. 


Kirkepiscatoid said...

Interesting, b/c it's the mindset I have about being as paperless as possible and doing notes on my smart phone and iPad...because you know, some day there will be no trace of it on the earth...but it's all up there in the cloud. I suspect there will be a day you can't extract it when the technology there we are, all mixed together in the cloud.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

And, with just a click of the "delete" button, it's all gone. The technological equivalent of an eraser.

Brother David said...

You do have the option of backing up smart devices to your Mac or PC, in addition to the cloud. Some folks forget how many copies of their stuff there actually is out there.

Sextant said...

To further your excellent metaphor, when we error in writing we have to find and recognize the error, make the effort to erase it, and if necessary re-write the passage.

Is it not the same in life?

We have to find and recognize the error in our life.


Make the effort to erase the error by asking forgiveness.


I am not enough of a theologian (hell I am not a theologian at all) to say, but with the Grace of God, one is probably in the clear at this point. However with a spouse, my experience calls for a third step:

Re-write that passage in your life. Make up for your transgression and promise not to do it again.


I am getting frightfully religious for me. I am not real good with asking forgiveness from God, because quite frankly I don't believe that God is not near as touchy as our religions would have us believe. I am far more likely to tell God a dirty joke, than I am to ask forgiveness, for calling that rotten s.o.b. that pulled out in front me a ______, ______. A lot of the definitions of God and God's hyper-touchiness for sin is maintenance of the brand of the religion, necessary I suppose for a human organization, but leading to the corruption of the faith by the hand of humanity.

Ahhhh, but being a husband, I put those erasers to use quite frequently. In some of those errors, God gets involved as well. The capacity for denseness in the human male is almost infinite.

Years ago on a show called "Boy Meets World" there was episode where the principal of school talked about men frantically backing up the husband freeway because they missed an exit. Thats me.

PseudoPiskie said...

I use pencils. Nice to know someone I admire does too and explains it so well.

Marthe said...

There is something satisfying
in the friction
the drag of graphite
across a blue lined page
reassuring, the slightly slower
pace of pencil
translating synaptic surges
into symbols meant
to convey the thing
I was not supposed to say
(erase the worst of it
the jarring jagged bits
too painful for response)
feel the sharp shaved point
soften under it
this pressure to covey
in loops and strokes and dots
all the woulds and shoulds
and swollen knots
of life sharpened and ground
and sharpened again only
to shorten into nubs
(rubber long gone to
endless hesitant revision)
I do not toss away
sentimental fool
to keep the spent penny tool
of impermanence
never mind the humility
inherent in the reluctance
to commit to ink
the world now screams
we have little use for that
analog obsolete profitless thing

Matthew said...

So, I wonder why some European countries sprinkle the ashes on your hair? I wonder what the symbolism of that is.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Br. David - Even though it is reported that God lives in "the cloud", God still forgives forever. No back up memory. Great, right?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sextant - you can extend any of the metaphors I use any time. Brilliant.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marthe - Brilliant, as always, my dear.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I've never heard of that practice and I'm sure I don't know - not any more than why Greeks spit at people they love - like, brides coming down the aisle or babies at a baptism. If you find out, let me know.

Matthew said...

Hi Elizabeth, This is the closest that I can find, it just made me wonder about the debate and whether you wash them off or not and so in some places they are not "visible" regardless.