Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
(Words used during the Imposition of Ashes during Ash Wednesday prayer services at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church)
On this Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, I can’t help but think about the sudden and shocking death of a beloved servant leader in the Presbyterian Church (USA), respected colleague, and friend, the The Rev. Aimee Wallis Buchanan.
Last summer, the middle school youth at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian in Duluth spent a week with the mission organization that Aimee and her husband Bill founded a few years ago, Asheville Youth Mission in Asheville, NC. On the last day, Aimee took our group on a morning spirituality walk through Asheville. Along the way, we stopped at various spots to read and discuss the story of the paralytic in Luke 5:17-26. It was one of the most profound and sacred experiences that we’ve ever had, due greatly in part to the love of God that exuded from Aimee’s entire being.
I remember we were walking down one street when Aimee saw a friend, a homeless woman named Raven whom she had helped out on several previous occassions. “Raven!” Aimee shouted enthusiastically and with that trademark smile on her face. “How are you doing?” Aimee stopped and gave Raven a hug and then listened for a few minutes as Raven told her about the troubles she was having. Aimee hugged her, told her that she loved her and that she would be praying for her. A few steps later, we came upon a man sitting on the sidewalk with his head in his hands. Aimee explained that Ray, who was also homeless, often had severe migraines and health problems that made him despondent at times. Again, she stopped and spoke to him, leaned down so Ray could hear her and to make sure he wasn’t in need of any emergency medical care and then led us onward. It was clear that Aimee had become immersed in the city of Asheville and the lives of the poor and downtrodden. She was, I thought at the time (and still believe) the Mother Theresa of Asheville.
Later, toward the end of the walk, we stopped at a beautiful fountain overflowing with water that then drips down and forms a pool around the base. It was here that Aimee reminded us of who we are (children of God) and to whom we belong (God). She spoke about how baptism is a sign of God’s love for us and how baptismal waters cleans, refreshes and sustains us on our journeys. As a way of joyfully remembering our baptisms and the life we have been given , Aimee then encouraged us to splash one another with the water from the fountain. And with a spark of mischief in her eye, she hinted that the youth might want to make sure they did a good job reminding me of how the waters feel. Needless to say, I was soaked. But also renewed at the same time.
You see, there had been some tension in the group that week, especially between me and some of the 6th grade girls (typical you’re not listening and acting immature v. you’re being over-bearing jerk with the rules). Aimee knew instinctively that frustrations and anger and tiredness and stress had dried us up and that we needed to play in the refreshing waters of life.
I find it more than ironic (quite providential actually) that Aimee’s legacy of AYM is having to begin without her during this Lenten season and beyond. Although Asheville is named after an 18th century North Carolina governor, the homophone is significant. Aimee lived and breathed the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent in a town of Ash (which is actually representative of all towns and places) where the broken are waiting to be mended and healed, to be treated with dignity and respect, to be marked with the unconditional mercy of Christ forever.
Thanks be to God for the mark of Christ and the saints like Aimee who came from dust and return to dust, having sprinkled love and grace on God’s people forever.
Like those who have gone before walking the road of Christ, on this day you also wear the mark of the cross. As you wear the mark this day, may you be mindful of ways in which the cross has already marked your life. At the end of the day, when you wash this mark of grit and ash from your body, may you remember the one whose love washes over us.
(Blessing used at end of Ash Wednesday prayer services at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church)