Ash Wednesday Devotion
By Rev. Mary Kay Totty


"Forest fires are a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem. Even healthy forests contain dead trees and decaying plant matter; when a fire turns them to ashes, nutrients return to the soil instead of remaining captive in old vegetation. And, when fire rages through dry underbrush, it clears thick growth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and encourage the growth of native species. Fire frees these plants from the competition delivered by invasive weeds and eliminates diseases or droves of insects that may have been causing damage to old growth. Wildflowers begin to bloom abundantly."  (quoted from:  https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/how-forest-fire-benefit-living-things-2.htm)  

"Jesus replied, 'Now the hour has come for the Chosen One to be glorified. The truth of the matter is, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest."  (John 12: 23-24) 

             Forest fires are devastating for populated areas. The reports of the wild fires in California in November 2018 were heartbreaking. The Camp Fire centered near Paradise, California claimed 86 lives and left acres and acres of devastation. (1) Months later, many displaced residents are still in temporary housing and still trying to figure out next steps for rebuilding lives and homes. (2)  It is a dynamic I know all too well from living in South Louisiana for many years. Similar to wildfires, hurricanes and floods dramatically change a landscape and oh so quickly turn a home into a toxic wasteland. For fires there is ash, debris, and all sorts of chemicals released into the air, water, and ground. For floods there is mud, mold, and disease. 

            Recovery turns to questions of shelter, removal of debris, mourning the loss of life and heirlooms, and just trying to get through each day not knowing what to really do with all the emotions that surface when one's world is turned upside down. 

           The 2019 General Conference brought a similar emotional devastation as the physical devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I was visiting my parents when Katrina swept through south Louisiana changing forever the landscape and culture of New Orleans. Some displaced have never returned. My parents' town of Baton Rouge increased in population by a third overnight and the infrastructure still has not caught up. 

             The 2019 General Conference in St. Louis felt like a conflagration swept through the Dome changing our United Methodist Church into a toxic landscape. LGBTQIA+ people were harmed and displaced. Queer folx, be gentle with yourselves, know there are allies awaiting your call -- for a cup of cool water or coffee, for direction with next steps, for space and time, whatever is needed allies are near to support and amplify. Straight allies, we need to sit with this devastation. We need to let the impact of the legislative fire storm sink into our bones and hearts that we may understand more fully the impact of General Conference and the accumulation of years of traumatization on our LGBTQIA+ family, friends, and colleagues. 

             So it is fitting that a week after General Conference, we begin Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday. In Biblical times, people would cover themselves in ash as a sign of their mourning. The person with the ashes will mark your forehead with the sign of the cross in ash and will say to you, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you return." And we mourn, as we begin the Lenten journey... 

            For 40 days (not counting Sundays) we will walk through Lent, seeking to identify with those who are suffering -- suffering from racism, poverty, environmental devastation, homophobia, sexism, transphobia. Through our Lenten journey we will remember Palestinians and others choked in the grip of state-sanctioned violence. We will remember the immigrants and asylum seekers on our southern border, and refugees around the world. We will study the places of intersection between these injustices. The journey will be hard. We will go together. 

            The Lenten journey will take us to Easter. We are Easter people. We know that God is all about bringing new life out of impossible, toxic situations, in beautiful and surprising ways. 

             When a wildfire sweeps through a forest, it exposes the contours of the land long hidden by dense and life-choking undergrowth. The dead and decaying parts of the forest are consumed by the flames and release nutrients back into the earth. With the underbrush gone, the sun's healing light can reach down to seeds long dormant and stir them to new life. (3) 

            I wish the 40 days of Lent were sufficient for healing from General Conference, but such healing cannot be rushed, just as the ecosystem of a forest cannot be rushed to new life. It takes time to recover. It takes time for new life to sprout from dormant seeds.... and yet, I think that's the gentle breeze of the Holy Spirit starting to sweep through as United Methodists long silent are stirred to new life under the ashes of General Conference 2019. 

         I have begun changing the Ash Wednesday traditional words, I now say, "Remember you are loved, and to love you return." This is where we begin to find healing. In the arms of God's unconditional love. You -- yes YOU -- "Remember you are loved and to love you return." 

        Holy One, during this season of Lent let there be a healing balm for all wounded by the United Methodist Church. Teach friends and allies how to center and amplify the voices of LGBTQIA+ people and color+ people. Let us not rush to quick fixes that will sooth consciences but ultimately perpetuate colonialist, white supremacist, and patriarchal power structures. Help us navigate this toxic landscape. Help us see clearly. Teach us to love more deeply and truly. In the name of the one who frequents the margins, Jesus of Nazareth. Amen and amen. 

  Devotion by Rev. Dr. Mary Kay Totty, Pastor of Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington D.C. With George McClain, Mary Kay serves as co-convener of the Program Council of MFSA. Long time supporter of MFSA and an always learning ally of LGBTQIA+ people. 

   Footnotes: 

   (1) As reported in the November 8, 2018 New York Times and Widipedia

   (2) From www.buttecountyrecovers.org 

   (3) https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/how-forest-fire-benefit-living-things-2.htm 

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