Ash Wednesday: Reclaiming Our Souls

A homily by Rev. Dr. Leah Grundset Davis, 10:30am service at Ravensworth Baptist Church

“Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?”[1]

That’s the blessing one of my favorite writers, Jan Richardson offers for Ash Wednesday. Do we not know what the Holy One can do with dust? Always re-working, always re-claiming, always re-newing these dusty vessels in which we live and move and have our being.

“We are entering the season that begins with a smudge. That smudge is a testimony to what survives. It is a witness to what abides when everything seems lost. It is a sign that what we know and love may, for a time, be reduced to dust, but it does not disappear. We belong to the God who well knows what to do with dust, who sees the dust as a place to dream anew, who creates from it again and again.

Life will continually lay us bare, sometimes with astonishing severity. In the midst of this, the season of Lent invites us to see what is most elemental in us, what endures: the love that creates and animates, the love that cannot be destroyed, the love that is most basic to who we are. This season inspires us to ask where this love will lead us, what it will create in and through us, what God will do with it in both our brokenness and our joy.”[2]

More words from Jan Richardson that guide us to our Psalm for the day of Ash Wednesday. This psalm, Psalm 51 is always attributed to King David after his violent acts against Bathsheba and Uriah, shows him at his lowest point, in a place where his soul and his spirit are diminished, heavy and pain-filled.

In this pit of his despair, perhaps even grieving his humanity and the world in which he lived, David cried out:

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

4Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

16For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

We are gathered here on Ash Wednesday as a redeemed community seeking the mercy of our great God. God meets us here, God forgives and God offers grace. Jesus lived life for us to see, drew lines in the dust of this world and came out of the dust of death to live a resurrected life. And Holy Spirit breathed life into those first disciples as the power and wind whipped around them and Holy Spirit breathes into us as we cry out for comfort.

Our world feels chaotic and stressful and we are inundated with breaking news alerts and can’t keep up with any of it. We’re tired, angry and uncertain. It’s time to reclaim our souls from the chaos of our world and let them rest in the grace of God. During this Lent let’s pay attention to the places tugging on our souls.

God might be speaking to us when we pick up a pen to write, or turn off notifications from CNN on our devices, or drink coffee in silence without the tv on, or check in with neighbors on evening walks or even in the chaos of a family dinner around the table.

Our souls are desperately in need of some attention. Our dustiness might be calling to us. Brush off that book. Clean up your prayer life. Sweep the dust outside to breathe fresh air, instead of dumping it into the trash.

Our prayer for this season might come from Psalm 51:12, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” I’d take some joy and sustenance these days to be reminded of the power of God at work in the world.

We are dust and to dust we shall return, but the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.

"Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?"



[1] Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook, Ash Wednesday: What God Can Do with Dust

[2] Richardson, ibid.

Reclaiming Our Souls...Lent 2018

Lent is the time of the church year for self-reflection and attention to our inward journeys. We recognize that right now we feel tired, downtrodden, and exhausted from the state of the world and our lives. During Lent this year, we’ll be focusing on reclaiming our souls from the latest breaking news, the pace of our world, and the forces that try to occupy our lives. RBC will offer space to encounter God in the sacred ordinary of daily life while tending to the state of our souls. 

We have many Lenten offerings this year to help you connect with your soul and with our community. They are listed here. Consider what you need this Lent; there's no way we can do it all. Find a practice and stick with it, whether it is encountering contemplative prayer, examining your white privilege, hearing and holding stories, or breaking bread and playing bingo on a Saturday night inter-generational event. 

“Persist. Persevere. Endure.” Benedict uttered these words below centuries ago and they are still speaking. As we leap into this adventure during Lent of Reclaiming our Souls, we do so with Benedict’s words ringing in our ears—this is hard work, holy work, and we do it in community. 

"To bear bad things, evil things well, is for Benedict a mark of humility, a mark of
Christian maturity. It is a dour and difficult notion for the modern Christian to
accept. The goal of the twenty-first century is to cure all diseases, order all
inefficiency, topple all obstacles, end all stress, and prescribe immediate panaceas.
We wait for nothing and put up with little and abide less and react with fury at
irritations. We are a people without patience. We do not tolerate process. We cannot
stomach delay. Persist. Persevere. Endure, Benedict says. It is good for the soul to
temper it. God does not come on hoofbeats of mercury through streets of gold. God
is in the dregs of our lives. That’s why it takes humility to find God where God is not
expected to be."

Joan Chittister
The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality For The 21 st Century*, p.88

*The Benedictine order was founded by Benedict about 1500 years ago.

Stranger Things...a sermon series!

A few weeks ago, Carolyn Shields came to Steve and I with an idea: a sermon themed around the Netflix series, Stranger Things. I think we both surprised her because we jumped on it and where we landed was not just a sermon, but a whole sermon series!

If you’ve seen Stranger Things, you know it’s a pretty weird show. Without any spoilers, the basis of the show is something like this: “Set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, in the 1980s, the first season focuses on the investigation into the disappearance of a boy amid supernatural events occurring around the town including the appearance of a girl with psychokinetic abilities who helps in the search.  The nearby Hawkins National Laboratory ostensibly performs scientific research for the United States Department of Energy, but secretly does experiments into the paranormal and supernatural, including those that involve human test subjects. Inadvertently, they have created a portal to an alternate dimension called "the Upside Down". The influence of the Upside Down starts to affect the unknowing residents of Hawkins in calamitous ways.”[1]

How could we not do a series about how strange church is and the radical idea of an upside-down kingdom of God in which we follow Jesus in his wild and crazy gospel of justice-love? So we won’t have any spoilers, like I said, but we’ll do some play on Stranger Things words and phrases, so true fans might catch on.

[1] Stranger Things, Wikipedia.


Star Words

by Cathy Baskin

What’s in a word? I guess the usual answer is “it depends”…on who is using it, the context, etc. In this case the best answer might be “we’ll see!”  In our Sunday worship, Leah introduced us to “Star Words.” As baskets were passed, we each chose a star-shaped cut out with a word written on it. In the same way that The Star guided the three eastern pilgrims on their journey to Bethlehem, we committed to “following” our Star Word--allowing it sink into us, become a part of us, and guide us in the coming year.

This was a new idea to me, and it brought a festive feeling to our worship; which shouldn’t be surprising, since it turns out Leah’s Star Word was Festivity. Coincidence?  Maybe, but I believe that word definitely captures something of Leah’s spirit.

My Star Word is Communion. I look forward to meditating on this word in the coming year, to see where it might lead me. Already, I am thinking of Communion as much more than what we do at the Table each month. It has something to do with how we are connected--how we have Communion with each other--through the profound mystery of being “in Christ.” That’s as far as I’ve gotten!

Here are some of the other words that will intrigue and guide us in the coming year: Beginning, Cleansing, Discipleship, Caring, Difference, Enthusiastic, Fitness, Community, Confident, & Comprehension. Is yours on that list, or is it different? Leah invited us to keep the conversation going with each other as we head into 2018, following our Star Words. If you have an epiphany about your word, drop her an email or a note, or share it with others on the journey at RBC.

And may the (transformative) Force (of the Spirit of Christ) be with you!

 Photo from "Star Words, Presbyterian Outlook."  Learn more about how other churches observe Star Words .

Photo from "Star Words, Presbyterian Outlook." Learn more about how other churches observe Star Words.

Our Hearts Break Again and We Must Act to Prevent Gun Violence

I was enjoying a beautiful October afternoon as I was walking up the long, gravely hill at Bull Run Regional Park toward the Northern Virginia Pride Festival, yesterday. From where I was walking, I could see rainbow flags, booths handing out candy and kids running around playing. I could smell delicious food from the food trucks that had gathered for the occasion. And then I heard something that contrasted the children’s laughter and the music on the main stage: gunshots in the distance.

I froze.

They kept ringing out. This time, I could tell they were far away.

That’s when I looked over my shoulder and saw that Bull Run had a shooting range next door to the event area. I breathed a sigh of relief because my mind had immediately gone to the possibility of a mass shooting at an event like a Pride festival. I wondered if anyone else heard the gunshots in the distance too and what it might feel like to be a group of people gathered for celebration and joy, to be reminded of pain and trauma that struck the LGBTQ community less than a year and a half ago at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.

And then this morning, I woke up to the news from Las Vegas. Another mass shooting. There is no sigh of relief today.

In fact, there hasn’t been a sigh of relief in a long time, really.  A lot of us are walking around with chests heavy, tears welling up in our eyes and a constant awareness of the need to scout out locations whether it be movie theaters, Pride festivals or even our places of worship.

The tragedy in Las Vegas is horrific. Horrific.

We can say that our thoughts and prayers are with the people. And they are. They have to be.

And had our thoughts and prayers lingered from the previous mass shooting and turned to action, there might have been sensible gun control legislation passed. Had this country taken seriously the need to care for the victims of previous shootings, there might have been sensible gun control instead of continued idolatry of the second amendment and the National Rifle Association.

We must keep working and advocating. Organizations like Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence and Sandy Hook Promise are working to prevent gun violence. Call your Senators and Representatives.

The sadness will be here today and in the coming days. It’s grief. Grief for the horrific tragedy in Las Vegas where people have died and been injured once again. And grief for the fact that we find ourselves here again. And when that haze of grief lifts, we must, as people of faith advocate for the safety of all of God’s beloved.

We are peacemakers in this world and we must pursue peace with justice.

-Leah Grundset Davis