PROCESS THEOLOGY AND THE ASHES OF PANDEMIC
by Bruce Epperly
When I heard that Addy had died of COVID 19, I was shocked. I needed to take a few deep breaths to compose myself. Though she was a private person, a true New Englander who kept her deepest feelings to herself, I appreciated her wit, directness, and wry sense of humor. Given her privacy, and the quick onslaught of the virus, I was unaware that she had been hospitalized until a week before her death.
In my role as a pastor, death is an essential aspect of my work. With a number of octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians in our congregation and our Cape Cod village, I am regularly being asked to preside at funerals, memorial services, and graveside services. I remember chuckling when one of my seminary students confessed, “I didn’t know I had to confront death so often in ministry.”
Our sense of mortality has only become more real over the past year as we wear masks whenever we leave our homes, keep our distance from neighbors, take a step back when someone becomes too close or is maskless, monitor visits with adult children and grandchildren, see our visits to the market as forays into enemy territory, and worry that a few coughs might be the initial symptoms that would lead to hospitalization and a ventilator. I have self-quarantined twice as a result of cases of COVID in our grandchildren’s school and our congregation and I have counted the days looking for symptoms when a suspicious person came to close to me. Over the past year, I have said a prayer of protection as I retire each night (my progressive version of “now I lay me down to sleep”) and a prayer of joy and gratitude upon awakening (“I thank you God for waking me up today”). Like many persons in the Medicare generation, my death anxiety has increased over the past year.
The reality of death can paralyze us or it can awaken us to the wondrous beauty of our perpetually perishing world. That is the reality of Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday alerts us to the tragic beauty of life and within that experience, the possibility of creative transformation. Jewish wisdom says that everyone should carry two notes, one in each pocket. The first should read, “For you the universe was made.” The second, “You are dust and to dust you will return” as a remind that our lives join infinity and finitude. Everlasting life and the constancy of aging and death. The ashes are sober reminders that we are dust. They are also invitations to recognize that each moment is an opportunity to experience amazement, joy, compassion, and love. Our dustiness as mortals inspires us to seize the day! As the Psalmist says, “this is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.” This perpetually perishing day is an unrepeatable and ephemeral opportunity to live fully and gratefully, to make a difference in the world around us, and to be “good ancestors” for those who follow us.
Ash Wednesday is also an opportunity for repentance. Rituals of repentance can be painful. Taking a long hard look at our lives challenges us to change. Awakens us to our apathy and responsibility. The heaviness of past decisions that have shaped our lives and the lives of those around us. Our complicity in the evils we say we deplore – consumerism, economic inequality, privilege, environmental destruction. Yet, repentance is ironically a welcome call for creative transformation. The promise of repentance, like a surgical or chemical intervention, joins pain with the possibility of health. Repentance signals that we have the freedom to change, to build houses of hope (a phrase from process theologian and bible scholar Will Beardlee) from the rubble of life. The heaviness of the past can give way to healthy decision-making in our relationships, individual lives, and our lives as citizen.
Each moment is an opportunity for creative transformation. Each moment joins past, present, and future. Each moment contains judgment in the form of the open horizons of the future and the moral and spiritual arcs that lead us forward. Each moment contains hope that “now is the day of salvation. Now is the day of healing and love.”
Let the ashes of Wednesday be promises of possibility within the grief and anxiety of pandemic. Let them inspire us to change, to become new creations, to lean toward open horizons of Shalom and loving kindness, to see this moment as a holy moment, a place where everlasting life emerges in passing moments. Let the ashes of Lent awaken you to the dream that lures you forward, to love within tragic beauty, and new commitment to heal your life and world as God’s companion.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books including the pandemic trilogy (“Faith in a Time of Pandemic,” “Hope Beyond Pandemic,” and “Love in a Time of Crisis and Pandemic: Messages for Our Children and Grandchildren”), “Mystics in Action: 12 Saints for Today,” “Walking with Francis of Assisi: From Privilege to Activism,” “Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Contemplative Activism,” and “God Online: A Mystic’s Guide to the Internet.” He is available for online seminars, lectures, and consultations.