What I remember most about Ash Wednesday 2020 was the woman my own age. She drove through our early morning Ashes-to-Go station in the church parking lot, grateful we were still open and apologizing for running late, her preschooler buckled into a child safety seat in the back. My last person of the morning, I asked her if there was anything specific I could pray for before offering the blessing of the ash and oil through her driver-side window.
She said yes and, in tears, requested prayer for a family member who was very sick and might be dying. She named some other overwhelming life stresses and then added, “And this virus. I am just so scared about what’s going to happen to us … to all of us, to our world.”
As she drove away, I remember her fear and anxiety stuck with me. She worked in healthcare. Was she being paranoid? Was this a mental health first aid crisis? Should I follow up with a phone call for pastoral care?
That night, the sanctuary was full. I was especially proud that I had managed to involve our congregation’s small army of retired clergy in the hands-on worship stations. I wasn’t leading alone. A leadership coup.
I remember these details and many more now with grief, of course. The sanctuary would not fill like that again for almost two years.
As you prepare to preach this Lent, the stories and psalms you study may bring memories like this to mind for you, too. For those following the Revised Common Lectionary, these are the same verses we were trying to focus on that fateful pandemic spring of 2020.
Between Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday six weeks later, we absorbed crisis after crisis after loss:
- Stay home. Shelter in place.
- Pandemic response teams.
- Facebook live or YouTube or Zoom?
- Pre-record or livestream?
- Paycheck Protection Act.
- Zoom bombings. Online security.
- How do we sing?
- Tech buddies. Phone trees.
- Children, youth, and family staff: reassign? furlough? transform into YouTubers leading Zoom games or story time?
- Reopening plans. Bandwidth. Microphones. Copyright. Lyrics vs. Videos.
- Breakout rooms. Zoom rules for Council or Board meetings.
- PPE. Sanitizer. Measuring out 10 feet, then 8, then 6. Mask shortage.
- Rules for outside groups meeting in the church.
If you made it through that list without throwing your computer across the room, please take a breath with me.
We are humans, my preaching friends, not wisdom-dispensing miracle machines. There’s a reason Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score became a pandemic bestseller.
The body keeps the score
Three years later, your body’s recall might surface in a low-humming panic, escalated heart rate, a sudden streak of insomnia, or tears out of nowhere. You may feel like you need to sleep for days or start snapping at family members or staff, followed by deep self-recrimination—since fatigue and irritability are much less socially acceptable signs of trauma exposure than workaholism.
It might catch you by surprise, as you mark someone’s forehead with ashes, perhaps both of you unmasked for the first time in three years. Or, as you and your ecumenical colleagues study the week’s texts together around a café table.
This Lent Your body may remind you loudly as those stories and psalms in the lectionary bring pandemic muscle memory to life again.
The pressures have not disappeared. We are simply now coping with the long-term impact of those first pandemic months. When the lectionary reminds you of the true score, please give your body the room to feel what it needs to feel. Here are a few ideas:
- Craft a morning—or evening—comfort ritual. In Spring 2020, after my kids were semi-settled into online school in their rooms, my ritual was to sit at the front window with a mug of hot tea or bowl of instant oatmeal warming my hands, pull a lap quilt one of my kids had made across my lap, close my eyes and listen to Pray as You Go. Or just breathe. Feed myself (which I too easily forget to do).
- Before jumping into text study, center with a guided meditation for feeling “as safe as you reasonably can.”
- Get someone else to preach once or twice, or try a readings and songs service. My college pastor never preached on Palm Sunday. He read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, we sang a round of “Ain’t No Rock Gonna Cry in My Place,” and then a handful of folks shared from the pulpit a 2-3 minute gratitude for some way God had been active in their lives the past year. A thanksgiving. A praise. You could invite newer members to share what they saw in your church that suggested to them “God’s up to something here.”
- When you have the emotional capacity, offer your colleagues, church co-workers, and leaders room to remember the score their bodies hold, too. We know in hospice grief support work that obsessive review or ruminating—“telling the story” over and over again—is a normal part of processing grief, helping our heart and head integrate what has happened so we can move on. Just make sure to give yourself a safe place to share as much as or more than you provide that for others.
- Create a digital music playlist to remind yourself that “no” is a complete sentence. Dance to it before bedtime rather than reaching for the wine. (My playlist includes a lot of swears, or I would include it here.)
Ashes-to-Go was not a pandemic adaptation for my congregation back in 2020. We had done it a few times before, providing donuts and coffee to folks on their way to work or school, knowing many would not come back for an evening sanctuary service mid-week. Especially the parents and caregivers with kids at home. We never got droves of people. But there were always one or two who seemed desperately grateful for the honesty of that weird Ash Wednesday blessing: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
There is a limit to us. God knows. Our bodies know. We know, when we’re honest. That’s why I often pair those words of finitude with a blessing from Psalm 103:14, 18 “God remembers that we are dust, yet is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.”
God knows your limits, preacher. Yet God is gracious, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love.
May you be that gracious and merciful toward your body and the story it holds, too.