“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” -Genesis 3:19
These words, typically reserved for Ash Wednesday, have never felt quite as real to me as it did today in Bagram, Afghanistan. The events of this week have not been easy for any of us to deal with, and we all face great uncertainty. Reports that religious materials had been burned hit the morning news cycle in the US on Fat Tuesday about the same time that we discovered that all water services had been suspended. Anyone who has been through Army training at all, even Chaplain training, as spent at least a week with minimal showers or restroom facilities. But to face this situation suddenly, and without any mental preparation, has posed a significant challenge. Not to mention the difficulty which arises when there are not enough portable toilets to service the entire camp. Let’s just say a 3AM bathroom scavenger hunt, on perhaps the coldest night of winter thus far, for a “porta potty” that is not on the brink of overflow, does not help with morale. We are all still waiting to see how this will unfold, but there is no doubt that the season of Lent is upon us. We have all found ourselves in the midst of the wilderness, and no one knows when we might find our way out again.
The present crisis has not wiped away the other burdens and sorrows which many face, particularly having to do with family at home. Between critically ill children, interminable periods of waiting to find out a prognosis, and news about the deaths of parent or a nephew, the darkness has hovered near for the past few weeks. None of us wait well. It is sometimes the hardest thing we have to do. Yet, especially here, we find ourselves constantly in this position. Without the ability to hop on a plane and easily make it to the bedside of a loved one or sometimes even a funeral, we often face bad news thousands of miles away, with just the company of our fellow unit members or friends that we have made along the way. In just these last two weeks, I have had at least five people mention that they have come to see me because there is literally no one else for them to talk to or to express their emotion over a difficult life event. We all know that tragedy may knock upon our doors at any moment, that life at home doesn’t stop just because we are away, but that cognitive knowledge doesn’t help the heartache which ensues when we find out that someone we love is suffering.
Yet, in the midst of this turmoil, a group of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines gathered to pray in preparation for this Lenten season. Not only were we from different service branches but we were also from across the ranks of Christendom. Since there was no priest available to come to our camp, Roman Catholics, a Coptic from Egypt, Presbyterians, Methodists, Pentecostals and more filled our chapel. As one mentioned after the service, this Ash Wednesday was unlike he had ever experienced in his fifty-two years of life. As a Catholic, he had never worshiped with such a diverse crowd much less had he receives ashes from a female minister. Yet in our finitude, especially on this day and in this place, the need for remembering God’s promise to us helped many transcended our ecclesial differences.
Sometimes it pays to preside over prayers. I had a lot to pray for today as we all came together to mark the beginning of our journey in the wilderness. For a father who fell and broke his hip and will undergo surgery, a son who is losing his sight, a four week old who continues to battle bacterial meningitis, a family mourning the death of their four month old child... these and many more were our prayers this Ash Wednesday. Mortality never felt closer. Rubbing ashes on my thumb and placing the sign of the cross upon each forehead was an intimate act. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the words lingered in the air as young and old stepped forward to be marked with this truth. We are all fragile. We hang in the balance in one way or another, holding on to the promise that though we are all dying, our lives are woven into God’s story which has no end. Even into the dust we make our song-- Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.