ash wednesday: word


One morning as I sat with my mother in hospice I received a text from Sarah, who pastors alongside of Ginger here in Guilford, asking a question: “What is your word or song for today?” That first day I answered only with a song: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The next day the words was wait. She was faithful to follow up almost everyday I was in Texas, on through the funeral and the days of packing up my mother’s apartment, and I found great comfort in her question in ways I had not imagined as I searched for expressions of my grief in both words and music.

The dictionary defines a word as “a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.” John begins his gospel with the wonderful proclamation that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” There is a sense in which our lives call for the flesh to become word that we might express our love, our loss, our grief, and our gratitude. We use our words to name the things that matter to us, to build bridges to one another, to create the ties that bind, and to tear them apart as well.

For close to twenty years now I have kept a lenten practice of writing everyday. It began as a daily letter to one friend. With the advent of email, I began to write to a list of folks. For the last ten years it has been a part of this blog. Last year I asked for words to use as writing prompts, if you will, to give me a sort of resource pool from which to draw over the course of forty days and labeled it a Lenten Lexicon. Sarah’s question brought me back to the idea again this year because my search for a daily word has stayed with me even though I have not kept up my texts to her. I have continued to look for a principal carrier of meaning for my day, which often means I have looked for a moment or experience or conversation that is emblematic of the whole thing—an enduring memory.

I don’t mean to say that every day has held some magic happening or movie moment. Often, my search is for a description of the ordinary and, though I plan to search for a different word each day during Lent, I find the daily words I might choose often repeat themselves if I am not wiling to dig deeper. In these days, for instance, it is far too easy to choose sadness over and over again. What I have begun to learn in new ways is how essential the word choose is in that last sentence. Yes, these are days filled with sadness and I can choose a different word, not as a means of plastering over the grief or acting as if it is not there, but as an accompaniment, a harmony, an alternate focus. I can choose to look beyond myself, to ask someone else for a word I cannot find, much the same way I might borrow a cup of flour or an egg from a neighbor to finish a recipe I started without making sure I had everything I needed. Some days I need someone else to offer the principal carrier of meaning because I am carrying all I can. And I am not alone. This orphan road is new for me, but it is not new. The paths I am discovering are already well worn.

Ash Wednesday is a day to remember I don’t have everything I need. I am not self-sufficient, or self-sustaining, or self-reliant. I am far from my best when I am self-absorbed or self-focused. Left to my own devices, I do not have the vocabulary to live a meaningful and articulate life. I need a word from God. I need a word from you, and you, and you. From strangers and friends. From near and far. And I need to offer words as well that might become a part of someone else’s story for me to find my place in this world.

Frederick Buechner wrote,

Words are power, essentially the power of creation. By my words I both discover and create who I am. By my words I elicit a word from you. Through our converse we create each other. When God said, “Let there be light,” there was light where before there was only darkness. When I say I love you, there is love where before there was only ambiguous silence. In a sense I do not love you first and then speak it, but only by speaking it give it reality.

As I look back through my texts to Sarah I see these words—wait, rest, gratitude, orphan, home—and I realize anew what words we choose matter. How we name our days, how we name each other, how we carry the meaning of our lives depends on how we choose our words, on what we choose to create with what we say, and what we choose not to say. With that in mind, I begin this Lenten journey hopeful of the story there is to tell.



  1. A favorite professor of mine talks about humans as homo narrans – story tellers.

    With that in mind, I keep coming back to the word “once”, as in once upon a time, once in a lifetime, and so on.

  2. Light.

    Just a few verses later, John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Darkness is always present as part of the human experience, but so is light, if we look for it. We all need some light in our darkest moments. May you be blessed by it during this sad time.

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