Nichole Collins MacMillan

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Ash Wednesday Playlists and Prayerbooks

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17


My Ash Wednesday play list always includes the work of a songwriter I discovered while we lived here 15 years ago.  Her name is Christine Kane.  She’s a friend of a friend, and I’m ashamed to say I haven’t kept up with her career, but probably 15 years ago, I saw her perform in Chattanooga and got to watch her do this song live.  “Mary Katherine’s Ash Wednesday Journal Entry” (watch her perform it here) is the mildly autobiographical insight of a 15 year old Catholic girl at the beginning of Lent.  She’s huffy, full of sighs and eye rolls – but she voices what has often been my approach to Lent:

“TV, Pepsi, Oreos, Ice Cream.  Cuss Words, Nail biting, back talk, fighting…  this list was my profusion of New Year’s Resolutions, but failing that attempt, I’ll give them up for Lent – cause Easter’s just around the bend.”


As much as it looks and feels like winter outside,  today marks the beginning of a new season.  Whatever the groundhog says or the thermometer tells us, the calendar of the church proclaims that Easter is just 40ish days away – 6 weeks.

You — depending on whether you are a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty person — can choose to see that either as 6 more weeks of winter – or like Spring is just around the corner.

You pick.

Six weeks can be an eternity when it’s the end of a pregnancy.  It can fly by if it is a grading period in which you hoped to turn a C into an A.  If you gave up caffeine for Lent, the six weeks probably gets easier as you go along – but if you chose something like sweets, chocolate, or wine, it might be a challenge to tough out 40 days of abstaining given that Girl Scout Cookies and Valentine’s Day fall smack in the middle of the season.

Mary Katherine is right.

Lent is, for many of us, and opportunity to press reset – to double down on our new year’s resolutions – many of which have already fallen by the wayside – just about 40 days into a new year.  I’ve tried to tackle Lent this way quite a few times – working at strengthening my resolve, building up my will power, making right all that is wrong within me so that I can experience the joy of Easter with a soul that is washed as white as yesterday’s snow and is as beautiful as the trumpeting lilies in the sanctuary.  In those years, I arrive at the Easter finish line quite grateful that the journey is over, out of breath, and utterly disappointed in my performance.

The only time it’s worse is when I’m quite proud of what I have accomplished – because that just isn’t the point at all.


I’m grateful that my Ash Wednesday play list includes not only the voice of Mary Katherine but also the sober wisdom of a Swede turned New Orleans jazz musician, Anders Osborne – who, like MK, isn’t celebrating on Ash Wednesday at all but whose years of hard living have taught him that Lent – and life – ain’t about the strength of our efforts but the sincerity of our surrender.

He sings,

“Hold on, move on, set it straight… Hell, it’s too late…. We all seem so nervous.  Let’s do ourselves a service.  Stop trying to keep up this pace…. Everyone is so vain, on the verge of insane.  We’re civilized and customized.  We recognize what’s televised and use our brain for popularity and fame.  And I keep swimming in this big pond – a little boy who lost his shoes.  I feel this dead calm inside the big storm – living the Ash Wednesday Blues.”

Osborne knows that whether its for all of 2016 and beyond or just for the 40 days between now and Easter, our trying is in vain.

We are human beings.

Mere mortals.

And today is the day that we reckon with just that.

Today is the day that with the echoes of our baptism – and our very best efforts – still reverberating deep in our souls, we recognize that we are dust – and to dust we will return – we are returning.

Already, this truth is at work: no matter what we accomplish on this earth – or in this season – we are going to die and our hope cannot be grounded in anything we will ever do.


So – those are the artists in my playlist – Anders Osborne and Christine Kane.  I want to introduce you now to the artist in my prayerbook, Jan Richardson, whose paintings and benedictions are gathered together on the website The Painted Prayerbook.  She writes,


All those days

you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face

toward the wind

and be scattered

to the four corners

or swept away

by the smallest breath

as insubstantial—


did you not know

what the Holy One

can do with dust?


This is the day

we freely say

we are scorched.

This is the hour

we are marked

by what has made it

through the burning.


This is the moment

we ask for the blessing

that lives within

the ancient ashes,

that makes its home

inside the soil of

this sacred earth.



Whether it’s TV, Oreos, wine, or chocolate we give up – or it’s sacrificing our days and our nights to building a career, a legacy, a name, a resume, a righteousness.  In the end, it’s dust.  We are dust.  Swept away with a breath or a breeze.  It is not our sacrifices or our efforts that save us.

And that is good news.


Richardson continues:


So let us be marked

not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

not for shame.

Let us be marked

not for false humility

or for thinking

we are less 
than we are


but for claiming

what God can do

within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff

of which the world

is made

and the stars that blaze

in our bones

and the galaxies that spiral

inside the smudge

we bear.



Take a bit of it.  Mark your head or rub it on your hand – and blow a bit away too.

Let yourself say and claim and know that from dust you come and to dust you will return.

And if you give up anything over the next 40 days, give up the idea that you have to hold it all together.  And give yourself over to the grace of being held by the goodness and mercy of the God who makes all that we see from the seeming nothing of dust.

Lay it down.

Let it go.

Let it die.

That there may be room in you for a new life.


1 Comment
  • Michelle on February 12, 2016

    Just what I needed!

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