Coffee Grinds and Ashes (March reflection for church newsletter)

A coffee stand in Blue Hill, Maine, makes my favorite espresso. Lauren’s family has a place they share, not too far away. We get there about once a year. Most days, I slip over to Bucklyn Coffee and wait in line. 

It takes a while, but it’s rare that anyone gets impatient about it. It’s really like a communion line. Once you get through it, the server – sometimes the owner – greets you in a way like you’re the first person they’ve served all day. They rarely rush. I order an espresso, and they smile. Eventually, they hand me a small cup filled with deliciousness.

It unfolds in your mouth. First, there’s just the coffee taste, which opens up into a chocolatey-molassesy flavor. Then almost a citrus tang followed by a lovely sour. The sour lightens, and the gentle, light coffee bitterness settles back in. I’ve never had anything like it.

I like espresso and am fortunate to have access to some great ones. Those of you who’ve visited me in my office have seen the espresso maker on my back table. But, the combination of the rarity, the pace, their machines, the ocean air, and the amazing attention to this particular roast take this espresso to a whole other level.

It’s a similar sense of unfolding that I find in Lent. The touch, smell, and feel of the ashes. The mark they make on your forehead. The room this action makes for sin, humility, and humanity. The invitation to look inward, stay there a bit, and seek out God there. The quirkiness of Palm Sunday is in the middle of it, followed by the final meal and Christ’s final breaths. I find honest life reflected by it all. And an honest life includes that honesty about death. Yes, there is more to the story at the end, but there always is. For right now, we get to settle into the ashes. It is a time of reflection but also a kind of rest.

I know some folks hate this season. Some live in Lent, and those who visit can seem like annoying tourists. Still, others are stuck there and trying to escape. That’s fair. At its best, the different seasons of the Christian year are offerings, but they don’t always feel that way. If that’s you, God bless you. Sometimes, you must let an offering pass you by, like the food you’re allergic to at the dinner table. We’re still at the feast together.

That said, some hate this season because it feels morose. They’d rather stay focused on the lightness of the world and avoid the more complicated places. In and of itself, I get it. I respect it. And I suggest you set all that aside.

Placing the ashes on someone’s forehead has a wonderful name that captures the heart of this season well. It’s called “the imposition of ashes.” With it comes the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The word “imposition” seems just right. When someone starts a phrase with, “I don’t mean to impose…” it’s a clear sign they’re about to. 

Lent is more direct. With ashes and a reminder of mortality, it means to impose. It means to put your humanity in perspective. It seeks to balance our exhausting commitment to grandiosity with an invitation to rest in ashes with the rest of us. It seeks to save us from a hyper-focused rumination on personal failure by carefully welcoming us fully into a world of people who have also experienced failure. The ashes are an imposition. 

You are beautiful, say the ashes. But not unique, say the ashes. Come rest, say the ashes. Let these days unfold, say the ashes.

The Rev. Mike Denton is the designated pastor of First Church of Christ (UCC) and South Congregational Church (UCC) in Pittsfield, MA. Join us for worship at 10 am on Sundays! Click here if you’d like to donate to the church and its ministries!

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