Lent, friends and grace

Published 8:32 am Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It all began with Ash Wednesday. This was not a Christian holiday or service we observed in the denomination I grew up in. There hasn’t even been an Ash Wednesday service in my church most of the 30 years I have been a Presbyterian.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and immediately follows Fat Tuesday. The French words, “Mardi Gras,” literally mean “Fat Tuesday.” It is rooted in Christian tradition as the time of killing the fatted calf and celebrating before the 40 days of fasting began prior to Easter.

Fat Tuesday is also called “Pancake Tuesday,” because of the need to use up all the fat, eggs, dairy products before Lent. Mardi Gras is still celebrated in many parts of the world and comes to an abrupt end at midnight as Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season begins.

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In our particular church, we mark the service with Communion followed by the Minister making the sign of the cross on your forehead with ashes from the palm leaves used the previous year on Palm Sunday.

Elders serve Communion in the Presbyterian Church, and I have been an elder for many, many years. However, I have been the organist in our church far longer. I have played at every communion service where I have been present, except for one illness and on Christmas Eve.

During the Christmas Eve communion service, I step down from the organ to sit with my family and take Communion with them.

I have written before that Communion holds a powerful place in my heart. The words, symbolism, music, and physical act of taking the bread and wine always makes me feel closer to God and reminds me of his many promises and blessings to me.

Wednesday, our minister asked me at the last second to serve communion. The pianist played beautifully, as always, in my absence. I stood up front, holding the bread to be torn before dipping it in the wine or juice. As each person approached I uttered the words, “The body of Christ broken for you.”

It was almost instantly overwhelming to me as the people approached. Many looked directly into my eyes. Some bowed their head and looked at the bread. Some smiled as I smiled back.

It was only after the service that I realized in all the many years I have been a member and elder in the Presbyterian Church, this was the first time I served rather than being served.

Saturday morning, Mary Lou asked me out of nowhere, “How do you answer a third grader who asks why God answers prayers for some and not for others, especially when praying for someone to get well?” She and others that teach that age in Sunday School surely have a special place in heaven for their patience and diligence.

I hemmed and hawed before agreeing at how difficult it is sometimes to share our adult beliefs with children. It can be a hard question even for us adults to answer to ourselves as we move through life.

I believe God is present in the lives of those we love, even when they suffer with illness. Our prayers, and theirs, are answered; we just may not understand how. God’s grace was never more present in my life than the moment my father died. We say we believe that God is always there for us, yet sometimes it is so hard.

This leads me to the third part of my story. I contacted one of my childhood friends Friday, to make sure he knew that a mutual friend of ours had cancer. It turns out that this friend was visiting Cottonwood the very next day to visit yet another friend that has fought ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, for seven years. “Can’t you come over?” he asked. “You will leave inspired.”

So just two hours after Mary Lou’s question, I was on my way to see my old friends. Two others were invited without me knowing it. Of the four other guys there, I had not seen two of them since high school. Another I had last seen during Auburn’s 17-16 victory over Alabama in 1972.

These were not my high school classmates. These are friends that I went to elementary school with! We played some summer baseball and hung around a bit after I left for another high school. It has been 46 years since we were all in the same room together.

My mind was exhausted from reaching so far back into the past. Knocking off the cobwebs in my memory brought back events I hadn’t thought of in almost two generations.

The laughter, teasing, and bantering about was led by the friend we were visiting. Though his body is failing him, he has that same quick wit, laughter, and love of life that made him a favorite of us all.

Thanks to modern technology, our friend being treated at MD Anderson in Texas got to see a picture of us. He said he wished he could be here to tell his own lies.

On Ash Wednesday, I felt God’s hand on my shoulder, reminding me of the many ways he has blessed me and those in my church family. Saturday afternoon, I felt him again in the den of my friend’s house in Cottonwood. His grace was all around us, but I sensed He was especially around both my ill friends, both present and afar.

To Jimmy, Philip, Buddy, Keith and “Wildman,” adversity brought us back together. Long dormant friendships saw the sunlight again. God continues to work in mysterious ways.

Dan Ponder can be reached at dan@donalsonvillenews.com.