Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Psalm 51:10, 12
We cleaned the pellet stove yesterday. After fumbling our winter way around the discrepancy between when we ought to clean the stove and when we actually do, we seem to be falling into a routine of Wednesday and Saturday. Not quite every three days, but it works alongside other appointments, and it seems timely enough in relation to the accumulation of ash and soot. Despite Ben’s best efforts to show me the ropes, I managed to stay disengaged the first winter. This year, a time of recovery on his part has pulled me front and center into the routine; and I admit it really isn’t all that hard. A bunch of scooping and sliding to find all the ash and move it into the box, then carrying the box outside to empty it in a place where the ash will be washed away, rather than left to harden into a solid lump. If we were working at cultivating a lawn or garden, there would be other considerations in the dumping site, but this wild assortment of pine needles, weeds (noxious and otherwise), and deer, moose and turkey droppings doesn’t seem to call for care. Once the box is empty, it’s back inside to vacuum up the residue and tackle the glass. Clearly, the real work in this project is scouring the baked on creosote off the stove windows. A wet sponge, rinsed and reapplied a few times, clears away a fair amount of grime. A special wood/pellet stove cleaner takes away another layer. But there are those few remaining stains that resist our best efforts at scrubbing and scouring, and will probably be addressed with more drastic measures at season’s end. For now, we do what seems reasonable, and then fire the stove back up for a few more days of heating comfort.
Lent began yesterday, and I didn’t make my way to church. That’s okay with me, and I admit that the imposition of ashes, both speaking and hearing the words, “You are dust, O mortal, and to dust you will return” has never quite clicked for me. And by the way,who decided to call it an imposition, and what does that mean? I appreciate the tradition that uses last year’s leftover palms to create this year’s ash. I can see those palms lying in the middle of the road, right where people dropped them as they swallowed up their hosannas and scattered to parts unknown in fear and failure, denial and doomed discipleship, betrayal and battle fatigue. The abandoned branches finally got scooped up and stuck in a corner to dry. It’s fitting that they are burned in preparation for Ash Wednesday, and to call each of us to remember, repent and seek reconciliation.
I savor the rich meaning in all of that, but this season, I’m letting our little ash relocation project launch my spiritual discipline. This year, I’m not as compelled by the big ticket items of betrayal, desertion and abandonment, as by the day to day residue that builds up while I’m shoveling snow, doing laundry, answering emails, and yes, even cleaning the stove. And writing sermons and visiting the sick, if I’m going to be honest about it. The dust that accumulates on my desk and piano while I’m busy with all manner of insignificant things speaks to me of the dust on my heart, the layers of distraction, procrastination and apathy that move in and settle down when I’m not looking. Mail piles up on the table and dishes stack up in the sink, alongside my good intentions, half-hearted outreach and incomplete prayers. I don’t know where the time goes or what I do with my days, but I know there’s precious little of God in it. This Lent, I think I’ll try for small gestures and increased moments of wakefulness, as I scoop the ash and work on the clutter. I expect I’ll need some help cleaning the glass, and am pretty sure I know where to turn for for that.