Archive for February, 2012

Ashes to Ashes

Someone asked me recently about the meaning of Ash Wednesday. “What is it?” they wanted to know. “Why do we it?” They said they had asked some Christian friends, and none of them knew the answer, either.

I love Ash Wednesday, and the whole season of Lent, in part because society hasn’t yet found a way to co-opt this tradition, filling it with sales at the mall or special music or jolly fat men in costumes. It seems the world isn’t quite sure what to do with a season filled with remembering our sin and mortality.

So, I’m pretty glad about the fact that no one wants to use this time of year for anything else. But mostly I like Lent because it calls me to a time of remembering who I am – and I am God’s, first and foremost, before I am a wife or mother, before I am a daughter or sister or aunt or friend, even before I am a pastor — I belong to God. It is God who breathed life into me and it is God who continues to sustain my life and who gives life to everything I do.

During Lent I take time to be more intentional about noticing God all around me, to slow down and return to some spiritual disciplines I may have neglected for a while, and to reflect on my own human weakness and vulnerability – something I often forget to do in the day to day of my busy life.

We say it belongs to teenagers, especially to our testosterone driven young males, but really it is human nature, I think, to assume a stance of immortality, to live as though there is no tomorrow, until time or tragedy forces us to remember that we are dust and to dust we will return.
That’s where the ashes come in – from the idea that we “are all from the dust, and all turn to dust again,” as the author of Ecclesiastes would remind us. And we mourn, sitting with Job in the ashes of his ruined dreams, acknowledging our dependence on our Maker.

The 40 days of Lent come from lots of different places in the Bible – 40 seems to be an important number – 40 years of wandering in the dessert during the Exodus, 40 days of rain, 40 days of the Israelites putting up with the threats of the Philistine giant Goliath before David knocked him down with a stone, and there are others — but we think most notably of Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the dessert.

He who was fully human was enticed by the deceiver, who promised an easy journey, a lifestyle of luxury, kingship without hardship, dominion over land and sea, if only Jesus would worship him.

But Jesus denied him.

And now, slowly… slowly… we walk with Jesus toward the cross; toward his death, and ultimately his resurrection. But – first – his death. We cannot get to the joy of Easter Sunday without the Good Friday cross.

People want to do lots of things during Lent – we promise to give up soft drinks or chocolate or fried foods, even facebook – for the sake of the journey to Easter. Or we determine to exercise more or eat our vegetables. And then we feel guilty in our failure or prideful in our success.

But the Lenten journey is not about willpower. It is not about punishing our bodies into submission. It is not a time to make resolutions that may improve our habits, however much they may need improving.

Lent is a time to remember and reflect on the goodness of God, and of God’s desire to have an intimate relationship with us. It is a time to perhaps cut out some of our more unhealthy habits, like watching too much television, and devote some of that time to prayer.

If you want to cut out your daily cappuccino, that’s fine; but to what good cause will you donate the money you save? Perhaps you can donate it to your local food pantry.

Be creative. If you want to exercise more frequently, invite an unchurched neighbor to join you on a morning walk, and maybe later for coffee at your home, and who knows but that she might end up on the pew next to you on Easter morning?

If you give up golf for 6 weeks, fine; but what about using that time to mentor an elementary school student? Or become a big brother or big sister.

Don’t just give up dessert. Make your favorite treats and take them to your local fire station. Pray for the safety of the men and women who serve as first responders as the aroma of the baking fills your house.

And whatever else you do, take some time this season to reflect on your humanity. Don’t be afraid of the word “sin.” Somehow as a culture we have decided that “sin” is an ugly word, and to admit sinfulness is to admit to heinous, shameful acts. But there is sin that isn’t murder or adultery.

Gossip is also a sin. As is slander. I think it is possible that more sin has been committed by the act of speaking than by every other sinful act combined!

Closing our eyes to the wounded and broken around us is also a sin. Knowing they are there and doing nothing about it is as much a sin as it would be if they asked you for a fish and you gave them a snake.

As good as we think we are, we are people deeply in need of the forgiveness and reconciliation of Christ.

I invite you into a Lenten journey that is reflective of God’s amazing love for you, and for the world around you. Find ways to celebrate that love and to share it with others.


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