working out what life and call and prayer and silence are all about

Posts tagged ‘Ash Wednesday’

abundant life starts with release

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Last night in worship, we used sand to represent our confession. Bins of sand lined the walls of the sanctuary with signs describing character traits and experiences that get in the way of our relationship with God: selfishness, despair, greed, self-doubt. As we added sand to our personal bags of life, the heaviness was obvious: we carry around a lot of baggage. After hearing words of forgiveness, the people were invited to come forward to receive the ashes on their forehead, acknowledging their humanity. Afterward, they could take their bag of sand and pour it out at the foot of the large standing cross erected for the season of Lent.

And so I stood at the altar, dipping my thumb into the black, messy ashes, and carefully marking a cross on each person’s forehead. I looked into their eyes, connecting with their stories and our shared history, and together we acknowledged that life is short, and that we will one day become ashes ourselves. The moments were precious enough in themselves, each person receiving the experience in their own way. But in the background, there was something more. There was a sound, and a movement stirring. As people began to pour out their sand, there was a whoosh. The sound of the sand leaving the paper bags accompanied the ashes as one by one, people continued to come with their baggage in hand. And the sound was the sound of release, of letting go, of loosening our grip on old resentments and fears for the future. The whoosh was the sound of the Holy Spirit blowing through us, emptying us, and filling us all at once.

The sound of the sand pouring out was the sound of abundant life. We begin to live when we let go of all that binds us, that holds us back, that keeps us preoccupied. Christ calls us to receive new life, but how can we accept this great gift when our hands are already full of heartbreak and anxiety and envy? It is in the release that we are filled. It is in letting go that we are able to grasp real love, real life. Abundant life begins with the whoosh of pouring out ourselves and trusting that Christ will fill us with all good things.

time to start living

I have spent far too many Ash Wednesdays dreading the words “Remember that you are dust.” As a teenager, those words resonated with my already-low self-image and it felt like God was reiterating what I believed: I was worthless. As a young adult in seminary, I felt resentment as I participated in an out-of-touch ritual that seemed to perpetuate a theology of fear and hopelessness. For far too long, I have missed the hope, the life that is the promise hidden in this ancient day. But today I am throwing back the drapes, unlatching the windows, and letting the fresh air of the Holy Spirit blow through my Ash Wednesday observance.

breeze Wind_from_the_sea

Today I will remember that life is short. I’ll say the words, “to dust you shall return,” remembering the canister that holds my mother’s ashes, lovingly placed in the columbarium at her home church. I’ll give thanks for the lives of my colleagues and friends, so many of whom died unexpectedly and too soon. And I’ll acknowledge that each of their deaths makes me a little more fearful that I will leave this world before I’m ready to go.

But in that same moment, I’ll also remember that death does not have the last word. The good news of Good Friday is that Jesus has gone before us and we don’t have to be afraid. We can live each day in the joy of being God’s precious children, loved and never abandoned. And so on this Ash Wednesday, I commit myself to living, really living. Jesus died so that I could live, and live abundantly. And so I’m gonna. Today. With ashes on my forehead, I’m going to remember that today is a gift, life is precious, and love is all around. Thanks be to God for the good news of Ash Wednesday.

Choose Life

So about Ash Wednesday. . . It’s coming, and coming soon.

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And even though I’m a pastor and I spend months planning for the church’s observance, it always sneaks up on me. Personally, I mean. I am so wrapped up in helping others journey through Lent that I don’t have time to pause and consider how I want to experience the season. This year is no exception. In fact, it’s even more crazy than usual, because I’m without my incredible friend and former Administrative Assistant. (Miss you, Deb!) But somehow, the Spirit is speaking to me this year to get ready, to make plans, to actually live Lent.

I can’t do the self-flagellation, though. I’m not into asceticism and extreme fasting and making lists of all my sins (there’s not enough paper in the world for that list!) But the Old Testament reading from last Sunday struck a chord with me. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses speaks to the people about the covenant God has made with them, reminding them that God has chosen them and made them God’s people. And then Moses lays out the choice they have to make: they can either follow God’s commandments that lead to life, or follow another way and experience adversity and death. Verses 19-20 read, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” It’s not a transactional arrangement: if you do this, then God will do this to you. It’s a matter of consequences. God’s greatest desire is for us to experience abundant life, and God’s commandments lead us there. But when we choose selfish gain or acquiring power or accumulating wealth instead of the commandments, we will run into trouble at every turn. God wants us to choose life.

What in the world does this have to do with Ash Wednesday, you ask?

We begin this Lenten season being marked with ash and soot. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

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These words are jarring. We don’t want to remember that death is approaching. We don’t want to acknowledge that our lives will come to an end. We don’t want to live with a constant reminder of all the people we’ve lost, many of them way too soon. Ash Wednesday calls us to face reality, but we do not face it alone.

We willingly receive the mark of death on our forehead in the presence of the one who has faced death before us. Jesus the Christ, our brother, our savior, stands with us as we hear the ugly truth: “to dust you shall return.” But that is not the end of the story. Jesus also reaches out to us, offering the gift of abundant life through the power of his Resurrection. Jesus died so that we would not have to fear death, but could embrace the life we have been given. Like the Hebrews gathered with Moses, we can choose life.

This season of Lent, how will you choose life? Is there something you need to let go of, release, walk away from? Make this your Lenten discipline. Is there something new you can incorporate into your routine, a habit or a practice that will enrich your spiritual life? Make this your Lenten discipline. Whatever you choose, let it be life, abundant life, the life Jesus died to give us.

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